Ron Adair Interview

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I do not believe in coincidence, accidents or luck, however, I do believe in divine providence. Meeting Ron Adair is one such example.

I met Ron possibly as early as 1973, neither of us can remember for sure. I had moved to Dallas a year earlier and was beginning a freelance commercial illustration career when my Dad saw one of Ron’s promotional pieces that had just been printed by a local print shop. He picked one up for me.


New to the city and wanting to meet some people, I gave Ron a call. Now the story gets interesting. A long-time friend and mentor from Kansas, knowing that I was moving to Dallas, recommended that I attend a particular Bible Church. Well, after eventually meeting Ron, it wasn’t long before realizing we were both Christians and Ron was attending the very Bible Church I was encouraged to seek out…and, Ron lived in an apartment just down the street and around the corner. Oh, and one more thing…the Bible Church…well that’s where I met a gentleman who gave me the incentive and help to leave illustration and devote myself totally to fine art.

Additionally, Ron and I became fast friends and by the mid-seventies we shared an office together. Eventually, Ron’s identical twin brother, Don, also an illustrator, joined us after moving from Atlanta. Don died in 2010. (Please read my tribute to him which I link to at the end of this interview).
Ron now lives in Colorado Springs and continues his work as a commercial artist. Because of the changing dynamics of the illustration business, Ron has taught himself to adapt, becoming very proficient in many disciplines. This is his story.

Pujois – 10″x 8″ – Oil
One of more than 200 paintings of sports professionals produced for Upper Deck and Donruss Baseball Cards 

What would be your definition of art?   I am not one of those guys who think that any visual expression should be classified as art. When I was in school, during the Vietnam war, many of my fellow students painted or sculpted things that they considered to be ‘art’. I saw it as nothing more than manifestations of their own world view that too often reflected a vacuous, dark understanding of reality. Just venting or expressing things meant to shock or challenge societal norms doesn’t inherently qualify as art. While I certainly don’t think one has to be a Christian to create art, being one certainly provides a lens through which one looks at a world where God is present and providentially working to accomplish His purposes. So, I guess for me, I tried to draw or paint in ways that reflected, if ever so slightly, the reality of God. Anything done well that avoids a preoccupation with man’s depravity could be classified as artistic expression.

Absalom – 11″x 14″ -Digital
First version sent to the publisher, with the intent of putting a smile on their faces. Soon after, the actual illustration with normal looking donkey was sent.

How did you obtain your first full-time job as an illustrator and what was it?  While still in school, I went to Dallas, during Spring break, to explore the art market and got an interview with a large publishing company. They loved my work and offered me a job on the spot, so when I got my diploma, I simply went to Dallas and got to work.

What caused you to pursue a freelance career over continuing to work for someone?  I felt that my skill set and potential earning ability was greater than what the company, for which I worked, was willing to pay me. I began to get calls from out of state companies asking me to do work, and I didn’t want to turn them down, which I had agreed to do while employed by my employer.

Logo commission – Adobe illustrator

Why did you choose illustration over fine art?  I guess part of it was pragmatism. I wanted to do a job and know going in what I would be paid for it, and when. Additionally, and more fundamentally, I just admired the great classic illustrators of the 30’s through the 60’s. Personally, I would place the best illustration of that era next to any fine art painting…and do so with a clear conscience.

How would you define the difference between fine art and illustration?  In terms of quality, those lines or disciplines overlap sometimes. Certainly, fine art generally understood, is not as subject to the rigors of doing art for publication. This demands fidelity to the art director or designer, to deadlines or to price. These things can at times prevent the artist from spending adequate time in the execution of the art piece. But, as I have read from some books that contain letters of the great Renaissance painters…Those men were subject to all kinds of pressures beyond the mere execution of their work. They were accountable to their benefactors and thus more ‘commercially’ driven than many would think.

Colt SAA .45 Commemorative for John Wayne – Pen and ink
Preliminary drawings for gold-etching are shown

What does it take to be a successful illustrator these days?  Talent, tenacity, and relevance. The market place is a moving target, especially when technology (digital media) is used artistically. Illustration, compared to what it was like in the 70′ and 80’s, has dramatically downsized as a viable solution for many companies. Good illustration is usually labor intensive, and thus expensive, which makes it an increasingly diminished option for those who need a compelling visual for their magazine, book or website. One thing for sure, successful illustrators have to be able to do one thing as well or better than the competition. They have to stick out as being top shelf in at least one area. It’s also important to be able to meet deadlines on budget, and have the ability to create a process that is enjoyable for the guy paying the invoice. So, professionalism is essential, and consistently exceeding the expectation of the client. Additionally, the business side of things is crucial which includes a strong work ethic, savvy marketing, book keeping and all that stuff that creative types hate.

Wayne on Horse – 13″x 18″ – Graphite pencil
Most recent pencil portrait. Ron is working with Wayne Enterprises for possible use of this image in future marketing projects.
Reagan Montage – 20″x 16″ – Graphite pencil
Done for the Republican National Committee. Used as a donor premium item. 
Patton – 24″x 18″ – Graphite pencil
C.H. Spurgeon –20″x 16″ – Graphite pencil
Ron’s favorite “dead guy”. This illustration has been used in several ways, most recently as the cover illustration for the reprint of “The Forgotten Spurgeon” – Banner of Truth Publishing

Your work is very realistic, why have you chosen to work in this way?  Well, some times I wish I could paint more like a fellow named Pototschnik, but I suppose that I equate a general fidelity to reality (what God has created) with that which reflects His essence. Our culture has pretty well tanked in terms of any grounding or recognition of God’s transcendence in and over His creation, so anything I can do to get my licks in, to mimic real beauty, is a good thing. Certainly, a tight rendering style is not necessary to accomplish that, but it’s just kind of how I ended up doing art. Maybe one of these days I will go partially blind and end up doing my best work.


Issac McCoy – 36″x 60″ – Oil
One of several historical paintings, including some preliminary work, done for a client who is creating a collection of important religious figures of American history.

What do you like most about being a commercial artist…the least?  I like getting in and out of a project pretty quickly if possible. I like the variety of things that often come when one freelances, and seeing the art published or utilized in ways that contribute to the ongoing success of a company or organization – all of that is gratifying. On the down side…dealing with people who don’t pay their bills on time, or expect a ‘Lexus for the price of a little red wagon’…that is irritating.

When a client calls with an non-computer generated illustration assignment…please lead us through the process.  Well, the artist must know what essentially the project will entail. He needs to know subject matter, how it will be used, and what the general expectations of the client are. He must know what the budget and deadlines are, and always commit to those things, with no exceptions except maybe your death…or your spouses! I think having great communication from the client is critical; not getting that is a recipe for disaster. So after I determine that I am actually qualified to do the assignment, and I have turned some things down that would take me outside my artistic jurisdiction, I will agree to do conceptual drawings. If need be, I’ll then produce a  set of more refined drawings, and after approval, move forward to do the finished piece. If you and the client are happy with the preliminary steps, then doing the final is really enjoyable. You can concentrate on executing a great piece and not worry about the content or philosophical approach to take. Solve as many issues up front and you will be happy most of the time. Also, be professional enough to lightly ‘push back’ if the client has a silly idea that he wants done. Don’t be afraid to bring as much professionalism to the process and product as possible, but also, don’t push too hard or you will either lose the account, or never hear from him again. A hand full of times, I have deferred to the guy with the gold when his idea was really bad. I simply did the assignment, took the money, didn’t sign the art work, and certainly didn’t add it to my portfolio. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened but a few times.

Mike Cervenak – 12″x 20″ – Digital
Sample portfolio piece of Triple A baseball player.
Gustavo Dudamel – 12″x 20″ – Digital
Wonderfully animated director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra . 

What illustrations have brought you the most satisfaction?  I think some of the stamp work, sports art and book covers have been my most enjoyable projects. I just enjoy drawing or painting people, and when I have adequate time and resources to do a good job, then I am usually very satisfied 

Who has been your favorite client and why?  May favorite client is one who understands what illustrators go through to produce good stuff. They respect you, your talent and ability to get the job done right. Additionally, they pay you what the job is worth, and they simply treat you as a professional. I have been blessed with a number of those type clients over the years, but they, like illustration itself, are dinosaurs.

Commissioned logo design for a Colorado Springs Seminary – Adobe Illustrator 
One of several marketing pieces created for an in-house agency. Adair conceived the concept, wrote and designed the piece. 
Commissioned book cover design

What do you see for the future of illustration?  Boy, that is a good question. I think there will always be illustration, but it does definitely seem to be dwindling. The market place is hugely Darwian, and illustrators are going to find it difficult to do high quality work for the time and money budgeted for visuals these days. So, I think it is going to be very challenging for most people who desire to be simply illustrators.

You do many things well, what do you consider your greatest strength?  I suppose capturing human emotion, People are the crown of God’s creation, and as such, we bear the image of God, so doing art of people, and capturing their human essence is really satisfying. While drawing or painting foliage and rocks are within my skills generally, I would go quite insane if I never got to do a person along with the trees and rocks.

Tebow – 20″x 16″ – Oi.

How has the field of illustration changed during your career?  Digital illustration has come on strong, and I must say, I do love it. I love conventional media, but there are times when I prefer, or the budget ‘prefers’ to approach a project with digital media (Painter 12 or Photoshop).

How have you marketed your freelance career?  I have produced fliers, or collateral material through conventional printing, but more and more I create theme focused pdf files that I simply attach to emails. Additionally, my web presence is there for people to access via desktop or mobile devices. The best things of course are referrals, which naturally take place when you do a good job for someone. It’s always better for someone else to sing your praises. Twenty years ago, I used art reps with limited success.

Lion, Witch and Wardrobe – Photoshop and Painter
Book design for Cook Publishing

What recommendations do you have for those desiring to pursue a career in illustration?  Refine your essential area of expertise, sell it above all else, and work hard to produce the very best art you are capable of. Adapt to the market place as you must, but don’t set bad pricing precedents because you will never be able to raise your rates once you give your art away…and avoid speculative work.

Thanks, Ron, for a very interesting interview. The field of commercial illustration has  changed significantly over the years, especially with the introduction of the computer. You have adapted and prospered. Congratulations.

Upcoming Workshop
3-5 May – Atlanta, GA – Contact:
The theme of this workshop is “Deconstructing the Landscape”. Bring a landscape painting you’re struggling with. We will discover the problems and I will help you resolve them…one on one.
See you there.
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