How to Picture Emotions: Marshall Arisman in Graphis Journal #372

“I’m not trying to illustrate. I’m trying, as pretentious as this sounds, to picture emotions.”

Graphis Master Marshall Arisman is an illustrator, painter, educator, and storyteller. His graphic commentaries and illustrations have appeared on the covers of Time, U.S. News and World Report, The Nation, The Progressive, and The New York Times Book Review. His editorial work has appeared in every national publication including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Playboy, The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Village Voice, and Business Week. Feature articles about his work have appeared in the Graphis Journal, Communication Arts, and Juxtapoz magazine. His paintings and prints are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Historical Society and the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Guang Dong Museum of Art, and the Telfair Museum of Art, as well as many private and corporate collections. He is in the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame and the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. He is the chairman of the MFA degree program, Illustration as Visual Essay, at the School of Visual Arts in New York that he founded in 1984. He has been a member of the School of Visual Arts for fifty-two years.

Arisman brings surreal, chaotic energy to his work, with paintings that feature off-putting, nightmarish creations in darkly vibrant color. In much of his work, Arisman takes inspiration from the life and experiences of his grandmother, a Spiritualist and gifted medium. He also explores concepts like American gun culture and the interactions between war and society at large. Arisman’s illustration and design works have a weighted perspective, combining organic and inorganic elements to make his captivating pieces.

Here is a snippet from Marshall Arisman’s interview:

What inspired or motivated you in your career?

I grew up in a small town in upstate NY. Art classes were limited to one teacher who had limited knowledge of illustration or graphic design. I applied to Pratt Institute, got in, and was asked to pick a major. I picked graphic design. Four years later, I graduated and was offered a job at General Motors in Detroit. After three months of solving problems for other people (logos, ad campaigns, etc.) I began to realize that graphic design was not the problem; the problem was me. I wanted to tell stories: personal stories about my life, my hopes and desires, and the world around me. In order to do that, I would have to quit my job and learn how to draw. I spent a year in Europe drawing everything in sight. With my drawing skills improved, I approached the tricky question of, “What to draw?” The answer, of course, was me. I made a list of things I really knew something about, things I had seen and experienced. I continue to work on that short list even today:

1. Cows (brought up in dairy country)

2. Deer (we hunted, killed, and ate them)

3. Guns (everyone had a shotgun rack in their pickup truck and a handgun in the glove compartment)

4. Psychic phenomena (my grandmother was a noted medium)

I spent a year drawing guns. Tom Ungerer saw my drawings and sent me to see J.C. Suares, the art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. He gave me an illustration assignment the next day. The article was titled “ The Killing in Uganda”. My series of drawings about guns had become my portfolio without trying to make one.

How and why did you start a graduate program?

As chair of the undergrad program, it became clear that three years in the major was not enough time to explore the tricky question of subject matter or “what to illustrate.” The struggle for the majority of students was “how to illustrate,” how to develop a style, and how to make your work consistent, not what your work is about. In 1984, Robert Weaver and Stevie Heller encouraged me to start a graduate program that would focus on the figurative artists telling personal stories. With President David Rhodes’ support, the program was approved by Albany.

Can you give a brief description of how the program works?

Storytellers need people to tell their stories to. Each student is assigned a private work space in a community of work spaces contained on our floor. The so-called studio becomes a community center where storytellers eat, talk, and share work with each other. The curriculum includes a mix of writing, history, and technical information to begin the process of telling a story. The forms stories take range from children’s books, and comic books to graphic novels and visual essays. The faculty is as diversified as the students, bringing their professional experience into the classroom. Our alumni are proof that the illustrator can control the content of their work.

To read more of Marshall Arisman’s interview and discover other great artists, check out Graphis Journal #372, which can be purchased online at

Author: Graphis