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Artists Find a Voice In "Illustration As A Visual Language" Course

June 1, 2020

From a Bob Marley-inspired children’s book to a posthumous portrait of Maya Angelou, John Jay Cabuay has re-defined the limits of a traditional illustrator. In his new Illustration as a Visual Language course, Cabuay hopes to teach students how to discover their own voice in the illustration industry. 

Cabuay has taught at The New School since 2006, helping develop courses such as Fashion Flats and Digital Graphics with Illustrator. Before teaching, Cabuay worked as a fashion illustrator for brands like Louis Vuitton. His work has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Simon & Schuster. It wasn’t until he completed an MFA in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology that he found a new passion for illustrating children’s books.

“Having a daughter made me realize there was this market I have never explored,” Cabuay told us in a recent interview. Some of his most memorable projects include Get Up, Stand Up: an anti-bullying book for the Bob Marley Foundation, and a book jacket collaboration for As Brave As You. Cabuay has illustrated book and magazine covers and made a name for himself with celebrity portraits.    

“Portraiture can be eye-candy,” he said, recalling a commissioned portrait of Maya Angelou he worked on for The Washington Post, just hours after her death. “[I] dropped everything and went to the studio… four to six hours to complete.”

“I like growing; I don’t like sticking to one thing,” Cabuay said. “I like to be a wanderer in the business.”

In our upcoming Illustration as a Visual Language course, Cabuay will cover the business aspects of succeeding in the illustration industry, including how to deal with feedback from an art director. He plans to show students real projects with his step-by-step approach to solving problems. He will record critiques of students’ pieces with constructive criticisms. But Cabuay encourages students to explore their own solutions to illustration challenges.

“All I can do is guide them through my professional experience,” he said. He encourages students to use mix media and be open minded.

“You’re closing doors on yourself if you stick to one style or to one market,” Cabuay said. “Your signature is your signature, it’s your own hand.”

Cabuay has noticed positive changes to the illustration industry, such as the ability for artists to promote themselves on social media and to take assignments around the globe.

He said one thing that won’t change is taking criticism and navigating professional relationships.

“Working with people is really important,” he said. “You’re part of the creative force. It’s not just about you – there’s a graphic designer, there’s an art editor involved. Revisions are important. Find that middle ground. If you want to do this enough as a profession, you have to compromise.”

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