Ted Slampyak is a freelance illustrator with over twenty years of professional experience in storyboards, comic strips and books, and spot illustrations for magazines, posters and events. He’s been a regular contributor to the Art of Manliness lifestyle website since 2010. In 2006 he illustrated the commemorative posters for Albuquerque’s tricentennial. His storyboard experience includes work on Breaking Bad, Hello or High Water and Terminator Salvation, and his comics work includes six years on the long-running newspaper strip Little Orphan Annie as well as his own comic book series, Jazz Age.
Ted lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, their kid and some pets.
Samples of his work can be found at http://www.storytellersworkshop.com.
Interview by Jon Messer
What is Illustration?
Illustration is communication. That’s it. I mean, with more than words. It can be photos, or drawings, or CAD schematics, or storyboards, or cartoons. It can also be live-action film, the performing arts and music, but since we already have words for those things, when we say illustration we’re usually referring to man-made images that are designed to communicate, convey or tell a story.
What drew you to become an illustrator in the first place?
One of my earliest memories as a toddler is watching my older brother writing a story for a school project and wanting to write one too, but I couldn’t write yet, so I started drawing a series of pictures to tell the story.
What illustrators influenced you most as a young artist? And today?
My first great illustration mentor was Chuck Jones, the creator of the Roadrunner and Coyote Warner Brothers cartoons. I can remember copying the drawings on the side of my Roadrunner lunchbox in school. I was a fan of all the Loony Toons characters, but the Coyote was my favorite. I then graduated to Fred Flintstone, Snoopy and eventually I found Spider-Man and fell in love with the work of John Romita. That was in fourth grade and I wanted to be a comic book artist from that day on. I did become one, and then moved on to storyboards, among other things. I achieved a wonderful full-circle milestone last year when I spent several weeks creating storyboards for the upcoming Loony Toons feature film, Coyote V Acme!
Was there an important event or shift in your thinking that boosted your career as a professional?
One important event: about 12 years ago I started doing instructional illustrations for a lifestyle website called the Art of Manliness — how-to presentations, like how to change a tire or kick down a door. It became a regular gig that’s still going, and the website is seen by over a million people so I get a lot of clients through it.
An important shift in my thinking: at some point, early in my career as a storyboard artist, it dawned on my that my drawings don’t have to look good. I’d been drawing comic books and comic strips for years at that point and we pretty good at drawing well and drawing quickly, but I spent six months drawing storyboards for Terminator Salvation back in 2008, and my work went from tightly rendered and shaded cinematic tableaux to hastily-scrawled stick figures — literally — to accommodate the incredible pace. And the director was fine with that! I’d already known that pictures don’t need to be pretty to be good illustration, but that gig helped me to really refine and streamline how I get the important information on the page. I still work that way today, only now I can usually take a little more time and still make it pretty.
Do you only accept commissions that inspire you?
Oh no! I wish! I can’t afford to be picky! A big part of my job is to find something inspiring in every job that comes to me. Luckily I’m a simple soul who’s usually just happy to be drawing, so WHAT I’m drawing isn’t has crucial for me!
What do you do to stay inspired?
Walk away from the drawing board — okay, the ipad — every so often and recharge by doing non-drawing things. I think some call it fresh air and exercise. And by starting every project not entirely sure of what the end product will look like, but eager to find out!
What goals are you currently working towards?
I’m trying to find the time to move into animation and video work. I mentioned my early love of cartoons, and the animated videos I’ve been working on lately have been incredibly fun.
Which is more important; content or technique?
Content. I think that might be the defining distinction between a so-called “artist” and an “illustrator,” that for the illustrator, content is king.
What do you see as the big challenges for illustrators in the future?
AI, of course. Everyone sees the threat there. A good illustrator, of course, is more than a maker of pretty pictures — there are so many decisions that need to go into it, and it’s not just how accurately you can render an object. My storyboard work is a collaborative process where I brainstorm with the director and the director of photography; AI won’t replace that. But at some point it might!
What kind of training or education should illustrators receive?
I went to an art college, and I’m very grateful for the experience. I learned lots about typography, composition, and technique, but the best part of the education was simply the need to create the work. On deadline. For very picky and meticulous teachers, who showed me what worked and what didn’t and how I could begin to see the difference myself. An illustrator doesn’t need to go to college, but they do need to be pushed and tested and forced to pull more out of themselves. That’s the only way you really get better.
Do you think art fundamentals are still relevant in the new age of AI?
More so than ever, if by art fundamentals you mean composition, light, form, etc. AI is the next photography — a hundred and fifty years ago photography made a serious threat to painters and artists whose primary skill was in making realistic images. The camera did that for you, so what do we need illustrators for? Then the Impressionists, and the Modernists, and other styles of artists came around and showed a kind of art that a camera can’t create. AI will bring new challenges for artists, but there’s a lot more to illustration than just drawing a very realistic apple.
What advice do you wish you had gotten as a young illustrator?
To see illustration as a business. To not only be better at the business end, but to learn to love it — because it’s your sponsor, your patron, the means to let you do what you love for a living. Show it some respect!
Do you have anything you’d like to say or share with other illustrators and students?
What we do is a rare privilege. Many people can’t, or at least don’t, do what we’re doing and they wish they could. We should be grateful for our craft, work hard at it and don’t take it for granted! And don’t forget how much you wanted this when you were a kid!
© no artwork displayed can be used without permission of the artist, Ted “Slampyak” Kinyak