From Cleveland Rocks to the Cleveland Browns
I grew up in New England before moving to Dallas TX when I was 12. I was lucky to go to the Arts Magnet at Booker T. Washington High School where I graduated in 1982. It was a great place to go to high school, where the curriculum was a mix of academics and discipline arts. I was in the visual arts cluster and arts courses were drawing and painting, fibers, printmaking, jewelry, sculpture…the whole range. The school was also home to actors, dancers and music students. Arts Magnet continues to produce amazingly talented students and I’m thankful I was able to go. I followed with East Texas State University, about an hour outside of Dallas. It’s proximity was key to the school having a deep bench of working professionals from Dallas who were adjuncts. Dallas has some great ad agencies and also many working illustrators. Chris (C.F.) Payne was an instructor of mine for threesemesters. We are close friends today. The commercial art and advertising students from that little state school often won the large regional and some national competitions. My college roommate, David Ring, went on to create the ‘Eat More Chikn’ cows Chick Fil-A ad campaign for the Richards Group when he was a junior art director there.
Before I graduated in May, 1987, I enlisted in the Marine Corps (reservist 1987–1995; active duty Desert Storm in ’91). Artillery School followed Boot Camp and I returned to Dallas in October and started looking for work as a freelance illustrator. A newspaper I visited needed help in their news art department and I was hired as a staff artist. That began what is now 30 years of working for newspapers. I’ve worked in Dallas, San Francisco and Las Vegas before moving to Cleveland in 2011. In addition, I’m a proud father to three great kids and husband to a super-talented writer/web designer wife.
My Artistic Process:
Everything I do as freelance is in addition to what I do for my paper(s). I create work on my own on the side, but generally, I get assignments. If it is for the paper, it’s an email request from an editor. If it’s a freelance assignment it is similar, but there is a budget, rights, deadlines etc. to be discussed. In newspaper work, there are usually quick (or daily) deadlines and I work for every section of the paper. Thankfully, I am very fast and I also have a range of styles. Some assignments are better served with a classic Al Hirschfeld BW ink style (political portraits/caricatures); Some assignments need a different look. Opinion pages usually are more serious, so a style that works in Sports might not be best for an article on nuclear proliferation; Business features can be dry and demand a quieter tone or style.
I have a variety of styles and can adapt any of them to fit the assignment. Sometimes a bright colorful look works best. Sometimes it needs to be clean and crisp vector; sometimes a vector-into-Photoshop for color shading is needed. Simple INK bw or ink taken into Photoshop for coloring…
If I have a niche, it can be argued that it can work against me too. I showed my varied portfolio to an art rep years ago when I was younger, and she looked at my stuff and said “I don’t know what I would push that says ‘Chris Morris.’ You are kind of all over the place, stylistically.” So what works well as a staff newspaper artist was a hindrance as a freelancer. That said, I have clients that call me specifically for a style. The NYT Sports guys like an ink style I have and also know they can call me on Thursday evening and get a final by Friday, with very little communication in between. It takes a while to build up client relationships and the trust that they can expect what you can deliver based on a quick email and maybe a loose sketch.
Sports and Music:
My interests are varied. The answer to this question might be that I have illustrations that stand out because of the scope of the work (675 individual caricatures in one image — the ever-evolving Rock Hall poster — or the client, ESPN or NYT or some of the larger platforms.) But I like sports and enjoy channeling the energy and excitement of sports. That happens with my paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. There’s also deadline pressure and I thrive on that. The Drawing Conclusions assignment I had with ESPN required me to do four images reflecting football games played that day, some not even over yet. Four images inside a 4 hour window every Saturday night for 15 weeks of the college football season.
The Rock Hall Project:
In February of 2012, I was in a meeting with the visuals team at the Plain Dealer, my paper. We were discussing how we should blow out the Rock Hall Induction ceremony coming up in April, something Cleveland hosts every third year. (It’s now every other year). 2012 was our turn. That song by the Righteous Brothers about a “Rock and Roll Heaven” (you know there’d be a helluva band) came to mind and I said “What would a stage look like if it had ALL the inductees on it?” A designer asked “you mean this year’s class? Like they do with the end-of-evening jam session?” and I said “No. Everyone who is IN the Hall. Right now.”
So I went to my desk to see how many people are actually in the hall. The Rock Hall has a good website with a detailed (with names) database. The number was just over 900 I think. But not everyone was in as a performer. Many are influencers, writers, producers or executives like Ahmet Ertegun, for example. But the total performers list was 542 total individuals. Every person in the Grateful Dead… Staples Singers family members… Everyone.
So mid-February, 2012 I started. Elvis. Then Chuck Berry. Then Jerry Lee Lewis and on and on. To get it done by April 15th I would have to average something like 22 people a day. That meant 22 individual likenesses every day for eight weeks. Thankfully, my visual art colleagues picked up the assignments I would normally be available for — the sports covers or opinion illustrations — so I could focus on just this project. I barreled along every day, some days hitting the magic 22 number, some days not. In the last minute of the 11th hour we were told that backing groups would finally get their due that year, so I had to quickly draw Bill Haley’s Comets, Buddy Holly’s Crickets and Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps among other neglected but worthy inducted members of large groups.
We published the images by induction year across 22 pages of our weekend magazine, in time for the Induction ceremony. The massive collection was the cover of that magazine.
I’ve updated this poster with each new class of inducted performers and I think the headcount is something like 740 individuals by now. We should soon learn who the Class of 2018, and I’ll be drawing them too.
A searchable online version is here:
The complete poster is viewable here (and available for purchase). I have a zoom tool built in to my site, so if you scroll down to the larger image you can see finer details.
Technically, I drew this in Adobe Illustrator, and kept it BW so I could quickly move through the drawings with a simplified palette. To start, I would call up a person or band for reference on one monitor and then start drawing it in Illustrator, pushing it around until I got the likeness to where I was happy with it. There wasn’t time for sketches — I just jumped in.
I use a 27” Retina 5k iMac with 32Gb ram, along with a Dell 27” mirrored monitor; These sit on top of a large drafting table so when I need to draw, I just slide the keyboard back.
I ink on smooth Bristol Board with a Windsor Newton series 7 ‘0’ brush.
Software is primarily Adobe Creative Cloud, mainly Illustrator, Photoshop and Animate to make things move.
Where You Can Find Me:
My works is mainly in newspapers, magazines or online. The various teams and people I’ve worked with have been from afar, meaning, when I draw players or teams or entertainers, I rarely meet them.
If you enjoyed, please recommend below
In collaboration with/produced/interview conducted by Jeff Gorra