Annual No.16: Educator/Illustrator of the Year: Thom Sevalrud

Thom Sevalrud grew up in the western Canadian prairies in a small farming community which he credits with influencing his work. The open space, light, color and composition of the prairie affords the pared-down look that is so inherent in his work. Coming from a small town there wasn't a lot of art to be seen or classes to learn in. It wasn't until art school that he was encountered illustration and graphic design. Today he sees himself as a designer who draws, it's no wonder his distinctive work has had such wide appeal both from international clients and award shows. He’ll admit he was a poor student in the beginning, but by the last semester a teacher had pointed him in the right direction. A fact he hasn't forgotten, a fact he hopes he's passing on to his students at Sheridan and OCAD. We are delighted to name Thom Sevalrud our 3x3 Educator of the Year, 2019.

Interview with Thom Sevalrud

Tell us about your early schooling, did you always want to be an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?

Coming from a small town, my particular school did not invest too much in art programs. Most of my friends were being groomed to take over the family farm or perhaps attend a trade school to learn engineering or mechanics. The art classes I did have up until junior high school were, in retrospect, much more important than I realized at the time. I think my interest in art was also spurred in part by my mother’s interest in drawing and painting. She wasn’t terribly prolific at the time, but did have a collection of paints that I would ask permission to use. Tubes of oil paint were mysterious and wondrous. I had no idea what I was doing, but I enjoyed the experience.

Where did you go to school? What was that experience like?

I graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design now known as the Alberta University of the Arts. My major was visual communications which was a ‘catch-all’ program that touched on everything from reproduction graphics and advertising illustration to graphic design and editorial image-making—it really was a mixed bag. Thankfully, I had a couple of teachers who helped me focus my energies. Though I have to say at first I was a terrible student. I found myself uninterested in the projects and really wanting to run rather than learn how to walk. It wasn’t until my last couple of semesters that things started to click. Projects became more sophisticated and therefore my approach and process became richer. I distinctly remember a teacher pointing out a strength I didn’t know I had; he gave me permission to develop that individual part of my voice.

Were there any particular artists who influenced your decision to become an illustrator?

I have a clear memory of being enamored with a good many illustrators. But the work of Blair Drawson, Jean-Michel Folon and Seymour Chwast ring most strongly in my mind. However, at the time, I was equally interested in pursuing a career as a graphic designer.

What happened after graduation?

While in my last semester of school, I landed my first couple of editorial jobs. I also attended the New York Illustrator’s Workshop, a week-long conference with instructors including Alan E. Cober, Fred Otnes, Mark English, Robert Heindel and Bob Peak. There were workshops, portfolio reviews and lectures. Guest speakers included Brad Holland, Vivienne Flesher, Matt Mahurin and Seymour Chwast. My mind was racing with possibilities. On my return flight home, I made a pit stop in Toronto to visit friends and felt an immediate sense of belonging. I called some ADs, showed my work which was well received. I decided that if I was going to pursue illustration I needed to be in a city with an established and rich publishing history. I moved to Toronto a few months later.

How did you get your first big break?

Work was plentiful when I first started out—no need for a part-time job. Lots of editorial work and then came some book publishing work. Then I was commissioned for an ad campaign that pushed and challenged my approach. The work was quite experimental. That series of images was accepted into American Illustration which became a pivotal moment for me getting attention from American clients and a larger audience in general. Work started rolling in from all kinds of top-tier publications as well as some really interesting corporate work.

How has your work progressed, how is today’s work different than when you were first starting out?

I’ve always focused on developing a distinct and personal voice and being consistent within that language. But I adamantly did not want to remain stagnant or too predictable.
I wasn’t fully baked when I left school, I was still learning to refine something distinctive. The more work I did, the stronger my work became. I would experiment in journals and sketchbooks, and ultimately, some of that work made its way into promotional material. Those exercises allowed me to sit ‘inside’ the project for awhile and think. I was able to process WHY I’m making something instead of how I’m making it.

I look back on the beginning years for me and I feel I have almost had three or four stylistic shifts. And small sections of those shifts feel completely detached. Perhaps those detachments are simply only media-based. Yet I feel I am still concerned with similar problem-solving strategies such as composition and the ‘space between,’ which I think goes overlooked a lot. I was reconnecting with an old friend recently and the descriptives they used about my work were, 'light, airy, technical, intriguing, thought-provoking and compelling.' Some of those are the same descriptives that I was hearing twenty-five years ago. The media may be different, but some of the aesthetic seems to have stuck. I’m not very technological. My work has only recently been tapping into digital media. I think my work has an underlying naive quality to be honest. And I like that.

Have you ever had an artist representative?

I started out repping myself, but as work became busier, I did find value in having representation. Representing myself was an invaluable experience and it gave me good insight into promo and contracts. At one point in my career I had three reps which in retrospect was silly. It was a time in the industry where repping was very territorial. In today’s connected world, having one seems fine. I have been with the same rep agency for over twenty-five years.

Let’s talk about your experiences as a teacher, how long have you been teaching?

Gosh, I’ve been teaching part time for almost 19 years. My friend and colleague Joe Morse invited me to teach one little class at Sheridan College just outside Toronto; that one course became more. Then gradually I also became a thesis advisor at the program. I also teach a class at OCAD University

What do you feel the role of an instructor is?

I see myself as a mentor to my students. Certainly, there is an obstacle-course of things they must learn. They need to learn how to strategize solving diverse problems. They need to learn what kind of image-maker they want to be. They must learn their skill strengths and weaknesses. They need to learn to make mistakes and enjoy making those mistakes. Once those tools are handed to them, then my role is definitely almost exclusively mentoring when they are in their thesis year. Students in the midst of this obstacle course are developing amazing skills. But they then need to add the challenge of learning how to use those skills in the business of illustration and in the role of a visual communicator.

Do you feel there is anything missing in today’s education of an illustrator?

Four years for a student feels like an eternity to them. But honestly, sometimes I wonder if they are moving too fast to get a grip on who they are as image-makers. The industry has evolved so much over the last couple of decades that it has dictated they learn a wide spectrum of applications and intense skill sets. I also sometimes see students flounder a bit once they leave the intense atmosphere of the school studio setting. There is a sort of quiet post-partem that sets in; I’m not sure how that can be remedied.

What is your advice to graduates entering the field today?

Work will not just land in your lap. It takes work to compete with all the other newly-minted illustrators out there. And that applies for everyone from those who want to freelance to artists who seek employment in gaming, motion media or some other facet of our industry.

Be interested in promoting yourself and being an entrepreneur. Standards are high, so hold high expectations for yourself. Never lose that sense of having fun while creating. Also, develop a thick skin, rejection on a regular basis will happen as it does to all of us. Never take it personally,it’s more a case about how your visual sensibility can ‘fit’ a project than rather than an audience loving or hating your work. Be approachable and always deliver your work on time.

Final words to teachers?

Tell students about your own journey. Humanize and demystify what we do. The stronger our new generation of creators are the better the industry will be.

Final words to practicing illustrators?

Don’t stagnate. Keep moving forward. Always try to do something new and don’t stop learning. Connect with your community. There is strength in the sharing of each other’s personal and professional experiences. At the end of the day, be generous with each other.

And finally, what’s in your future, personally and professionally?

I need to get back to producing more personal work. Sometimes this gets put on the back burner. I used to contribute to group gallery shows and this is an itch that needs to be scratched sometime soon. I also hope to travel back to Guatemala sometime in the near future. I’m awestruck and inspired by the vintage textiles. I could fill many journals with the crazy pattern mixes. In the meantime, I will continue to mentor my students and forge new relationships with exciting new clients and projects.