An Artist at Work: Inside the Studio with Seymour Chwast | Seymour Chwast | Skillshare

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Seymour Chwast, Designer, Illustrator

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10 Lessons (45m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Biography

    • 3. War

    • 4. The Push Pin Graphic

    • 5. Recognition

    • 6. Books

    • 7. Later Series

    • 8. Process Video

    • 9. Looking Ahead

    • 10. What's Next?

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About This Class

Let the history of design fuel your creativity today.

This class is unlike anything else you've seen on Skillshare. Combining the best of a career retrospective and master seminar, you'll join iconic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast to explore his decades-long career — and ways to bring a clever, creative sensibility into your own work.

Each bite-sized lesson features exclusive interview footage, exploring:

  • Seymour's creative process
  • 100+ projects that defined 20th-century visual culture
  • How artists can use style & wit to respond to the needs of their time

Plus, the class resources are packed with links and reading to further your creative journey.

One of the most influential designers and illustrators of the last century, Seymour is perhaps best known for co-founding Push Pin Studios with Milton Glaser in 1954; their work was honored and exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1970. Seymour is also a member of the Art Directors Hall of Fame and a recipient of the AIGA Medal.

Whether you're eager to appreciate great design or you're a professional seeking to regain your creative spark, you'll love exploring the world of Seymour Chwast.



Selection of Work by Seymour Chwast via the Seymour Chwast Archive


1. Introduction: Hi, my name is Seymour Chwast. I'm a graphic designer and illustrator, which I have been doing for quite a while, but still I'm having a good time. I can tell you some things about myself. We went to Cooper Union where I met three people who became my partners at Push Pin Studios, which we formed after we graduated. Although we had jobs, they weren't working out for me. We decided to go into business. In that time, Milton Glaser came back from his Fulbright scholarship and we became Push Pin Studios. This was 1954. Milton and I were partners for about 25 years. I've been carrying on using the name Push Pin but still, doing a variety of work. What could I tell students? Don't start with a computer. Lay off. You start with thumbnails. And to tell them to work hard. If we had an idea for doing something and decide who's going to do what, and then it got done. I'm going to show you only a very general step-by-step process that will start with a blank pad, and we'll hopefully end up with a gold medal from the Art Directors Club. Yeah, you have the internet but you have to know what you're looking for. You have to be inspired by something there. You can't push a button and then your answer will pop up. Because if it does, it's no good. It's either be done before just not. There was some work involved. They're as good as the last job you've done. So, the idea is make it as good as possible. 2. Biography: I can tell you some things about myself. I went to Cooper Union in New York, where I met three people who became my partners at Push Pin Studios, which we formed after we graduated. So, as Reynold Ruffins, Ed Sorel and I, did a little promotion piece to not to get freelance work. It was called The Pushpin Almanack. Although we had jobs, they weren't working out for me or for Ed, and we decided to go into business. In that time, Milton Glaser came back from his Fulbright scholarship and we became Push Pin Studios, this was 1954. Ed left after a year or two and Milton and I were partners for about 25 years. I've been carrying on using the name Pushpin but still doing a variety of work. Being able to design and as well as illustrate, gave us the opportunity to work on things especially posters, book jackets, packaging, things of that sort. Usually, illustrators do just the visual part, and designers put the things together and get the ideas. Here, we are able to do both. We gained a reputation doing the magazine, The Pushpin graphic which we started at Pushpin, I guess a couple of years after we started business, each one as I knew it was on a different theme. We either collaborated on these things or each of us at the studio did his own. That really helped to get a reputation for us and then we were able to get some work out of it too. The kind of work that I did, varied. Well, I really couldn't do very realistic, renderings of anything. My work ranged from broad cartoon work to semi realistic renditions of an idea which I'd like to do if especially if the situation is so real, where I had to have some realism involved. My styles were really all over the place. There was humor in quite a bit of it. A lot of stuff that I did was funny in spite of myself. I wanted to be serious but, what we know is play is really part of what we do here. The humor came easily from there. 3. War: What do you say about the history of war? I really don't know except that I've sort of lived through a few of them. I mean, we had to go through World War II. I was around then. There was no way around, you know we had to defeat Hitler. But then we came to the Vietnam War which was a total disaster and there was no point in it. And then you know then the Iraq war was a disgrace here. Too many people died, they cost too much money and in that case it sort of upset everything in the Middle East. But you're looking in the past and you find that most wars like that. They are started by the Kings and the Queens and even the Presidents and what they do is they send young people off to die. So, that's why it's sort of formed my opinion about war. I don't expect that anything that I've done as an anti-war peace is going to stop war, but I've got to do it anyway. And I'm glad If I could work in a way that many people can see what I've done in terms of a book or poster or whatever. That's great. I'd like to talk to you about this book that I did, I guess that was about my early 20s when I did this book. So, I was interested in type. I learned quite a bit at Cooper Union. The illustrations were inspired by different battles from the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. to the Battle of Ypres in 1915. With an introduction that was written by my cousin, Deschene Rainer who was a well-known writer and anarchist. And I always loved the paintings of Goya Dohmen and especially the anti-war things that they did. I happened to been unable to get a small printing press where I was able to do some linoleum cuts, and to print it, I had bought some type set to type in garment. And along with these cuts, I printed the book. The only thing I didn't do is the binding. I didn't know how to do that. But anyway, after the Book was was bound, I hand colored the Images. The text were anti-war quotes that I found. So, this is something I'm proud of. I did only 80 copies of this book here but, it's something that gives me pleasure and in that I was able to do it. It did make a statement. Oh, I gave most my way. I may have 10 copies left. As an illustrator, you need the words, or the idea. But the words are good because often they give a clue to what the solution would be. I find it difficult working out of thin air. I need something to relate to. Oh, here's one by Benito Mussolini. "War alone keys all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility by those people who have the courage to face it." So this was years of pro-war quotation. A German proverb, a great war leaves the country with three armies, an army of cripples, an army of mourners and an army of thieves. I'd like to talk about a project that I am working on now called "Seymour Chwast at War with War." I've done a couple of these things before, Timelines of War. And this is my third and I've listed all the major wars that I could find from Year, 3300 B.C. up to up to the present. This one 1136 War between two Japanese clans, the Tiara's and the Manamotos. The text is being printed on an letterpress. This is 1945, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Have done this in different sizes, this was a woodcut for War in Rwanda, in 1994. This one was Alexander the Great. He attacking Persia and defeats it in the Battle of Wakanda, 331 B.C. Another wood cut. Here, I gathered the Timeline through books and the Internet so that I would be able to show or to talk about 5,000 years of war from 3300 B.C. to the present. And then dividing them up about a dozen on each spread. To find which war I would illustrate, I'd have to go through that list of the 10 or 12 ones that's spread and find the one that would be, offer the most graphic material idea that I could use. Partly because it's people who understand it. It's a well known war. Or there's some special meaning about it. In the case of this battle over here, I would not, I couldn't avoid doing an elephant as a tag almost prehistoric tag. I laid these out. Here the text is in red with the exception of the war that I'm illustrating. So, the illustrations are all black and white and that particular caption for that war is also in black. And the style here which changes which sort of depending upon the best way to illustrate it around the different opportunities here. This turned out to be a little cartoony, maybe a little more cartoony than I would have liked. But there's certain charm here that I couldn't resist. But others were, my reference here was a battle and I was able to do a sort of loose line drawing. I try to take as much advantage of the text to make an interesting lay out here, and in this case, the shapes were so interesting that I decided to put a black background on it. So there are different reasons for doing different things here as styles change and layouts change. Some of the work here in the Zulu War that the British were fighting with the Zulus. And being able to put the type down the middle next to a fallen African. This was sort of interesting for me. Something about ISIS, this is the last image in the book. And there no real ending to this book. 4. The Push Pin Graphic: With a push pin graphic, they were sort of free formed for a while. At one point, we decided to represent illustrators, and make us standardized size of the pushpin graphic. Each issue then became 32 pages. Still, each one on a different theme but they were more of us who were contributing work. This went on the theme of mothers. So, the illustrations dealt with that, with text that we found or made up. This one is mine. This is one Greis mother. Benno Friedman did this. That's Jackson Pollock's mother. Luck was another theme, Cupples was still another. We did this in the 70s up to 84', 85'. If we had an idea for doing something, we work on it, sort of collaborate or just discuss it, and decide who is going to do what. Then it got done. Manu Schongut did this. I don't think we discussed ideas for this thing. I probably told, "Manu, do a cover on LUCK", and he did it. But inside we did pieces that we found. Oh, yeah, these are graduation pictures. All from Cooper Union, down through the 20s to the 70s here, and it's sort of interesting because the students became much more casual after a while. It was very serious in the beginning. But the ones from the 70s are already very cool. So, that's the sort of thing we love to do. Sometimes we did inserts, the drawings and ideas, neon signs for Las Vegas. We milked the theme as much as possible. Well, about 1950 themes, they were the last of the famous magazine illustrators. The most famous one person of all is Norman Rockwell. They were sort of doing scenes of idealized scenes of America, which was realistic and pretty, but never real. Although I learned to appreciate Norman Rockwell skill. In the beginning, he was the enemy because he represented the old ways of doing things. Then, we started doing our illustration and became much more expressive. People like Robert Weaver, who helped to revolutionize Editorial illustration in the 50s changed it forever. Ideas like that find their way into magazines like Esquire, The New Yorker. Although The New Yorker's format hasn't changed in 50 years. Well, in the 60s along with the Vietnam War, there was also the civil rights movement, especially in the South. We heard about these killings there. Any protesters were being shot or lynched. So, I wanted to do a piece on that. I just came up with the idea of doing an issue where a hole which could be a bullet hole, was punched through the whole issue. So, these were civil rights leaders who were assassinated during the South, using image from the Old South, three civil rights workers. I did this as sort of a parody of silent movies and sort of stereotypic racist images as well, and then ending up with Martin Luther King. The real ending here as was a march on Washington, a civil rights march. In the middle we had the assassination of the Old South. She was representing what was with the ideas that things are changing. For Push Pin Studios that produced the Push Pin graphic, we did it all by our self, we were responsible for it. We all contributed work to it. The editing and the production, because we did the production. No computers in those days. We sent out 8,000 of the Push Pin graphic at that time. 5. Recognition: In 1970 with the show at the Louvre, actually the Musee de Art Decoratifs which is part of the Louvre, we were asked to show our work there. I guess in the 60s we had gained a big enough reputation. When we got to the museum, we found nothing was, we had a couple of days before the show was to open. Nobody had done anything. The workers there they needed three of them to put in a light bulb. We spend our time hanging in the show that we had sent over and we got nice notices The newspapers like the work. They were intrigued that the studio that could do things that seemed to be on guard at the time could still get commercial work to do. It was the first time an American studio showed a work at that museum. I would not have put that on my list of things to expect. It was unusual. Then we were asked to have the show travel around. Did that change your career? No, it just made us famous. We had the 70s doing posters, piece posters, posters for film, companies animation. There are two posters that I did for Mobile Whodini. Litlle in the style of magic posters. I, Claudius is one case where I didn't come up with this idea. On the titles for the film, somebody had done an actual mosaic of the likeness of Claudius. What I did was to add the snake. Give the post a little more animation. These are my posters for Forbes. Always with a clever line but it was a way to attract a younger audience to the magazine. Mono prints illustration and woodcuts. Caricature's had a field day with Nixon. He was great to draw and so easy. At a terrible time with Carter and that easy to do. Pushpinoff started as a christmas gift to our clients. Little Caviar mints were candies that we had put into a tin that we sent out and we got a good response from that people seemed to like that and we did that for a number of years. Yes 80 maybe 82 when we stopped. It was refined. It was costing us so much and time to do the work. We were losing a lot of money every year. 6. Books: Trying to cover all the decades? I found out that the work that I enjoyed the most and gotten most satisfaction from are things that I generated myself whether it's books or pushpin of candies or the pushpin graphic, where I could start it, and carry it through, and then I own it. It's mine. Books especially are great because you can hold them. They are real. When you do a magazine illustration, you do it. It shows up in one week and then it is gone. Well, some of the books that I had done, it was the Happy Birthday, Bach book. Sam's BAR was another book of woodcuts that I had done. The whole book is a service series of scenes at a bar and becomes one long scene when you read the book. Well, what I like the do, I think it's personified in this cover here, which is sort of, this jacket. It has six hands drawing left hands, drawing each one in a different style, which is what I seem to do a lot of, but all to for the same purpose showing that I do a variety of work, a variety of styles in my work. Yeah. I was happy that I was able to do this with the jacket for left-handed designer, drawing left hand's drawing. So, I guess each one is different, but making the point that I work in different kinds of tools, different techniques. It all became the cover of the book. That was interesting and as well as children's books that I did. Well, there are generally more freedom to do the picture books, come with freedom because kids accept abstraction and they like funny stuff. There's some wonderful books that I have been done through the years. There's a great tradition, sort of literary classics have been done for kids. This is a favorite book of mine, and done originally in 1971, and just reprinted by Princeton Architectural Press, where they scanned the original pages and they were able to do a wonderful job. It's about a little boy who gets up one day and decides to make pancakes for everybody. He gained a reputation there, and brought his friends over to have his pancakes, and became famous in the neighborhood. Then, one day, as pancakes were not coming out so good, he figured maybe it's time to go home telling his parents said he's going to make waffles. The Pancake King written by Phyllis La Farge and illustrated by Seymour Chwast. One book that I thought might be interesting is Graphic Style, which I do with Steve Heller, because it's very successful. We've done our third edition of it, sort of updating it three times. It's about the way design looks and to show how the face of these posters changed through the years starting with the Victorian posters, giving the message that styles change with new technology that came along. This is a book called The Hat, turn with woodcuts. It sort of opens up like this, celebrating hats through the ages, starting with one ancient one, and going up to year 2000. It was fun to do with the whole thing is done in letterpress using the cuts and in type, old letterpress type. Hats were great because sometimes I could put heads under the hats, which heads are always so expressive, especially for me, one of my obsessions. But hats themselves say an awful lot depending upon the style. I thought it might be interesting to show you a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that I did for a German book publisher. It's a book I was able to design myself and did it by having the type changed to the book where in the beginning was a light face. The type got heavier as it go along, along with the drama of the story ending up very bold. The drawings were done with colored pencil and acrylic. Illustration tend to be like this. A drawing that I did in black and white on paper. Made a photocopy on wrapping paper and then colored that up with colored pencil. I think they are a Manila envelope paper, sort of the yellowish kind, that I made photocopies on, and then stapled it to colored up. As a book knowing that I have about a half a dozen illustrations to do on the inside, I find those spots in the story that offer the most for me for illustration to be either poetic or dramatical or whatever. It has to be structured. I have to know how many illustrations I could do, how many pages of the book is in. I know that each illustration has to be different from the others because there are so few and know that I'm working with black, and white, and colored pencil here on wrapping paper, I know that there are certain limits to what I could draw. It has to be approached very carefully. 7. Later Series: Do you find that you have more ideas than you know what to do with? Oh no. Ideas are very hard to come by. They get harder and harder. Your head has holes, just so many ideas and then you have to use them. They usually have very few left on the bottom. And then what do you do? You just have to think harder. The Nose was an idea I wanted to collaborate with Steve Brouwer and James Autory. I did one issue, then Steve did one, and then James didn't do any. So I had to take over and so I've been doing it ever since. There have been 20 issues. An issue on fear. Again, like with the pushpin graphic, each issue is on a different theme. We're including things that we are afraid of. And try to have fun with with paper. Here's an issue. Sort of combination of trivial things and things that we thought were important. Important issues to us anyway. This one was on capital punishment. Talking about, the subject including a photograph that I found in the New York Times. These people who were on death row here and found the last minute to be innocent. It's a nice crowd. Another one on food. One issue was devoted to presidents. I have centerfold here about Richard Nixon, my favorite president. Sure is destroying his face like I've done with these guys over here. But also finding out that he did some interesting things. He wasn't all bad. Certainly the most interesting president that we've had. This one on isms, everything, strange words like cubism, screwballism, Darwinism. And doing some silly paintings to go along with victimism, ageism, cronyism. Dirty laundry is about scandals, mostly sex scandals, including a couple of TV evangelists who were who were caught with women in hotel rooms. Important people doing terrible things. Why I did George Washington as a woman, I don't know. Father for our country, I don't remember. But anyway that subject allowed me to do a silly washing machine. And the last one we did was on crime. It allowed me to make every kind of gun I could think of. And that's about it. There were 20 issues altogether. One that never got printed, there was one issue on cults, strange religions that I did. The drawing was okay, it wasn't great. But then I lost my printer at a printer who was able to do these few printers able to do these things for free. And the recession came and I would have had to pay to produce these and I couldn't afford them. So that issue never got done. That was the most challenging one. Design & Style was an idea I got with Steve Heller where we would do brochures sponsored by a paper company, in this case it was Mohawk, who contributed the paper here. We were able to demonstrate how the paper can could be used showing a variety of styles. The covers were my design except for this one which was taken from an actual Bauhaus catalog. I just couldn't pass that up because it seemed to work so nicely. But the others were drawings that I had done. As well as this cat but it's a very typical art nouveau image. What we did is, Steve collected the images done originally in that style and then we found things that were done by contemporary illustrators who worked in that style. De Stijl which is of Dutch design and with a little trick here, was a developing Mondrian painting with dye cuts. Surrealism is rather trite idea for the cover but best I could think of. It's a good source of what had been done and what was good in the past for everybody, students and practitioners. We had fun doing these. 8. Process Video: I'm going to show you only a very general step by step process that will start with a blank pad and will hopefully end up with a gold medal from the Art Directors Club. The first thing that happens is where I read the article the brief or whatever, I must know where the work will appear within print on the web, the production limitations, and who will see my work. At this point, the fee is discussed, and hopefully it's okay. I'm told or learned from the material, the spirit of the work that I'm to do whether it's sad, or happy, funny, spiritual, expressive, whatever. Through the years, about half my work came with some expectation of humor. We can come to that later. I'm likely to start with a blank page from a pair of translucent paper that are used for tracing. Don't start with a computer. To tell my students. Lay off. You start with thumbnails. I have to know at least the shape of the area that I have for my art. Now, comes the idea. I turned to my own thinking, which is important here, which is experience, what I know from the past. I avoid cliches and you have to use a stereotypic images, I have to make it fresh. They are often necessary in order to communicate the message. Google can be useful at this point to help with the symbols, the metaphors, the associations. Illustrated material can spark an idea. My ideas sometimes come upon waking up in the morning. Okay, you have the idea. Now, you need a lay out. Here is where your sense of design comes into play. Whether the main image is a flower or a menacing skull, the principle of design stays the same, they always apply. The elements are contrast, scale, color, pattern, emphasis, unity, and dynamic symmetry. You have to be concerned about all these elements. Play within these principles in mind. You take these principles and move them around, because you are the designer. There's always room to play. Sometimes, I start with a thumbnail sketch and work my way up to tracing sketches. Then, I trace the tracing and then I trace the tracing that I traced. At least, I have the shape of the space that I have in mind when I design posters or whatever, and when I have the concept, I often rough it out on the paper on my biggest pad. That's when I don't do a thumbnail. I might start with a thumbnail but then go to a big pad so I can take advantage of the scale which is terrific in posters, gives you the most opportunities. The execution. You have to determine a style unless there is one in particular or a style that you use for all your work. It may be a rendering a cartoon, realistic abstract, heroic expressionistic, or a style of the past, Victorian art nouveau, Art Deco, etc. With technique, you picked the right tool consistent with your own talent and sensibilities. Methods may include; pen and ink, paint, watercolor, pastel, print making which includes engraving, etching, wood cuts, liner cuts, modern prints with silkscreen but then you could use colored pencil, mixed media, you can make collage which can include all of these things. You could follow these steps and your roommate or client was still find it lacking. What do you do? Is it your personal vision, solution, or craft? One possible solution aside from starting all over, is try to stretch the boundaries of the mainstream. You start with a mainstream idea, everybody will understand it but then maybe you can push it a little bit to make it more original, more unusual. But if you stretched too much, you're in the land of fine art. No, no. Remember, fine art is good as ambiguous ideas, while illustration exposes ideas. Your reader has to know at one level the messages. When you talk about humor, when I was about 12 I read a book about cartooning. The only thing I remember in the text was the word incongruity, go against expectation. That became important for me to understand. Study the work of famous cartoonists but don't exclude like a little Nimo for glorious surrealism or crazy cat for fantastic nonsense. Note the technique and develop your own. Are there heads bigger than usual or are they smaller? What about color and, proportion, backgrounds? Apply humorous illustrations and cartoonings to project posters, graphic designs, animation, all sorts of ways you can use them. Then, there's type. For those who are doing type and image. The illustrations you would like to do that would be complete with posters, packaging, and book jackets, your intelligent and creative use the typography is essential. In this class, I cannot develop your sophisticated use of type. It takes a long time. You teach it by example. You show what are the good typefaces, what are the bad ones, what are the rules and typography. I mean those most are rules that I use involve a type that Sarah son and type faces have class. Serifs have strength. There are things that you know instinctively know, what typeface to use when you are finding the right font for the job. Serifs mean class. Sensors mean strength. Some cross generalizations. Image big, type small, that's okay. Type big, image small, that's okay. Type and image taking the same amount of space. Not so good. That's where scale comes in. Good design, and we're talking mostly about graphic design. Play is always a part of the design because you juggle elements. Type and image to satisfy your message and you need to play. Create something great. 9. Looking Ahead: Designers have realized the importance of knowing the history of graphic design because they can take things from it. It shows the thinking of the designers. Using what technology they had at that time that can be used again in a fresh way like reusing old types. There's a lot of terrific old stuff there that designers can mine and use for their own uses. Woodcuts were used because photoengraving had not been invented yet. So, they couldn't reproduce a photograph, but they could have somebody do a rendering and cut it in wood. But, those renderings now become of interest to us because they're novel, something we had seen. They may have a certain vitality in it, and you find out that by studying the history of design, especially old typography that was very illustrative. Some of it was very decorative because it had the feeling of illustration before illustrations were used the way they are done now. They were just limited in the way in what they could use. So, to make a page interesting, the alphabet became very florid and very complicated in lines and outlines. You don't need that anymore. Now, it's all Helvetica. I'm only kidding. Yeah, you have the internet, but you have to know what you're looking for. You have to be inspired by something there, but it's all searching. You have to look for it, and you don't know. The answers are not, you can't push a button and your answer will pop up. Because, if it does, it's no good. It's either been done before or just not good enough. There is some work involved. What could I tell students who want to get ahead? I have to tell them to work hard. It's unfortunate that there are a few things that are done in print these days. Everything's done online, but find other ways to attract attention with a kind of vision that's different from everybody else's with a style that's all your own, not too easy, not like everybody else, not too far out. So, you got to push the envelope as far as you can to achieve what you want to do. You never know you're as good as the last job you've done. So, the idea is to make it as good as possible. 10. What's Next?: way.