SAN DIEGO — Who says commercial artists don't make real art? The image of a red-cushioned chair that Denise Hilton-Putnam painted for a Chicago trade show has a nearly palpable expressive intensity.
And there's Joyce Kitchell. Look at the cover she designed for the yuppie-esque magazine Harrowsmith: a silver bowl brimming with fresh leafy greens, the centerpiece of a homey table. Behind the bowl crouches an ancient child's toy, a battered, blue wooden rabbit. You can almost feel the nicks that generations of kids have left on this relic.
Then there are the monsters that Everett Peck has conceived for an animation of the movie "Ghostbusters." His drawings are so outrageous they could only have sprung from the mind of an artist. A fine artist.
But Peck, Kitchell and Hilton-Putnam, who all studied art--or at least art history--are known as illustrators. While some exceptionally talented artists struggle to make ends meet, commercial artists, such as Hilton-Putnam, find a ready market for their work, earning upwards of $50,000 a year. Peck, who is hardly known outside advertising agencies and the graphics departments of recording companies, magazines and newspapers, expects to earn more than $100,000 this year for his paintings and drawings.
Despite their financial success, illustrators want to be known as fine artists as well. Kitchell, 41, has been in business for herself since 1972. She has been doing more painting for herself in the past two years. But after getting used to earning $3,000 for a magazine cover, Kitchell is not too happy about starting from scratch in the fine arts world.
"You have to have a history of getting good prices for painting," Kitchell said. "And then there's the 40% to 50% commission you pay a gallery director. That's pretty high. I get three grand for a piece, but I'm not sure what it would get in a gallery. I'm not sure how salable my work is."
Hilton-Putnam recently entered a poster she did for a La Jolla developer in a fine arts poster contest. "I struggled with trying to keep up with my fine art painting (after college)," Hilton-Putnam said. "Now I content myself with trying to put as much fine art in my work as I can. If I can do that, I'm satisfied."
Peck, 35, works out of his new home in Leucadia, using overnight mail service and a facsimile machine to transmit drawings over telephone to clients around the country. He illustrates articles for newspapers such as the New York Daily News, stories in Playboy and record jackets for CBS. He also takes the bread-and-butter ad agency business, such as the campaign he recently completed for General Dynamics. Peck commutes twice a week to the Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, where he is head of the illustration department.
"I never felt any separation between the fine arts and illustration," said Peck. "I've never felt a great deal of restriction (doing illustration). There's still room for freedom of expression. I don't want to get away from illustration."
Now and then he sells his own paintings. "One difference is the client," Peck said. "Painting for yourself you don't have to satisfy anyone else."
Terry Whitcomb agreed. A professor of art history at the University of San Diego, Whitcomb said that illustration is "wholly rooted in the idea of another. The artist visualizes someone else's idea, usually on someone else's terms, their time line, their media, their size.
"Illustration is an honest profession, but it has little to do with painting, wherein the germinal idea is wholly within the mind of the artist."
Craig Fuller is an artist and a partner in a graphics design firm. "I can't think of anybody in town who has two feet deeper in both camps than me," Fuller said. He studied fine arts at Palomar College, UC San Diego and California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. He is married to a curator at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.
"There's no qualitative distinction to be made between commercial art and art. It's not like anybody who's good in fine art could be a superior commercial artist or anybody who's in commercial art could be (in fine arts).
Commercial art, Fuller said, has to do with "solving somebody else's marketing problem or communicating accessible kinds of ideas in a certain kind of syntax to a target market out there so that they can respond. Graphic design and commercial art is based on a high degree of predictability, an understandable language that everybody has agreed upon that produces recognizable results. So you sort of bend it, do some ingenious things with it to generate some appeal." The process of making art, by comparison, he said, is "very intimate and precious and spiritual and revelatory and psychological, and deals with philosophical and aesthetic notions."
Whitcomb said there is little of the artist in an illustration, no matter how well executed. "We ingest and respond to the excitement that is manifested in any such exposure of self. It is scary and risky to open your mind and your heart. That is what an artist gets paid for . . . and in the germinal idea. No one asked them to do that.
"(The artist) above all people puts his head on the block. It's what people respond to in art. It's a kind of frontier."