J.P. Targete laughs constantly; nary a moment goes by that doesn’t give him joy. He’s an incredibly prolific artist. He went through college on a scholarship and landed illustration work with an international company by his junior year. But don’t assume J.P. Targete was born with a silver crayon in his mouth. His mantra is, “It’s all about hard work.”
Targete was around four years old when he was first inspired by comic books and Disney cartoons, particularly Fantasia. He started by tracing. His father was an architect, a career that provided Targete with an abundance of tracing paper. Funny how such a simple thing can plant the seed for a lifetime of success.
It wasn’t long before he began drawing comics freehand. “My parents never discouraged me. I drew all the time, even in school; which I was in trouble for a lot,” he confessed with a reminiscent chuckle. “Instead of doing my math homework, I’d be drawing the Incredible Hulk.” Sci-Fi films like Star Wars and Aliens influenced him as well, turning his interests towards science fiction. “Comics were one thing, but when you go see a movie and are like, ‘Wow! Look at all the realism and cool creatures and cool spaceships!’ That really inspired me to do what I do in terms of sci-fi fantasy stuff.”
Targete’s art earned him a creative spot on the high school newspaper and yearbook. It also got him out of class- instead of taking the regular physical education or art courses, he was accepted into a program for gifted kids, attending the courses at a local college after his regular school day. Throughout his junior year he focused on building up his portfolio to prepare for college. In his senior year he was awarded a scholarship to The School of Visual Arts in New York. And though he didn’t know it, but he was just months away from beginning his career.
Easy access to New York’s museums gave Targete the opportunity to explore new cultural experiences. “All that hit me like a ton of bricks. I was used to comic books and fantasy painters, but when I got to see some of the old Masters and learned the essence of art in terms of where it started and all the influences every generation of artist had, it was just amazing.” He studied all the masters from American illustrators to fantasy illustrators. “All the old guys: Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Hildebrandts, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle. It’s good to know what’s been done in the past and where you are headed in the future because you are the future, the future of this genre of art.”
He found college was competitive but laid back; attending class wasn’t as important as you completing your obligations but Targete did both. “I had to focus on what I wanted to accomplish. I had one shot at doing this and I had to kick butt in all my assignments.” He embraced that decision to the fullest, dedicating himself on every level, such as during an off campus class trip to the National Museum of Natural History where the class was to meet for a sketch session of dinosaur skeletons. There was a severe blizzard that day. “It was like the worst storm that ever hit Manhattan,” Targete laughed. “I was coming from Queens. I was waiting for the bus, my ears were like frostbite. When I got to Manhattan there was snow to my kneecaps. I was thinking ‘what am I doing? No one is going to be there!’”
Luckily the instructor was there but no other students, not even those who lived nearby. The instructor was impressed, and Targete’s reputation was established.
Dedication paid off again when he remained on campus over the Christmas holidays, making his way through the echo of empty dorms to complete his first illustration commission. A job for Avon. His sacrifice paid off; Avon gave him more work. He was successfully employed as a respected part time illustrator by his junior year. The Avon commission was acquired through one of Targete’s instructors, Steven Assael, an illustrator at the time but a popular fine artist now. “I started off doing some work for him. He put in a good word for me at Avon books.” Targete was only in his early 20’s when he, “kept bugging the art director, calling him every day asking ‘do you have any work?’ Finally he gave me this illustration for a teen romance book. It was far from what I do now but it was a lot of fun.” It was his first published work for the masses. “I learned a lot doing the romance covers. I learned how to paint flesh and flowers,” he grinned. He met Fabio at one photo shoot. “He was quite a nice guy, a really nice guy, and I used him quite a lot in my illustration work. It was a strange time, a lot of fun, a quirky time for me doing these covers.”
Though he was successfully illustrating romance covers he wanted to pursue a different direction, something closer to his true interest: sci-fi fantasy. One publisher gave him a shot, and his new path was established. By his senior year he was established, working in the industry and supporting himself through his art and able to take an apartment in Manhattan. “I never looked back.” Targete stayed in New York and New Jersey from 1989 until 2011, supporting himself with book cover work through traditional oil painting. “I’d do my oil paintings, commute from New Jersey to Manhattan, go to the big publishers and deliver my paintings. It was fantastic. All those years of painting really helped me a lot.”
Targete was dedicated to traditional mediums, but around 2003 he fell into digital almost against his will. “I remember posting something on a forum, this big argument with this guy about digital verses traditional. He challenged me, said I couldn’t do the work digitally.” He realized he was criticizing a method he knew little about, and it inspired him to take the challenge “and the results looked good, looked like my traditional work.” He realized he could probably make a lot more money working digitally than he did through his traditional work because it takes a lot less time. Now Targete uses Photoshop. “It felt real natural and once I got a Wacom and pressure sensitive pen, it was almost like traditional. After the third painting I was good to go.”
When he started he did a lot of painting over scans. He doesn’t use a lot of layers. “The most layers I use on a painting is maybe three. It depends; I remember doing a matte painting for an independent film while working at Gentle Giant. That was a lot of layers; you had to put everything in layers from rocks to stuff in the foreground, the background, clouds. But for my own illustrations I use two or three at the most. If I want to paint a little guy in the background I will merge it right away and move on. It feels more natural to me; it feels more like I’m painting, because in oil painting there are no layers. You can’t press the delete button,” he said, laughing again.
Targete does little scanning now. Instead he draws directly on the image and digitally paints on top. He still draws in his sketchbook but finds digital is the way to go when speed is needed and deadlines are looming. He doesn’t time his work hours but is constantly working. Being a freelancer he can arrange his own schedule to take time with his family or work on personal projects. “I think that is when I grow the most, when I’m on my own, and I can focus what I want to focus on. Freelancing allows that. Obviously the drawback is you don’t have benefits.” In the US, freelancers need to cover their own benefits, vacation time, sick leave, retirement benefits, unemployment insurance, and health insurance, which can easily run thousands of dollars a month. “But it’s the freedom, freedom that can’t be matched with working full time.”
Targete currently works without an agent. He did have one when he was doing book cover illustrations and things were a little slow. “Agents are cool if you really, really need them but they take about 20-25%, a good chunk, especially with the economy the way it is now.” But even as a freelancer he is in demand. He estimates he spends about 70% of his time drawing and 30% marketing, posting on forums and contacting potential clients. He hits the occasional dry spot but “once you get on a roll with illustration work and you are consistent, you will get work. That’s the nice thing about it. Especially publishers, companies like Wizards of the Coast or Fantasy Flight Games, they are constantly getting new material. A company like that will really keep you busy. Also game companies like Blizzard who are getting into the trading card games and use a lot of artists consistently.” When Targete was oil painting his illustrations, he would meet the art directors, deliver his work, and get the paintings back once they were photographed for print. “Now, days with the internet and digital painting I’ve never met half my art directors… I don’t think I’ve met any of them!”
He is currently working on a lot of pitch work for film, and just finished a project for Relativity that he can’t discuss. He worked directly with the costume designer. There is usually a middle person between Targete and the director, though direct communication is occasionally needed. “But the directors are so busy its kind of hard focusing on one artist. They usually have an art director or lead artist or costume designer to give you direction.” He lands those jobs by posting on his website blog, posting on sites like Deviant Art and CGSociety. “When I was working for the video game company I didn’t have time to do all of that, but now I have time to post and interact. People will comment on my artwork and I have time to respond back, and then I have new work. When you are working for a video game company you can’t show that stuff for a year or more. I’ll do an illustration now and in maybe two or three weeks I’m able to show that online. The surge of interest in my work has been when I’ve been freelancing because I am able to show consistently rather than not showing anything for two years.” Targete is a very prolific artist, posting new work around every two weeks. “I can do a speed painting in a night and post it. That kind of activity has been great for my career.”
Targete is working on some personal projects, a graphic novel, and partnering with a friend on a screenplay, handling the concept art. “If we sell it, great. If not, we will publish it ourselves.” He wants to self publish his own art, sketch books and instructional videos. “Working for a company is great, but having a product you can sell and resell and repackage at some point is really important for what I want to do. I want to do my own thing, write my own stories. The possibilities with self publishing, ebooks, IPhone applications and all this great stuff that is coming out. It’s a revolution.”
And he has his dream projects, such as "a live action or realistic CG version of the Thundercats. That may sound like an odd choice because the original 80’s cartoon is so different then my style of art, but in actuality the subject matter fits perfectly.” He’s enticed by the potential of crazy elements from sci-fi tech to fantasy and whimsical creatures. “It was so different then your typical super hero show. I'd love to work on a film project where the subject was taken to an epic level, more of a re-imagined world using the existing material as a jumping point.” He envisions it as an Avatar meets Lord of the Rings type of film. “I've done a few early designs for fun to see what it could possibly look like. The opportunity and possibilities to create a new vision of something like this from your childhood would be incredible for me."
Targete’s voice is full of contentment and mirth as he talks about his career. His hard work isn’t work at all. He has found his bliss.
JP Targete CGSociety.org
The School of Visual Arts in NY
Wizards of the Coast
Fantasy Flight Games
Writer: Renee Dunlop