Barry Blitt Profile
posted: March 5, 2008
Barry Blitt, age 49, sees illustration as a fatal attraction: it's killing him but he can't stop going back for more.

"I drew a lot as a kid and I got a ton of reactions to it from the family. My grandfather used to draw – he used to copy Norman Rockwell paintings – and they made a fuss, just like you’re doing right now. And that was fun. A little fuss was fun. I don’t think so anymore; I’m quite tired of the fuss. But you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it.

"Puberty was difficult. I still haven’t really come out of it – everything was going so smoothly until then! I was a big sports fan, and I used to draw professional hockey players' and baseball players' pictures. I’d do caricatures of them and try to find out where they were staying when they were in town so I could bring them their drawings. Then I’d become friends with them and they’d get me tickets to games and give me bats and balls. You probably couldn’t do that now, but it was a more innocent time in the 1930's or whenever it was.

"I’d find out what hotel there were in, the Sheraton or the Queen Elizabeth, and I’d go down and wait in the lobby and the hotel security would try and kick me out, but I would just run back in. Some of the players were very into it and other guys would just tell you to fuck off. Sometimes the players would tell their team, and I did a couple of programs in yearbooks for teams. That was my first published work: I illustrated the Philadelphia Flyers1974 Stanley Cup year book and they paid me $5 a drawing. They were terrible. The heads were real realistic, in pencil, and then I would outline the head in pen and then draw a body in pen. They were bad.

"Once the big-head-small-body-hockey-player thing was out of my system, I think I wanted to do something more serious; I thought that my funny impulses didn’t belong in my work. I was stupid enough to think I could do high realism or something that I’m not capable of. But the work that looked tossed off always got the biggest reaction.

"I got a scholarship from Leo Burnett ad agency while I was at Ontario College of Art, between my third and fourth year. I didn’t even know what it was for, I just entered it and I got it and I worked at Leo Burnett as a visualizer for my fourth year at college. I hated advertising; it was demeaning. I mean, they’d ask me to draw lettuce and then ask me to make the lettuce look crispier. That wasn’t for me.

"After school ended I went to England. There was so much great work coming out of London at the time, and I thought I would go there and get inspired by that and maybe I’d find my style or my niche there. But when I brought my portfolio around, I stupidly went to Leo Burnett there, too. And they offered me a job doing the same thing I had done in Canada and I took it because I didn’t know anyone in England. So I was drawing crispy lettuce and stuff like that, and I hated it. I worked there for about a year and then came back to Canada and somehow started bringing my work around and just did my bit.

"I had one style that was sort of black and white charcoal that was serious and then there was the crazy stuff in pen and ink. More and more the pen and ink seemed to be favored and I could put some humor in that, but at first it was all little spots and Canadian Business Magazine and stuff that. Some of it was just so bad. I didn’t even care. Sometimes I just don’t care. I’ll work on something and I just won’t want to be doing it, and I’ll have a bad attitude. I’m trouble: you have to stay away from me.

"I don’t think I necessarily choose my assignments well. Sometimes it’s hard to say no. Some of these people, they don’t want you to say no. But it’s really important to choose the right things for yourself.

"Back then I had more time to do self-generated projects and stuff. I remember I was doing these crazy biographies of my heroes, just one page each, anyone from George Washington, to Gustav Mahler, to Stravinsky. I did a whole series of those and they were fun and I didn’t care. I think part of the not caring thing is I have to sort of fool myself into not caring about a drawing. I do my best work when I'm not thinking about it, when I'm not worried about it. So any New Yorker cover I do, it’s just a crazy emotional morass. I’ll draw it seven or eight times and I’ll start painting each one, and this one’s better than the other one, and then I’ll go back to the first one (the first one is always the best one). I still haven’t learned to let myself make mistakes and that’s where the best stuff comes in.

"My first New Yorker cover I sent François [Mouly] was an idea about smokers, when smokers were being told to smoke outside. I put them standing on window ledges, so there was a cityscape and there were all these people on window ledges. And I was calling her about something else and she said, 'Oh yeah, by the way, do the smoker’s cover, it got approved'. And so I did it a million times, really badly, out of my head. When I brought it in, she said, 'This is terrible!' I sent her something again and she called me, and said, 'It’s not working, obviously.' And I said, 'I know.' She said, 'Why don’t you call Ed Sorel -- go talk to him.' I said, 'I’m not talking to Ed Sorel, I’m afraid of Ed Sorel.'

"I thought, why would he want to talk to me? And then the phone rang like two minutes later and he said, 'Come over, I’d love to help you, we’ll have lunch and talk.' So I brought my drawing over, my bad, bad, bad finals that I had done for this cover. And I showed them to him and he said, 'No, these are terrible. You're approaching it all wrong.' I was happy to hear it – I'm still dying for this kind of information. He said, 'This is how you do it.' And he went and got some books off the shelf. He said, 'You can’t make buildings up out of your head. Some people can do that, but you can’t, and I can’t either, so let’s find a cityscape,' and he chose one and he said, 'Maybe we’ll put a guy with a pipe here. This is how I would do it.' And it was just invaluable.  And then I went and did it a bunch more times and then it got published and I was delighted, I mean, I wasn’t happy with it, but I was happy that it happened. And then I saw him maybe half a year later and he said, 'I saw your cover.' And he said, 'We can't all do our best work all the time, but, you know ... good try.'

"At this point, I'm just doing one thing after another; it’s sort of soul destroying, in a lot of ways. And I've sort of pared my style down a little bit. Less looseness and less line work. Sometimes I look at old pieces and say, 'Oh shit, I wish I was still working like that.'

"I don't take any time off, and I don’t really want to. I’m not a leisure type person. I play music a lot, though, and that takes up a lot of my time. Near where I live there was a local jazz trio and quartet I used to play with regularly. But it became like illustration. I mean, it’s really fun to sit down at a piano and it should be that much fun to sit down and draw and it probably was at one point, maybe 20 years ago. But there have been a lot of deadlines since then, and a lot of the fun's gone out of it.

"I'd like to stop, but not for too long. I think I’d miss it a lot if I had to stop. It’s nice to be part of the culture and contribute in some minute way. It’s fun to open a newspaper and read stuff and say, that pisses me off and come up with an idea about it and submit it and it’s published. And it’s nice to work with great writers. I mean, it’s very gratifying to illustrate a great piece of journalism or fiction or something; that side of it’s nice, to come up with an idea. And that you turn it in and it’s printed a million times is very cool."