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Meet Our Community Illustrator: James Olstein

It has been a tradition at CreativeMornings to work with an artist in our community to create an illustration for the monthly theme.

A monthly theme inspires new conversations and ideas that we otherwise wouldn’t think about. At our events, speakers are invited to share a story around the theme and what it means to them. After a month, we are excited to see the kinds of talks and inspiration that are born out of the theme.

The global theme for August is Community.

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Given that these monthly illustrations are at events all of the world, it’s only right that we get to know the illustrator.


Meet James Olstein

James Olstein is an editorial illustrator and artist. He lives in Philadelphia and enjoys drinking coffee, listening to records, and getting messy from screen printing.He has worked with clients that include the BBC, Monocle Magazine, Mental Floss, Scientific America, Outside Magazine, economia, the Boston Globe, and the National Constitution Centre. James’ first book of science facts for kids, entitled Odd Science: Amazing Inventions, comes out in September!

How did you get into illustration work?

I’ve always loved to draw and began drawing pictures of myself on the walls of my parents house at a very young age. When I got a little older I started copying characters from comics like Spider-man, X-Men and Indiana Jones. As a teenager I was very into music and album art. I didn’t do very well in my drawing classes in college. I never got higher than a C, but now I do it for a living. So never give up?!

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At what point in your life did you realize that illustration was your calling?

For years I worked as an art director at an advertising agency in Philly. The work was a bit of a bummer. They started doing more campaigns that were illustration heavy and they hired some awesome freelance illustrators. Eventually there became a need for people internally to do some illustration work as well. I volunteered and really enjoyed it. Because of those projects I actually got to see how professional illustrators worked with their clients. Illustration became all I wanted to do and I started to think up a plan to do it full time. I did more illustration work on the side apart from my ad agency work. I started a personal project of editorial science illustrations, which I love working on because I’m also learning as I make them. Eventually I found my style and started to really pursue illustration as a career. About 2 years ago I said “bye” to my advertising job and I’ve had my own illustration studio ever since. I have one employee, my cat Nacho.

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How has your work evolved over time and what were some influences that caused it?

My illustrations started out very Photoshop heavy and overall looked kind of clunky. Lot’s of layers and really overdone textures. I wasn’t doing a lot of sketching, but making an illustration would take FOREVER. Eventually I wanted to make some screen prints, so I scaled my palette back a little bit to 2-3 colors. I’ve always loved two color art, like flyers for punk shows. As I started making more prints I began approaching my work as if it was all going to be screen printed. So even now when I take on a job I approach it like it’s going to be a print. I try to use the textures as more of an accent now and a way to break up the space in my illustrations. I also try to be more expressive with the shapes I draw and keep the hard edges to a minimum. I really love Saul Steinberg and strive to have work as fun as his.

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How do you define ‘community’? and what role has this played in your creative life?

I always think of community as the people you surround yourself with that have a similar outlook or even the same goal. We have a community art school in Philly called Fleisher that offers classes. It’s great for people that like to learn different mediums. I do my screen printing there and it’s been a great way to meet other people in my neighborhood. It’s open to everyone which is great.

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What advice would you give to fellow illustrators?

There are no big wins, only the small victories. To be successful as an illustrator you have to keep building upon your work. There are really no quick shortcuts or one time big breaks. You’re going to have times where you feel like what your doing something big, but then it’s a disappointment for you. It’s happened to me, you just have to roll with it, keep going and celebrate with Oreos when it goes well.

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What’s something in your industry that deserves more attention?

I think illustration is a great place to get perspective from many diverse sources. Illustration can be a global community in itself. For example you don’t necessarily have to speak english to do an illustration for an American newspaper.

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Tell us something about yourself that we can’t find on Google.

For some reason I can’t snap my fingers, maybe my hands are too soft? However I can wiggle my ears. Both individually and at the same time.


Photo credit: Rebecca Collins

Discover James’s work on his website, Instagram, and Dribble. Be sure to check out his newest book, Odd Science: Amazing Inventions.

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