Judith Mayer: Windy City Wonder

Chicago-based ADC Member believes her best illustration project is her latest one.

Brrr, it’s frosty in the ADC Gallery today! And while New York may be getting colder, ADC’s Illustration Month is just heating up! For those who are new around these parts, Illustration Month is our chance to highlight ADC Members who consider themselves illustrators, whether professionals, students or just really keen amateurs. The common thread is that they have a passion for drawing that just couldn’t be contained.

Our next ADC Member to be featured this month is a Chicago-based artist with a very interesting perspective about illustration versus graphic design when it comes to clients.

jmheadshotJUDITH MAYER

Chicago, IL



Just about every kid can draw, but not every kid is particularly gifted at it. Where did your childhood artistic inclinations come from?

As a child, I was told I was artistic many times, so I believed it! My parents were not artistic, but it was assumed I inherited this leaning from my Italian grandmother. She was the one who taught me to sew my own clothes. She was always making something; painting landscapes, knitting afghans, crafting dolls, painting ceramics.

When did you discover that “Hey, this could actually be a career”?

I really wanted to major in painting in college, but was convinced that that was no way to earn a living, unless I wanted to teach. So I took the graphic design track. It sounded more like a real, actual job that came with a paycheck. Little did I know I would go freelance about 7 years after graduating, leaving me with no paycheck, no insurance and no 401K. Oh, well! About 2 years into being on my own, I started to worry less about making money. I was getting more than enough business to keep me busy. I am grateful to all my clients for this peace of mind.

“It sounded more like a real, actual job that came with a paycheck. Little did I know I would go freelance about 7 years after graduating, leaving me with no paycheck, no insurance and no 401K. Oh, well!”

How would you best describe your style? Do you fight against having a particular style, or do you embrace your style as your “brand”?

I think finding a style I can dive deep into and evolve is a great thing. It also makes it easier when clients choose me because of my style. It’s not great when they want me to do something like a layered photoshop-y illustration with lots of dimensional effects (that’s not in my wheelhouse). My style is flat color, simple shapes and simple color palette. I like things minimal.

Walk us through your usual creative process.

I start with pencil thumbnails in a sketchbook. Once I get something I want to develop, I use tracing paper to create a tighter drawing from my thumbnail. I scan that in and use it to draw over in Illustrator. Then lots and lots of tweaking, and finally, coloring.

Tools of the trade: do you have any specific pens, pencils or other instruments that you swear by?

I love my lead holder and my kneaded eraser. I can change from soft to heard leads and sharpen as I go to keep a super sharp point. And no eraser crumbs! I am just getting into brush pens—I like Zebra and Tombow. And I recently found pointed pen nibs that come with an ink cage, so they hold tons more ink per dip. (I have been ordering too much from JetPens and Paper & Ink Arts lately.)

What is the most challenging thing about a career in illustration?

For me, because I am newly focused on it, finding illustration work is still difficult. I also work on design and lettering projects to keep my schedule full.

Is there a particular project of yours of which you’re especially proud?

I always like my latest projects most. I think—I hope—it is because I get better the longer I do this, so my latest work is always going to be my best.

Cocktail party talk: how do you describe what you do to someone who isn’t in a creative field, and what’s the typical response you get from them?

I tell people that I make graphics. Then they usually ask, for what? Naming objects on which my art is applied always seems to satisfy people. In reality I focus more on the solving of problems, communicating with visuals, than any particular object.

Where do you most often seek out creative inspiration?

Travel provides a lot of inspiration. I visit an art museum or gallery every place I travel. I look for local letterpress shops and check out the signage and architecture. Every place has a different story and history.

Which professional illustrators do you look up to and why? 

Malika Favre uses minimal color and shape brilliantly. I am inspired by her clean graphic style. It is sexy and bold. Helen Musselwhite works with paper in a sculptural way and makes ridiculously good looking illustrations. I admire how the pieces work together and the layers add a real depth that cannot be faked by Photoshop shadows. Paul Rogers has made some elegant book covers and posters that feel like they could have been created in the era they are inspired by.

At the end of the day, what do you love most about being an illustrator?

It may sound odd, but I realized my clients leave me to problem solve and create when I illustrate, versus micro-managing me when I design. So I moved more toward illustration when I realized I liked working on design jobs less and less as years passed. Because clients know about fonts these days, have read a book or two about branding, and even own Photoshop, they started specifying fonts and art directing designs. Some have even taken my artwork and made changes to it in Photoshop and sent me back a file to show me how they wanted it, no discussion. Everyone is a designer. Clients were hiring me to design, then only allowing me to do production, which made me feel a little useless. With illustration, I think they are willing to concede that they cannot illustrate and have to trust me to create something. I feel fulfilled when I illustrate, and I am so glad to be working with clients that trust my abilities and need my skills. Great clients make for great work!

Illustration Month continues throughout January, and is open exclusively to ADC Members. Not yet a Member? Join today!