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Featured Artist: David Terrill

I've been glued to David Terrill's work for some time. His art has an electric vibe, like a living thing that's always in motion. The colors and bizarre use of shapes grab you and reel you in. Most artists lose something when they transition from a sketch to the final work but David seems to hang on to the raw beauty of a sketch through to the final piece. I'd love to dig through the piles of sketchbooks he must have, it's obvious he is constantly drawing and creating. Keep reading to see how he went from working in a steel mill to a professional artist. 

How did art play into your childhood?

Art was a big part of my childhood. I remember keeping sketchbooks and painting on anything I could get my hands on. My parents bought me drawing kits by Jon Gnagy, a TV art personality from the 1950/60s. He was before my time, but the books and art materials (pencils, charcoal, paper stumps, etc.) enabled me to “teach myself” some basic fundamentals. I had a set of Star Wars comics from the original movie, they must have been 1977/78? I remember copying and copying the stormtroopers in my sketch pad, which at the time was an old legal pad I found in my dad’s office. Later in high school, we had no art classes, so I was left to drawing on my own. I would get into trouble in classes for drawing, and the sketches would get confiscated. I found out years later that my history/social studies teacher had kept all of the pictures I had made in his classes.

I really don’t remember the first time I went to an art museum, but the illustrations in magazines and the artwork/package design on board games and toys were the first exposure I had to art of any kind. I imagine this may have a lot to do with the path that led me to where I am today, making and teaching illustration.

What did your parents do wrong and what did they do right in raising an artist?

I think they did a fantastic job considering we lived in a small town and the arts weren’t part of our everyday life. My parents recognized my interests and supported me by sending me to various classes, which I remember, were mostly adult art continuing education in nature. One, in particular, was taught by a local wildlife artist from New Zealand at the community art center. I remember learning how to really get in there and draw a very realistic eye. 

The support that both my parents gave me (especially growing up in a steel town) was exceptional. They never questioned my choice to go into the visual arts, they just enabled me to do so.

John and Sue get an A+.

What type of art education or training did you get?

Self-taught all the way through high school except for the classes my parents sent me to when I was younger. I flirted with the idea of becoming a veterinarian for about one hot minute but quickly switched my focus after a fainting incident during one of my science/dissection classes. 

I have a BFA from Miami University of Ohio and was trained in design and Illustration. My illustration professor was C.F. Payne. He had a significant impact on me. I remember at the time I was in his class he would bring in these illustrations he was working on for Rolling Stone Magazine. There used to be a monthly page “The History of Rock and Roll" if I remember correctly. He would bring them to show to the class and work on them. I would see these works in progress, pieces like Pete Townshend busting his first guitar, the birth of Gene Simmons, all this beautiful work made with humor.  This was an excellent opportunity for a young illustrator just starting out.  After Miami, my education continues with my 27+ years as a professional artist. I still have a lot to learn, which is what I love about art, and the best part about being a teacher.

How did you go from working in a steel mill to being a freelance artist?

I worked quite a few jobs while in high school and college. Steelworker, lifeguard, drug store clerk, bookstore clerk, I even worked at a summer camp and was a jack of all trades.

I worked the summers (in between semesters at Miami University) for Armco Steel (Now AK Steel). My father was a steelworker/pipefitter/master plumber and worked there for 40 years. I worked in various locations in the plant, blast furnace, slitter shears, recycle plant among a few…. Scary, dirty, tiring and dangerous work. The last summer, when I returned to school in the fall, I remember hearing a man was killed doing the very job I had been doing. This put a new fire in my belly to stay in school and complete my college degree.

How do you currently get the bills paid?

I’m originally from the Cincinnati, Ohio area. I worked as an illustrator out of school while still living there.  In the early 90s, I was recruited by Hallmark Cards to be a greeting card artist, and that’s how I ended up in KC where they are headquartered. Additionally, in KC I have worked as a freelance Illustrator, an in-house illustrator/designer/art director/ for various Kansas City agencies.  I fell in love with Kansas City (and my wife Alexandra) and have been here ever since.

Seven years ago, I decided to make a change and move into education full-time, taking my many years of experience with me to pass on to young creatives. I am now a full-time Assistant Professor of Illustration at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. I teach various courses in the illustration department at sophomore and senior levels. I am truly in my dream job (not many of us can say that) and thankful to be part of such a fantastic illustration faculty. I am forever grateful to my Chair and friend, Steve Mayse for helping me find my way to teaching.

In addition to teaching, I work two days a week as a Creative Director/Director of Talent at a creative agency in town, C3. I direct the paid internship program that brings in students from area schools to work in an agency environment for the spring/fall semesters, as well as a more extended summer internship.

I still work on freelance projects as time permits. I recently created some interior wall murals for a downtown apartment building in KC. I enjoyed seeing my work on such a large scale. I would like to do more of this type of work in the future.  Additionally, for many years, I have created work for a local brewery, illustrating labels and packaging for their various beers.

My focus the last couple of years, regarding my personal work, has turned to my sketchbook practice and travel. This allows me to combine my art with spending time with my family.

In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a successful art student?

Curious and willing to take chances, have an open mind and heart, hard work and dedication, someone not afraid to fail. A certain degree of confidence combined with a healthy dose of humility. Always asking questions of faculty, peers and of themselves.

Is there a type of person that's a bad fit for a formal art education?

Formal training may not be for everyone. I think it depends on the person and what they are looking for in their education. How much are they going to invest in their training? Will they make the educational process work for them as an individual, taking advantage of the access they have to faculty and peers? Learning from everyone around them as well as sharing their own knowledge. A lot of what school is about is making connections, not only with others but with oneself. It is also about timing and balance, is it the right moment for someone to make this commitment in their life? 

What are the perks or disadvantages of being an artist in Kansas City? 

Kansas City is a small town with some large city amenities, a vibrant and active arts scene, professional sports, museums, good food, all with affordable living. With technology, you can live almost anywhere these days and have an illustration and/or art practice, but that being said, living in a large city and having the ability to meet the people you need to see your work is vital.

Clients, art directors, galleries, etc.  I think it depends on what you are looking for in your career. I’ve had quite a few students move to the coasts and find success, as well as those that have settled elsewhere and have success as well. It really depends on how you define success. It will be different for everyone. At this stage in my career, my idea of success is here in KC with my family, being a dad, a husband, making art, traveling and teaching.

You use a lot of strong colors and shapes, how did you develop that style?

This is something that has happened slowly over the last few years. I have always loved to draw and doodle. I have always drawn simple shapes and color. I suppose these things are being fused together now. I think the strong colors come from my love for Fauvism. I am excited to see where it will go.  As I get older, I am more interested in the immediacy of pen marks and brush strokes. Making things that aren’t overworked or too refined as a response to what is happening in the moment.

It's obvious from your social media that you sketch a lot, did you always sketch that much or did you have to discipline yourself to do that?

Over the past 3 or so years, I made a conscious decision to dive into an active sketchbook practice. It has become a habit now, and I don’t go anywhere without my sketchbook gear. 

It is also a great conversation starter with folks that you meet along the way. People really respond positively to seeing someone drawing and keeping a sketchbook, which I learned from a recent trip to China.

Do you have a routine for squeezing in some drawing time or is it random?

I try to draw during meetings, school events, lectures, my children’s sports functions, and of course when we travel. I teach a class in the spring semester at KCAI entitled, Cultural Safari where we use Kansas City as our classroom. We go to the zoo, city markets, and most recently we went to a local medical school and drew cadaver dissections. Additionally, I try to draw every night before bed, which doesn’t always happen.

What are some of your favorite sketchbooks and tools for everyday sketching?

I love to draw with fountain pens. My favorite pen is my Pelikan M200. I also use a Lamy Safari and a Noodler’s Ahab Flex Nib when I draw. I use Noodler’s Black Bulletproof ink with my watercolor paint (waterproof- paint over top of the linework) My palette is made up of Daniel Smith, Holbein and Winsor Newton paints. My current sketchbooks are the Travelogue/Handbook (various sizes) made Global Art Materials here in KC. I like the drawing weight as well as the heavier watercolor weight of papers. Both take the ink and watercolor well.

I am always on the lookout for new materials to try out.

How much of your professional illustration work is digital versus traditional? Or is it a mix?

Everything starts out as a physical drawing, inked or in pencil. Color, depending on the technique can be traditional or digital. I want my work to have my hand in it. I’ll throw in some collage elements from time to time as well. Sometimes the digital portion of the process is just used to format the work and to get it ready to be printed, depending on the end usage. In the end, I have found I lose something in my work if I make it entirely digital from scratch, but… I recently have started experimenting with Procreate on an iPad with an Apple Pencil. I think I can see a place for this new technology in my commercial work. 

Is anyone else in your family an artist?

My daughter shares my passion for drawing and keeping a sketchbook. We often share a sketchbook and play drawing games.

If you could travel anywhere in the world and fill a sketchbook, where would that be?

We traveled to China in the summer of 2017. I kept a sketchbook from the experience and it was life-changing. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to share this experience in Detroit in July at the ICON 10 Illustration Conference, Educational Symposium. I’ll be presenting my paper, The Sketchbook: Let’s Connect. It is based on my experience in China, keeping a sketchbook and how drawing connects us all. 

After China, I now have the international travel bug, (as do my wife and children). The next trips…I would love to go to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Is there any type of art that you'd like to try but haven't really explored yet like sculpture, animation, 3D etc?

I love sculpture and 3-D work. I have dabbled in sculpture and bronze casting in the past and would like to find time to explore the medium more. I love animation as well, so, add that to my bucket list.  We just need more hours in the day.

If money and time were no object what project would you do?

Travel internationally every summer with my family, record the experiences in my sketchbook /journal, and create volumes of books from the work produced. I love putting together publications and documenting experiences.  

Where can people find your art?

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