"You don't one day decide to have ethics in your business; you always have them." Garrick Webster visits Gary Taxali in Toronto to discuss design principles and the magic of a little whimsy.
Down a hidden driveway in west Toronto, an old velvet factory sits beside the railway line. Two of the converted units inside form the home and workplace of Gary Taxali, one of North America's most prolific and talented illustrators. The sweet scent of chai tea fills the air and Gary excitedly guides me around, stopping at his easel to show off a new painting he's working on, and at his Mac where he's been sketching some roughs for The Telegraph. He pulls out an early copy of his upcoming children's book, This is Silly, and - surrounded by vinyl toys, books, videos, posters, plants and paintings - begins to unravel his creative philosophy.
Computer Arts: Many people enjoy your work because it's ironic and satirical. How would you characterise your style?
Gary Taxali: I like those words. I try not to characterise it too much because that starts to limit what it is, as opposed to being open to it evolving. I like to laugh, I like to make silly visual commentaries on things, I like to be silly, I like whimsy, I like irony, I like slapstick - and I've liked that stuff since I was a small child. That's never going to go away. My pictures, at the root, are always going to have that quality to them.
CA: What's the last silly thing you did?
GT: The last silly thing I did was a drawing this morning.
CA: A lot of your work has been for books, magazines and newspapers. Do you think your style and approach is most suited to publishing?
GT: I think my style is suited to everything - a picture is a picture. I've done illustrations for publications where it has been so absolutely exciting because I have felt like I'm the only illustrator suited to that job and evidently the art director felt that way, so there has been an amazing chemistry.
I've felt that way with advertising work, too. In the UK there was a Vodafone campaign - there was a billboard of a guy I drew as a couch potato, and the TV and he were on a track. The idea was that Vodafone brings you closer to things, and I felt that the art director I was working with really understood my style and my visual language. Aimee Mann's album art was another example of a project that I felt was a really good fit.
CA: What types of media do you most like to use?
GT: My media changes a lot. I use mixed media in my work; a lot of my illustration will be screen-printed. My fine art work will tend to be even more mixed media and infused with painting and sculpture, assemblage, installation-type work. But I do try to keep versatility in my media as much as possible. There's obviously more room for me to be experimental with the fine art than there is with illustration because of the constraints of time, for one, and art directors will usually reference what they like or will hire me for a specific thing.
CA: How long does it typically take for you to produce a piece of work?
GT: Illustration - depending on the complexity of it, from sketch to image - half a day if it's for The New York Times and they want a fast turnaround, and it's black and white so I can do it faster. But, on average, about a day or two. More complex ones will take me three or four days. Personal work, like if I'm doing a painting, can take a few weeks.
CA: Your fine art and commercial work both feature similar characters and themes, but do you approach them in different ways?
GT: Yes, absolutely. The whole experience is different. It's the same person that's speaking but, for illustration work, the concept and the idea being advanced are there to serve the needs of the art director or the editor; with my personal work, I approach it the opposite way, and that's where the imagery is more important than the concept, as a result of the imagery that I want to draw.
CA: Do the two feed off each other?
GT: All the time. And the really great thing about having those two jobs is that they both simultaneously fuel each other. I'll be working on a personal picture, be adventurous and draw [a character] that I haven't drawn before, then I'll get a commercial job and that [character] will make its way in there and will feed into the concept part of it because I've unlocked some doors in my head to get me closer to that concept.
CA: How would you advise someone who is working commercially but also wants to get their personal work off the ground?
GT: Take some time to create from your heart on a weekly basis; to create some personal work. That's the only way you'll advance and create an impact, and maybe become known for having something to say that nobody is saying.
It's easy to look at somebody and say, 'You're in a position where you can say no to Google; you can do personal work and set aside time.' And I say, 'Yeah but the reason I'm in this position is that I've always been in this position, ever since I was out of the starting gate. That's always the way I've done things.' You don't one day decide to have ethics in your business - you always have them.
CA: What do you mean by 'ethics'?
GT: I don't give my work away for free, I don't sign bad contracts, I don't draw pictures that I'm not happy with, I have self respect for my career and my work, I don't give away my rights ever and I don't like lowball. I try to maintain industry professional practices.
CA: Which artists inspire you?
GT: It's hard to remember specifics because it changes on an almost daily basis, but there are core people like EC Segar (the creator of Popeye) and the Fleischer brothers. I've always really liked Dr Seuss; Maurice Sendak; 1930s typography, package design and advertising posters; the Russian constructivists. Andy Warhol is a favourite - he helped me a lot. He helped all of us a lot. Picasso helped all of us too.
CA: Early in your career you didn't use computers but you said you wouldn't rule them out. What's your stance on digital today?
GT: If I'm doing an illustration and I want to do some screen printing, I'll make my halftones digitally, print it out and from there I'll burn screens. So it's part of the process. Sometimes it doesn't come into the equation at all when I'm doing more straight painting and working in a more spontaneous way. I like to grab whatever's around me, whether it's an eraser or CS3. It's all good.
CA: As your range of projects expands, do you see digital becoming more important to you?
GT: I've become more interested in applications like 3D software in terms of what they can do for me as a toy designer. For my last few toys I've had to work with toy designers, and for them to depict my imagery in 3D software programs helps me to understand what it's going to look like from different perspectives. So it has been fantastic. Animation stuff - Flash and that kind of thing - I'm really interested in that. I think I would definitely never rule it out. In fact, I would like to become more friendly with it.