Robert T. Barrett attributes his success as a professional illustrator to being in the right place at the right time. But in today's competitive art world, it takes much more than that. A recent interview with Barrett revealed some of the other factors that gave momentum to his sudden rise to success.
Twelve years ago, Barrett didn't know he was destined to become a professional illustrator. It wasn't until after he had received a bachelor's in fine arts from the University of Utah and master's degrees in art and fine arts from the University of Iowa, and a year of post-graduate work at the Hochschule der Kunstse in Berlin, Germany, that he knew.Upon returning to Salt Lake from Germany in 1977, Barrett was encouraged by an illustrator friend, Dale Kilbourn, to take some of his art work over to the LDS Church Magazine department.
"Talk about being in the right place at the right time," Barrett said. "I showed my work to Ralph Reynolds, and he asked, `Do you want to do a job for us?' "
That's how it all started. "They paid me $150 for a black-and-white illustration that was used on the cover New Era in 1978."
Since that time, Barrett has done many illustrations for all LDS Church magazines - The Ensign, The New Era, and The Friend - more than he can count. "If I were to list all of the illustrations I have done for the church magazines, the list would be five or six pages - double-spaced."
His illustrations have appeared on the cover of the Ensign magazine at least seven or eight times. In fact, his oil painting, "Christ Healing the Man with the Withered Hand," appeared on the cover of the October 1989 Ensign. Barrett painted this 36-inch-by-24-inch religious painting in 1981. It was purchased by the LDS Church and is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Church History and Art.
Barrett took to illustration like fish take to water. For one thing, he loves drawing the human figure.
"The figure was always something I was engrossed with," he said.
While a student at the U., he was fortunate to enroll in life drawing and painting classes taught by Alvin Gittins.
At first, the experience was challenging.
"I found out that I had to understand anatomy before I could appreciate what he (Gittins) was doing."
He watched Gittins as he put down his pastel strokes with confidence. He also noted how his instructor would work from general to specific - laying in washes with the broad side of his pastel.
Lines would disappear in those washes and then emerge again. "His work contained a kind of mystery. And it allowed viewers to participate in the discovery," Barrett added.
Barrett has been an assistant professor in the Department of Design at BYU for 71/2 years now. He tries to pass on some of the drawing concepts he learned from Gittins and other instructors over the years.
"Unfortunately, many students don't show great depth," he said. "They take drawing so far but don't understand the specifics.
"In the beginning, they want to make every line hard and brittle. They want to look into gray areas and find those lines that are lost. But they don't have to."
Teaching is only one segment of Barrett's busy day. He spends many hours in his studio at home creating his illustrations.
One of his recent efforts in illustration has been published by Ideals Publishing Corp.
"I got the assignment to illustrate the children's book, `The Other Wise Man,' in December 1988," he said. "I finished the illustrations by the end of March. Of course, I was involved in other assignments in between."
The story was written by Henry van Dyke, retold by Pamela Kennedy and published by Ideals Publishing Corp. in Nashville, Tenn.
"They gave me total freedom," he said. "I picked the visuals; and there was only one sketch that they suggested be changed. I also omitted another one and adjusted two others."
He explained four basic steps he follows in most of his illustrations:
1. He starts by drawing thumbnail sketches using water soluble markers for the thin lines and wide-tip lacquer markers to fill in large areas.
"I sketch these things out of my head," he said. "Actually, I drew the sketches for `The Other Wise Man' originally to fit into a vertical format; later, the publishing company decided to change the overall shape of the book to square."
2. After the sketches are made, Barrett draws them again but larger. This time he works from models and photos he has taken. He shoots from a lot of different angles.
"The illustrations will not end up looking like one particular photograph," he said. "It will be a composite of several."
He zeroes in on accurate costuming and detail, which requires considerable research beforehand.
Barrett has a closet full of costumes - Biblical and otherwise. He has collected them from a variety of sources, including theater departments where careful research has often preceded the actual making of the costume.
"I do a lot of research. I know as much about clothing worn by Joseph Smith and others of that period as anyone. And not just clothing, but the way they wore their hair, what kind of shoes they wore, etc."
In fact, Barrett has just been notified that he has received a creative research grant (partial funding) to travel to Israel next summer to study Biblical costuming.
3. Next, he makes a color comprehensive.
To establish an overall tone for his illustrations in "The Other Wise Man," he covered white illustration board with blue, yellow-ochre and other acrylic washes.
Barrett pointed out that color is vital in conveying messages. Pink, for example, suggests warmth; while green, a cool color, denotes emotional conflict.
4. After orchestrating his palette on his color comprehensive, he's ready for the fourth step - the finished work.
He works from "lean" to "fat" paint (oil base over watercolor).
"I've learned as an illustrator not to be so sacred about procedures. I'm more concerned about the best way to communicate an idea. If it means mixing media - such as watercolor, acrylic, oil, pastel or whatever - I'll do it."
In addition to working on "The Other Wise Man," Barrett has been knee-deep in other projects.
He illustrated the cover and 20 double pages for Shari Lewis' "Great American Heroes," published by Doubleday.
"McCall's magazine will be coming out with one of my illustrations in January of '90.
On a back burner are sketches Barrett has made for a children's book about a little pioneer girl. The story was written by Susan Evans McCloud.
Barrett plans a one-man show in the Springville Museum of Art around September of next year. His originals are carried by Frameworks in Orem's University Mall.
He and his wife, Vicki, reside in Provo. They are parents of nine children - three boys and six girls. They are expecting their 10th child this month.
Barrett's success as an illustrator has been rapid. And it's no accident. He's an insightful illustrator who amplifies stories with depth and meaning. His work is a true reflection of what he believes.