Decades ago, illustration meant creating artwork to illustrate stories in magazines, newspapers and books. Today, ArtCenter Illustration alumni encompass a broad swath of professions. Twenty-first century illustrators are conceptualizers, problem solvers, storytellers, image makers, innovators and culture aficionados. They work in industries ranging from publishing and high fashion to animation and virtual reality.
“Our graduates have achieved extraordinary success by crossing into multiple disciplines,” says Associate Professor David Tillinghast. “They’ve often forged highly personal career paths that would have been unthinkable only 20 years ago.”
After mastering foundation skills such as figure drawing, Illustration students choose from five main tracks—Surface Design, Illustration Design, Motion Design, Entertainment Arts and Illustration/Fine Arts, plus a social impact Designmatters minor—allowing them to soar creatively in different directions.
“There are many things a student with illustration skills can do, and our program shows you how,” says Illustration Chair Ann Field. “Students are excited about the possibilities their future can take.”
Maps are one of the purest expressions of who I am, as both an anthropologist exploring the world and as an illustrator describing the world visuallyAlexander Vidal (BFA 15)
“Maps are one of the purest expressions of who I am, as both an anthropologist exploring the world and as an illustrator describing the world visually,” says freelance illustrator Alexander Vidal (BFA 15) in his apartment, shared with his husband and two dogs in the L.A. area of Los Feliz, a short drive from Hollywood and hiking trails in nearby Griffith Park.
As their French bulldog snorts joyfully next to Vidal’s desk, covered with piles of sketchbooks and travel and nature books, he opens up his illustrated map Museums of Los Angeles: A Pocket Field Guide he self-publishes and sells. Like Vidal’s other work, it’s graphic and bold.
Growing up in New Mexico obsessed with geckos and birds, Vidal went to zoo camp every summer, and drew animal characters. Years later, after taking ArtCenter at Night classes while getting an undergraduate degree in fine art and anthropology at Occidental College, and then earning a master’s degree in African studies from the University of Cape Town, he was accepted into ArtCenter.
Vidal chose Illustration’s Surface Design track—exploring fashion accessories, textile, sports apparel design and product design—and counted track leader Associate Professor Christine Nasser as a mentor. After graduating, he and Illustration alumni Loris Lora (BFA 14), Ellen Surrey (BFA 14) and Patrick Hruby (BFA 10) formed the New Modernist collective Clover Scout.
“Whether it’s creating a graphic for mugs or a 10-foot-tall wall, I like the challenge of asking, ‘How do people engage with the surface and how—with that surface—do you amplify a brand?” he says.
Amplifying brands is exactly what Vidal has done. In 2017, he redesigned a hybrid children’s play area and events room at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, depicting deer, condors and mountain lions on its walls, and imbuing the space with sophisticated warmth. He also built a stock of illustrations for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In May, Cameron Kids published his board book Los Angeles Is… with author Elisa Parhad.
“I’m still driven by my childhood interests and curiosity, and that’s what resonates with potential clients,” Vidal says, smiling. “As a freelancer, I like being flexible with my schedule, and switching between projects. That helps re-energize me.”
With kids’ books, I want to keep my imagination alive, and the child inside me tooVivien Mildenberger (BFA 16)
Born in Germany, children’s book illustrator and ceramics maker Vivien Mildenberger (BFA 16) moved to L.A. with her family when she was 3. Her parents read her German children’s classics including Peter’s Journey to the Moon (Peterchens Mondfahrt), about a moon-bound beetle. She drew and built websites, dreaming of having her own kids’ magazine.
Mildenberger, who as a child created characters named Monkey and Froggy, is today represented by international talent firm the Bright Agency, counts Penguin Random House among her children’s book clients, and has more than 25,000 Instagram followers. And she credits her success to ArtCenter’s Illustration program, where she chose Illustration Design—with its hand and digital approaches for licensing, print, publishing and motion—as her track.
“I wanted to choose a track that gave me the most freedom at developing my work the way I wanted it,” says Mildenberger by phone. Illustration Design Lab, taught by Tillinghast, pushed her to develop her own unique drawing style: breezy and loose. Associate Professor Steve Turk, who she describes as “very positive,” motivated her to do children’s books in his course Children’s Book Illustration. She also started making ceramics.
After graduating, Mildenberger moved to her fiancé’s 600-acre Tennessee farm—bursting with blueberry bushes, flanked by a forest and housing cows and horses—and also joined Nashville artist-run studio the Warren. “I don’t have the pressures of city life,” she laughs. Her drawings on Instagram soon caught the Bright Agency’s attention.
Mildenberger loves creating illustrations—mainly using watercolor pastels and colored pencils—for children’s books and personal projects related to history, science and magic. She collaborated on Little Bee Books’ The Flourishing of Floralie Laurel, by Fiadhnait Moser, released in May, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s All in a Drop, by Lori Alexander, about father of microbiology Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and set for release in Spring 2019. Mildenberger’s also working on a kids’ biography of Bill Gates for Little Bigfoot.
“Children’s books are good money when you’re working with big publishers,” she says of the field in which Illustration alumni like Marla Frazee (BFA 81), David Shannon (BFA 83) and Dan Santat (BFA 01) have made names for themselves. “With kids’ books, I want to keep my imagination alive, and the child inside me too.”
Many of the designers on my team are from ArtCenter, and I found them going to Grad Show or walking around the student galleryJanice Ahn (BFA 13)
Northeast of downtown L.A., blocks from historic neighborhood Lincoln Heights’ longtime Latino epicenter bustling with family-run restaurants, Buck art director Janice Ahn (BFA 13) walks through the company’s two-story warehouse that used to house the Lacy Street Production Center, where movies such as L.A. Confidential were filmed. Bikes flank exposed brick walls. Director-style chairs are clustered in a “design pit” on the upper floor.
Ahn, who’s worked at Buck on staff since early 2017, and as an art director since December, is bound by non-disclosure agreements when it comes to details. But she beams pride mentioning art directing a team of 10 designers creating illustrations for Facebook, and using Photoshop and 3D modeling and animation software Cinema 4D to render environments for Google VR. One of the creative directors on her team is Illustration alum Brian Won (BFA 99). “Doing VR is exciting,” Ahn says. “You have to be hyper aware of how you’re designing the entire 360-degree space.”
Born in South Korea and raised in Hawaii, where she painted with bright color since she was a tiny tot, Ahn and her parents moved to California so she could go to an arts high school in Orange County. She knew early on about ArtCenter, where she went straight out of high school, because of her uncle Dan Ahn (BFA 85 Graphic Design), an alum who worked with famed designer Saul Bass.
Influenced by videos for musicians such as Björk, Ahn chose Illustration’s Motion Design track because of its emphasis on stop motion, digital typography, animation and film. She interned at Blind and Gentleman Scholar, and freelanced after graduating for creative companies including Mirada, Imaginary Forces and Buck. With careers in technology and retail, her Illustration colleagues include Hyun Ji “AJ” Bae (BFA 13), a designer at Google, and Claire Kang (BFA 14) and David Chen (BFA 14), designers at Nike.
“Internships are so important, and people get hired by word of mouth,” says Ahn, who lives with her husband in Altadena, and frequently visits the College. “Many of the designers on my team are from ArtCenter, and I found them going to Grad Show or walking around the student gallery.”
It’s important to me to create films and TV with a positive message for both kids and adultsTeny Issakhanian (BFA 15)
Wearing a red scarf wrapped around her neck on a windy day at DreamWorks Animation’s main Glendale campus, in front of a huge splashy fountain, storyboard artist Teny Issakhanian (BFA 15) takes a break to sit and eat outside. Nearby is a high-kicking sculpture of panda Po from DreamWorks’ film franchise Kung Fu Panda.
“The greatest achievement for me is getting the viewer to respond to my work in some emotional way, whether nostalgia, sadness or laughter,” says Issakhanian, who’s working on an as-yet unannounced DreamWorks Animation Television show.
The daughter of Armenian immigrants—her mom is a biochemist and her dad is a business owner—Issakhanian grew up in L.A. always drawing. Her early sketches of people were inspired by Japanese anime TV shows such as Sailor Moon. “My imagination was allowed to grow in a nurturing home, and that fed into who I am now as a storyteller,” she says.
After taking ArtCenter for Teens classes, she got her undergraduate degree in molecular environmental biology from the University of California, Berkley, then went to ArtCenter for Illustration. She chose the Entertainment Arts track, which propels students into careers in feature animation, TV, games and apps. Associate Professor Will Weston “boosted my ability to use gestures, staging and composition,” she says. She set her senior project in West Africa, and poured her knowledge of microbiology into designing patterns for foliage and huts.
While at ArtCenter, Issakhanian interned at DreamWorks, home to many Illustration alumni including Trolls production designer Kendal Cronkhite (BFA 87), in its artistic development and research program. After graduating, she landed jobs as a storyboard artist and visual development artist at the Jim Henson Company for its under-the-sea PBS Kids show Splash and Bubbles—which combines teaching kids about the ocean with empathy for the environment—and as a storyboard artist at Walt Disney Television Animation on Big Hero 6: The Series. She returned in early 2017 to DreamWorks.
“It’s important to me to create films and TV with a positive message for both kids and adults,” says Issakhanian, who aspires to direct, and adores Alfred Hitchcock. “You reach people through the heart.”
If you make excellent work, the world will notice.David Jien (BFA 09)
“I’m inspired the most by nature: its textures, colors, the sun, sky, animals, trees,” says fine artist David Jien (BFA 09). “My work is based on my own narratives, and also influenced by folklore, Greek mythology and the bible.”
On a bright afternoon, Jien sits in his garage work studio, decorated with vintage monster, manga and robot figures. His stained glass sculptures—one looks like a psychedelic Humpty Dumpty—and his intricate graphite and colored pencil drawings of reptile-like beings line the room, along with a gigantic acrylic painting. Steps from his house in Baldwin Park, 30 miles east of ArtCenter, the garage is his creative inner sanctum.
With “City of Angels” tattooed on his arm, Jien wears his history on his skin. Born and raised in L.A. County, Jien got those tattoos when he was 16 and started painting graffiti. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. His dad became a chemist and his mom a nurse. “That motivates me in my work ethic to this day,” says Jien, who has been praised by the Los Angeles Times for his “epic narrative” drawings.
Represented by Santa Monica’s Richard Heller Gallery since 2011, Jien’s career as an artist with solo and group shows, including at New York’s The Armory Show, began two years after graduating from ArtCenter. Before that, his life as a graffiti writer included a short stint in jail for tagging. Andrew Hem (BFA 06 Illustration), an artist in his graffiti crew, urged him to go to ArtCenter for Illustration, and friend Nathan Huang (BFA 05 Illustration) helped him apply.
After graduating, Jien became master printmaker and Fine Art Professor Tony Zepeda’s teaching assistant at ArtCenter’s Printmaking Studio, which Zepeda launched 30 years ago. Jien continues to work there every Saturday. “To me, Tony is the most influential teacher at ArtCenter,” says Jien. Zepeda collaborated with artists including David Hockney, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein.
“My advice to Fine Arts track students is to just make really good work,” says Jien. “It’s as simple as that. If you make excellent work, the world will notice.”