What makes an artist an icon? The thousands of students students in art schools around the country, and the thousands more trying to make a living at the craft, work to find the answer to that question every day.
For David Edward Byrd the answer came over decades of an illustrious career that started in the 1960s when he became one of the rock industry’s most sought-after poster artists.
His work graced the posters of the hottest rock bands of the era—including Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Who and their rock opera “Tommy,” Traffic, Iron Butterfly, Ravi Shankar, and the Grateful Dead.
How did he land such an incredible gig?
It began in 1968, at the recommendation of his art college chums (from Carnegie-Mellon, where he got a BFA, then an MFA in painting and printmaking) who were running things for rock promoter Bill Graham at the new Fillmore East in Manhattan’s East Village.
Byrd signed on as the exclusive poster and program designer. In 1969 he created the commemorative poster for the legendary Woodstock Festival, and the graphic for the equally legendary Rolling Stones 1969 tour.
Over the next 20 years, Byrd created many posters for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, including Sondheim’s “Follies,” “Godspell,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In 1973, he received a Grammy Award for album design along with several other prominent illustrators for The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.”
In 1970, Byrd made the leap into academia, and until 1979 taught Sophomore Illustration, Life Drawing, and Airbrush Technique at both Pratt Institute and The School of Visual Arts (see more on that below).
A decade later, he was ready to return full-time to creating art and in 1980 moved to LA to work on the Van Halen World Tour, stayed, and subsequently created posters for The Mark Taper Forum, The Ahmanson Theater, The Doolittle Theatre, LA Classic Theatre Works, among others. He also was a regular contributor of covers for TV Guide magazine, creating portraits for “Cagney and Lacey,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Family Ties,” “Robert Conrad,” and the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In 1991, Byrd became senior illustrator at Warner Bros. Creative Services, and for the next 11 years created illustrations, backgrounds, and style guides for all the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters, the Franklin Mint, souvenir posters for the “Batman” series of films, TV shows such as “Friends” and “Scooby Doo“—and the “Harry Potter” style guides, for which he did hundreds of drawings of everything from Diagon Alley to the Hippogriff.
Connecting with the past
Earlier this year, from April 1 through July 22, Byrd’s work was part of an exhibit at The Museum at Bethel Woods, in Bethel, NY, called The Byrd/Skolnick: A Tale of Two Posters, a retrospective of the work of their poster design for the fabled 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
In April 2012, Byrd met up with a former student of his from Pratt, Michael Gibbs. Now an award-winning illustrator, Gibbs’ hand-crafted art book, Blue Moons, was included in the exhibit because it illustrates song lyrics that allude to colors, assigning a different color to each signature of the book.
What else is David Edward Byrd up to these days Scroll down for his Q&A with Michael Gibbs.
Michael Gibbs: You have had an illustrious career as an illustrator. What made you decide to take up teaching art at Pratt Institute?
David Byrd: As I recall, I was asked by Jerry Contreras, who at that time was head of the Illustration Department. I lived in a house at 364 Washington Avenue at DeKalb near the GG Subway. I had bought it for $5,000 plus the three mortgages attached from a sweet and crazy Irishman who was about to default to a greedy Simon Legree-type who would have demolished a 19th century jewel. I met Jerry Contreras at a local party, I think. I had just done the “Follies” and “Godspell” poster, which had put me on the illustration radar, so to speak.
Michael Gibbs: Did you enjoy teaching? How long did you teach? And what were some of your fondest memories (or nightmares) of teaching?
David Byrd: I dearly loved teaching and I worked hard at making my classes fun but very realistic vis-a-vis the illustration business, of which I was a new member. I was experiencing what they would experience when they entered that somewhat glamorous (at that time) but very competitive and stressful business.
Illustration had entered a new “golden age” of sorts, thanks to the tremendous influence of prodigious Milton Glaser’s “Push Pin Studios”, as well as brilliant individual artists such as Richard Amsel, Jim McMullen, and Doug Johnson.
This was long before the advent of the computer as a tool, and everything was done by hand. Many jobs had 10 or more artists competing for the final piece, with often generous kill fees if you did not win the competition.
Michael Gibbs: When we met last spring (at a retrospective on the two posters done for the 1969 Woodstock Festival, one of which was yours), you seemed to take satisfaction in knowing at least one of your students was still in the business, and you seemed to take a great deal of interest in the artwork I had in the show (the exhibition also included artwork that was inspired by the Woodstock posters.) You’ve inspired me, and I’m sure many other artists, through your artwork and your teaching career. I would guess that’s a big part of teaching, knowing you’ve made an impact on a budding artist. Is it? And speaking of influence … who are some of the artists who inspired you?
David Byrd: A two-part question! I think the great treasure for the teacher of commercial art is when you see the light bulb “go on” for a young artist, and you realize he “gets it“—that commercial art is a tricky balancing act between aesthetics and commerce.
That is, they need to please themselves and this client whom they have probably just met, and then do it better than anyone else. I had students with whom I am still in touch, who have become much more successful than I ever was, and I am just thrilled to have been a part of that magical process. Yourself (“They call me ‘Mister Gibbs’”), Frank “Fraver” Verlizzo, Tom Nikosey, Arthur K. Miller, and many more.
Michael Gibbs: There are a lot of art schools training lots of art students to get into our business, far more than back in the 1970s. Would you advise kids to get into the field, and are you optimistic about the future of illustration? How do you see it evolving?
David Byrd: With the advent of the computer, it seems that everybody is an illustrator. But, I am always impressed each time I receive my copy of The New Yorker, to see my kind of “old school” work is still being done out there. Thank Zeus and his nine daughters!
I am patently a 19th/20th cCentury guy, and I am not much impressed with this new century, but that is probably always the case with us old codgers. I can imagine what Charles Dana Gibson was thinking at my age.
There is much about the New Age I do like: The computer is a fabulous addition to the illustrator’s tools; research has become a thrilling search rather than a tedious chore; I love reading on my Kindle rather than holding the 12-pound “Life of Carravagio,” and I can make the type bigger; digital portfolios are a gift from Apollo; and you can rediscover old friends, as I have rediscovered you and your brilliant artwork. Otherwise, what the future holds for the arts is impossible to get my mind around. There are artists who have exhibitions with no art in them at all, just five Japanese people shouting “This room is full of Art!”
Michael Gibbs: Tell us a little more about your early career. You rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in the rock industry and theater in the 1960s and 1970s, doing, among other things, posters for the Fillmore East, the legendary showcase for rock shows back then. Do you have a favorite memory?
David Byrd: Some things stand out, such as sitting five feet away from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Elton John during their debuts at the Fillmore East, as well as The Who performing “Tommy”; working with Neil Bogart and the make-up gal at Kiss’ first photo shoot; the night I spent with Lou Reed at The Ninth Circle Bar drinking shots and looking at his Polaroids of drag queens; the opening night of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” at the Wintergarden Theatre on 4 April 1971, my 30th birthday; attending the rough cut of “Day of the Locust” with John Schlesinger (plus Karen Black, Waldo Salt, and Michael Childers) after working on it with him for a year; working with my design team on 5 Postage Stamps for the US Post Office featuring the Looney Tunes characters; creating more than 300 style drawings for the first three “Harry Potter” films with the Warner Bros. team.
Michael Gibbs: You’ve done several iconic pieces of art in your lifetime. What is your favorite—or some of your favorites?
David Byrd: “Set The Walls on Fire” (Seattle Retrospective), 2011; “The New York Art Deco Exposition,” 1974; “The Forest Lawn Centennial,” 2006; “Follies,” 1971; The Jimi Hendrix Experience,” 1968; “The Grand Tour,” 1977; “The Byrd Show at Triton Gallery,” 1971; “Come Out & Sing Together,” 1982.
Michael Gibbs: Your technique seemed to employ a number of mediums back in the day. What mediums did you use then, and are you still using them now? Are you working on a computer these days? Or not … you seem like a traditionalist in terms of creating your style of art.
David Byrd: I am definitely a traditionalist at heart. At exhibitions of my work, I meet young artists who are astonished that I did all that work by hand—at the time, that is all we had! I am so old that I can remember when Spray-Fix was invented and we we no longer had to blow it from a bottle through a tube in our mouth.
My greatest education was not at art school (I studied at Carnegie-Mellon), but at Warner Bros., where, as senior illustrator, I created all the paintings for the team in Creative Services, where I worked with and learned from some of the most talented artists I have ever met, including Chuck Jones, on occasion. I also learned that I am a great team player with other gifted artists onboard.
When I was there I drew and painted eight to 10 hours everyday, six days a week. I also learned to use all the Adobe programs, starting with “Illustrator 88” in 1990. I still draw by hand, but I do most of my painting—not all of it, but most of it—on the computer.
Since what I create will most likely be printed, it will end up as a digital file one way or another. The creation of the nine-color Giclée printer is my idea of God in the machine, a truly religious experience.
Michael Gibbs: What are you up to these days? Is there anything you haven’t done in your career that you still want to accomplish?
David Byrd: I am involved in exhibitions, and the next hopefully will be at the Museum at UC-San Bernadino in January 2013. Also, I am more involved with my partner, Jolino Beserra, a talented mosaic artist who has done many public works for libraries and parks, helping with drawings and concepts and computer-assisted design for several parks being created by the Trust for Public Land. Click here to learn more about his work.
For more information about David Edward Byrd, visit www.david-edward-byrd.com.