Martin French is an illustrator, designer and educator. His distinctive style, an interplay of marks, signs, and symbols spanning a diverse media context—has been recognized internationally for its dynamic visual exploration of life and culture.
His unique, graphic expressionist images have won awards in juried shows of the leading visual communication organizations across the United States, including Gold Medals from the Society of Illustrators in New York and Los Angeles.
Martin's artistic journey began in the San Francisco Bay Area and created a backdrop for his early visual inspiration. His desire to pursue a career in illustration & design initiated a move to Southern California and a degree in Illustration from Art Center College of Design. A fascination with the growing digital arts movement resulted in a ten year journey working in digital media, ultimately landing in Seattle, and Microsoft, where he served as design director for educational and entertainment software for kids and teens.
In 1996, while still based in Seattle, Martin opened an independent studio with an emphasis on image-based content focused on posters, marks & logos, and advertising illustration. His studio and residence eventually settled into a 10 acre piece of property along Indian Ford Creek on the high desert plateau of Central Oregon. The years spent in this secluded territory combined art-making and fatherhood into one creative vision.
A return to the city in 2006, this time Portland, Oregon, began Martin’s association with the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Energized by a conviction that the mentoring of artists is vital to the creative life of a city, he began development of a BFA program in illustration. PNCA Illustration is now considered one of the top emerging programs in the country. Martin is an associate professor and serves as department chair, teaching classes in professional practice, and the intersection of design & illustration.
In 2011, Martin established the Exile Poster Project. His deep respect for the art of the poster, combined with his desire to encourage those living in the margins of contemporary culture, led him to start this work. An annual poster exhibition, the project aims to confront complex social issues through the art of the poster, helping to invigorate and expand the city's efforts to combat injustice and oppression.
Martin currently resides in Portland and works from a studio strategically located on the edge of the arts district and the outdoor basketball courts on the North Park Blocks.
American Airlines, American Express, Apple, Atlantic Monthly, Bank of America, Barneys New York, Baylor University Magazine, Bostonia Magazine, Candlewick Press, Coca-Cola, Columbia Pictures, Consumer Reports, Diadora, Discovery Channel, DreamWorks, Dutton Children's Books, Fila, Foreign Policy Magazine, Edward Jones, ESPN, The Gap, Grammy Awards, Honda Motorcycles, House of Blues, Island Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Joffrey Ballet, JVC Jazz Festival, Landor, Major League Baseball, Macy’s, McDonald’s, Microsoft, National Geographic, NHL, NBA, New York Times, NFL, Nickelodeon, Nike, Nintendo, Nokia, Penguin Putnam, Pepsi, PGA, Rosingnol Skis, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, Sony Entertainment, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, Stanford University, St. Martin’s Press, Texaco, Time/Warner, United States, Olympic Committee, United States Postal Service, USA Today, Utne Magazine, Warner Brothers, and The Village Voice.
Awards + Publications
The Artfuls / http://www.theartfuls.com/interviews/martin_french
Communication Arts Design Annual (Multiple)
Communication Arts Illustration Annual (Multiple)
Communication Arts Magazine / March/April 2003 / Feature Article
Drawing Inspiration: Visual Artists at Work
Escape from Illustration Island / http://illustrationage.com/2010/04/26/efii-podcast-episode-32-martin-french/
Graphis Poster (Multiple)
Icons & Images: 50 Years of Illustration, Society of Illustrators
Idea-Design Magazine (China) February 2008 / Feature Article
Illustrator Illuminated, Adobe Press 2003 / Feature Article
Lines & Colors / http://www.linesandcolors.com/2007/07/03/martin-french/
Revista Ilustrar (Brazil) December 2007 / Feature Article
Society of Illustrators New York Annual Exhibition (Gold Medal 1999)
Society of Illustrators New York Annual Exhibition (Multiple)
Society of Illustrators Los Angeles Annual Exhibition (Gold Medal 2009)
Society of Illustrators Los Angeles Annual Exhibition (Bronze Medal 1999)
Society of Illustrators Los Angeles Annual Exhibition (Multiple)
STAMP Mag Online / http://www.stampmagazineonline.com/2011/06/13/stamp-artist-feature-34-martin-french/
Step by Step Magazine / Illustration Annual
Step by Step Magazine / May/June 2000 / Feature Article
Q + A
Who is Martin French?
Martin French is an illustrator, designer & educator who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. The grandson of an Italian Cowboy, he grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area soaking up the graphic language of DC and Marvel comic books, dreaming that one day he would grow up to be either a super hero or an artist, preferably the former. He chairs the illustration department at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, directs the Exile Poster Project, and seeks to make art that explores the wild story we call life & culture.
How did you become an Illustrator?
I studied illustration and graphic design at ArtCenter. After graduation I took two consecutive full time jobs, one with Atari and then with Microsoft. Both positions were in digital media – animation, character dev., interface design, game concept dev., etc. Ultimately, I became a director. I used my evenings and weekends to create experimental new work, continue investigation of new medias and techniques, and free-lance illustration projects – all the while knowing I would open my own studio at some point. During this period of my life I learned a great deal about experimental digital media, and ultimately formed my artistic vision. 10+ years after graduation, I did. I had a good financial foundation so I was not desperate for any job that came in. I was selective, and made a decision to be true to my artistic voice, whether or not it made a lot of money. I began by entering many of the juried shows, was fortunate enough to gain some attention and things grew from there.
Who/What are your influences and inspirations?
My kids. One is from a Roma village in Eastern Europe, the other from a Mayan village in Guatemala. Their cultures and creative spirits have influenced my art deeply. Combined, they are my artistic "muse".
Poster art. The underlying idea of art in the streets, communicating messages relevant to our day-to-day lives. The motive of the poster is not to escape the everyday, but to help us take a plunge into its complexities. Specific artists and movements: Revolutionary Posters from Latin America, and the Posters of the WPA.
Aaron Douglas. One of the leading visual artists from the Harlem Renaissance. A commercial artist working with a very personal voice and a deep connection to his own culture.
Jazz. Specifically John Coltrane. An extreme connection to the fundamentals of musical form and theory, combined with extreme exploration and improvisation.
The Blues. Specifically Blind Willie Johnson. A Blues artist from the 1920's with a distinct and powerful voice, his work was a convergence of his personal spiritual beliefs with the Blues idiom.
The writings of the Prophets found in the Old Testament. A mind-blowing collision of imagination, creativity, passion, faith, and real life issues.
Jazz by Henri Matisse.
Do you consider yourself a commercial artist?
I’ve been accused of being too commercial by some people, and too much of an artist by others. I suppose I’m an artist who isn’t afraid of having commercially viable work. I feel the distinction between fine and commercial art is a false premise ultimately. Making art in a commercial context, where the needs of the client and an awareness of your audience are of equal importance with personal expression is a challenge. But, I’ve always been energized by the demands of commercial work, “working against a hard edge” as illustrator Philip Hays put it. With that in mind however, the need to have a clear artistic vision, beyond a visual style, is essential for sustaining a professional illustration practice. There should always be a sense of the artist’s agenda apparent in the work. Any commercial assignment in one sense builds a cage around us. Our job is to plant ideas within the cage that extend past it’s bars, and in some cases, causing the cage to explode. The constraints often times lead to the most profound ideas and vibrant personal statements.
What is your process for creating work for commercial clients?
I create quite a few thumbnail sketches – more for myself than the client, just to make sure I’ve explored all of my options. After exploring multiple ways of presenting the idea or subject, I’ll send the client my rough sketches. Once a visual direction has been agreed on, I’ll then shoot reference images, collect whatever visual research necessary and create the final drawings. I do color and composition studies before going to final usually in traditional media. I can work fairly quickly if necessary, but I like having time to workout the nuances of an image (don’t we all!). From there, I move to the computer, working with all of the scanned drawings to create the final image in Photoshop.
What is your technique and what medium do you work in?
Everything I create is done traditionally with ink, acrylic, graphite, and charcoal. Much of the imagery you see – brush strokes, textures, figurative drawings, splatters are all done separately. I’m keeping in mind the final composition as I create each separate element, but they all take on an identity of their own. Imagery is then scanned into Photoshop and I use the digital media as a place to compose and design. I’m not really painting with the digital tools. Photoshop just allows me the ability to explore visual relationships. Often times, I print the piece out on different types of paper and draw and paint back into it. The mixed media approach allows me to explore fluidly throughout the creative process.
Explain your style of art.
Well, one book critic described it as a neo Jazz-Age comic book pastiche, which I kind of like. I’d call it graphic expressionism – an interplay of chaos and order. Visually, I’m looking to push a series of diverse contrasts: Flat graphic areas to textural, organic rhythms; distinct light and dark patterns; elegant curved lines against straight hard strokes; the simplification of form vs. fine detail. A graphic sensibility with a love for aggressive, primal mark making.
Why do you make the work you do?
My professional practice has been focused on taking symbols from daily life and reworking them into images potent enough to strike passing audiences with an experience of aesthetic and intellectual encounter. I've been especially fascinated by how an individual artist's unique vision, when developed and honed, can be at once exclusively personal and yet widely transcendent. This fascination with the expressive and communal paradox inherent in artistic development is what led me away from a career as a creative director to start my own illustration and design practice. Seventeen years later, its contours and questions still energize my development and practice as a visual communicator.
Thankfully, my disciplinary fascination happens to overlap with what has turned out to be vital professional practice—namely the need for the modern illustrator to find ways of distinguishing their images in a hyper-saturated visual market. That quest isn't, of course, something that ends with a degree or an award. On the contrary, its ongoing, evolving challenges form a large portion of what we refer to as professional practice. How does an illustrator remain savvy and able to read culture? How does an illustrator retain a vision robust enough to start or redirect zeitgeists rather than being conformed to them? Ideally, my work reflects an engagement with these tensions. I'd like to think my images could have worked in 1909, or could work again in 2099—the point being that their appeal depends not on tapping the hype of contemporary culture, but almost the reverse, to strip away the hype and offer up an image conveying the timeless essence of its subject.
What is your teaching philosophy?
My hope for student development in and through cultural engagement is the pedagogical extension of my ambition for my own work. I am seeking to deepen the unity between my own professional practice, artistic voice, and cultural involvement. I am energized by seeking greater rigor, expression, risk-taking, and clarity in my work. Naturally, my general teaching philosophy reflects that kind of ethos: I want students to experience my classroom as a laboratory where processes, ideas, and historical/cultural backdrops are live-wires, highly-charged and dynamic elements through which we can better understand, better share, and better tell, our own stories. What's more—and this is core to my overarching goal for myself and my students—I want the classroom to be a place where we learn how to press ever deeper into that powerful personal/communal paradox that a well-developed vision and a highly-sensitive mind can come together and create.