By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator and Art Director
Be Inkandescent Magazine
Humorous illustrator and painter Hal Mayforth may be best known for illustrating Dave Barry’s hilarious weekly column. But the artist who was born and raised in Vermont — and admits that he was lucky to have graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in Fine Art — has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including a swimming award at YMCA Camp Abnaki in the early ’60’s.
“I spent a lot of time playing in the local music bars,” he admits.
In the years since, he has found his groove and become well-known for drawing little guys with big eyes and big noses — for money. He is also serious about drawing in his sketchbooks every morning and fashioning those drawings into paintings.
Hal’s illustration clients include Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Sports Illustrated, Coke, Pepsi, IBM, HBO, Chase, and Bell Atlantic; and his paintings have been shown widely in the United States.
Being that Hal and I are longtime art friends, and I have long been a fan of his work, I asked him to be our Fine Artist of the Month. Scroll down to read our chat, and view some of Hal’s terrifically funny artwork.
Michael Gibbs: Tell us about your background.
Hal Mayforth: I attended the University of Vermont for two years and graduated from Skidmore College with a BS in Fine Art. I made the switch because my good buddies were in a band, so I transferred to join. I spent a lot more time playing music than spending time painting in my studio.
Michael Gibbs: What made you decide to become an illustrator, and when?
Hal Mayforth: I moved to Boston with the band in 1975 in the height of the disco thing. Things fell apart with music fairly quickly. At the time there were a lot of weekly newspapers that were featuring some great illustrators. I set my sights on that, just in time for the computer boom. All of a sudden there were a lot of computer magazines with a lot of extremely dry copy that needed to be livened up. I fell right into it.
Michael Gibbs: As far as I can tell, you’ve always done humorous work. Was that always the case, or did you zero in on humor from a broader variety of styles?
Hal Mayforth: I come from a fairly wacky family. The humor was always there. More importantly, it took years of drawing in my sketchbooks to finally evolve a style that would allow me to express my point of view and be commercially viable so that art directors would hire me. I started the habit of drawing in my sketchbook for a drawing class my junior year at Skidmore and have been doing it ever since. I continue to draw every day for myself for an hour before getting into the commercial work.
Michael Gibbs: Do you have any notable influences you can cite? Any illustrators, cartoonists, or comedians you especially like?
Hal Mayforth: Most of my influences are fine artists, Klee, Miro, Adolph Gottlieb, Marsden Hartley and Philip Guston. The biggest influence on my cartooning was without a doubt George Herriman. The pinnacle of the art as far as I’m concerned.
Michael Gibbs: As an illustrator, I’m always asked if I drew a lot as a kid. So I’ll ask you the same thing: did you draw a lot as a kid? Were you the funny guy in class?
Hal Mayforth: I did draw a lot as a kid. And took excellent notes in high school and college for about the first 15 minutes, then it was all drawing. I was probably funnier outside the classroom rather than in it. Algebra has a way of hindering humor.
Michael Gibbs: For years you illustrated Dave Barry’s weekly column. It was a great collaboration. Can you tell us about that?
Hal Mayforth: I was fortunate to have illustrated Dave Barry’s column for the Washington Post Magazine for almost 14 years. As a freelancer, always with an eye on the bottom line, it was a great gig. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading him every week. I thought we were a good fit, even though I never met him or ever talked with him. It’s surprising how much illustration work I still get from the Washington area from art directors who remember those columns.
Michael Gibbs: You definitely understand how to illustrate humor. It’s hard to keep a straight face while looking at your work. Do people ever not get your humor … have you ever laid an egg, so to speak, or had a bad reaction to a particular drawing?
Hal Mayforth: That’s never been a problem. My little guy with the big eyes and big nose is like a little everyman. Most people can relate to him. There’s always a sketch stage with every illustration anyway that acts like a filter. Sketches are a bit like brainstorming for me, and at times I have to be reeled in. That’s fine. Usually the art director and I can come to terms. Without the handguns and cigarettes.
Michael Gibbs: Since I’ve asked about a bad experience, how about a great one: does any illustration, or experience, stand out as one of your favorites?
Hal Mayforth: To be honest, most of the assignments I get are fun. I enjoy the problem-solving that is the basis for any illustration. It’s hard work. It’s a great job.
Michael Gibbs: You’ve been in the business for a while, and have thus had the opportunity to go through various cultural cycles, political cycles, etc. Do you find certain “times” to be funnier than others, or more accepting of humor? (Just as an example, I’m wondering if humor, in the immediate post-9/11 era, might have been a tough sell.)
Hal Mayforth: Humor definitely took a hit in the post-9/11 era. I didn’t get one assignment for a considerable period of time, which was unheard of at the time. I don’t think humor ever went away, it’s just that the economic realities came to roost. Bean counters came to rule and art budgets were the first thing to be slashed. It is so much cheaper to pick up some lousy stock photo than to hire an illustrator. But I’m not bitter!
Michael Gibbs: There have also been changes in the illustration business over the past, say, 10 years. Has this affected you? What’s your perspective on the change? Where do you see the future of illustration headed?
Hal Mayforth: There’s been a seismic shift in the illustration business. Magazines and newspapers, the meat and potatoes of my business, have undergone a steady erosion. They are stuck with a foot in print and a foot in digital and trying to hang on. A lot of my art director friends are out of the business, and those that are still in are very overworked. This will all get sorted out in time and we may yet see at least a leveling of art budgets. The capabilities of technology will open up new markets in animation and self-generated projects. Call me crazy, but I’m optimistic.
Michael Gibbs: I love your switch plates. How did that come about? Are you still doing those?
Hal Mayforth: The switch plates are just another iron in the fire for me. I had seen some that were similar in the Southwest and thought I’d give it a go with my own designs. I’ve sold a lot of these through my site and when I show at art fairs. Recently a dog magazine featured my dog switch plate and I sold a ton of them. I’m wondering how big the jump is from a dog magazine to Martha Stewart’s Living.
Michael Gibbs: You’re involved in art projects outside of illustration. How’s the fine art business going, and do you approach your gallery art differently from your illustration work?*
Hal Mayforth: I thought I had the self-promo thing figured out for the illustration world and was feeling pretty smug about that and thought I would just have to apply those lessons to the fine art world to be successful. Man, was I naïve! The fine art thing is another whole nut to crack. I have been serious about continuing my personal work throughout my illustration career, so I have a significant body of work. I’ve had many gallery shows all across the country, but by no means do I have it figured out. Lately I’ve been finding success selling prints of my paintings from my site and through the online site The Artful Home. There is a market there for my prints and I am making an effort to zero in on it.
Michael Gibbs: I feel that pain. But here’s to figuring out the new markets and the new world of art. Thanks so much for your time and insights, Hal.
About illustrator and designer Michael Glenwood Gibbs
Michael Glenwood Gibbs is the designer of Be Inkandescent Magazine and its parent company, Inkandescent Public Relations. An award-winning designer and illustrator, Gibbs has been freelancing for some of the nation’s most well-known publications and companies since attending Pratt Institute as a photography and illustration major in the mid-70s. His award-winning artwork has appeared in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Worth Magazine, Consumer Reports, Harvard Business Review, as well as many book covers and posters. What inspires Gibbs? “Assignments such as the commission to create one of 100 posters for the ‘Heads for Haiti’ fundraiser to raise money after the earthquake that rocked that nation,” he says.