Interview: Marc Scheff

Marc is a renaissance man. That’s going to embarrass him but it’s true. He is the rare breed of artist who equally occupies all spheres of his brain - an illustrator, painter, art director and former computer scientist who approaches his work with discipline and humor. I don’t know for sure but I’d bet he can also cook.

He’s an inclusive, articulate, social person (and professional) who surrounds himself with talented people and he’s eager to share the glory. I expected I’d learn something from his interview and I wasn’t disappointed.

How would you describe you what is it that you do?
I am an artist and an art director, so I make art for clients, and I hire artists for other clients. I also write, and work on creative side-projects.

Have you always done this for a living or did you transition from something else? What triggered your decision to make a change?
I was a comp sci major in college. After a few years in the tech field I took an art class, then two, then three. Then I quit my job and went back to art school. I have always loved art but a career as an artist seemed CRAZY to this fairly conservatively-raised Boston kid. Still, I knew from my first day in tech that I wanted to be on the visual side, and focused on front-end engineering which interfaced directly with the design teams. It really just took that first class to get me hooked. I worked in games, and after moving to NYC and working with the nothing-short-of-brilliant Brad MacDonald, I went freelance started doing my own collaborative projects and going to workshops like the Illustration Master Class (the IMC). When one of those went viral, I was offered a gig doing AD work for custom merch for big video games at Treehouse Brand Stores. That was an easy yes. After years pounding pavement, I understood the trials of finding work and getting paid, so I was happy to step into a position to help others like me as I continued to develop my own work.

What is the most challenging thing about practicing your craft? How do you deal with that challenge?
On the illustration side, finding my voice has been the biggest hurdle. Every artist deals with this, especially commercial artists who not only have to find something personal to say but something that they can market as well. Because I have been able to create multiple income streams through AD work and teaching, I have made that exploration a priority. My most recent challenge here is doing this work with real paint, not pixels. I have been focused on this for a month or two now, and post progress shots on my instagram.

On the AD side, it’s all about communication. I recently co-authored an in-depth article on the challenges herein with Lauren Panepinto on Muddy Colors. I would say the biggest challenge is just making sure everyone has what they need and a clear understanding of how to get the best product. And when things go wrong, it’s up to me to figure out how to navigate the project to success. If that sounds vague, I encourage you to read the article.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?
Every day.  I sketch, paint, and gather feedback on my work. On the AD side I read a lot about leadership styles, effective management, and keep up on what and who is hot. When I can, I get to a figure drawing session too, but with the constant juggling plus a family, it happens less than I care to admit.

Where do you find inspiration?
Is “everywhere” too pat an answer? I really do try to approach even mundane day-to-day with an eye out for possible ideas. My iPhone is my notebook, and I keep a lot of reference pics, some of which may just be a reminder of an idea or an actual reference for a painting I’m working on. I went to Morocco with my wife and I think I have 400 close-up pics of hand-carved doorways, which I recently used to design patterns for a piece for the Science Fiction Book Club.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?
Falling asleep at 3am. If I’m up that late, it’s because my mind is running. Again, my iPhone is my trusted friend and I often wake up to find drowsy emails from myself with a few words, a quick sketch in the Brushes app, and reminders of ideas.

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?
I try to eat well, exercise, and take breaks. I also try to focus when I’m working and make sure I have the time to do so. I don’t check email on weekends or before noon. I look if I have a project that I know needs attention, but for the most part my teams and clients have my cell phone and are welcome to use it. So I feel relaxed about unplugging and letting my mind and body rest. There’s plenty of research on this, and 99u had a nice piece on the subject.

How much do you rely on feedback from other to help shape your ideas?
I have a mentor, the fabulous Rebecca Guay who does both illustration and fine art work. She is my good friend, my boss, my mentor, and my go-to for feedback on work I’m creating. She has helped me fine-tune both my style and my message.

In general, I’m a big fan of peer review when working on new work, especially as a freelancer. I can’t think of a piece that wasn’t improved by a second set of eyes. I have even just killed pieces that weren’t working and started over with a better, fresher idea.

That said, at some point, every artist has to make their own way and stretch themselves. I have been creating new work this month and seeing how far I can take it on my own. I recommend a mix of both.

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?
Life? Kids? Wanting to sleep or watch a movie? Anything can get in the way if you let it. I think you have to shift perspective and let everything else you do serve to feed your creativity. Like I said, breaks are good, and they can provide the inspiration you can’t find at your desk.

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?
For client work, that’s pretty important. If I ever do deviate from my original I _always_ get the AD approval. And as an AD, I always appreciate it.

Sticking to your concept is good, however, if a better idea comes along and you don’t chase it, that’s can be a missed opportunity. Every painter and project manager has had that moment where they notice something is off and is faced with the choice to fix or try to get away with it. My advice is fix it, get the better piece, learn something, and maybe lose a little sleep to get it. I have never regretted making even big changes when I knew it was in service of a greater idea.

How do you know when you’re done?
Da Vinci said it best, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I have definitely put a piece down, with plans to come back, and when I came back I realized it was done. In fact, I never really know until I step away for some time. Still, it is often hard to tell with your own work and that’s where peer or mentor review can help.

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?There are three things that help: Communication, Communication, and Communication. Everyone has a different way of asking the same questions, and it’s easy to assume they mean something they don’t if it’s not the way you would ask. The ability to step back, even count to ten or take a day to reply to an email you found challenging. That ability can set you apart from the pack.

 What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?
I always try to make a project work for me, and if I can’t I try not to take it. I recently did a series of 25 portraits of famous scientists. It’s not necessarily “in my wheelhouse” but I used the project to explore some ideas I had around digital paint application. Right place, right time for them to approach me. With other assignments, I always try to come up with ideas that meet the client’s needs as well as my own portfolio. However I come in to a project, I try to make it serve either exploration or portfolio. If it really can’t do either, I don’t take those jobs.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?
I ask for help, or take a walk. Sometimes a friend, or my wife, might have an idea that I can work with or change to fit the assignment. An environment change also does wonders, especially if my eyes are out for ideas. I will go to my living room and look at art books, or take the dogs for a walk, or go for lunch with a friend. Anything to shake something loose.

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?
As an AD, I am lucky enough to have a decent budget and can get some great artists. Still, we know we have a limited number of opportunities to review the work and we build our communication lines with our client to get as much as we can early on so the artist isn’t making big changes after a finish. That doesn’t always work, and when things drag on diplomatic communication is key.

As an artist, I always try to create the best piece possible, regardless of budget, but I don’t take every job. I know enough now to look at a brief and budget and know if it is the right project for me. I will occasionally take a low budget project if it’s something that is just the perfect thing for me to work on at that time.  

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.
Other than approach and process:

  • Photoshop CC
  • Sketchbook and pencil
  • My 3 year old son. That kid says the funniest things, and a few of my recent personal pieces have been inspired by his obsessions with wolves and other things. 

What are the top 3 creative habits that have proven to be the most useful for you in your career?

  1. Seek inspiration.
  2. Seek education.
  3. Seek connection.

These are all ways of approaching the world, and can be habitual if you make them so.

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?
Be good and be nice. If you’re not good enough, keep working and do whatever it takes to get better. If you’re not nice to people, good luck, you’ll need it.

Learn more about Marc