Picturing Famous Comics Artists and Animators, at Ease
By: Michael Dooley
Photographer Greg Preston is a good-natured, low-key guy. There’s an ease about him that enhances his subjects’ comfort amidst their already-familiar surroundings. It’s visible enough in The Artist Within, a handsome, generously-sized hardcover from 2007 with roughly a hundred “portraits of cartoonists, comic book artists, animators, and others,” as the book’s subtitle has it. He’s captured a broad spectrum of extraordinary talents, from Al Hirschfeld, Jules Feiffer, and Carl Barks to Jack Davis, Gahan Wilson, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and from Will Eisner, Neal Adams, and Frank Miller to Crumb, Spiegelman and the Hernandez Bros. The lush details and rich tones and textures of his full-bleed monochromes reward repeat visits.
Greg is also a very patient guy. He’s already devoted a full quarter-century to this personal passion project, and now he’s waiting to see if Kickstarter will allow him to publish a brand new volume with even more photos. And even strategic spots of color.
Kickstarter’s awarded The Artist Within: Book Two its prized “Projects We Love” status, but with only about a week to go it’s still short of its goal. You’ll find details, a list of the 100-plus artists—Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, and Bill Sienkiewicz; Ramona Fradon, Trina Robbins, and Jessica Abel; Ollie Johnson, Willie Ito, and Chuck Jones; the list goes on—and a promo blurb from me, by clicking here.
Meanwhile, in this Print exclusive, Greg has shared the inside skinny on The Artist Within’s evolution, as well as personal anecdotes about his experiences with John Lasseter, Pat Oliphant, Gil Kane and various others. Portrait subjects such as Drew Friedman and J.J. Sedelmaier also share their thoughts on the man and his work. All images that you see here are from the—potentially—upcoming book.
Drew Friedman: I’ve always been curious about imagining the studios and working environments of fellow illustrators and cartoonists, right down to what types of desks they draw on and what type of specific desk lamps they use, which, incidentally, is something I’ve attempted to depict my recent books on pioneering comic book artists and writers. This is why Greg Preston’s magnificent book of photographs, The Artist Within, was such a pleasure to behold. Allowing us access into the private worlds of so many legendary artists was absolutely mind-blowing. Now, knowing that the sequel is so close to coming out—and I’m included—is beyond exciting. It’s head-exploding exciting. I literally can not wait for this book.
Greg Preston: Words that strike fear: “So, I’m doing this Kickstarter…” I can just see the eyes roll a bit, trying to hide the thought: “Not another one?” But here’s the crazy real story, even a little hard for me to grasp: over the past 25 years I’ve photographed almost 250 amazingly talented comic book artists, cartoonists, animators, and illustrators in their studios. The genesis of my project had its roots in a beginning photo class when I was a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, back in the early 1980s. It was an assignment to do an artist’s portrait, and I remember thinking how great it would be to photograph a comic book artist or cartoonist for the assignment.
I was a huge fan of the medium, and had been since I’d read my first comics at age 12. Being new to the L.A. area and not really knowing any artists, I reached out to a friend back home in Las Vegas, Lyn Pederson. At the time Lyn was the owner of Page After Page Comics, an amazing, magical place with just about the finest selection of comics and memorabilia you could imagine. I remember there was also a constant stream of artists who’d come to town for visits and signings at the store. It was a notoriously cool time for me, so it was natural for me to call and see if he might be able to suggest an artist for this assignment that lived in LA. He turned me on to Scott Shaw. Scott’s a well-known comic book artist and animator and had been one of the store’s earliest guests. I gave him a call and he agreed to sit for me. The assignment came out really good, but more importantly Scott and I became friends.
Flash forward a few years and I’ve graduated from school, married my college sweetheart, moved back home to Las Vegas and opened a commercial photography studio, while at the same time continuing to work on a personal project that I was finishing up college: photographing portraits of science fiction and fantasy authors at book signings. I’d travel down to L.A., where they have better signings, to do some portraits, and I’d stay with Scott and his wife Judy. It was on one of these trips that I showed Scott my portfolio of these authors’ photos. Up until that point I’d photographed maybe 30 authors, including William Gibson, Clive Barker, James Ellroy, Robert Bloch, and Neil Gaiman.
Scott really liked the shots and suggested that I should think about doing a project photographing comic book artists and cartoonists in their studios. So we discussed it back and forth for a couple of months, and finally got started on it. Scott knew a lot of artists in the business, and actually drove me out to the first several artists who I photographed. That first weekend I did three portraits: Rick Detorie, Sergio Aragones, and Jack Kirby. That was 1992.
Scott Shaw: I’ve been part of Greg Preston’s support team since the humble beginnings of the first volume of The Artist Within. In it, he brilliantly combined his love of comic books, animation and illustration with his expertise and passion for photography to capture the spaces in which we creative-types spend most of our waking hours turning “Nothings” into “Somethings.” I always thought that I might have been so impressed with his TAW photography because he’s my friend, but witnessing the reactions when other cartoonists leaf through his portfolio made it clear that he really knows what he’s doing. For someone who works outside our rather exclusive field, no one “gets” us cartoonists—and our eccentric ilk—better than Greg Preston.
Greg Preston: Over the next 15 years I continued the project, photographing another 150 artists, traveling whenever I had the chance, pretty much all over the U.S. In 2007 the first part of the project was published by Dark Horse Comics as a deluxe coffee table book. After that came out I remember thinking “Wow, glad that’s over.” But it was always on my mind that I still had 50 more unpublished photos that needed to see the light of day. So after about a year off I started again, telling myself that it was just to finish book two. But since 2008 I’ve photographed another 80-plus artists.
It’s funny how things work out. This has been a word-of-mouth project since its inception. That is, in many cases artists I’ve photographed have turned around and passed me on to another artist, and those artists have friends, too. Sometimes referrals will include a cryptic message that says something like, ‘I think this is so-and-so’s email,” sometimes with the caveat, “Don’t mention who gave this to you.” It’s interesting when that happens because I think they all guarded each other’s privacy with a vengeance, yet they wanted to share this opportunity to be included in this book of mine.
I was introduced to J.J. Sedelmaier by my friend and Hogan’s Alley magazine editor, Tom Heintjes, out of the blue. An incredibly fortuitous introduction, as it turned out. Tom, who really knows everyone in the business of comics and cartooning, has been a supporter of the project since we met at an annual National Cartoonists meeting in Florida back in 2001. It was just an email from Tom introducing us, the way friends do: “J.J. is an illustrator, animator, producer, director, and you should know him…” I certainly had known the name and some of the work he’d done on Saturday Night Live and the Colbert Report, and Tom just felt like J.J. would be a great addition to the book.
So I wrote and introduced myself and explained a little about the book and asked if he’d consider being in the project and he said, “Sure, write me when you’re going to make a trip out to New York.” We worked out a time and other details through a few back-and-forth emails, and at the end of the last one he asked “Are you looking for anyone else to photograph?” The magic words! J.J. then sent me a list that was a “who’s who” of illustration, design, comics, and cartooning in New York. He also said he’d be glad to act as the go-between and make the contact. He filled out the rest of my trip with his amazing list of friends including Seymour Chwast, Drew Friedman, Steve Brodner, and R.O. Blechman. It was just the most amazing trip, and really added some serious clout to the project. I’ve reached out to J.J. several times since for names and help. He’s become one of the “godfathers” of my book, a fount of amazing connections.
J.J. Sedelmaier: I immediately grabbed up The Artist Within, Greg’s first exploration of artist’s work spaces, as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Once I adjusted to the incredibly rich collection of folks that were included, I became seethingly jealous of each and every participant. So you can imagine my excitement when I got a call from Greg to be in the second volume. I was so psyched! I also forwarded dozens of design cohorts he could consider. These books of his are must haves for anyone involved in illustration, cartooning, design and, hell, even animal husbandry! To be invited into the creative environment of these people is such a treat, and expands the understanding of what they all do so well.
Greg Preston: I’d reached out to a few publishers over the last year, and even though my first book has sold out two printings, I couldn’t get any nibbles. But it’s so important to me to get this out there, and so important as my own life’s creative endeavor. Which circles us back to where we started out: “So, I’m doing this Kickstarter…”
Brian Ajhar: Greg Preston is a true professional and talented photographer. He maintained his creative focus and kept his cool under pressure while knowing that dozens of FBI swat teams and their tracking dogs were scouring my studio area searching for a cop killer. I’m not kidding: this was actually happening at the time. Greg is a true professional and I’d love to hear about his other experiences with the artists he photographed. I know he has a good story experience from when he was taking photos of me.
Scott Gandell: The Artist Within: Book Two is a glimpse into the creative minds of artists and illustrators whose work you know, and a few you don’t, through the single focused photographic lens of a madman. I mean that in a good way: Greg is a phenomenal photographer with an intense passion to capture the people whose work he loves, in their natural habitat. The photographs are not only a personal invitation for the viewer to study the studio space of modern creative professionals, but also a glimpse into a world so many of us would not otherwise have access to. And what an honor it is to be a part of it.
Craig Elliott: A select few artists have opened up their studios to photographer Greg Preston so he might work his magic and release the secrets of artist’s private working lives. We artists all have collecting habits, reference books, special tools, computer setups, palettes, and much more that can both help others from our experience and fascinate the uninitiated. I certainly wish I had Greg’s photos when I was in high school and college. I would have poured over every square millimeter of each photo again and again, trying to glean what supplies my favorite artists used, where they placed their painting lights, or what kind of easel they used. Thanks to Greg, we all have rare and privileged access to learn and be fascinated by these spaces, all in one convenient book.
Greg Preston: This was one of the shots that was left over after the edit from book one. Secretly I was already aware book two would have to happen when Dark Horse chose who they wanted in book one: I knew Gil would be a big draw for the second book. This was taken in Gil’s home studio in Southern California. I love the plaster faces over the drawing board. The thing I’ve held onto to this day was after the shoot: I was concerned that maybe he felt it didn’t go as well as it could have. I’m naturally kind of goofy and sometimes it takes me a while to make a more formal sort of person trust me. I was telling Scott Shaw about my concern while showing him the outtakes, and he asked, “Did he call you ‘my boy’?” And I remembered that Gil had in fact said “Thank you, my boy” as he was handing me an original set of practice sketches. Scott laughed and said, “Then you did good!”
Greg Preston: I’d set up the shot of Patrick in what I’d call the main studio, but there were several small studios off this main room that were for different facets of his art: drawing, painting, sculpting, and such. I liked the spaciousness and the available light of this room for the shot. After I’d set up and we were shooting I made the comment “you’re looking a little dour.” Without missing a beat he delivered the best retort, “I am dour, dammit!” I couldn’t stop laughing after that.
Greg Preston: Of course, Ramona Fradon co-created the D.C. character Metamorpho, and also Aquaman’s sidekick, Aqualad. When we were ready to shoot I asked if we could set up in her studio. She laughed and let me know this was her studio. She worked on a lap board, sitting on the sofa with her Irish Wolfhound while watching TV.
Greg Preston: Mark Chiarello is another friend who has kind of adopted my project. Mark is a fantastic artist and also creative director for DC comics. Besides being one of the artists in my book, on numerous occasions he’s gone through his magic address book and helped me line up many others, for which I’m seriously grateful.
Greg Preston: In 2011 I was invited to be a guest speaker at the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers convention in London, to speak about being a hotel and resort photographer: my real job. A couple times a year I get to travel to do hotel resort work, and whenever I do I check to see what artists are in the area to photograph. So, I figured that if I’m going all that way, I’d try to find a few.
I reached out to Mark Chiarello, who helped me line up three shoots in England: Phil Hale, Dave Gibbons, and Brian Bolland. Here’s the shoot of Brian. I’d been a fan of his since the 1980s and especially liked his work on Camelot 3000. My wife is in awe of him because he can make a proper cup of tea, and he lives in the countryside.
Greg Preston: Keith Knight draws his various comic strips – Knight Life, The K Chronicles, and (th)ink – in a coffee shop in West L.A. Yep, every day you can find Keith sitting at a table, drinking coffee, talking politics, and drawing. I love the simplicity of this shot. I usually have to bring lights with me to light up my subject. This is the light that exists in the coffee shop, probably the only shot in my project done with available light.
Greg Preston: The idea to try to set up a photo shoot with Basil came from my friend Lyn Pederson. Lyn was the comics shop owner I’d told you about, and he’d become my assistant on the majority of the shoots for this project. As we were making plans to go to New York to shoot, he mentioned that he’d heard that Basil had been having some health problems and we should try to include him in that trip, because you just never know. I’d been a fan of his since I started collecting comics. And growing up Greek American, I’d also been fascinated with this fellow Greek who did these beautiful covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine back in the 1960s.
I ended up reaching out to David Spurlock. David is the owner/publisher of Vanguard Publications, well-known for their art book biographies on illustrators and cartoonists. David has been been very kind and helpful over the years in helping me secure artists and art. Vanguard had recently published a beautiful book on Basil, and David very graciously set up my shoot with him.
Well, I’m happy to say at the time I’m writing this that Basil is still alive and kicking, and doing very interesting abstract pieces. Talk about a great career!
Greg Preston: I love this shot! I had the pleasure of photographing Jeff’s dad, Bil Keane, creator of the comic strip The Family Circus, for my first book of portraits. I was thrilled to have the chance to photograph Jeff for book two. His was one of the first photos that I did when I started on it. He’d taken over the strip his dad made famous. As we were shooting, different members of the family would look in and see how the shoot was going, and I had the thought to include them as “The Family Circus.” I gave them the direction to be somewhat disinterested, or even angry, and the result is just fun stuff.
Greg Preston: I got Glen’s phone number from Jeff one day while we were talking at Comic-Con in San Diego. I remember I was showing him the photographs that I’d taken so far and he said, “You should photograph my brother.” At the time I hadn’t put two and two together, so I remember asking “Oh yeah, what does he do?” He just looked at me for second and said, “he’s an animator for Disney”. Ohhh… that Glen Keane. Glen had been a part of the famous CalArts Animation class that also included John Lasseter, Tim Burton, Steve Hillenburg, Gendy Tartakovsky, and about ten more who’d all go on to be legends in the animation field. Glen is best known for his character animation at Disney Studios for feature films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Tangled, and went on to be named a “Disney Legend.” This is his home studio.
Greg Preston: I’d managed to get to photograph animator John Musker for the project. John had written and directed The Little Mermaid and was also part of the amazing Cal Arts Animation class of the 1970s. During the shoot, John says, “You really should get John Lasseter in the book.” I remember laughing and thinking, “Yeah, that would be terrific but impossible.” John Lasseter was the creative genius behind Pixar with Steve Jobs, and I think the creative head of Disney as well, one of the artists that I thought was beyond my reach. Then John picked up the phone and set it up.
So a few weeks later an assistant and I hopped on a plane to Northern California to photograph John Lasseter at Pixar. We were met by a very friendly woman who very nicely told me that we could set up ahead of time but that we’d only have about ten minutes to get the shot. So we were ushered into the office where the shoot would take place, and we very quickly looked at a few different angles, and set up and pre-lit the shot. Right before Mr. Lasseter walked in, our “handler” let us know that unfortunately we’d only have about three minutes to shoot. Yikes! Just then, in walks John Lasseter. He shakes everyone’s hand warmly. I show him the set-up, he puts a few things on the table, and I start shooting. Done in less than three minutes! Ta-dah! I say thank you, and he looks at me and says, “That was quick; are you sure?” We kind of look at each other for a second, and I get it, he had no idea that the handler was moving us along like that. It was her job to get him from place to place and on time. I almost ignored the steely glance of his handler, and went for a few more shots, but folded like a house of cards. I left, just so happy to have had that chance.
Greg Preston: This is one of my favorite shots. Celia, a fashion Illustrator turned comic book artist, had just recently moved into this new house in New Jersey. She was concerned that there was no furniture in many of the rooms, but there were these beautiful wood floors so we set her in the middle of an empty room with her art scattered about. I must say after meeting her and seeing her work front and center, this woman rocks!
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