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Illustrating the News We Read Each Day — On a Deadline

Ryan Johnson portrait
Ryan Johnson (’12, BFA, illustration)

On a good day, Boise State alumnus Ryan Johnson (’12, BFA, illustration) has a week to come up with sketches for esteemed media sites like The New Yorker, The Boston Globe and National Public Radio. On a more challenging day, Johnson has just 12 hours and a bar napkin with a crude stick figure that illustrates what his editor wants. Either way, as a freelance illustrator his job is to come up with visuals that complement hard news stories — for example, on subprime loans or foreign investment in the U.S. housing market — in an interesting way.

“Usually I get an outline of what the story is and I make sketches during the day,” he explained. “Then I turn them in and if they’re not quite right, I rework them. Then I make a tighter sketch or move on to the final, which usually takes a day or two.”

Building a successful arts career takes time. After graduation, Johnson worked as a barista in Oakland, California, and submitted his drawings in his free time to small alternative weeklies around the country, including the Boise Weekly, which he called “good practice for doing editorial work.” Eventually, the practice paid off. Last year Johnson was able to quit his job and pursue illustrating full time.

He credits Boise State art professors Bill Carman and Dan Scott, current chair of the art department, as his biggest hometown influences, along with local illustrator Julia Green. He said the mentorship and education he received at Boise State helped prepare him for a professional career.

“It gave me a lot of the tools to do my job — not just visualizing and making art, but having a practice,” he said. “I think getting a well-rounded education, including business classes, was a plus, rather than going to an art school and only learning about art.”

His advice to other aspiring artists?

“Reach out to professionals early and be persistent,” Johnson said. “You’re never going to quite feel like you’re at the place you want to be, so you have to keep going at it.”