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Longtime greeting card illustrator shares story with Sewickley Artist Guild

You’ve probably never heard of George Schill, but chances are, you’ve given — or received — one or more of his creations for a birthday or Christmas or just to say hello.

Schill is an illustrator who has designed thousands of cards during his 38 years as a contract artist with the humor division of American Greetings. He works out of his Monroeville home and recently shared the process of his craft during an Artist Guild meeting at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley.

“I get bored easily, so I like to move fast,” he said. “I’m like fast-food art.”

Schill produces about 200 cards a year, in addition to the editorial work he does, and he regularly employs traditional techniques so his images don’t look “so digital.”

For the Guild, he displayed original paintings he scans into Photoshop as a basis for his cards.

From his start in 1981 through the mid-90s, Schill drew and painted everything he produced. When the company made a push to go digital, he admits he was hesitant at first.

“It was like wizardry. It freaked me out,” he said.

After a niece taught him the basics of Photoshop, though, Schill was convinced.

“Gouache, acrylics … you pretty much had to paint to actual size. When everything went digital, it was a godsend for everyone in the business. Getting uniform color in the background was tricky. You’d use Scott paper towels to wipe it off. It wasn’t always perfect,” he said. “Now, digital gives you so many options.”

Schill embraced technology and now uses a stylus to draw on a tablet. But what he appreciates the most is the “idea end” of his job.

“I really enjoy that. I like using metaphors, analogies and distill copy down to an image,” he said. “I work fast, try to get things out in a day. My illustrations are not to hang on the wall — it’s to be reproduced.”

Schill starts an assignment by writing down whatever comes to him. From there, he makes connections.

Say, for example, he thinks of an acorn. The cap of the acorn looks like a cafeteria lady’s hairnet, so he creates a “Cafeteria Lady Acorn” character.

The word trophy makes him think of a trophy wife. Which makes him think of “atrophy wife.”

Or, playing on the similarity between Audubon and Autobahn, the German highway system, he’ll create an “Autobahn Bird Guide” with images of what those birds would look like if they met an unfortunate end on the highway.

You get the idea.

“I use words and images equally,” he said.

Schill likes to tell people his career began while he was a student at St. Colman School in Turtle Creek, where he sold drawings of “weirdos” to his classmates for a nickel. He said he was always interested in greeting cards.

“I realized that’s what I could sell — my ideas, and the writing end of it,” he said.

In 1997, he co-founded the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators. His clients include Disney, Microsoft and Scholastic. His cards have been nominated for the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award.

The perk he’s enjoyed the most, though, is being able to give card samples to his grandchildren. “I do a lot of audio (cards.) They’re almost like paper toys,” Schill said. “My grandkids get those.”

Published on March 1, 2019
Written by Natalie Miller
Published by TRIBLive
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