Getting Paid for Vision: Lansing Illustrators Who Made Their Passion A Career
The late British-based painter James Whistler once said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision” – an illuminating quote politely explaining the riskiness of chasing a passion-driven career.
It’s true. While having technical talent is a must for illustrators, possessing a marketable vision is also a necessity – if one hopes to pay the bills, that is. While Lansing boasts many talented artists, here are just three who have different styles, but share one common thread: they get paid for their imaginative visions.
Sleep isn’t a top priority for Craig Horky, a Lansing-based artist, illustrator and graphic designer.
After a long day of work at his 9-to-5 job at the Advertising Company of America, Horky flies home on his motorcycle and begins work on his laundry list of freelance illustration projects, including an assortment of music-related merchandise, adding another 40 hours of work to his week.
“I get home, eat, maybe go to the gym, then get started on art,” Horky says. “Right now I’m working on five album designs, a couple of t-shirts, some logos and a Big Foot-themed calendar.”
Locally, he’s known for the hundreds of distinct concert posters he’s produced over the years, mainly for punk, metal, indie and ska bands. The illustrations lean toward the weirder side of the spectrum, featuring oddities like three-eyed girls, humans with animal heads, or a stoic Abe Lincoln sporting ram horns while holding an owl.
These peculiar concepts, no doubt, come from Horky’s creative subconscious, but they’re also aimed to please the customer.
“I’ll look through previous artwork the bands have had and maybe incorporate some of the themes they’ve been running with, or go through their lyrics and find something that pops out at me,” Horky says.
In 1999 Horky enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburg for graphic design. It was there he learned the trades that would eventually land him a job at the Advertising Company of America – a far cry from his punk-rock ethos, but still allows him to make a living in the arts.
“I do all the graphic design for First National Bank of America, First National Acceptance Company, and Rose Acceptance – it’s all financial,” he says. “I do ads, leave behinds, brochures, statement stuffers, website-related things, some outdoor signage, indoor bank posters and signs.”
Horky says being a paid artist these days means going beyond paint and ink.
“The days of doing graphic design by hand are dead,” he says. “You can incorporate hand-drawn stuff, but in the end it’s got to be on the computer. It’s a lot of Photoshop, a lot of Illustrator, InDesign, even Excel and Word.”
For the up-and-coming illustrators, Horky offers this advice:
“You have to constantly be staying on top of things because of changing trends, technology and programs – everything is constantly evolving. A style that’s aesthetically pleasing one month is just completely passé the next.”
Since the days of Jimi Hendrix, incense and paisley pants, Lansing has had a constant artistic force named Dennis Preston leaving remnants of his creative mind scattered across the Capital region.
Whether it’s on a napkin adorning the walls of a Biggby Coffee shop, on the cover of City Pulse, or a CD booklet of a local artist, Preston’s artwork has been a staple in the community for over 40 years.
“I started freelancing in high school. My first paid job was something for Woldumar Nature Center,” Preston says. “They had me design a poster for them. I think it was ‘68 in the fall or something.”
That was just the beginning of a long career in illustrating. Preston then began drawing concert posters for area bands and venues throughout the 1970s. He currently teaches art at Lansing Community College part time and spends an abundance of time doing freelance work, and plenty of doodling.
“I’m always doodling. I’m doing it right now while I’m talking to you,” Preston says. “The ones that are in Biggby are tips for the baristas, so if somebody wants one of those they can give them a $10 tip and take the napkin.”
As for his primary influences, Preston sites Robert Crumb, Basil Wolverton, Rick Griffin and Salvador Dali. All have been an inspiration and helped him create his own inimitable style, which comes to life through acrylics, color markers, Prismacolor Pencils, and Photoshop.
Caricature parties, held at a number of events, have also become a steadfast source of income for Preston, who is known for his knack for drawing locals.
“I like it because it’s still artwork, it’s cartooning,” he says. “It’s exaggerating somebody, so it’s not portrait work.”
Being a longtime teacher at LCC, Preston often finds himself giving advice to rookie artists.
“Be creative, come up with your own stuff, don’t draw what everyone else is drawing,” he says. “You know a lot of the anime/manga people are copying other styles. I tell them, ‘You’ve got to think of something fresh.’ They need to develop their own characters.”
From billboards along the highway to work for the Wall Street Journal, Barbara Hranilovich has never limited her reach when it comes to her art.
Rather than just sitting behind a canvas, the Lansing-area-based artist also specializes in commercial illustration, design, copywriting, account management and social media.
Local art lovers may have seen her work at Lansing Art Gallery, Tallulah's Folly in Old Town, or the Grove Gallery Co-Op in East Lansing. She’s been a freelance illustrator for 35 years and counting and is currently a creative director at ZimmerFish, an East Lansing-based branding and strategic-marketing agency.
Working at a marketing agency does much more than diversify her portfolio; it’s also been a much needed change of pace, according to Hranilovich.
“I kind of needed a break,” she says. “I was getting tired of painting. I got tired of doing illustrations, so it was nice to get a job where I could still be creative but still have the energy left over to do my own work. It’s been a nice balance.”
Over the years she’s knocked out award-winning illustrations for clients nationwide in publishing, advertising and editorial, a few of which include Houghton Mifflin, Zonderkidz, Cepia LLC, and Harcourt Brace.
So how does such a prolific artist breakdown such a broad range of styles she’s mastered over the years?
“There’s a certain whimsical sort of touch to it, I suppose,” she explains. “I like to draw on my paintings and paint on my drawings. I do a lot of psychological studies. They may not look like that, but there’s always a psychological component to it.”
After decades of diversity in the field, Hranilovich said emerging artists should always be progressing.
“You have to have talent and you have to work really, really hard,” she says. “You have to network and self-promote and you should understand the business, what goes into it, and have a well done portfolio. You also have to keep learning.”
When it comes to creating passionate art that isn’t necessarily mainstream or sellable, Hranilovich does that, too.
“The stuff that doesn’t sell is at my house. But I’m happy to have it because, generally, they’re my favorite pieces – seriously.”
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
(1-5) Craig Horkey and his work
(6-10) Barb Hranilovich and her work
Photos © Dave Trumpie