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Conversations with Mike Koelsch

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mike Koelsch.

Hi Mike, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Since middle school, I’ve been drawing, painting, doodling and just creating things. In high school, I took some art classes as well as doing some private lessons at the local art store and studios. Knowing I wasn’t ready to go off to a big University right out of High School, I decided to stick around and go to Orange Coast College and investigate the art scene seeing if there was opportunities to make it as an artist or illustrator. I also worked at a custom framing shop which also opened my eyes to commercial art (and it helped to frame my own art to sell). At OCC, I was fortunate to have some great teachers who worked in the industry. They encouraged me to pursue a career in Illustration and to look into Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Submitting some work, I was able to get a Saturday class scholarship which in turn broadened my horizons and opened more doors to a career in Illustration. I decided that summer to apply for ACCD and was excepted in 1989. To make a long story short. . . my ACCD days were amazing and they put me on the fast track to a career in Illustration. I graduated in 1991 top of my class and started right away as a freelancer and did work for some of my mentors/teachers from ACCD. My class at ACCD was one of the most talented group of illustrators to graduate from the school. I was very fortunate to have friends that would all push each other and make one another better every semester. After graduation, I was picked up by an artist representative, Tammy Shannon of Shannon Associates. I’ve been working with her and her company ever since. It’s been an adventure being an illustrator all these years. . . with God’s blessing and adapting to technology and styles that are relevant helped me keep up with the times and work as an illustrator for 25+ years.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
I don’t think being in any artistic career whether music, fine art, graphics or commercial art there’s ever a smooth road especially if you’re continuing to challenge yourself. Plus, there are many outside challenges to contend with besides your own personal challenges like running a business, paying taxes, advertising and promoting yourself, keeping up with the styles of today and being relevant, and if you have a family. . . you’re balancing all of that while trying to provide for them. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’ve seen illustrators come and go. I’m grateful to still being doing what I’m doing and thankful for my Rep and how they’ve continued to promote me. It is, however, another expense you have to factor in. My style has had to adapt over the years and I’ve even dabbled in design, logo design and packaging. I’ve resisted working for someone which too, is a challenge in itself ’cause you don’t get a steady paycheck and health insurance. There’s no one way to have a career in the arts, but for me personally working for myself is the most rewarding and allows me to have some flexibility and freedom to do other things (like surfing and coaching soccer). Struggles and challenges make you better and stronger. . . and ready for the next one down the road (because there will be another one).

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I’m mostly known for my illustration work which is influenced by the old masters like Norman Rockwell, NC Wyeth, Coby Whitmore and many others from the 50’s and 60’s. My design work is influenced again by designers from the 60’s and masters like Paul Rand. I still paint traditionally but use Photoshop and Illustrator quite a bit too. Advertising Illustration is my main body of work, but I continue to work in the publishing industry doing book covers and children’s books. I have a little following with Earthworm Jim fans. . . my buddy Doug TenNapel created the character and I had a short stint with Shiny Entertainment in the mid-nineties illustrating the character to coincide with the video games doing all the game box designs, advertising and packaging. Not sure I could say what I’m most proud of other the fact that I’m still working in the creative industry. The computer and Adobe programs have really changed the landscape of my business, but balancing traditional painting and understanding the computer is a necessity. . . but, most clients hire me for my Pulp-style paintings which are still painted traditionally and that seems to separate me from other illustrators.

Can you talk to us about how you think about risk?
Being a freelance illustrator in general is a big risk. . . there are no promises of making it BIG or keeping the lights on for that matter. The industry, like most, is very saturated and with all the computer programs and websites, anyone with an iPad now considers themselves an artist. That is good for some, but on the other hand, those that invested a great deal of money going to quality school and putting in the time studying have it tough in the fact that those others lower the pay and undercut many in the industry ’cause they’re willing to do things cheaper. In fact, it seems that the industry seems to lean in the direction lately of “fast and cheap” as opposed to finding someone of quality and expertise. But it comes in waves and there will always be some demand for great illustration and design. So I’d have to say choosing to be a freelancer instead of taking a safer road working for a big company was the biggest risk I’ve taken. There are times where I try to read what direction the industry is going or where the next niché might be is always adding to the daily risks a freelancer has to deal with. People always like to talk about RISK/REWARD and I’d have to say, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t recommend illustration to anyone that wants to become rich. With that said, I have to also say that there are a lot of rewards for freelance illustrators, one being that you get to create something everyday and there is a love of painting or drawing that is fulfilled when you choose art as a career.

Contact Info:

  • Email:
  • Website:
  • Instagram: sporkunltd
  • Twitter: @SporkUnltd

Image Credits:

St. Vincent – personal project, CA Annual Award of Excellence The Truffle Hunters – movie poster, Cannes & Sundance Award Winners, Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw Rum Runners – High 5 Games Halloween Pirate – Goodwill, art director: Michael Paff Borderline – book cover for Hard Case Crimes Dolemite – magazine cover for BackStory Dennis Quaid – editorial spot for Texas Monthly Magazine Elysium – magazine cover for BackStory

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