Rob Wood is an award-winning illustrator living near Annapolis, MD, whose work features scenes that depict mankind’s true nature.
“My goal is to illuminate the past and future with insightful imagery,” says the humble artist born in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Wood has been drawing and painting since he was 9. After graduating from East Tennessee State University with a major in Painting and Graphic Design, he joined the US Air Force, serving for a year in Vietnam. After receiving an honorable discharge, he attended the University of Georgia, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts Degree.
Wood’s illustration career began at a design firm in the Washington, DC, area, where he worked for two years before becoming a partner in the firm. Eventually, the business evolved into Wood Ronsaville Harlin, Inc.
He received an Award of Honor from East Tennessee State University in 2001 in recognition for individual accomplishment as an illustrator. His work has been included in exhibits at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and at the Savannah Art Museum, and it is in the collection of Stephen King. He was recently invited to be a guest lecturer and judge at the World Infographics Conference in Pamplona, Spain.
We are excited to have spent some time talking with Rob about his art—and his unique view of the world. Scroll down to read our Q&A.
MANKIND’S TRUE NATURE THROUGH THE EYES OF ILLUSTRATOR ROB WOOD
Michael Gibbs: How did you get started in the biz? Where did you go to school? What made you decide on illustration as a career?
Rob Wood: I always liked to draw, even as young as 8. My 3rd grade teacher asked everyone to go to the blackboard and draw a bird. For some reason the class liked my hummingbird the best. My 4th grade teacher was an artist and took interest in my ability. While we were studying ancient civilizations, she covered the bulletin board with butcher paper and allowed me to draw an entire landscape of Ancient Egypt. I continued to draw and paint all though school. As far as deciding what career I wanted, I never seriously considered doing anything else but illustration or graphic design.
Michael Gibbs: When did you start WRH? How did that come about? It’s an unusual arrangement for an illustrator. Most illustrators freelance or work on staff; your arrangement seems to be the best of both worlds.
Rob Wood: After receiving my MFA from the University of Georgia in 1975, I sent resumes out to just about everyone I could think of, with a focus on New York. After getting several interview requests, something that would be nearly impossible today, I went to “the Big Apple” and spent a couple of weeks with friends while knocking on doors. There was a recession at the time, so I didn’t have much luck and decided New York wasn’t the place for me. I then came to the DC area and stayed with my brother while going on interviews. I landed a job as an illustrator and designer at a place called Stansbury Design, an award-winning studio. After working there for two years, my boss ran into some financial difficulties with her business and decided to downsize. She invited the business manager, Pam Ronsaville, and myself, to join her as equal partners working out of her house. This seemed like a good idea since she already had clients, so we continued this relationship incorporating as Stansbury Ronsaville Wood in 1978. She decided to start a family shortly thereafter and sold her part of the business to Pam and me.
We moved our business to Annapolis, where most of us lived, and were still basically a graphic design studio but were doing more and more illustration. We added Greg Harlin in 1980, an illustrator who also had a degree in graphic design, and around 1992 changed our name to Wood Ronsaville Harlin, Inc. Eventually the illustration jobs were out-numbering the design work so that is how we became primarily an illustration studio. The number of people in our group has varied over the years but currently we have a staff of five.
Michael Gibbs: Your work is pretty diverse, but much of it is phenomenally detailed. How do you work?
Rob Wood: I work in three media: acrylic, watercolor, and digital. I started mainly in acrylic, but working in a studio encouraged me to be more versatile so I expanded to watercolor. Today, I usually shoot reference for the main figures and often for the backgrounds, while occasionally working from stock. I paint in layers, building the colors and fine-tuning the details. More recently, because of time constraints and budget cuts, I paint the main illustration in acrylic on Strathmore illustration board or if it’s a watercolor, on Arches medium surface paper, then scan it and add the fine details digitally.
Michael Gibbs: Who are some of your influences? Your style seems to be steeped in the tradition of some classic illustrators.
Rob Wood: My all-time favorite painter is Andrew Wyeth. I love his extraordinary realism, but also the abstract quality and deeper level that grabs at your soul. I also like René Magritte because of his unusual way of thinking. I love the brushwork and composition of John Singer Sargent, and the beautiful landscapes and darker paintings of Edward Hopper. I also like the watercolor technique of Winslow Homer. I guess I have named all fine artists. I used to drool over Bernie Fuchs and Mark English’s work when I was in high school, and I still love to look at Milton Glaser’s clever solutions.
Michael Gibbs: What do you think of the state of illustration these days? A lot has changed with the Internet and other new media. Where do you see illustration heading?
Rob Wood: Everyone I talk too seems to be affected by the state of illustration today, whether they are just starting out or are award-winning illustrators who have been in the business for years. We have had to constantly change our direction, and we are still doing that. When I first started most of our work was editorial. We were lucky enough to do work for the major magazines. One year we even created all of the illustrations for the Winter Olympics issue for Sports Illustrated. We also did a lot of book illustrations for National Geographic and Time Life. Then things changed. Most magazines switched to photography and Time Life books went out of business, so we stared doing book covers. During one week, five out of the 10 New York Times bestseller covers were created by our studio.
Michael Gibbs: How have budget cuts in impacted your business?
Rob Wood: Art directors are designing most of the covers in-house using cheap stock photography. We still create quite a few covers, but nothing like it was 10 years ago. We are now working mostly with exhibit designers, museums, and the National Park Service creating murals and other pieces of art for these organizations. I guess the secret to our success is we are chameleons, changing colors when we are threatened. As a more realistic painter, if I was starting out today, I would focus my work on the business of creating environments and characters for the film and video-game industry. There seems to be a great deal of work there. If you look in Spectrum, people are doing amazing things. I have also known several illustrators who do a lot of Web design, but that field may be becoming saturated.
Michael Gibbs: Do you have any interesting or funny stories regarding a particular job? Can you name a couple of your favorite pieces and tell us why they’re your favorites?
Rob Wood: I was doing an illustration for US News and they wanted a painting of a Hindu religious leader, so for reference I dressed in a cotton loincloth to look Gandhi-like. I sat in the front yard of our office and asked Matt Frey, who works for us, if he would shoot a couple of photos. I had posed with my legs folded sitting in the yard, when a van full of people drove by. We didn’t think much of it until Matt noticed that the van was coming back again. I said “Let’s get this done!” A few minutes later we saw the van returning, only this time very slowly. The driver rolled down his window, took a picture, and said, “You just made my day!”