Lebo illustrator is jigsaw puzzle star

Man sitting at his art board with a puzzle painting.
Artist James Mellett puts hundreds of hours of work into creating the image for a jigsaw puzzle. Since 1998, Mellett has created more than 60 puzzles.

Every three months or so, James Mellett paints somewhere between 150 and 175 pictures—more than many artists complete in a decade. Using gouache paint and colored pencils, he creates portraits, pictures of nature and images from books and movies. Each one takes him about three hours and requires working with tiny brushes, because all of these paintings are miniatures.

These little pictures become part of a 24-by-30 inch compendium around a theme—say, the 1980s, or TV history. He hand-letters the title, has the whole thing turned into a file, and sends it off to New Hampshire.

A few months later Mellett’s work is on sale as a jigsaw puzzle from White Mountain Puzzles.

Since he began working for White Mountain in 1998, Mellett, South Meadowcroft Avenue, has completed more than 60 puzzles, and has become so well known in the jigsaw world that his name now appears on the puzzle boxes.

He starts by discussing a concept with his contacts at White Mountain. “They generally give me a couple of things that have to be on there,” he said. “And after that I do research.” He then usually sends the company a list of around 250 possible subjects to include. They whittle it down to a final group.

After finding the photo reference, Mellett puts a rough sketch together for approval, and transfers the image to an illustration board using colored pencil.

“Then it’s just like painting a large image,” he said. “I tape off around the area as needed, and using gouache, colored pencils, and very small brushes, I paint each image, one portrait or object at a time.”

Mellett didn’t start out as a puzzle illustrator. Fresh out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he intended to pursue a career as a graphic designer. But after a few years working for an art studio on the North Side, work fell off and he was laid off. That was when he struck out on his own as a freelance illustrator. Since that time, he’s done work for dozens of clients, including Carnegie Mellon University, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Wendy’s, GNC, Golf Digest and the Penguins.

“I’ve done portraits of kids, animals, sports figures, houses,” Mellett said. “There’s a piece of mine hanging in Jefferson (Elementary) School to commemorate a teacher who passed away. There used to be one in Howe as well; I’m not sure if it’s still there. I’ve done book covers for a company that publishes middle school biographies. I’ve seen some of them in the school libraries.”

Artist working on paintings.
In addition to puzzling, Mellett’s client list includes Children’s Hospital, Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mellett’s first illustrations for White Mountain were on travel themes. From there he moved into state themes, then ones based on the decades, and finally into more pop cultural themes: Christmas stories, country music, iconic America, sports heroes, rock ‘n’ roll, love stories and similar categories. For each of the compendium puzzles he provides a key, identifying the images, which is available on the company’s website.

The puzzles sell for about $20 on the company’s website. They’re also available locally at Learning Express and at some Hallmark and Go! stores.

During his 30-plus-year career as a freelancer, Mellett has also raised a daughter, Kathryn, 27, with his wife, Jan. As a 1981 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, Mellett especially wanted the school system for his daughter. His wife recently retired from teaching in Mt. Lebanon schools.

He is also the president of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, the second largest illustration group in the country.

For now, he has no plans to stop illustrating White Mountain’s puzzles. “As long as they’ll have me, I’ll keep going,” he said.

When asked whether his pop culture subjects have made him a whiz at trivia contests, he demurred. “I’ve probably forgotten most of it!”

Photography by Elizabeth Hruby McCabe