By Craig Schlanser

For the past few years I’ve been drooling over the stunning illustrations in Philly’s premiere green pub, Grid Magazine. I recently had a chance to speak with the charming talent behind these images, Melissa McFeeters. Here, McFeeters discusses how her creative development has been nurtured by a peculiar blend of craft shows, commitment-phobia, and the wise words of N.P.R.’s Ira Glass.

Craig Schlanser: Tell me a little bit about how you initially got into design and illustration.

Melissa McFeeters: Is it cliché to say that it’s in my blood? Because I think it’s true; my dad has a graphic design degree from Kent State, and my mom got her Certificate of Design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Both of them are all sorts of creative, and I think I owe every inkling of my creativity to them.

Although neither of my parents are graphic designers or illustrators by trade, my family has subliminally taught me to be mindful of design. They brought me to art and craft shows since I was a baby (okay, sometimes they dragged me). My sister went to art school and then transferred to earn a music degree as an opera singer (I can’t sing worth a hoot…but I hoarded her discarded photographs and the smell of Plasticene still instantly reminds me of her school projects). My dad introduced me to stamp collecting when I was in middle school (I still go to stamp shows). My mom introduced me to face-painting when I was 15 (I was a professional face-painter for 6 years). The list goes on and on…

My high school calculus teacher insisted that I was going to be an engineer, but the thought of anything other than a creative career never really crossed my mind.

Craig Schlanser: I’m a big fan of Philadelphia’s Grid magazine, and I have to say, part of the reason I love it is because of your illustrations. How did you get hooked up with such a sweet gig?

Melissa McFeeters: One word: Craigslist. In 2008 I was working full-time as an Interactive Designer, but having gone to school exclusively for print design, I always had one eye out for interesting illustration or print opportunities. Additionally, I’ve always been interested in sustainability issues (several of my school projects had environmental themes), so it was a serendipitous occasion that I came across a Craigslist ad from the Art Director at Grid looking to add to his pool of illustrators for the new publication. I responded, and a few months later I got my first assignment for the prototype issue. I did illustrations for Grid off and on for over a year, and then last summer they offered me a job as a freelance designer as well. It seems rare for a successful working relationship to come out of a Craigslist ad, but I think it’s safe to say that this is one of them.

Craig Schlanser: What’s your process like for working on an editorial assignment?

Melissa McFeeters: It’s not always the same for each assignment, but the obvious first step is to read the article. (If the copy hasn’t yet been written, I’ll look online for similar pieces.) Then I read it again and take note of words and phrases that stand out, usually visual descriptions or colorful imagery, and then I add to this list of words through free association. From there, I sketch. Sometimes I’ll have an idea right away, sometimes I’ll be completely stumped, but (time permitting) I like to submit at least two concepts to an Art Director. Then, depending on the size and level of detail I want in the illustration, I’ll either start drawing with chalk pastels, or I take it to Photoshop straight-away.

Craig Schlanser: Like many creatives, I imagine you get stuck from time to time. What’s your secret for getting unstuck?

Melissa McFeeters: I get stuck all the time. Unfortunately, I sometimes get so stuck that I don’t even know I’m stuck. In any case, the best thing for me to do is take a break. When I’m deep into the concept phase it helps to take a step back, look at the whole picture, let it simmer, talk it out.
If I’m deep into the production phase, and the visuals are not where I want them to be, it might be better to take like, 20 steps back…into the kitchen, to get a drink. Or a snack. Or dessert…

Craig Schlanser: Tell me a little bit about how you developed your illustration style.

Melissa McFeeters: I’ll spare you the bit about how I’ve been “drawing ever since I could pick up a crayon” and skip to the part where I signed up for an Art Direction class at Tyler School of Art during my junior year. I must not have read the course curriculum when I signed up because on the first day we were asked to bring in samples of our illustration style…and I didn’t have any. So when I first got to work on developing a style, I knew two things:

1. Being an apparent commitment-phobe, I wanted to use a collage technique to assemble images, rather than exclusively drawing or painting. Before I start an illustration, I imagine all the visuals as individual pieces, not a cohesive image. It isn’t until the illustration is about 90% completed that I know how it’s going to turn out; it starts out more like a puzzle that needs to be put together. And I liked the idea of using Photoshop rather than physical materials because of how forgiving it is (hello, CTRL + Z).

2. I didn’t want to create exclusively vector work because I love working with texture.

So the end result was that I (very) loosely draw shapes and colors with chalk pastels, then scan them and cut them out in Photoshop. Depending on the complexity/size of the illustrations, I may use pre-scanned textures, but the illustrations are always pieced together. Now that I feel more comfortable with this process, I’m looking to shake things up. I just bought a bunch of gouache, so I’m excited to see where that might lead me.

Craig Schlanser: When you aren’t designing or illustrating, what do you do to recharge your batteries?

Melissa McFeeters: For me, a good movie and dinner at a favorite restaurant is a night well spent. Especially if there’s a cheese plate involved. Some other key words in my recharging process include: sleeping, cooking, dancing, jumping, listening, learning, laughing.

Craig Schlanser: Any advice for up-and-coming designers/illustrators?

Melissa McFeeters: I think I’m still in a position where I could benefit from some advice! But one thing I try to remember is that even though this is a creative, inspiring field, it’s still a business just like any other; it takes a lot of hard work to get to where you want to be. There’s a video floating around from Ira Glass (NPR) in which he basically says that we’re in our creative fields because we have good taste, but it could take years for someone to develop their skills into something that matches even his/her own taste level. Perseverance is key, and Ira Glass is always right.

+ all Grid work was art directed by Jamie Leary