Advice from a Master: Bill Maughan

Aside from free resources like Escape from Illustration Island, and catch-as-can advice from communities like, it can be difficult to gain the insight a professional artist needs when beginning her career.  Schools don’t usually teach the business side of freelancing or working for a company, managing one’s time, or how to protect one’s work, let alone how to develop one’s own style and keep it fresh.  But the focus that the Academy of Art University has on becoming not only a skilled artist, but a professional industry-ready artist, is a major reason why I joined its program.

Bill Maughan, the head of the Graduate Illustration School at AAU, was generous with his time and attention – staying twice as long as he was scheduled to answer our questions – at Graduate Orientation.  Bill (I feel a little irreverent using his first name, but that’s the convention at school), Bill has been illustrating long before I was born; to say that he knows what he’s talking about is a grand understatement.  He is a modern master of Illustration and Fine Art:

A professional illustrator and fine artist, Mr. Maughan received a Bachelor of Fine Art in Illustration from the Art Center College of Design. He has provided numerous illustrations for such companies as DreamWorks, Woman’s Day, TV Guide, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, CBS, Universal Studios, Wells Fargo Bank, Chevrolet, GMC, Franklin Library, New American Library, Avon Books, Pinnacle Books, Signet Books, Tor Books, Doubleday, Harcourt Brace, Knopf, Oxford University Press, Danbury Mint, Fenwick and others. Since the early ’80s Mr. Maughan’s work, both originals and prints, has been represented by major galleries and publishers, domestically and internationally. His works of art are included in private, commercial and museum collections. Mr. Maughan’s book, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Drawing the Head, was published in 2004 by Watson/Guptill.

When he’s not teaching Academy students the fundamentals — realism-based drawing, design concepts, value, form, color and composition — he paints in his studio in the mountains of Utah.

Many aspiring professionals want to ask what those who have established themselves wish they’d known before they started.  The following are key points from his lecture and Q and A with us:

  • Get an agent. Having someone else to wrangle commissions, contracts, and handle all things legal for you will free you up to do your art.
  • Keep your style flexible. It can quickly become dated if you stagnate.
  • But don’t copy someone else who is alive! Not only can you get in trouble, but others will think your work belongs to the older (more established) artist.
  • If you can’t develop your own style, copy someone who is dead. It’s also perfectly fair to copy a master’s color pallet and create new content with it.  This is a great way to learn color theory.
  • The best way to develop your style and keep it fresh is to keep learning. Learn to use new mediums, about new trends, explore different subjects, etc.
  • Illustrating commercially is like giving birth. It’s painful, but afterwards you forget the pain and love every one of your projects like your own children. Bill prefers to switch between illustration projects and his fine art painting, the subjects of which are his own choice.
  • Retain copyrights to your work.
  • This way, if you sell a copy of your art to, say, Wells Fargo (like he did) for one type of use, you can be paid again when they want to use it in a different way.
  • It’s hard to prevent theft in this age of the Internet, and people must pay to use your work, but having an agent to handle when your art is stolen will preserve your time.

I hope Bill’s advice, distilled into these key points, will be as useful to you as it is to me.

If you are an established artist, what kind are you and what do you wish you’d known when you started out?  If you are just starting out, what do you want to know in order to prepare yourself for industry or freelance work?  If you aren’t an artist, what are you curious about when it comes to the business of being an artist?