Tag Archives: commercial illustration is dead

More archive work from Illustration Class, some very…weird?

Secret Garden for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 or Winter 1991 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesWeirder than the chickens?

Possibly yes! Illustration classes are always weird – I’m sure they are STILL weird- because clients are weird. The class has to prepare you to be asked to illustrate some peculiar ideas! And my excellent Illustration teacher at MCAD, Tom Garrett, was a working professional illustrator.

Red painting for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 or Winter 1991 Rachel KetchumYou never know what weird stuff clients might send you as a concept.

I have no memory or idea what this class assignment was about. It’s kind of a cool image though! I like the way I used the red!

Ostrich painting for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class 1991 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesOk, now what? Ostriches in a lingerie palette!

Ostrich painting for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class 1991 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes detailI vaguely remember being given ostrich photo reference for this one. It was pre-internet, so Tom Garrett often supplied photo reference, rather than all of us having to go to the library to get a picture of a whatever.

I do not remember what the concept was, or why “the client” wanted ostriches. Why do they look like a La Perla ad?

You can see the way I was playing with handling the paint, with mark-making, in the safe space of Tom’s class. I still kinda love the technique. I draw ostrich feathers all the time for burlesque dancers, and I’m gonna ask the next one I paint to bring some so I can try to revive this approach!

Smokers comps for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesI do remember the smokers.

We did so many variants on the smokers – first sketches, then colored pencil comps, then actual paintings. It was during the period when smoking indoors was first being banned in places, the early ’90s, so that’s what these were about.

Smoker comps for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesAs a two-pack-a-day smoker until Jan 27, 1991, I was very indignant about smoking bans!!

Even after I quit! Honestly, even now! I know they are deadly, but I love the smell of second-hand smoke, which is yet another reason why it’s good I live in Berlin!

Smoker header for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThe weird long panels were one of the standard commercial illustration magazine art/ad panel sizes.

We learned all of them although of course all I remember is that one was called “subway”. These illustrations were done in such an evolving matrix of techniques – this one involved painting over the colored pencil with glazes of acrylic, tinted with paint!

Smoker header detail for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesYou can see the glossy surface from the glazes, and even the blushes of color where liquid paint overlaid color pencil. Since both the color pencil comps and the final still exist, I must have transferred the drawing outline onto illustration board for the final with graphite transfer paper. Which maybe still exists, unlike Letraset!

Smoker closet final for Tom Garrettt Illustration Class Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesI put so much time into these pieces!

Even though I didn’t intend to become a commercial illustrator anymore, there were a lot of people in comics using hybrid mixed media illustration techniques as the printing technology improved. I felt some of this practice would be transferable to my work in comics, and also I had such respect for my teacher!

I still like the weird style of these works and the expressiveness of the drawing. I’m glad I saved them, and transported them from St. Paul to Hartford to DC to Arlington to Alameda to Albany to Berkeley to North Berkeley to Albany to Oakland to Berlin. They have been in storage three times. I’ve had fifteen apartments, dozens of jobs, and three husbands.

But I held onto my work that whole time, because that’s what I was trained to do in school. At The Art Student’s League as a child, at Parsons as a teen, at MCAD – we were told to preserve our archives. And it was worth it, to me, because seeing these works again is a revelation in terms of technique and approach!

Only two of these pieces have ever been photographed; no modern media record of them existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

I am incredibly grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.

Fast sketching Tiepolo-style!

aklamio 5 year anniversary party berlin by Suzanne Forbes June 17 2016Here’s a sketch from the five-year anniversary party of the wonderful company my husband works for.

sketch with midtone Suzanne Forbes July 17 2016This is how I did it- first pencil sketch for structure and gesture, then a 50% grey pen to spot in midtones, then fine line outline, then brush pen strokes for the heavy line weight on the undersides of things and solid blacks.detail pg 27 Advertising Layout Techniques by Harry Borgman 1983

This approach is a callback to the old-school commercial illustrators’ pen and marker techniques I learned from books in the 80s.  Scan to the right: detail of pg. 27 from “Advertising Layout Techniques” by Harry Borgman, pub. 1983.

I loved this style of rendering because it was about drawing– it was didactic as hell, a formatted iconography for storytelling through pictures. The audience had been taught to read the visual language of illustration and comics over decades. They had an encoded understanding of what kind of mark-making represented what textile, what line weight meant highlights, what kind of shadows meant black or white surfaces.

I have a whole collection of books in my art library that offer instruction in now-obsolete techniques like Prismacolor and Chartpak markers and beloved, vanished Zip-A-Tone.* The earliest layers of my library reveal just how little I ever intended to be a fine artist- I just wanted to be a working stiff journeyman illustrator.

Detail pg 18 from New York The Big City by Will Eisner 1986

Detail pg 18 from New York The Big City by Will Eisner 1986

Comps Storyboards and Animatics by james Fogle and Mary E Forsell 1989








The grey-scale rendering methods of the great 20th Century advertising artists were already disappearing from the curriculum of art schools in 1989, when I left New York. They stayed alive in comics for a few years longer, because of the specific exigencies of comic printing before direct digital and the Black-and-White Boom.

By the time I was sober and enrolled in the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, in 1990, the career emphasis had shifted to digital graphic production. There were computer labs and programs like Illustrator and Photoshop and the illustration program at MCAD was skeletal. Teaching drawing for commercial art was over.

Tiepolo_angelLucky for me, I was able to become a painter. I pivoted to FIne Art in the MCAD curriculum just to get enough teaching in things I cared about, but there were many hidden benefits to leaving the commercial illustration track, and I had some fine teachers.

Tiepolo Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

Tiepolo Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

One of my painting teachers at MCAD told me my preparatory sketch for a painting reminded him of Tiepolo‘s ink wash drawings. He showed me what he meant and I was amazed at how modern an eighteenth-century drawing could look.

Of course, we don’t know how Tiepolo produced these works- he might have done the pencil sketch and line-work first, then added the midtone wash. Either way, the grey-scale (or sepia-scale!) is a thing of beauty.



I hope to do some ink-wash drawings utilising grey scale values later this summer, as well as some chalk drawings on grey paper. I’ve been thinking about how Sargent said if you get the midtones right, everything else falls into place. I’ve never been a midtone person; I’ve always focused on line quality and hard black and white values. But people change 🙂


*Note: as of Nov 2020, incredible artist MechanicalPencilGirl sells home-made Zip dot screens, on adhesive matte film, in a wide range of density, plus grids and grits!!!