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Q&A with Giuseppe Castellano

Art Director, Illustrator, Founder of Illustration Department

My name is Giuseppe Castellano. I’m an Executive Art Director at Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of Penguin Random House. I oversee the art and design of six imprints at PYRG. Between the imprints, we work on roughly 230 children’s books a year.

I also teach illustration. I share #arttips for illustrators on Twitter and through my blog. My twitter handle is @pinocastellano; and my #arttips blog can be found at I continue to be a guest speaker and critic at over a dozen art schools including the Rhode Island School of Design, School of Visual Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Savannah College of Art and Design.

I also founded the The Illustration Department, an online school for illustrators. You're welcome to visit our website at

What is your educational background? Could you recommend some best design schools (in your opinion) which were in your field of vision when you were choosing place to study?

I attended the Rhode Island School of Design. My intent was to study architecture. However, I pivoted to illustration so I could focus on learning classical drawing and painting. The same “top” schools we all hear about today were the ones I considered when I was a high school student. I have to say though, I think the school is less important to an education than the student.

I went to RISD because I was told it was the “best” art school. But so many years later, I can tell you about people who went to RISD who no longer do art; and wildly successful artists who never went to art school. The school doesn’t make a career. It helps. It definitely helps. You learn more about the foundational tenets of image-making from good art schools, than from poor ones. But, if you really want to learn, you find ways of learning. It’s easier now than it was pre-internet. It seems with each passing year, more and more resources for learning are available through your desktop—with minimal (if any) financial burden. So, it’s up to you really. What kind of student are you?

In your opinion, how to learn graphic design more effectively: can one do it without academic education, through mere practice?

One can do anything if they really want to do it. The question is how well. There are two sides to the education coin: On one side, a good art school will help widen your understanding. The problem I find with self-education is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Self-educators are less likely to expand their horizons. If they want to learn graphic design, they focus on graphic design books and courses. But, they should also study painting, drawing, sculpture. One discipline feeds the next. Today, I use the color theory and value hierarchy I learned from renaissance oil painting to inform my modern graphic design decisions. Art schools encourage a polymathic approach to learning art. Self-education doesn't necessarily do that.

On the other side of the coin, it depends on the individual. Each of us has own path to walk. What works for someone else, might not work for you. Whatever path you choose, I'd recommend learning the history and theory of a discipline. Sound like a lot of work? Good. It is.

How do you start your day? Do you have a strict schedule (typical working day) or is it flexible and can change any time ?

Well, my day starts way before I get to work. I have three kids, so the day starts with them. Feeding them. Making sure they're dressed. Getting them ready for the day. I walk my kids to school. I then take an hour-long subway ride to work.

The work day normally starts with a large coffee ($1.50 from the street vendor, not the wallet-killing sewage you get from the corporate coffee shops). I check a few emails. Meet with my assistant. Then I get into an ever-changing schedule of attending meetings, submitting budgets, interviewing designers, finding illustrators, designing books, managing an art department, overseeing eight designers, reviewing their work, writing emails, scheduling projects, discussing publishing plans, attending conferences, and on and on. Art directors are like hummingbirds in an endless field of flowers—there’s always something else that requires our attention.

How does your studio look like? What are the compounds of positive work environment for you?

Because my day-to-day is full of activity, I keep my office as lean and clean as possible. You won't see stacks of paper, or lots of framed pictures on the walls. The books on my shelves are organized by author's name and/or format. I don't subscribe to the notion that creativity is inherently messy. An organized space allows for more creativity—at least it does for me.

The first thing you'll notice when walking into my office are my many plants. I have a particularly otherworldly looking Night-Blooming cereus plant that gets a lot of attention. I'm particularly excited about a rosemary cutting that I took from someone's yard in Austin, Texas.

Everything—the cleanliness, the plants, the sparse decor—all help me stay focused on the task at hand. It works for me. Maybe a messy office or studio works for others. The key, I think, is to find a space that allows you to get to work with as few hurdles and excuses as possible.

Could you think of a top-5 list of graphic designers and / or illustrators whose work influenced you?

This is such a difficult question to answer. My top-5 _anything—_food, movies, etc.—is always evolving. Coming out of college, I was infatuated with Brad Holland, Dave McKean, and Stephen Kroninger. Before that, I wanted to paint like Caravaggio. Of late, I've been enjoying the work of Beatrix Potter, John Singer Sargent, Bernie Fuchs, Romare Bearden, Art Seiden, the Provensens, Dahlov Ipcar, and Robert Weaver. I'm a fan of Jan Tschichold’s contributions to design, and of the work of my colleague, Paul Buckley. I could go on (Bernini, Henry Moore, Michelangelo’s Slaves, etc).

The thing about looking at others for influence is that you need to be careful that it doesn’t become a hinderance. Often, illustrators are so focused on the work of others—both past and present—that they cease to explore their own voice. It’s good to see the work of others. It helps increase self-awareness. But be sure to trust your own judgement, forget what others are doing, and be you.