Have you wondered what it takes to become a professional artist? Curious to learn how an artist overcomes “artist block”? Want to know where an artist finds their motivation and inspiration? I had the opportunity and privilege to sit down and discuss these topics and more with professional artist Cliff Cramp.
As an entertainment and narrative illustrator, as well as former Professor of Illustration at CSU Fullerton, Cliff’s resume spans nearly three decades. After receiving both an BFA and MFA in Illustration from his Alma Mater CSU Fullerton, one of his first gigs was illustrating products in ink for furniture catalogs. Knowing this wasn’t how he envisioned utilizing his talent long term, Cliff eventually landed licensing work for major corporations in the entertainment industry. He’s created posters, album covers, DVD covers, book covers and animation backgrounds for companies including Disney, Lucas Films, and Paramount.
From his early beginnings as an artist, to finding success within the creative industry, we’ll come to understand an artist’s inspiration as well as what it takes to become a professional artist in today’s competitive industry.
Can you share your background in the art field? How did you get started as a professional artist and where did you get your training?
As a child I drew for escape. I think the first person who recognized any kind of talent in me was my first grade teacher. I was drawing dinosaurs with a stick in the dirt when she came by and said, “Wow those are really good!” A week later she came to me with a sketch book. She was somebody who really encouraged my drawing. I had a lot of teachers who discouraged drawing because I drew on everything.
Back then, I really didn’t have a sense that it was a vocation. I’ve always loved stories and am a storyteller at heart, which is what drove me towards the illustration medium. I also had difficulties reading because I had a tracking issue and was mildly dyslexic. I would play reading games with myself. I would read novels and the payoff was to get to the illustrated plate and just marvel at that imagery. Just the love of visual storytelling and how someone’s imagination was depicted on a 2-D surface is really what sparked the interest!
Then in my early twenties, my wife was the one who encouraged me to go back to school and get a degree in illustration. I went to Cerritos College and enrolled in their drawing and painting program and then on to Cal State University Fullerton to study illustration.
How Would You Describe Your Art Style?
I would say I’m a traditional painter even in my digital work. In both my analog and digital art, my style remains the same. I tend to be a little more painterly, and my heavy influences are the Golden Age and Silver Age Illustrators.
What Do You Do To Meet Deadlines?
If you don’t meet a deadline, you’ve cost your client money, and you will no longer be working for that client. It’s not just a money thing, it’s ethical. Relationships are so important in the industry. It takes years to build your reputation, but only a second to ruin it. A lot of it is being organized in your process. So organization allows you to develop methods to come up with visual ideas. In the thumbnail stage it’s so your client can approve your idea and arrangement in the composition. The color key and comp stages allow you to set the color, the value, the mood for a particular piece so your client can approve that. Then it’s easy to finish because all the major issues are already solved and major things aren’t going to change.
So unlike what many people might assume that a professional artist works from their emotions, there’s prior and deliberate planning involved.
Yes, for an illustrator. The arts is not one thing. The arts is a variety. Just like in construction you have someone who designs the house, who lays the foundation, the electrical, etc. The arts are a lot like that. So when people say, “Oh they’re an artist”, it’s kind of a nebulous term. Some artists in the fine art world solve their own problems. It’s more self-expression. They can splatter paint on a canvas and aren’t really considering the audience as a key factor. Within illustration and entertainment art there are graphic designers who are doing page layout and designing the arrangement of things in a poster, setting type, those kind of things. The illustrator comes up with the visual image, and again it’s hugely important that they understand their audience.
An illustrator needs to understand that everything they put on paper communicates an idea that more effectively tells the story. So they have choices and it’s a bit of a science. An illustrator painstakingly studies visual storytelling so that they can understand how their audience emotionally responds. I think sometimes in the arts we forget all of the tools that we have and that we have an audience. And the particular goal is that you are trying to effectively communicate an idea to your audience. The understanding of the craft allows us to communicate better.
How do you understand your audience as an illustrator?
A lot of it is research. An illustrator has to love research, because if they don’t, their audience is going to tell them that they got it wrong. I work on these big IPs (intellectual properties) like Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings, and Marvel, and if you get anything wrong on the costume design, etc, people are going to spot those things. You need to know your audience in their appreciation for particular subject matter. The other aspect is what is the age of the audience? And the beauty is that sometimes you are your own audience in that you love the subject matter just as much as the fans.
Are there any artists that influence your work?
My work is heavily influenced by the Golden Age Illustrators. Artists like NC Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Harvey Dunn, and those great storytellers of the early 1900s. And then the Silver Age Illustrators would be Normal Rockwell, and Dean Cornwell. I love Norman Rockwell’s subject matter, how he lifts the human spirit. I think we need more of that in all areas of media. I am also influenced by contemporary artists like Vance Kovacks, Justin Sweet, and Pasquel Campion. Campion’s work is about relationships. Not just human relationships, but pet relationships. It really has a human component, and you look at it and you go, “Yeah, I want to be a better dad, and a better husband, and father, and pet owner.” But I love that his work is so relational.
Can you share a bit about your career as a professional artist? What type of work are you hired to do?
Posters, DVD covers, and book covers. The entertainment industry in California was heavy in story, so I did a lot of background for animation. And I love painting environments and plein air paintings so it’s been a lot of what I’ve done. Then I did a lot of cd covers, children’s books for some of the animated productions, cover art, and album covers.
When you design an album cover for a band, is it their vision or yours?
When I did the cover for the Plain White T’s Wonders of the Younger album, they sent me a sketch that they drew on a napkin. I gave them something different, but with the same information they gave me. In some covers, the creative director has a vision and I am theorist for that vision. I finalize their vision. Then there are covers I absolutely love, that I’ve been able to do everything, and you can coach your art director towards your idea. And then sometimes, it’s a team effort. I love working with good folks, and good creative directors, because they can make you better. Sometimes I have the better idea, and then I can diplomatically guide people towards my idea.
What inspires your work?
That’s hard to pinpoint a specific thing. Light inspires me. Taking photographs. Anytime I see something cool I take a photograph. It could just be a shape, a particular tree or object. Sometimes it’s just compositional arrangements. Obviously nature inspires me because I love to paint environments. Ultimately, it’s stories that inspire me. I wonder, “What kind of stories can I tell?” Sometimes it’s the time of day, seasons, music, or film. I currently live in a place that I absolutely adore and I love seeing all seasons which is incredibly inspiring. There’s not one thing but so many. Sometimes friends inspire me.
What are your favorite subjects to paint?
Just about everything. I really like to paint interiors but I don’t get that opportunity very often. Landscapes are for me. Painting landscapes is my “me” time. It’s not what I do first and foremost to pay the bills and I thoroughly enjoy it! As far as subjects, I really like to invent my own. I’m currently working on a dragon series that is like a crazy dragon western. I like working on a lot of the big IPs, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. I really like to tell stories and trying new things.
What are some of the companies you’ve worked for throughout your career?
Paramount, United Artists, Lucas Films, Disney, Warner Bros, Marvel Cinematic and Comic, Shout Factory, Menagerie Creative, Hollywood Records, Acme Archive, Bottleneck Gallery, and IPs like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.
What types of medium do you use? Which is your favorite?
I don’t have a favorite. I use what’s best for the particular project. I use oil for my traditional work and casein for my sketch painting work. And then I use Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop for my digital work. Occasionally I use acrylic and watercolors but it’s not my go to. I use acrylic for fast turnaround projects when I don’t have time for oils to dry.
Do you prefer oil over acrylic?
Yes. The reason I like oil more is because of working into it after a period of time, and just the consistency of the paint…it’s more like butter. It allows me to take breaks and come back to it.
Can you talk about your use of casein paint? Why is this a medium you love to use so often?
Casein is one of the oldest mediums, it was used for tombs in Egypt. It is a milk base. The problem is it will stink like when milk curdles. The beauty of it is it’s in between gouache and watercolor. So I can thin it like a watercolor and then darken it like an acrylic wash. And after it dries and sets up hard, I can varnish it and it looks like an oil painting. It’s great for blocking in thin and going in thicker.
What’s the biggest challenge you face being an artist?
That’s a hard question. I want to say staying relevant, but then I don’t care about being relevant. I love what I do and I’ll never stop. Okay, here’s a challenge…it’s a perceptual challenge. And the challenge is being taken seriously. That what I do is really a job and I’m not playing all day. Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding of what I do and the value of my time and work.
How does a professional artist deal with “artist’s block”?
I don’t really believe in artist’s block. You know, we have our ups and downs, but we work through it. I think sometimes it’s a little bit of an excuse not to work through a lack of creative times. Doing nothing doesn’t solve the block, it just prolongs the block. There is a lot of this misconception that professional artists wake up just feeling creative, but the reality is, yeah there are days when I don’t feel like painting but I have a deadline and I have to get it done.
There’s a great video called How An Artist Becomes A Professional. And it addresses how it is resistance that’s the devil on the shoulder, and if you give into it, it makes you lazy. Or you try to fulfill your desires in other ways, other than work, and some of those ways are very harmful towards us. Very successful artists and writers have to keep the attitude of a professional. And you have to keep the attitude of a professional even when the projects aren’t coming in. And so when I’m in between projects, I give myself work and I still draw, even if I’m not making money on it. If you continue your artistic endeavors, ultimately you will find your place and you will become successful.
Do you prefer collaborating with other artists, or working alone?
I do both and I love both. As an extrovert and a people person the collaboration is ultimately a little more fulfilling, but I need my time too. My personal work informs my professional work in the sense that I can take chances and push myself in my personal work.
Your landscape paintings are gorgeous! What style would you describe them?
They would probably be in more to the Painterly California Impressionist style and the Eucalyptus School of California Impressionists. The California landscape painters of the early 1900s were not the same as the French Impressionists in that they were painterly but not as stylized.
What is it that you’re trying to capture in your landscape paintings?
I think it’s just to capture the essence of that particular moment and what we’re seeing. Meaning the temperature of light, the temperature of shadow, the arrangement, the movement of water, the movement of leaves, those kinds of things. So it depends on the subject matter.
You mentioned before you’re the 911 artist.
Yeah, so I’m the person to call when you need something done real fast and can get it done quickly.
So what is it that makes you work so fast? Is it you, or the years of practice you’ve had?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s developing methodology that gets you from point A to point B a little bit quicker. My goal is to comp up an illustration in 30 minutes, and then have the rest of the time to paint it.
How does a professional artist maintain a work/life balance? How do you make sure you have time to create?
I know as a parent, I can’t steal time away from my family and my relationships. To me those are the most important things. Ultimately my artwork is going to burn up, going to be gone, and it’s the relationships that are going to be lasting.
I’m a dad, a husband, and a friend first. And then I try to set my work schedule to continue to be a good dad, a good friend, and a good husband first. Most of the time since my kids are older I can have a regular day. And my wife is really protective of that. Then if I have to put in a few extra hours, it’s just a matter of managing your time well.
What are some activities or exercises you would recommend to boost creativity?
Well I would just say watching good films and analyzing them as to why they resonate with you. Reading good books. Looking at good art. Just looking at and exposing yourself to really good creative work. The exercises you do at school, those are there to give you ideas and I highly value them, but I don’t personally do them so much anymore. For me, it’s more about working on my own projects that boost my creativity. Ultimately my thought is, “What is the moral of the story, and why are we asking people to go on this journey with us?”
What advice would you give a professional artist who is in a creative slump?
Keep working. The big “no no” is to wait for it. A slump won’t go away by waiting for it to go away. You still have to work towards it, and it might be crap. But ultimately, you will work your way out of it. I often compare a professional artist to an athlete that still trains even in their off periods and maintains their physical fitness. You still have to train.
Early in my career I went through a slump. It followed a period in which I thought every time I picked up a brush I would produce gold. Both attitudes were unrealistic. I went from thinking a painting would naturally be a success to hoping a painting would be a success. As the slump continued I started to second guess myself. I’ll never have that unrealistic confidence again, and I won’t hit that low again either. After years of working you gain a realistic confidence and understanding that when you stumble in your work, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and illustrate another scene. Don’t let this stuff derail you. Work through it.
I have great fun discarding my stinker paintings now-a-days. I demo a lot and have noticed that students learn a great deal when they see me struggle and then see me right the ship. When I do have sessions where every stroke is gold from start to finish I turn to the audience and laugh saying, “Ok, I just painted WAAY above my head.”
I learn more from my mistakes than my successes. I think the arts breeds kind of an unhealthy ego. There’s something wonderful about the humility of a talented and successful individual. They’re also the ones who will probably mentor and invest in someone else.
What challenges would today’s aspiring artists face in this competitive market?
Just that. The positive is your market is now global, but the understanding now that your competition is now global. And there’s a lot of really talented people out there. So what does a person bring to the table that’s different? But the good is that you can find your people easier today. There’s more niche areas where you can find your audience.
Any advice for someone worrying about whether they have something different to offer?
Well style, for example, is something I told my students not to worry about. For a while style was something people in the art world were really focused on. Instead, worry about doing. When you start doing, your style emerges. The style fairy isn’t going to come and land on your shoulder and say, “Now this is your style.” No, style comes from doing.
And I think with a lot of the questions you’ve had, the resolution is by doing. So, how do you get out of a slump?…By doing. How do you get a style?…By doing. How do you deal with not having a project?…By doing. Down the line to any of those areas, you continue to do because it is the definition of a professional that takes it seriously. And a professional artist has the attitude of “continuing to do”.
Stephen King only writes for a few hours a day, but he makes a habit of it, and he writes everyday. So he carves out the time that’s successful to him to accomplish his goals. I think a lot of the resolution to the negative aspects of what we do is “continue to do”.
What would you say to someone who says, “Traditional medium art is out. Focus solely on digital art.”?
I would say they’re ill-informed. My traditional work informs my digital work. My digital work allows me to take chances which ultimately improves my traditional work.
What do you think the future holds for the art industry?
I think it’s positive in that we’ve become more and more a visual society. With the internet and iPhones, now visual imagery is everywhere and the opportunities for professional artists are going to continue to be open and broad. I don’t have a negative view of the future.
What would you say to someone who believes you can’t make a career out of art?
They’re probably just uninformed of the opportunities. I’ve taught a lot of people who have surpassed any successes that I have had. They’re now directors, creative directors, many are working on huge properties within the entertainment industry, and they’re just killing it! And it’s so fun to see. I don’t take credit for any of their work, I just smile to see how successful they’ve become. And technology has really opened up so many different opportunities for work and for content delivery. I have a friend in Norway who asked me to draw a Lord of the Rings tattoo for him. And he never would have known my work had it not been for the internet. And of course the internet has made the researching portion of my job so much easier!
What does beauty mean to you?
I think beauty inspires me to be better. It informs the idea that things can be better. In a religious and platonic sense, beauty inspires a notion of perfect beauty we haven’t obtained. I think Plato used to give the aspect of the rose being a symbol of what ideal beauty could be. It is beautiful but there is a greater beauty that we don’t know yet. That kind of a thing. It basically inspires, it gives hope, and has meaning.
Do you think beauty is in the imperfections?
Oh absolutely, because it defines the ultimate perfection. I think that’s in the platonic sense of recognizing something that has beauty, even though it has imperfections…that there is a perfect beauty. It’s something we try to obtain and aspire towards.
Are you always motivated to create? If not, what keeps you going?
I’m not always motivated, but you do it anyway. I know it’s not a romantic answer, but I try to de-romanticize the arts in some places where it needs to be. And why is it only the arts that has that sentiment of doing something because you feel like it? It’s almost a little bit elitist, you know?
Some people will say to me, “Oh you have something special”, and I say, “Well yeah I do, but so does my neighbor who’s a doctor, or a teacher, or a store clerk, etc.” We should respect all vocations, and the hours it takes perfecting a craft. I don’t want to hire a plumber that’s waiting to be inspired to fix the pipes in my house. I think we’ve over-romanticized what we (as artists) do.
The head and the heart have to work in conjunction. There’s too many people who only go by one or the other. They become so analytical about things that they forget to empathize with others. Whereas you have people that are so open minded that their brain leaks out and all they go off are emotions. I’ve always been someone who tries to work in tandem with my head and my heart.
I joke that the illustrator is the thinking person’s artists because we are using both sides of our brain. And whether you’re a right brain or left brain thinker, it doesn’t negate the fact that you have to use both sides.
You do a great deal of art for sci-fi and fantasy films. Are you a fan of that genre?
Yes, I love the sci-fi fantasy genre because it is so open to tell stories that inspire. They’re not necessarily working on the conventional world’s logic, but they still have to be logical. They still have to adhere to the cannon that they have developed. And so I think in that space you can tell wonderful stories of hope, forgiveness, and coming of age. I mean the original Star Wars is all about that. It has an opportunity because it’s not necessarily contained in our time. Allegorically and metaphorically, the fantasy genre makes for great storytelling mediums.
I think the whole world of Lord of the Rings is just fabulous! When you look at the conflicts of each individual character. There are great human struggles encapsulated within these fantastic worlds. And that’s where our imagination really takes off. But then there’s always aspects of reality, and that reality is often within human nature.
Another theme I love to paint is historic themes. I love history and reading about it. I love painting knights. WWII is just a fascinating period and I love painting some of the battles from WWI and WWII.
Can you share a bit about your involvement with the Disney Company and the work you’ve done for them?
I’ve worked for the Disney Company in different aspects over my career. I’ve worked with Disney Entertainment where I created one of the Disneyland park’s original concepts for the Jungle Book parade float. I’ve done work in their music areas with the cover of the Plain White T’s Wonders of the Younger album. Disney specifically, I’ve worked with Bottleneck to produce a series of limited edition prints which were heavy in environment, minimal in character.
I’ve done a few special events. There was one event in particular which was a really special experience. My wife was in between her cancer surgeries and my paintings were showcased for Disney’s Star Wars After Dark Event. We were treated as special guests that night and had dinner at the Blue Bayou. It was a really wonderful night because my wife was able to be with me. It was also that particular event where I met fellow artist Jerry Vanderstelt who is someone that I have the upmost respect for, not only as an artist, but as a person. Just in having the opportunity to work with Disney has really impacted me as a person because of relationships. I’ll always love Disney for that.
Your Disney art depicts cartoon characters in your realistic environmental settings.
Well you know if you look at a lot of Disney environments, they are actually very real. And so a lot of the California Impressionists and the California Scene Painters went to work for Disney as background painters. So they’re the ones who painted the environments for movies like Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty and I love that history! And it’s the character we’re supposed to focus on. So when you juxtapose a cartoon in a more natural environment, we keep our focus on the character. It’s a little bit more natural to the animation style. Obviously, we have animated leaves and characters that move, but the background doesn’t change. And that keeps the focus on the character, no matter how small they are in the image.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a professional artist?
Know what you’re getting into and be willing to do what it takes to accomplish it. Find a mentor, expose yourself to areas of art that you may want to move into.
What brought you and your family to Boise?
The seasons and the beauty of the city. Having an opportunity to live in the hills but not far from the city. The seasons are a good representation, but not the extreme. The people too. We just enjoy the friendly atmosphere.
How are you enjoying Boise so far?
What types of programs or classes are you offering to the community right now?
I haven’t settled into that yet, but I would love to! Other than I did an open studio which was well received by my community. And I have talked to a number of aspiring artists on an individual basis.
Would you ever consider teaching at Boise State?
If they wanted me! Not full time, but I would love to teach part time.
You’ve had so many amazing accomplishments in your career so far. Where do you go from here? What are future plans for Cliff Cramp?
To continue to work with good people on fun projects.
Where can we purchase Cliff Cramp’s art?
It was such a pleasure interviewing Cliff Cramp! As someone who is an admirer of the arts, it was an enlightening experience understanding the methodology of a professional artist. Cliff Cramp has mentored numerous aspiring artists not only during his time as a professor, but in his new community of Boise, Idaho! Perhaps his pay it forward attitude has manifested good karma and success throughout his career. Or perhaps it is just the conscientious work ethic of a professional artist that has brought his success. Either way, Cliff Cramp is an inspiration for many aspiring artists who are pursuing their dreams.
I hope this interview has brought you inspiration in whatever course you are currently riding in life. Whatever career or dream you are trying to pursue, take a lesson from Cliff and “keep doing”.
“Keep doing because it is the definition of a professional that takes it seriously.” – Cliff Cramp