Old Time Wheat Harvest by Michael Halbert

My blog will be featuring the work of  St.Louis Illustrator Michael Halbert for several Days. In his own words here is a history of his career as an illustrator. John Dyess

After graduating high school in 1970, I attempted to get a degree in drafting but ran out of money within a few of years and in 1973 took a job on the Chrysler assembly line. It’s conceivable that I could still be working there today but was lucky enough to have a relative who was a commercial artist, and he gave me advise on how to do pen and ink drawings and also helped me to eventually put together a portfolio.

In 1976, at age twenty‐four, I got my first full‐time graphic arts job. It was with Geisz Advertising in St. Louis, Missouri, and my main duties there was to do ad layouts for a discount store named Grandpa Pidgeon’s. The work wasn’t highly creative, but being self‐taught and with no real art experience, it was the best commercial art job I could hope for‐‐it was my “foot in the door.”

After a year or so, Geisz hired another artist, nineteen‐year‐old Ted Wright. Ted was a very talented and enthusiastic illustrator, and through friendly competition we motivated each other to improve our illustration skills by working on our own projects in our spare time. We did some work that we sold in a local gallery, and we did freelance illustration. My best freelance project during this time was a series of full‐page illustrations of famous Missourians for Missouri Life magazine.

Illustrations for Missouri Life Magazine by Michael Halbert

I worked at Geisz for about two and a half years. By then, Ted and I had learned all we could at Geisz, and it was time to move on if we hoped to grow as illustrators. Ted left first. He went to work for Maritz, the premier place for a St.Louis‐based illustrator to work at that time, and I went to work for the now defunct Hanley Partnership. The Hanley Partnership was a highly creative graphic design firm in St. Louis with their main client being Anheuser‐Busch. I thought they had hired me to be an illustrator; however, in reality I spent most of my time doing tight marker renderings for comprehensive layouts, or “comps” as they were called. These marker renderings depicted all the graphics of the design such as type, photos, and illustrations as accurately as could be drawn by hand and were then presented to clients to help them visualize what the final graphics would look like. The comps were for visualization use only and were never printed. This was not the type of work I wanted to do. My goal was to be an illustrator, which to me meant doing finished art that gets printed. I was not at all satisfied with the work I was doing at The Hanley Partnership, so when I got a call from the Sporting News (TSN) about a possible full time job, I was excited. Johnson Spink, publisher of TSN, had seen my illustrations in Missouri Life, and he thought my style would work well for them. I got the job, but it turned out that the style I used for publication on the high‐quality paper of Missouri Life didn’t work well on the newsprint‐quality paper of TSN. Fortunately, they didn’t fire me for that, and I was able to work out another style based on their needs. The illustration of Pete Rose is an example of the style that I developed for the paper.

Illustration of Pete Rose by Michael Halbert for the Sporting News

Most of the work I did at TSN was illustration, but I was also responsible for the design of their “in‐house” advertising. It was a fun place to work. I had a keen interest in sports, and the opportunity to illustrate many of my sports heroes was very exciting. I did several covers for The Sporting News while there, and some of the covers were even framed and presented to the athletes as awards. Most memorable was when I watched from my seat from behind the Cardinal’s dugout as one of my paintings was present as an award to Lou Brock for getting his 3,000th base hit. However, after working there for a year and a half, I decided it was time to go freelance. Going it on my own had always been my goal, and I had been preparing for it since my days at Geisz by doing freelance work on the side and establishing a clientele.I was worried whether or not I could even survive as a full‐time freelancer but was pleasantly surprised after the end of the first year to find I hand earned more than any year previously. The main reason for this was that I was determined to succeed and was willing to do what ever was needed to make it. I took any job and deadline that was offered. The bulk of work was ad layouts or pen and ink product illustrations, and most of these were overnight and weekend jobs. My biggest jobs of the year usually came around the holidays.

I was a rookie freelancer in the St. Louis area and my portfolio showed a mixed bag of work. I showed samples for both layout and illustration, and I must have shown a half dozen or more different illustration styles. I was taking the “jack of all trades” approach to freelancing However, I began to realize that the artist that works in a variety of styles is seldom the art director’s first choice for the important jobs. If, for example, the job calls for an airbrush illustration, the art director naturally starts by calling the illustrators who specialize in and have a reputation for doing good airbrush art. If all of the airbrush artists are booked and can’t make the deadline, then the art directors lower their standards and start calling the “jack of all trades” artist, like I was.

With that in mind, I started to gradually narrow down the variety in my portfolio. For choosing samples, I started focusing on two criteria: work I wanted to do, and work of mine that clients showed the most interest in. The first big step was to remove all layout work. I decided that if I wanted to be known as an illustrator, then I should show only illustration work. Of course, that was somewhat risky for a freelancer whose work area was limited to the St. Louis area—there was a lot more layout, comp, and storyboard work in St. Louis than there were illustration projects. I did it, though, and it worked out.

Illustration of Lou Brock by Michael Halbert

Charlie Chaplin by Michael Halbert

After narrowing down my portfolio to illustration only, I then narrowed it further by picking a style and medium. I had always liked doing pen and ink drawings and my clients seemed to like my black and white work better than my color, so I narrowed my portfolio down to the medium of pen and ink only. Again, this worked out. Although my potential projects were now restricted to pen and ink illustration only, I was starting to develop a reputation as a “specialist” in pen and ink. That moved me up towards the top of the art director’s list of illustrators for any projects that needed pen and ink work. Moreover, now that I was perceived as a “specialist” in pen and ink, I was much more likely to get a shot at the high‐end projects that called for pen and ink.

During these first years of freelancing and while becoming more specialized, I had been renting studio space and getting all my work from the St. Louis area. I always thought it was important to have a studio away from home. One reason for this is that it helps keep one’s personal life and work separate, but my main reason for having an outside studio was for the perception it gives to clients. That perception being that the freelancer who rents or owns a studio has made a long term commitment to a freelance career. With this in mind and after three or four years of renting studio space, I took the next step and bought a small building in Maplewood to use as a studio. By the way, buying a studio is also a pretty good investment for the freelancer.

Michael Halbert Studio

Maplewood is a fairly central location in the St. Louis area. This was especially important because all my work was coming from this area, and at that time we illustrators sold ourselves by going from client to client and showing our portfolios. Further more, once an illustrator was given a job he or she was expected to go to the client to bid on, pick up, and deliver the finished job. This process of pickup, delivery, and portfolio showing used up a lot of the illustrator’s time. An illustrator would frequently spend the entire workday doing the legwork, and then work late in the night in order to get the actual assignments finished. Many illustrators detested this part of freelancing, and this is where the artist representative came in. Reps, as we call them, were people with a bent towards sales, business, service, and management and they made a deal with the freelance artist. Basically the reps told the artist, “You stay at the board and do the art, and we will deal with the clients and do all the billing and legwork.” There was a fee attached to this service of course. Somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of each project, depending on the rep and amount of service provided. Considering how much time was saved and that a lot of artists have a hard time dealing with clients,many illustrators liked this arrangement.

Michael’s history continues Thursday January 13.  John Dyess


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