During Ted McGrath’s senior year at Pratt Institute, two one-on-one critiques in the same week took the following turn: “That thing you’re doodling is better than the work you turned in,” McGrath recalls a professor saying. “Do that.” Things didn’t go much better in a typography class taught by Ruth Guzik, in which McGrath had to draw Caslon by hand. “It looked like I’d done it on top of a washing machine,” he says. Guzik agreed, but with a twist: “Everything is so bad, but so consistent, that it’s interesting.”
Encouraged by such astute guidance, McGrath stopped trying to do it right and started being himself. “I’m a mess,” he admits. “It frustrated teachers who wanted more polished work.”
As a child in eastern Pennsylvania, he was saturated with the work of N. C. Wyeth and the hyperrealism of classic American illustration. McGrath’s mother worked at the Brandywine River Museum, the keeper of that tradition, and a print of one of Wyeth’s iconic paintings from Treasure Island hung in the living room. As a boy, he took classes with Karl Kuerner III, who studied under Wyeth’s son Andrew.
McGrath’s gift, however, is for work with a “notebook aesthetic”—idiosyncratic, collage-based, and imbued with offbeat humor. His style evokes a daydreaming student whose imagination brims with DC comics, Space Ghost, Kurt Vonnegut, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
The work is proudly process-apparent. “It’s beautiful to see the skeleton,” he says. He loves artists’ sketches, citing an Ingres study he saw at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art years ago as an example. His hero isn’t N. C. Wyeth but Robert Rauschenberg, among others, who embraced the neo-Dada humor of found doodles.
McGrath was astonished when he realized that he could get paid for his whimsical creations. A Japanese toy company that was developing a “lo-fi karaoke video game” hired McGrath to “draw robots that might be in it.”
Although that particular dream ended after three months, Esquire Russia called soon after with an assignment to illustrate a deadly dull fashion shoot featuring Ralph Fiennes. The art director’s instructions: “Don’t draw over the clothes. Otherwise, knock yourself out.” McGrath promptly redeemed the layout with a fresh and funny antidote to the try-hard cool of the men’s fashion spread. In one image, a bear looms over the relatively slight Fiennes, dissing him with lightning-bolt rays of vexation.
McGrath’s work also embraces serious topics, disdaining hipster snark; one of his pointed pieces for the New York Times Op-Ed page, “False Hopes and Natural Disasters,” uses the text columns to suggest buildings threatened by tsunamis. Much of his work relies heavily on words, such as “Behavioral Medication for Children,” which tweaks the classic phrenology diagram to portray the effect of drugs on children. His pieces can also be beautiful, as in “Blue Front,” a creation for The New York Times Book Review that epitomizes his pastiche of discrete color and black-and-white elements; it uses four rips of masking tape to nail the rough-hewn aesthetic.
McGrath embraced this approach at the urging of his teachers. Now, he’s doing the urging. In the fall of 2006, McGrath began teaching mixed-media illustration at Pratt, no doubt looking for the inspired doodle.