An Interview with Illustrator-Bill Mayer

by Travis Tom

Atlanta (August 16,2001). I had the opportunity to meet Bill Mayer, an illustrator based in Atlanta, and asked if he would be interested in doing an interview for the CPC. I had attended a portfolio review in early July held by the Graphic Artists Guild chapter. There were one-on-one review sessions with art directors and Bill Mayer was reviewing illustration portfolios. I didn't get a chance to meet with him that evening due to time constraints and decided to e-mail him a week later. I am familiar with his work by seeing his illustrations in not only design and illustration annuals but a few ads as well. You might recall seeing his illustration of a bald man for Yupo printed on their vellum-like paper in the design publications (as seen here). He graciously offered to review my work and agreed to the interview. We set a time up to meet a few weeks later. I received some great feedback and suggestions from Bill reviewing my book. We talked more about how the interview would be handled and proceeded with my list of questions for him. Here is his response:

What did you aspire to be in your youth (High School or College)? In other words did you know you were going to be an illustrator?

When I was in high school I was completely bored with school and spent a lot of my class time drawing and doodling. I had a couple of smart teachers who set me by the window to allow the photosynthesis to at least let me grow a little if not artistically. They would tell the class every one else had to pay attention, but I could sit in the back and draw because I was going to be able to make a career with my art but they would need to learn something.

Do you have a formal education in illustration? Where did you attend school?

I went to ringling school of art when I was seventeen. That's where I met my wife Lee. Ringling was a very different school at the time--completely performance driven. You had to be invited to come back every quarter. It was a small school with good foundation training in classical drawing and painting. There were about 350 students in the program with 150 in our first year class. This number was whittled down to thirty graduates, but they were people they felt had a lot of potential.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming young illustrators breaking into the field?

It will get harder and harder for young up and coming illustrators to find a niche in this market, with stock illustration taking out most of those lower end jobs that used to be there for young illustrators to learn on. My advice would be to try to develop some close relationships with several local art directors, do great work for them and they will talk to other people about you. Expand your base as much as you can so you will not notice as much of the slow downs in any one area. Do the best work you can, you are only as good as your last job. Strive for a level of excellence in all you do. When you run into some insensitive sod who tells you to get out of the bussiness, have a thick skin and recite this little proverb...Too often, we lose sight of life's simple pleasures. Remember, when someone annoys you it takes 42 muscles in your face to frown, BUT, it only takes 4 muscles to extend your arm and bitch-slap that *@%# upside the head.

When you begin a project how do you go about concepting your imagery?

I start with little thumbnails to help me organize my thoughts in a visual way. Then I break down concepts into the most basic ideas.

Who or what has been an inpiration or influence to your work?

My influences have changed through out the years. I think in high school my influences were Jack Davis and Don Martin from Mad Magazine and Big Daddy Roth's Rat Fink and Extreme Machines. In art school more classic influences like Picasso, Monet, Degas and Boterro. Now my influences are different like: there was a movie, The Commitments, in which the bass player was giving advice to one of the young players. He said to play his guitar like it was a ladies leg--this was the inspiration for the hot jazz illustration I did with the guy blowing on a ladies leg like a horn. My influences come from everywhere.

Can you tell us what your most challenging project was? Your favorite piece?

I don't care that much for my work. Only the very few pieces in which the process was not interrupted--the ones that just flow out and you barely remember working on them. The hardest and most challenging thing is to do something I am really proud of--sometimes it happens accidentally.

If you didn't pursue illustration as a career what would have been your fall back career choice?

A talent scout for a local strip club? Well, too old to play baseball, I guess I'd be that squeegy guy on the street or painting tee-shirts in Panama City Beach.

Describe a typical project from start to finish.

Usually I start by discussing the job with the art director, then do a bunch of thumbnail sketches for them to choose the right image from final sketch and color art. Depending on the style, 99% of the stuff I produce is started as conventional artwork and then scanned in, cleaned up, worked on digitally and finally shipped out on a cd.

What medium do you enjoy most?

Well that would depend on the technique but the medium de jour is gouache. Next week tequila on ice!

Where do you predict the future of illustration is going?

Illustration is smart and shows a sophistication and charm that will bring the clients who choose to use it in their campaigns the same sophistication and intelligence. Humor has always been a great way to get peoples attention. I think that advertising has always followed fads and whims. I would not worry too much if you are not the flavor of the week--just like the weather tomorrow you will be the hottest thing around.

Your illustrations are fun and have high energy to them. Can you tell us the origins of your monster and fish series?

The energy comes from M&M's and hip hop music. The fish started out as sidewalk drawings--they were part of an experiment to figure out how to make a marketable style out of the little spontaneous thumbnails I do at the beginning of all of my work. The monsters sort of grew in their little strange world. They continue to regenerate over and over.

Would you care to share any upcoming projects that you are excited about?

Right now this week (8.16.01) I am working on a Japanese calendar illustration, a spot illustration for a magazine in Germany, an outdoor board for a children's hospital in Texas, a new campaign for a pharmaceutical company, a book cover for a murder mystery, a couple of spots for a kids book Klutz Press is doing, and several personal projects. I love working--can't get enough of it. I love it all.


Bill Mayer, a renowned illustrator of exceptional talent and infectious good humor, is often imitated but rarely equalled. Bill has won dozens of awards from Communication Arts, Graphis, Print, Society of Illustrators, New York Addy's, and Show South. Clients such as Levi's for Women, Josť Quervo, Time Magazine, IBM, Delta Airlines and RJR Nabisco reflect his unique ability to satisfy a varied range of business sectors. Bill's "Bright Eye's" stamps for the U.S. Postal Service were one of the most collectible stamp series of the decade, and the Tour de France posters he produced for Eric Kessel/Kessel Kramer, Amsterdam appeared on the cover of Archive Magazine. He has also won numerous other awards such as: Stratgie 12, Epica Awards December 1997, AIDATeoriai, Praktyka Rekamy Media.Julkaisija, GrarfisenVietinnan Erikoisehll jan. '98, EPICA and IMU.

A graduate of Ringling School of Art, Bill Mayer remains a prolific illustrator who somehow manages time for rock climbing, world travelling, free thinking and fun living. He and Lee -his wife of 25 years- have a son, Jason; a grandson, Forest; four dogs, a frog and a cat who talks to marshmallows.

More of Mayer's work can be viewed at