Guy Billout Profile
posted: February 7, 2008
To Guy Billout, age 66, who left Paris as a young man in the '60s, New York was the City of Light, a beacon of creativity and energy. The feeling was mutual, and his first piece in New York Magazine appeared well before he learned English.
"When you're in your early 20's, you are restless, and I was very restless and dissatisfied with being a graphic designer.
"After my four years of art school in Ecole des Arts Appliqués de Beaune in Burgundy, I went to Paris to get a job. In the US it’s different, you can go to New York, you can go to Chicago, you can go to Los Angeles. In France it had to be Paris.
"My very first job was in the animation department of the state owned television station, and after leaving that job to do my military service in Algeria for 18 months, I was an intern in the biggest advertising agency in France.
"I always had this thing about America, specifically Manhattan. There was something about New York, as a place, that interested me. And in the ‘60s, in advertising, the reference was the American experience. The English language is incredible – especially the American language – it’s incredible for advertising. You can say in a few words things that in French would take forever. And there was also very good photography, very good illustration, very good composition, so we were all in awe of America in that field. So it was sort of a normal inclination for restless young men, and one day I decided to leave and to go to America, just like that. That’s the kind of thing you do when you are a young person.
"So I began to make plans to go to America. A friend who was working with me in that advertising agency, was a very good friend, because he told me, 'You're not so good as a designer. Why don’t you do illustration?' He was aware of the little doodles I was doing during the day at work, because we sat across from each other and would pass notes back and forth. It was amazing, that he had such an insight that I could be an illustrator, because I didn’t have any. I had no experience in making an illustration portfolio and he gave me the idea that, why don’t you write and illustrate the story you know best. And I did that: I did a series of 14 drawings about my life, and that was my portfolio. And then I left to come to New York, and I was so scared, that instead of taking a plane, I took a ship, because it gave me a week as a buffer zone.
"When I got here, the important thing was to meet Milton Glaser, because he was already someone I had heard of, in Paris. I was extremely intimidated and didn’t speak any English, and a friend of mine was going to his classes, and she said, 'Why don’t you come to his class, and bring your portfolio.' And that’s the way it happened. I went to the class, and meeting him was like meeting the Pope. I couldn’t understand one word of what they were talking about, but he looked at my portfolio and he said, 'Why don’t you come to see me at New York Magazine,' where he was the art director. So I went to the magazine and he showed my protfolio to Clay Felker, who was the editor, and they decided to run it. Five pages, which was really amazing. There was nothing better.
"And I loved New York. It confirmed what I dreamed about, the verticality of the city; I can’t tell you how I love the sky scrapers and the canyons. I love it in the Wall Street area because the streets are laid out like an old European city, but you have skyscrapers and there’s never any sun. As an artist, New York inspires me in a way that Paris does not. God knows, I love Paris, but in New York the light is incredible: such very big contrasts in light with the sun and shadows. It’s just incredible. I mean, you don’t come to the city because it’s dreadful; you come to New York because there’s all these promises and the landscape, the cityscape ... there is nothing like it in Europe.
"So I began to get a lot of work. Art directors back then, if they liked an artist, they would commission you and the editor would trust the art director. That’s something that somehow has disappeared. I was very busy from then on, though I've had some slumps.
"You talk to other artists and you realize that we don’t talk too much about the fear, but if you talk enough, you realize that we are all nervous about not getting the work. I have bet everything on this profession and what's scary is that I'm nobody besides being an artist. That can be very distressful, because if everything goes bad, what can you do? Even now, when I send in work, I'm insecure. It’s amazing how unsure we are. I have a fantasy that I would like to be a bus driver, because that’s predictable and there would be no surprises. Of course, I would get crazy after a while, but that’s the fantasy.
"The other side of it is what I call the Divine Surprise, when you do something and say, 'My God, where is that coming from?' That happened years ago when I started to get into photography. For New York Magazine I was doing something about Central Park. And they didn’t like the way I was doing the trees and architecture, because at that time I was doing them rather simplistic. I was drawing like Folon. So I began taking photographs of buildings and trees in Central Park and in the country and that's how I started to draw from photography.
"It got to the point where I was literally taking a picture, making a print, and tracing. That’s how I did the series for The Atlantic, that incredible assignment that lasted 24 years: a full page in a great magazine. Do what you want, six times a year. Nothing like that, believe me. Nothing like it.
"Another thing I shared with Folon was the relationship of a very tiny character to these huge lonely landscapes and that’s something that still permeates my work. I never really made a thorough self-analysis about it, except that I know that I’m sort of a loner and the only place I really feel comfortable is in the studio.
"The most difficult part of an assignment is when they say, 'Here is the story.' Right away, that gets me alarmed; I’m afraid I won’t find a good idea. So then I go through the process I hate, of looking for ideas. Despite that it’s been proven that I can do it, I hate that process. After all these years it’s still the same agony about looking for ideas. So the only thing that is satisfying is, 'Oh, finally I got the idea!' That’s another Divine Surprise, when you say, 'Oh My God, this is it!' And it doesn’t happen every time, I can tell you. But when it happens, you know you got it."