Alumni Profiles

Chris Lyons

Creative ferment after 9/11 takes illustrator to top of his profession

Chris Lyons

Lyons close-up
UB degree: BFA ’81; Favorite sport: pick-up basketball. “No blood, no foul”; Favorite artist: Edward Hopper; Key professional trait: grace under pressure; Productivity gauge: On deadline recently, he finished 18 drawings over a weekend (Self-portrait by Chris Lyons, BFA ’81)

When he checked his e-mail earlier today, Chris Lyons read two words: “You’re in.” It was Robert Zimmerman, founder of illoz.com, accepting him into his Web site of established, highly respected illustrators—the best of the best. A career benchmark, yet it’s just another day at work for Lyons, who’s taking a break, dressed in shorts and sandals, at his home studio in Pittsford, New York.

He’s a name in his industry now. His drawings appear regularly in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly and many other publications. He also illustrates for such clients as Barnes & Noble and Microsoft. It’s a balancing act: “I love the editorial work, but marketing jobs are more financially rewarding,” he says.

What’s amazing is that Lyons started illustrating full time only five years ago. Granted, there was a stint as a bullpen illustrator for Milton Glaser in 1981, fresh from the communication design program at UB, but he switched quickly to advertising, putting in 20 years as an art director and creative director. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 caused him to reflect on how his work life felt stale. So he secluded himself for three months and completed 50 drawings, while teaching himself Adobe Illustrator. Based on those drawings, Lindgren & Smith offered to represent him nationally. His reputation has skyrocketed.

“I’d be doing this even if no one paid me for it. I just love it. This is my office,” he says, indicating with a sweep of the hand his deep, wooded yard on the Erie Canal. “I play basketball at the Pittsford YMCA every day at noon. I don’t have to clear anything with anyone.”

He draws inspiration for his work from traditions in fine art, as well as illustration—he loves Neil Welliver’s work as much as Norman Rockwell’s. At UB, Harvey Breverman, now distinguished professor emeritus, taught him how to improvise. “He said, ‘Paint what you feel, not what you see.’ He gave me a Maxwell House can full of ink and a stick. It taught me about line and gesture. He was great. He could paint a shirt draped over a chair and there would be somebody’s shadow in the corner and you’d wonder, what happened here?”

Yet there’s no mystery about what’s happening in the Lyons studio: A man is realizing his dreams.

Story by David Dorsey