Mike Cressy – Illustrator Interview

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I am always fascinated by artists whose art journey takes them through different mediums and styles.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[MC] I’m an illustrator first and a writer second. My writing hasn’t been published except via self publishing. With picture book ideas it’s always about the image. And if I get some words to go with it, that’s great. I could do wordless picture books forever.

The graphic novel I’m working on is another story. I had a traumatic event happen to me and decided to write a novel about it. Half way through I thought it a better idea to do it as a graphic novel. Which at this point seems crazy because it’s taken me 8 years to finish it. I’m currently cleaning up the first half of the book and getting it ready for print. That will take up a good portion of this year. I’m working as fast as I can on it right now.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[MC] I’m from a far away planet, but don’t tell anyone.

My people came from Greece. My mother was born in Manchester New Hampshire on the way from Greece to Greek Town in Detroit, where they settled and where I was born.

I moved to Los Angeles when I was in my early 20s. Then got married and moved to Seattle. I was influenced in Detroit by some of the early illustrators and enrolled in the Famous Artists School when I was a small boy and paid for it with my paper route. It was mail correspondence and I didn’t last long with it. But I’ve kept the books that I got from them. They are collectors’ items and very rare.

In Los Angeles I was lucky to meet Ren Wicks, near the end of his career. He had a collective studio space called Group West in a high rise on Wilshire Blvd with several other big time illustrators like Bill Robles and Larry Salk. I learned a lot from these guys. Both creatively and in business dealings. When they had too much work and needed help, I pitched in. I had to shift styles to fit each illustrator. I did a lot of realistic work back then but it helped me to see where I could go with it.

Living in Seattle for a long time now. It’s beautiful here and I see how the blue light of a long winter transitions to an amazing late spring and incredibly colorful summer. I’m deeply effected by it all, and it all informs my art.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

Having the art bug, I found Detroit at the time, a very limited place in terms of education and work for an artist. I didn’t go to Art School. (except for that short term with the Famous Artists School) I’m an autodidact, so I teach myself all the artistic endeavors I pursue. I think all artists are that way.

So I moved to Los Angeles to be an animator, which I did for several years. This was before computer animation. It was all done by hand and I got tired of it after a while and returned to illustration. I quickly found work with some pretty big clients in Los Angeles. I had put together a commercial portfolio while working at a government job as an artist at the Los Angeles Theatre Alliance. I remember taking that portfolio around to Advertising Agencies, Publishers, Design Studios, Magazines, large companies, etc…

Surprisingly there was a lot of freelance work out there if you applied yourself every day. In those early days, I remember working late into the night and getting up by 8 or 9am the next day and running out the door to make a bus to go to a possible client and show them my new artwork. Sometimes it was fruitless and frustrating to the extreme but it never stopped me from making my living as an artist. Along the way I taught myself how to play the guitar and a little piano and sing in my limited way. I have a strong voice but not much range. I can write a pop/rock song very quickly. Jazz and classical music takes much longer to write.

Around that time my girlfriend bought me a Nikon Nikkormat and with a Macro and Micro lens set. That was a great camera ’til it got stolen during a Cure/Pixies/Love and Rockets concert at Dodger Stadium. I had press passes and gave the Photographer’s pass to my girlfriend at the time so that we could get into everything together. I had just taken some great photos of Robert Smith of The Cure from the very edge of the stage… and set the camera down in the photographer’s tent to grab some food. When I returned, it was gone.

During the latter part of that time in Los Angeles, my art studio was at Group West in this big turquoise building on Wilshire blvd. That place had a lot of the illustrators I admired growing up and was surprised and excited when they asked me to rent space with them. I jumped at the chance. It was great hanging out with those guys, who were much older than myself. Ren Wicks, Bill Robles, Larry Salk, Nick Galloway… several others. I had dinner, lunch with them and went to their Christmas parties. It was a great time. I was there for 6 years. It got expensive, rent wise, there towards the end and people were moving out quickly. I ended up sharing studio space on Venice blvd in Mar Vista with a architect friend whom I knew from high school, Glenn Williams, along with another architect. That was also a great space, being that it was above a liquor store and a Scottish food import store. It was while there that I met my wife and subsequently moved to Seattle. I thought I could keep all my clients from Los Angeles and they made an effort to work with me even though I was a long way from where they were. That faded through the following year and I had to find clients quickly in Seattle.

Freelance was very tough in Seattle then. I was struggling, which I hadn’t done since the early days. Then I saw an ad for a artist job at a small start up game company. I got the job and it began my life as a game artist. They were bought out by EA and I left to go to work at Microsoft. A few years later I got an offer to work at Sierra On Line. I loved working there and I was there for almost 5 years. I would have stayed but they were shut down by Vivendi, their parent company and we were all out of a job.

I went back to work at a start up game company. That was a job that seemed like it could be big but it fell apart by the end of that year and I went back to Microsoft. At MS, I’ve worked for many different parts… Xbox several times, Research several times, which was a lot of fun, Casual Games, where I was allowed to not only art direct several games but create all the art for them and show the programmers how all that needed to work. I wasn’t a game designer but by that time I knew how games worked, Xbox Kinnect.

That next year, I got an interview with Amazon. They were starting a games unit and I ended up being one of the beginning group of artists working on their first stab at producing games. It was a very uncomfortable place for me to work. I felt unsettled the whole time I was there, which was two years. I made really good money but not sure it was worth what it did to my soul.

I decided to concentrate on my graphic novel and picture books. I did one picture book for a publisher and started another when I got a call from Pokemon in Bellevue, WA. I always wanted to work in downtown Bellevue and Pokemon seemed very interesting. I’m now in my third year at Pokemon and I love it. It has surpassed Sierra as the best place that I’ve ever worked as an artist and also on a personal level. Everyone there is nice and great to work with. My position is as the first illustrator they hired. I work mostly on background landscape art but I’ve also done a ton of graphic design for them. I love the work there and I get to look out on this great view via the window next to my desk on the 16th floor.

I’m still working on my graphic novel and more focused on finishing it now than ever before. I’m almost done and hope to have it for sale soon.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[MC] For the last 5 – 6 years I’ve only had time to work in Photoshop and Illustrator. I can work quickly with those two programs and have worked with them for 20 years. I don’t do all my drawing with them. I prefer pencil on paper for that. It gets me away from all that screen time. But with illustrator I can get an almost watercolor effect with some paintings that I do. I also love working with acrylics on canvas and gouache on illustrator board or paper. If I had more time in the day I’d work in Oil. I did that about 12 years ago for a while. That was fun and did some cool paintings.
Over all, the thing I love the most is drawing with a pencil on paper. It’s immediate and I don’t have to look at another screen when I’m doing it.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

[MC] Yes, this is the progress of an illustration I did a few years ago. I started out with a texture background that I bought on line. Then I painted a black square, roughly but symmetrical and added some light and dark areas. After that I started to paint in parts of the bee, one wing, the head and some antennae, and then the body. Along the way I start painting in some details… adding stripes and another wing. At the end I put my stamp in the lower right corner.

[JM] When did your photography become a passion and have you ever considered incorporating it into your children’s illustration work?

[MC] From the time I was very small, I thought of the camera as my third artistic eye. It looked at the world from a very limited point of view. So to make it more than the mostly boring photos I saw people take, I have to force myself to view the average world in a different way. The landscape of that part of Michigan where I grew up was very flat and uninspiring to me. It’s one of the reasons why I headed west. But I was also fascinated by the black and white photos that my family had taken of times past. They weren’t overly posed. They were taken while they were all living their lives. Those photos were so relaxed and full of life. Very inspiring from at artist’s viewpoint. At several points in my life I wanted to make big paintings of those photos but I thought that I could never come close the beautiful art that they were. I couldn’t improve on them. I thank my family very much for taking those photos and preserving them over the years.

All that being said, I’m not crazy about using photos for kids books or for incorporating them in my art. I prefer a more natural outpouring from my imagination.

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?

[MC] I remember buying several “Homer Price” books. I also had a collection of the Hardy Boys series. There were some Dr. Suess books and a bunch of comic books that I would save up for. I was a big Marvel fan back then. The ones I really loved the most were The Golden Book Encyclopedia. My mom bought them on my insistence every time we went to the local A&P. They were only $.50 per book and they were lavishly illustrated. I would sit and pour over these books. The illustrations excited my imagination so much that I count them as my main inspiration for becoming an artist. I found one volume in a used book store several years ago and looking it made all that inspiration that I found as a child come back to me. It was amazing. I’d like to get a whole set.


[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[MC] I have a full floor of my townhouse to use as my art studio. Some call it a daylight basement but to me it’s just the bottom of three floors. I’ve got a huge sliding door out to the main patio. There’s another window next to it and another window on a connecting wall. It can be very bright in the summer time. The big plus is that it all looks out over the valley. I can sit out on my patio and just relax, looking at that view, which I often don’t have time to do. But it’s nice to glance out on when I take a break.

I’ve got three work stations there. One is a desk connected to my flat files. I have all my computers there. Then there is my main drawing/painting table with my taboret. And finally I have a table that I have a huge old time projector attached to it. I rarely use it these days. It enlarges drawings so that I can trace them onto a canvas or board.

Most of the walls are lined with book cases. I’ve got a ton of art books. Which are all very heavy to move. I’ve been here 12 years this year. When I move again, which will be some time before that happens, it will be difficult to move those books.

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[MC] I once swore that I wouldn’t put my art on the walls in my house. I prefer to have other peoples art to put on my walls. But the problem is that a lot of the art I like is either really expensive to buy, not available as a print or isn’t available to buy. So as a result, much to my chagrin, I have a lot of my Abstracts and several older paintings of mine on the walls. Many times I look at an older abstract that I did and see something new in it.

I also have a few Glenn Barr prints, a William Joyce print and some prints of the Diego Rivera murals from the Detroit Institute of Arts on Woodward Ave. in Detroit. A museum that inspired me growing up. Going there as a child felt very magical and was filled with history, which was a bit baffling to me as a small child. All these things were made by people for what purpose? I thought. There are also some flat stock poster prints.

Murals, Diego Rivera

[JM] What advice would you give to someone just setting out on the path of becoming a children’s book illustrator?

[MC] The very first thing you have to do, after some years of learning how to draw and paint, (and maybe write) be it on the computer or with traditional tools, … join the SCBWI. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have connections and will get you published if you have any talent. Sometimes it happens right away and sometimes it takes years. It’s a weird business in that way. A lot of times it depends on trends and what certain look is popular at the time. They will say that all that doesn’t matter and that they are just looking for talented people, but that’s not really true. It’s all based on the editors/art directors tastes and towards what they think will sell. Be resolute, have courage, and don’t be shy. Even if you are shy, put your art out there to speak for you.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                                                     [JM]  What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?

[MC] Rattlesnake Lake is awesome… when it’s not crowded. Hug Point in Oregon. Yosemite too! This is Hug Point.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[MC] I had a string of dogs when I moved up to Seattle. Golden Retreiver, Flat Coated Retreiver, and then another Golden Retreiver. It’s been a while since the last dog. But Seattle has the most dogs than any other city. You can’t go anywhere without running across a lot of dogs. So I’m ok without a pet now. I’ve never been crazy about picking up poo. When I lived with my girlfriend Beverly in Los Angeles, she had 3 cats and I found out how allergic I am to them. Hives every day… EVERY DAY!

I haven’t been near a cat since then.

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[MC] I don’t want to shock anyone, so I’ll just say that I am secretly eating sugar free dark chocolate. It satisfies my overwhelming urge for dark chocolate without having to damage my teeth more than they are.

[JM] What as your first paid job?

[MC] My very first paid job, which was a chore to find that small item in my head, was back when I was in 7th or 8th grade. My mom told a doctor of some kind that I was drawing Charlie Brown Christmas scenes for the holidays at our house and he hired me to do a cartoon mural at his small office. It didn’t turn out very well, but I got paid. I think I made $25 dollars. Not much but it was my first gig.

[JM] $25 when you’re in middle school was huge!  Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[MC] I love eating my salads for dinner, 5 days a week. I’m obessed about veggies these days. Last summer I hunted down all different kinds of melons. You’d be surprised how many there are. The one thing I found from this discovery was that most melons taste the same, with the exception of water melons. The Fuzzy Melon is more like a cross between a cucumber and a zuchini.

And of course I get all excited about a really great tasting dark chocolate. Chocolate ice cream is my big vice. I’ve cut down on it a lot over the last few years. But when there is a holiday, I go chocolate ice cream crazy!


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2 Responses to Mike Cressy – Illustrator Interview

  1. Wendy Wahman says:

    Great interview, Mike and Joanna. This is such a wonderful Mike-in-a-nutshell keeper (I can say that, right, Mike?) He’s one of the most prolific, talented and generous illustrator-humans I know.

  2. Mike Cressy says:

    Hi Wendy!
    Thank you so much for the kind words. You are a sweetie!


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