Bill Rebholz is a Wisconsin-bred illustrator, designer, and lettering artist whose charming retro style is punctuated by flowing line work and a street smart sense of humor. Bill and I graduated together from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design this past spring, and we caught up recently to talk about life after art school and the transition into the working design world.
Jarad Jensen: What changes have you noticed in your work and general creative practice since graduation?
Bill Rebholz: Well, essentially in life as an artist you are your own art director. You get to choose what your stuff is about and what’s in it. In school it was mostly an editorial style of illustration being taught and pushed. So basically you’re always working in a square and making a composition. I was mostly using paint to create my scenes then. I was more drawn toward compositions with singular figures, but I also have always had a fascination with lettering. Combining those two things was something I played with a little while in school, but it wasn’t something I could try in every assignment; it didn’t always fit. Now I realize that the combination of figures and lettering is one of the strongest things about my work. I’m putting those two components together a lot more lately. It’s funny, because now I realize that in the months since graduation I’ve completely neglected the whole “editorial illustration” way of thinking, but I’ve realized that it’s something that I can’t let myself forget. I tend to go in cycles where I get completely hyped on some new thing I’m working on and I end up neglecting what I knew before. Then I realize it’s something that is still a relevant and important thing to have in my work, so I have to figure out how to bring it back in.
JJ: In my own post-grad job search I’ve found that the skills of an illustrator are usually secondary to what an employer is looking for. There seems to be no such thing as a full-time illustrator position—it’s usually people looking for a designer with a wide variety of skills. Are there any additional skills you have been trying to add to your practice in order to land a job?
BR: I used to know some web design and HTML—I learned it at the tech school I went to before MCAD—but it’s one of those things that if you don’t keep doing it you will forget how to. That’s something I want to get into more now because it’s very valuable to have on a resume.
The title of “Illustrator” isn’t seen often in job postings, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring those skills into the position, because if you do, the work is just going to be that much more exciting. For a while I was down because I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make a career out of doing only editorial illustration for newspapers and other publications. But now I realize I wouldn’t be happy doing just editorial illustration anyway; there are so many possibilities in web design and other areas. You can hand letter a website header or make an animated gif out of drawings—these are all exciting possibilities that I want to learn more about. It’s going to make your work more relevant and your job search easier.
JJ: I think it’s smart to know enough about how to do something so when an employer asks about it you can say “yes, I can do that” even if you don’t know every detail about how you are going to make it happen. When it comes down to it, you will figure out a way to make it work and please the client. I’ve found that I learn and retain knowledge best when I’m focusing on a bigger goal rather than just trying to learn new things.
BR: Yeah, I think something that’s been lost in our internet-driven world, where all the knowledge might exist somewhere out there, but it’s still really hard to sit down in front of a computer and learn a skill completely on your own. It’s very different from the days when you would learn a trade as an apprentice to a master craftsman.
I taught myself lettering by just staring at signs and figuring out the forms and trying to recreate them. I didn’t realize it’s more than just turning the brush perfectly—it’s combining strokes to make the letterform look right. It’s funny because I couldn’t have figured that out on my own if I hadn’t seen a video tutorial online about a sign painter painting show card letters.
JJ: It’s like if you’ve been trying to do something and can’t figure it out, then you see someone else do it perfectly, right away you realize “Oh, that’s how it’s done!” and it makes sense right away. Sometimes you just need that push from someone who knows what they are doing.
BR: Teaching yourself something outside of school, investing yourself into something you enjoy is the best way to learn. I mean, I learned a lot in school, but my work would never be where it is now if I hadn’t invested myself into learning skills that I wasn’t being taught but was really interested in learning.
When I first moved to Minneapolis, I remember this lady wanted these canvases painted in the style of Keith Haring. I saw the job posting and thought, “Yeah, I can totally do that.” So I got in contact with her, met with her, and got the job. At that point I was telling myself I could do it and it would be fine, but I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be. It was just the fact of taking it and thinking it would be fine but then thinking “Wow, this is a lot of work and I don’t really have a great grasp of this, but I’m gonna do it anyways.” It ended up working out fine, and just producing the product and giving it to her was one of my more memorable learning experiences.
JJ: Sometimes it just takes enough confidence and charisma in order to convince the client to trust you with their project. After that, you just have to work through it make sure it all pulls together.
BR: What’s funny about that story though is I’m pretty sure I was shaking in my boots because I had never met officially with a potential client before. I remember it was an older woman and I just kept agreeing with everything she said like “oh, yeah, oh, ok, uh huh.”
JJ: So she just wanted a Keith Haring knock-off to hang on her wall or what?
BR: Well she did want a knock-off but was planning an event and wanted to use it as a tablecloth. Kind of a ridiculous project looking back on it, but it was a good learning experience. I didn’t have any space to paint it at the time, so I would unroll the canvas on the huge floor in the MCAD painting studio and just sit on top of it and draw for hours.
JJ: Well that’s pretty much how he made them, so I guess you learned his style well!
BR: That’s true!
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