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Life & Work with Greg Houston

Today we’d like to introduce you to Greg Houston.

Hi Greg, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I grew up wanting to be an artist although I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. When I was a kid the term “illustrator” wasn’t one I was familiar with– I don’t think it was as widely used as it is today. “Commercial artist” was the closest thing I remember hearing and thinking sounded like a career choice.

My parents were (and continue to be) extremely supportive — my dad is very creative and he drew a lot for me and got me interested in drawing. My mom has a great eye and she took me to museums and galleries. I had two wonderful art teachers, one in middle school and one in high school. My high school teacher, Ron Roberson, was especially instrumental in my career and it was he who recommended I think about attending Pratt Institute which really changed my life.

I can’t give enough credit to the professors and the program. It was inspiring. Plus, I was a part of a terrific class and we were all tremendously supportive of one another. My close friends from those days are still among my closest and dearest friends today

Upon graduation, I returned to Baltimore and got my first real job working for our local alt-weekly, the City Paper. Soon, I was working so much with them as a freelancer that my name was on the masthead. People saw my work, I hustled for gigs, and jobs came my way– most often with other alt-weeklies. Then bigger jobs started happening. In 2006 my wife convinced me to teach at a local art college and, despite my initial reservations, I fell in love with teaching.

I stayed there for about 9 years. In the meantime, I wrote and illustrated two graphic novels (critically acclaimed but low selling). Then in 2015, I was contacted by a wonderful woman, Victoria Craven, to write a book on illustration for The Monacelli Press. That book, Illustration That Works, lead to her asking me to write a second book, Understanding Caricature, which was released in May 2021.

In 2015, I co-founded a small, unaccredited illustration school, The Baltimore Academy of Illustration, and I’m still running that although Covid hit us hard and we’re transitioning to an all-online curriculum so, I guess we’ll see how that works out. I wrote my first novel and I’m waiting to hear back from a publisher about whether or not they’re interested. I’m working with a buddy from Pratt on some animated show concepts.

I think it’s good to stay busy when illustration jobs aren’t rolling in. Diversification has been key to getting through some lean years. Otherwise, I continue to illustrate– which is my passion. More than anything, I hope to be illustrating until the day I finally shuffle off the planet… I just want to make sure that the last piece is complete and has been sent to the client.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
The illustration is a hard path– at least that’s been my experience and the experience of most of my friends in the field. The struggles? Waiting for jobs Having to constantly hustle to get jobs. Clients who don’t know what they want. Clients who expect work for free.

The issue I’m having the hardest time contending with is one I never saw coming– changes in tastes. As an illustrator who works in a lot of styles and who handles all types of subject matter, I found that art directors tended to see something in my portfolio they liked, and then they’d hire me to do that sort of work for them over and over. Some would be more broadminded and use me for a wide variety of things allowing me to employ various styles.

But, because of this, I never really worried about becoming dated. But, man, I was wrong. As an illustrator who works traditionally, I’m finding that art directors just aren’t interested in my work anymore. They seem to want high concept pieces that are almost graphic designs or flat, coloring book style images with flat color. There’s a sameness about work that I’m seeing and my work doesn’t look like any of it.

Of course, that’s not to say that represents all of the work being done but it sure looks like a big chunk of it. And there also seems to be a rise of reps and since none of them care to work with me- I suspect because they don’t know what to do with my stuff– there are more gatekeepers to go through to get to potential clients these days. I find it difficult to even find contact information for Art Directors.

And I suspect one has to be much more involved in the “social” part of social media to get work now, too. And I’m just not. I don’t think getting work should come down to some sort of popularity contest. It should be about the quality of the work and whether or not the illustrator can do the job.

It’s been a lot tougher the last few years for me to get work even though my work is, in my opinion, the best it’s been. I fear this will just get worse going forward.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I am an illustrator who enjoys working to the needs of the job. Because I can work in a number of styles (all organic to me), can work in black and white or color can do stand-alone or sequential pieces. and can handle any type of subject matter, I appreciate the challenge that each job brings and I work hard to make images that fit those needs.

I primarily paint in acrylic on canvas board or paper, work in ink (with an old-fashioned crow quill), and use colored pencil– and I sometimes combine the mediums. I can do portraits or caricatures, cartoons, serious work, conceptual or narrative work, stand-alone, or sequential work. I work fast.

I’ve been a professional illustrator for nearly 35 years and I’ve never missed a deadline and I’ve never asked for an extension. I’d like to think these things set me apart but ultimately, it’s the work that I hope sets me apart. As for what I’m most proud of? Not missing a deadline.

I work hard at being professional and knowing that clients can count on me matters..

Alright, so to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I’m exactly as tall as you’d expect for someone my height.

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