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Drawing Paychecks

Fine art's fine, but it doesn't feed the family.

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An other-worldly image by Daniel Frey.
  • An other-worldly image by Daniel Frey.

Illustrator Ron Hill has a simple question for abstract artists who bandy about flowery statements for canvases that feature nothing more than two shades of green: Can they draw?

"They're experimenting with color or balance or space or depth," says Hill, whose work will be shown in Other-Worldly Paintings at the Valley Art Center in Chagrin Falls. "But can they sit and do a human figure?"

Hill's work -- a series of 11 caricatures based on the solar system -- will hang alongside that of local illustrators Daniel Frey and James Mravec. All three have made names for themselves painting commissioned works for science-fiction and fantasy products. It's viewed as hackwork by the gallery crowd, but Hill seems unconcerned.

"As illustrators, we're doing it for a different kind of audience," he explains. "We don't have time to worry too much about the gallery scene. This is just kind of an opportunity to try that area and expose some of the art in that kind of setting."

Hill has been freelancing since he graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1982, but at first, it was just something he squeezed in around his job at an ad agency. Now happily married with three children, he was able to quit his job eight years ago to paint full-time. In many ways, his life is the antithesis of the typical gallery artist's tortured existence, which is vented through stylized forms and experimental color.

"Commercial [art] is perceived by the fine-art world as a sellout, and the fine-art side is more freewheeling and emotional," Hill says. "An illustration has to portray an emotion or feeling as well, but as illustrators, our work is very literal. It's got to be a picture of something. It's got to have detail and reality."

To Hill, even caricature drawing at parties yields art worthy of respect. In fact, he thinks gallery artists may be doing themselves a disservice by not "stooping" to such levels. Such gigs, as he sees it, are good practice -- and the money isn't bad either.

"I go to a party and I get paid $100 an hour to draw pictures," Hill says. "And as I get bigger, more lucrative commissions, I can set aside time for the fine-art, speculative stuff."

Besides, Hill prefers the lifestyle of a working artist over that of a starving artist. And though he admits that illustrators don't concern themselves with archiving their work -- most commissioned paintings are created and shipped off within a week -- he has considered the future. Both Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth were once lowly illustrators, he points out. "And their work ends up in galleries now. It's all art. The real dividing line is that some art is representative, and some art is more emotional. It really just comes down to if you like it."

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