Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category
Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1. I think the readers are very curious about your medium and process. Can we start from there? You use mostly watercolor, but your work is never finished without the magical last touch of Photoshop, correct?
That’s true, almost everything I do is somehow refined or added upon digitally. Most of my work starts as an acrylic and watercolour painting. It takes time to achieve darker values in watercolour, so I’ll often start a painting in acrylic, establishing dark areas and textures first. Depending on how complex the image is, I’ll paint for usually a week or two and then scan the artwork and move into photoshop. The computer is a wonderful tool, especially for refining and detailing areas. It lacks some of the spontaneity and surface that comes with work made by hand with chemicals, pigment and brushes, but solves other problems like global lighting and smooth mechanical blending very well. I’d like to think I try and let the computer help solve the problems it’s best suited to addressing. The photoshop component of a project can take anywhere from a few days to another week, depending on how finished the work is when I scan it.
2. I’ve known you for a long time, even before you started professionally illustrating. During grad school, you were a realistic painter, then you shifted to mainly drawing with ftal-ish digital color when you started illustrating, then now back to realism… Can you talk a bit about this progress? (I remember you once said “My website is sampaints.com when I don’t paint anymore”, but the website title is totally appropriate again!)
Ha, yes, I remember that well. I was painting a lot during my first year of graduate studies at The School of Visual Arts. I think part of the problem was that painting in oil, at the time at least, wasn’t allowing me to tell the stories I wanted to tell. The medium, scale, and process was something I loved but the end results where somehow failing. At some point I just became very frustrated with the whole process. I wasn’t receiving a very good response from art directors and I felt like I was just making the same type of pictures over and over again. I decided to abandon painting for a while and just draw in ink, using the computer to add colour to my work. I remember feeling very liberated. I was making pictures more quickly, and was able to draw things that I had struggled to paint in an interesting way. Most importantly of all, drawing gave me the ability to explore new stories and ideas in my work, which I think lead to clients and art directors taking interest in what I was doing. For me, a change in medium also represented an important change in subject matter. Over the past five years I’ve slowly been adding paint and texture by hand to the drawings. I suppose at some point a few years ago they kind of became paintings again, but there was never a conscious choice to stop drawing and start painting. It has been a very organic evolution since then. I’m much more conscious of ideas and the content of a picture these days, and although my work has a fairly consistent feel to it, I’m looking forward to the work continuing to change.
3. Also, recently you have added “experiments” section on your website. I assume most of the works are done for yourself for fun? I think that is fantastic. Although you are extremely busy, can you still find time to make paintings/drawings for fun? Also, only if you don’t mind… Can we ask what is it like to be married to equally successful illustrator and comic artist Jillian Tamaki?
Yes, the experiments are little things I do around the studio for fun. I’m unfortunately pretty bad about scanning and documenting them. I try and fit time in for personal work, but it feels like there is less and less every year. I’m very lucky in that the work I do for clients is fulfilling creatively. With that said, I think it’s important to set time aside for personal work, I always learn a tremendous amount when I’m able to explore my own ideas and techniques freely. My client work is always improved by personal projects.
Jillian is a really inspiring person. We were always competitive in school, and I think some of that has stayed with us. Being an illustrator can be very consuming, it feels pretty natural to come home and talk more about illustration. Vacations are important, otherwise I think neither of us would ever get away from work. There’s something about traveling that lets us relax and not think about our creative practice.
4. You are one of the founding members of Pencil Factory, now a well known illustration/design powerhouse and illustration newcomers’ dream. What does it mean for you to have a studio full of young and talented illustrators and designers around you?
Being around the other artists in the Pencil Factory is really inspiring. I’ve learned as much from my studio mates and friends as I ever did in school. To be honest, it’s actually a little funny to think that it’s become something people think about. It evolved really organically without a lot of thought or planning. While I was a student I always preferred to work at school around my classmates and in many ways my professional studio is a representation of what I liked best about the group studio environment I was lucky enough to experience at ACAD and SVA. I listen to better music, get to see more art books, and have better conversations because of the pencil factory.
5. You do very diverse types of work: political illustration for the New York Times to all sorts of magazine illustrations to sci-fi/ fantasy book covers and young adults books…. Do you have any that are your favorites to work on?
One of the things I like best about illustration is the variety of things I’m able to work on. Fantasy and science fiction books allow me the opportunity to try things that wouldn’t work in a magazine and vice versa. In the end I don’t actually work much differently from one type of project to another, and although the end result can vary greatly, the actual process is similar for most of what I do.
6. What’s on your horizon? Any current/future projects and plans/dreams you can share with us?
I’m working on another book project with The Folio Society that I’m pretty excited about, and am hoping to take a little time off this summer to work on some personal projects. My friends and I in The Pencil Factory are planning some more self promotional projects, although we haven’t decided on anything for certain yet. Beyond that, I hope my work keeps evolving and that interesting opportunities continue to present themselves. Although I love making pictures for print and web, I think it would be exciting to explore some new venues for my work: Creating something for an opera or play, boutique or public space would be thrilling.
7. You are one of very few illustrators in the young generation who has absolutely solid drawing/painting skill. I feel that it is getting lost, or importance of it is diminishing. How do you feel about this?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure. Craft can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways. I think sometimes it’s easier to see the craft and training in something representational, but that sort of thinking can be misleading. And doesn’t mean one way executing something is any better than the other. Charlie Harper’s work is as well made and sophisticated as Norman Rockwell’s. It’s the quality that’s important to me, and I think there are a lot of young students and illustrators committed to making good work, whatever form or shape it may take. Whether they create images that are based on classical drawing and painting isn’t really important at all. I sometimes wonder if academic drawing and painting skills are maybe a little over rated. They’re essential for certain types of work, and for me the pursuit is an exciting challenge, but in the end it can feel like surface if someone has nothing interesting to say or do with those skills. Students seem like they want to learn how to draw and paint these days, which is great. I’m not really worried about the importance of traditional drawing or painting diminishing. If people want to learn they will, the information is readily available for anyone who’s interested. What does worry me is the prospect of people making beautifully painted pictures that have no content or substance, because they’ve never read a book or been to an art museum.
8. Can you provide us with a one or two paragraph bio?
I was born in Alaska, and grew up in Deep River Ontario, Canada. After attending the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, I moved to New York to pursue illustration and attend graduate school at The School of Visual Arts. My studio is in Brooklyn. I’m married to Jillian Tamaki.
Clients include: Universal Films, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Tor Books, Little, Brown and Co., Scholastic, Sony/BMG, Soulpepper Theatre, Playboy, Time Magazine, DC/Vertigo Comics, Random House, ESPN, Wired, Penguin, SPIN, Flaunt, Herman Miller, The Atlantic, Business Week, Plan Sponsor, The Walrus
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Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1. You are known in the industry as a really really nice guy whom everyone wants to have as a friend. Now knowing a bit of your personal history, it start to make sense because you seemed to have been surrounded by family members who were really supportive of your work; early on, your grandfather, and later your classmate and now wife and creative director of Asset International SooJin Buzelli. Would you mind sharing a bit of story behind how they have helped you become the artist who you are now?
Thanks so much! I’m not so sure that everyone would agree that I’m a really nice guy, but I’m glad that you think so. This question also sort of feeds into my paranoia about how others think of me. I think I need to see a shrink. Anyway, I did have some wonderful influences while I was growing up. My parents divorced when I was very young and my sister and I ended up living with our Grandparents on the weekend. My Grandfather Armando owned a television repair shop in a rough part of South Chicago Heights, Illinois. I remember coming to the shop on Saturday mornings and turning all the televisions to my favorite cartoons. I’d sit there for hours watching my Grandfather fix the old solid state televisions and, of course, I thought I was helping by holding his tools or testing the glowing tubes. On Sundays we started watching “Bill Alexander and the Magic Paint Brush” which was an instructional show on how to paint landscapes with oils. I remember being so relaxed during the show that I usually would fall asleep on my Grandfather’s shoulder during the program. Then I think when I was around 7 years old, I walked into the t.v. repair shop and my Grandfather had bought The Bill Alexander Magic Oil Paint Kit and set up two easels in the shop. This began my love for oil paints and we painted side by side almost every weekend. Later when I went to college, my Grandfather retired and turned the shop into Chris Buzelli museum. He had saved all those early oil paintings and lovingly wrapped them in Saran Wrap and Scotch tape. He filled the shop with these and artwork that I had created throughout the years. He even had some passerbys coming in for viewings. I remember getting calls from him when I was at college. He would ask if I created any new artwork and if I could send it home for the collection. I look back on those days and I realize that my Grandfather gave me the most special gift that one could give to another—time.
During my years at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), I met my future wife SooJin. We were both illustration students and we started dating during my last year in school. I think we were just too young for a serious relationship so we broke up when we graduated. I hadn’t heard from her for a few years and then one day I received a call from her about an illustration job. She had become the art director of a small financial trade magazine which was just starting to include illustrations in their publication. Of course I accepted, I took her out for dinner and the rest is history. We got married a few years later and her company, Asset Intl, has flourished with 3 new magazines that have become a playground for illustrators.
2. Can you share with the readers a bit about your creative process and media?
It is very difficult for me to talk about my creative process because it constantly changes for each individual project. However, I try to include images in my paintings that interest me on a personal level. I find that my work is much stronger when I’m personally involved in the painting. This is sometimes difficult when working for another client. But trying to find a personal connection becomes a part of the conceptual puzzle of the entire project—how to solve the visual concept for the audience and to make it personal for myself. I almost always find a way to include a favorite animal/beast, family member, friend or a childhood memory in my illustrations. I think this challenge has made the process more difficult but in the end the result is worth it. My media is very simple. I use oil paints on gesso board. I usually start with a detailed graphite drawing directly on the board and then I paint with oils on top of the drawing.
3. Since 1998 you have been taking 3.5 hour bus ride each way up to RISD to teach. Now you are such high-demand illustrator, do you feel like this gets in your way of your work, or it fuels your work? If you have figured out how to utilize 7 hours of sitting on a bus, I am very curious to know. 7 hours is a long time!
Yes, I’ve been teaching up at RISD for the past 10 years and I take the bus once a week from NYC to Providence. I actually look forward to the bus ride. I’m a workaholic and I live in my studio. So the bus ride has become a sort of a break from the normal schedule of painting all day. I think my mind needs a vacation to do other things. The bus ride is filled with catching up on emails, reading books, watching movies or just daydreaming. The class is 5 hours long and it just flies by. I think it’s because I really enjoy teaching what I love to others. And the student’s enthusiasm and their passion for illustration makes the experience even more fulfilling. Of course, that one-day away from the studio really cuts into my work time, especially with tight deadlines. And sometimes I do lose money by missing assignments or turning down projects. It is getting more difficult because my workload has increased and/or I’m just getting slower, but I still think it’s worth it. I believe the whole experience fuels my work.
4. There are so many animals, both real and mythical/fantastical, appearing in your paintings. Is this because you like animals, or are they secret symbols of something viewers don’t know about?
When I first started illustrating I had many financial and business based assignments and I used many of the typical symbols like business people with briefcases, on rocket ships, on tightropes, etc… I think I was just burnt out on painting people and I decided to paint and utilize other forms that I loved when illustrating a concept. So I started using animals and fantastical beasts in my paintings. This transformation made the images stronger for me and seemed to do the same for the viewer in terms of concept and execution. During this change, I also started getting inquiries from readers and galleries about buying my original paintings, which was a really nice turn of events. I think I always connected strongly to animals and they are just so much fun to investigate and paint.
5. Ok, so I see your work, and think of “children’s book”!! As far as I know, you haven’t done one before? And I am sure everyone agrees that we cannot wait to see Chris Buzelli children’s book coming out. Is this on your horizon? And, what else on your horizon?
Thanks! I’ve actually been thinking about doing a children’s book recently. I’ve gotten a few offers but nothing has clicked just yet. Recently I’ve been working on a few larger ad projects and I really enjoyed the collaboration. Recently, I finished up 12 paintings for Entega (a green energy company in Germany) for a calendar project based on green energy fairy tales—sort of a children’s book for adults. I’m right now working on a piece for a book by the infamous Monte Beauchamp of BLAB magazine. My main focus is still on painting and finding ways to improve and grow.
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Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1) You make illustrations. Also, you design, art direct, create fine art and large scale murals… Do you consider yourself an illustrator who does a lot of other things, a designer who also illustrates, or maybe just simply a “renaissance man”? And how does one discipline influence another?
I try to avoid a label for myself – I find it limits the work and how others may perceive my work, but if I had to put myself into a category, nowadays I’d say image-maker or story teller. By doing a lot of different types of work and being exposed to many different people (art directors, clients, assistants, other artists), I found more humility and confidence in my direction and discovered clearer ways to discuss my work. I also found by doing lots of different types of work, the studio becomes a continual place of excitement and discovery rather than “an office.”
2) Your work feels very effortless, spontaneous, and almost naïve in a way. But then again, the viewers can tell that they are not all elusive, but based on strong concept and strong skill in drawing. Can you let us know how you arrived to the style you work now? Also, a bit about your process and medium?
My early work was much busier and not as restrained. I was layering found materials, collage, mixed mediums, drawing… what a mess – the ideas were constantly obscured by the technique. I wasn’t happy doing the work, it always felt like a battle however, working in my sketchbooks on writing and drawing always gave me relief from that – a few art directors and other artists who I respected saw this and asked ‘how come you’re not just doing that?’ Eventually I had one project where I had my ‘fuck it, I’m going to just do this type of work moment’ – from there on, drawing won out over everything. Nowadays everything from the studio is done by hand, and always starts with writing or drawing words whether pencil pen or ink. Sometimes the words turn into images, sometimes the words stay as words. I strip away all excess marks and decoration and always make sure my voice is the most important thing in all the pieces. Most of the work is done by hand, but I use the computer to address the finish things like color adjustment, etc.
3) You have a serious SERIOUS passion of surfing. Even when you were on the crazy busy schedule as full time New York Times AD (how many years? Can you remind me?), you often woke up really early to surf in Long Island on the weekend. Right? How does your passion outside of art affect your art, and how important it is, you believe, to have a passion outside of art?
I think a passion outside of your work is the most important thing for any artist, especially a story teller. Travel, music, hike… whatever it is, find balance – I did not have that in NYC. I loved my time there, my friends the energy, but I was really living in one dimension while there – and trying to find outlets. I worked at the NY Times as an art director for the Opinion page for about 4 years. A great experience, but creatively it was limiting. I recall looking at people’s portfolios each day and I saw that those people who had great passion for other things were the most interesting to speak with and had the strongest work – it really lifted them personally and probably inspired more creative work. For me, traveling and surfing lift me the most because they clear my head and bring energy back into my work. I also shoot a lot of photos – people, places, odd things, simple moments – I understand more and more what I’m drawn to, my patterns of interests. Now that I’m out here in L.A. I try and make as much time for my surfing rather than squeezing it in before or after work – I have a few boards here at the studio and can be on the water in about a half hour. Fridays everyone is out by 3.
4) And speaking of something outside of art influencing your art – how is it living out in LA, moving from the East Cost (New York and Baltimore mainly) where you were for a long time? Has it affected how you think and work? (please go ahead and mention about Sweden if you like!)
I grew up on the east coast and studied and worked on the east coast, but I would travel out to California during the summers and just fall in love with it each time. L.A. has such a different vibe than back east – bigger space to work, great light, and a real special spirit – if you connect to it, you can’t help but feel good. I got out here and just started producing – it was as if I let go of everything before and I could devote a lot of time/ space to the things I wanted and should be making. Everything was new somehow and the work felt that way too. I love it out here. I spent about 10 months in Stockholm – I had a studio there preparing for a show in Barcelona. I got to see and experience a lot of Europe while there – I made life long friends who now influence and inspire what I do. It humbles you when you travel – you feel free, but you feel smaller than before – closer to the ground. More open, and you see more – this always helps your stories.
5) We want to know a bit about your monumental murals you occasionally create. You were collecting information on people’s fears? Do you have a lot of fears? Are you going to be doing any murals anytime soon?
We all have fears – some are big everyday ones, some small in the back of our minds. I tend to keep a lot of lists and one of my lists was a list of fears during my last year in New York. I was pretty anxious at the time so I would jot down concerns I had or things that made me worried. As I wrote more and more down, I realized I was worried about quite a bit and they were dictating choices in my life. After a few months I began to organize them into categories – things like physical and natural fears, political fears, random fears, etc. When I was invited to participate in the mural show at the Joan Miro Foundation in Barcelona – the context of a large scale wall of fears seemed like the perfect context and scale. Since then I’ve done a few other installations.
6) What are you up to, Brian? Any interesting projects, personal work, new passion… Etc? And can you share with the readers what’s on your horizon?
I continue to do my weekly illustrated column for the NY Times Modern Love series and other freelance book and editorial work – it’s been a joy to work on these, but the studio has begun to shift more toward gallery based work - I’m completing a few paintings for an exhibition in Mexico City at the moment, working on a book and continuing the series of word or ‘list’ based paintings for a show here in Los Angeles. I like the balance between the commercial and the personal work at the moment – not interested in picking just one – I just like where things are headed.
Los Angeles based artist Brian Rea is the former art director for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and a guest art director for GOOD Magazine. He has exhibited and produced work for books, posters, murals, magazines and music videos and his work has been recognized by the Art Directors Club, Communication Arts, American Illustration and Print Magazine. Clients include The New York Times, Men’s Journal, Kate Spade, Time Magazine, Honda, Billabong and MTV. He has exhibited work in Barcelona, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo. Currently Brian teaches at Art Center in Pasadena, California.
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I’m honored to be producing and moderating the lecture “Illustration as Fine Arts” at the Society of Illustrators of New York.
Gallery owners Heidi Leigh and Nick Leone from Animazing Gallery in Soho, and Alix Sloan from Sloan Fine Arts in the Lower East Side will discuss the crossover from illustration to fine arts, the criteria they use for their exhibitions, the role of illustrative artwork in New York’s gallery scene, and how illustrators should go about exhibiting their personal work.
Society of Illustrators of New York
128 East 63rd Street (F train)
Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 | 6.30-8.30 PM.
TICKETS: $15 non-members, $10 members, $7 students
Really hope you can make it!
I’m very proud to produce a lecture for Edel Rodriguez at the Society of Illustrators of New York next week.
Edel will be talking about his experience as both an illustrator working in a range of different markets, as well as a former art director at TIME.
PLEASE JOIN US!
Society of Illustrators of New York
“An Evening with Edel Rodriguez”
Wednesday, January 19th, 2011.
128 East 63rd Street @ Lex.
See you then…
I’ll be moderating Sue Coe’s lecture at the SI this Wednesday. As I’m sure EVERYONE knows here, she’s a brilliant mind in our field and I can’t wait to meet her in person and hear what she has to say.
Hope you can make it!
Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1) You have a degree in Biology from college in Korea, and went onto work at a lab. Then you moved to UK to study illustration. Can you talk about your big life-change?
I was always a doodler and even in the lab I was drawing on flasks, cell medium bottles. I am still amazed with mysteries in the human body and in animal behavior but I wasn’t a creative researcher. I quit my job (I secretly wanted to study art in Paris) and initially went to the UK to study Art therapy because I didn’t have the guts to throw away the studies I did (my minor is in psychology) altogether. It doesn’t make sense if I think about it now since lot of art therapists are either long practicing artists or social workers for a long time before becoming an art therapist.
I did my first art education year which is called foundation in UK and I felt that was a big happy opening. I continued my art study at Kingston University afterward. I was anxious, feeling I am starting late but I am happy now thinking I will be drawing till I’m a grandma.
2) So, you were born in the US, grew up in Korea, went college in the UK, and moved to US, and you live here in New York now. I’ve also heard that you speak a bit of Japanese and French as well? What a world citizen! Do you feel like your multi-cultural background affects your art, creative process and concepts? Does your background affect the religion series you have been working on?
It probably does. Growing up in Korea I think I was intrigued with African masks, 60′s objects, a Mexican candle holder that my mom brought when she moved back from US and whenever my dad traveled to a foreign country for his job he drew a small map and told me about the country and brought back small souvenirs. But I think I really became aware of people from different races, cultures, and religious backgrounds when I moved to UK. It was fascinating to see people with different eye colors, body shapes etc ! I realized the usual customs I knew and followed in Korea weren’t the only way or right necessarily. I think I constantly compare various cultures and see from them different angles whenever possible.
3) You live and work in Brooklyn, NY, and actually do a lot of work for Korean clients. This is very interesting. How did this come about and how is it working out for you?
Probably my work is more in demand in Korea at the moment. Sometimes it is my style or me being in New York. I did many location drawings in New York. Often they want a European look and I have to find the most European looking street in New York. (ha ha)
I would like to continue working with Korean clients but more broadly in the world. I also found some Korean illustrators who do not have proper contracts and rights when they are working at the moment in Korea, so I try to tell Korean illustrators about the Ethical Hand book. I think it would be great if I can help to translate it into Korean.
4) Can you explain to the readers your creative process and medium?
I usually draw with pen and ink, pencil, brush and colour with actual paint or digitally. I also use bits of printed paper and fabric to collage. I try to do something new each time I get a job however small a thing it is. That way it is more exciting for me — but it doesn’t always work well when I have a tight deadline! I like thinking of ideas walking around or going to my favorite cafes.
5) How did your papier-mache installation come about? Do you create them for jobs, or for showing at galleries, etc?
I think I am always drawn to a 3-dimensional sculptures or installations and have been trying different mediums. My friend in the UK was making papier-mache figures and I like the feeling of gluey newspaper strips, making wire structure inside, and how accessible it is with the light weight of it afterward. I have made them for installations at galleries or outdoors.
I am currently working on a picture-book which can be for kids and for adults. I am learning lithography at the moment, hoping I can experiment with other printing techniques I learned. I am working on images which would have a continuing theme of multi-cultures, animals and something new that I don’t know yet! I am interested in creating a huge papier-mache installation by a cliff in Azerbaijan. or in a city where people can interact within.
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About a month ago I got an email from Steve Brodner inviting me to a lecture he was organizing at SVA, where we both teach. He was asking me to participate by sending him images of alternative illustration jobs I’d done. I must confess I was a bit confused, although very flattered, because there was no mention of my actually being a speaker. Soon I found out, indeed I wasn’t a speaker, Steve had emailed me among many other established illustrators to put together a slide show that represented a strong reality of where illustration is going today. Moreover, this lecture, he explained, wasn’t going to be only about the speakers (painter and filmmaker James Blagen; comic artist and designer Mickey Duzyj; and illustrator Alex Juhasz), but also about having an active audience of both strong and new voices in the field.
A couple of days later I get an email from Heidi Younger at FIT inviting me to be a speaker on a panel with Yuko Shimizu, Marcos Chin, Zina Saunders and Fred Harper… the next day after Steve’s panel. Damn! I couldn’t turn down sharing a stage with Yuko and Marcos- I don’t know Zina and Fred- so I accepted. Our lecture is titled How I Got My First Job and focuses pretty much on exactly the same concept as Steve’s.
As excited as I was about going to Steve’s lecture, I’m not sure I can shorten my work hours at this huge restaurant project I just started in Long Island and make both lectures, though I certainly have to make mine, or course. What’s also slightly odd about it, for me at least, is that I have SVA written all over me ( I moved to NY to go to SVA, graduated from SVA, teach at SVA), so I almost feel obligated to be there. Oh well… I’m sure it will be packed anyway.
Steve Brodner’s Lecture: SVA, 209 East 23rd Street, 3rd FL, Amphitheater. Tuesday 3/23, 6.30-8 PM
FIT: How I got My First Job, FIT, 27th St & 7th Ave, C Building, Robert Lagary Board Room, 9th FL.Wednesday 3/24, 6.30-8 PM. FLYER: http://www.fernandacohen.com/content/images/editorial_384.htm
Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1) When we hear your name, we immediately think of your prolific and multiple award winning children’s book career. But you first broke into the world of illustration from nightclub scene, then to whole bunch of jazz album covers. I am curious to know if you ‘fell’ into children’s books rather than having that as a goal when you started? Also, can you let us know briefly how this progress happened?
Being an artist was a path in life I chose very early on, but children’s books as a career came as a surprise to me and started shortly after getting the attention of Lee and Low Books, then winning the Coretta Scott King Award Honor on our first project, The Palm of my Heart; Poetry by African American Children. These events all came about during my development as a person new to being social and new to New York City. I chose to pursue a career in illustration as an after thought to applying to an art school, before then the education in art was my time spent alone with my paints as a teenager, no prom, no class ring or social life just many weekends learning about what the various mediums could do in my hands. That being the case, my first years as a young adult in NY were about P-A-R-T-I-E-S! I was a terrible art student, not in terms of my draftsmanship but in the aspects of my discipline.
I came from a small town in NJ and decided at that point it was more important to develop my social skills and to learn how to be comfortable around people. So I went from being shy and antisocial to a social network in night clubs. After some time I saw that although it was fun I couldn’t turn from my nature, the art had to be there with me, so I decided to put my time to better use and approached the manager of my favorite nightspot, asking him how he felt about bringing some culture in to the place. Surprisingly he said “sure”, and a one time experiment turned in to a steady gig for me. Before I knew it, these slide shows became a bi weekly event where I asked friends to show work, gave them a guest-list, payment and drink tickets. Other promoters wanted this idea and soon after it escalated in to live paintings along with the presentation and this opened up opportunities to paint in Malaysia, London, Amsterdam and Sweden and kept those years very interesting.
During one event I stopped one of the members from a group called Justice System as they left the stage from a live performance and went in to their dressing room with color copies of my artwork. The manager loved the idea of original art on their debut album and when he signed his group to MCA records, he signed me as well. It was my earliest and most publicized job and some editors at Lee and Low Books put me in the running for my first award winning children’s book.
I love the freedom and purpose that comes from illustrating but as a child I never intended to become an illustrator, so I am really shocked to see my work in books, to have awards on my wall and to set down cultural seeds for a generation that isn’t even born yet.
2) Your work as a whole has consistent feel and vibe that are nothing other than “Greg Christie’s vocabulary”. At the same time, you seem to intentionally change the way you paint according to the audience; some are more painterly, some are more realistic, others graphic, flat, distorted, etc. Can you let us know how you make those decisions according to the project, and also, can you explain a bit about your creative process like your choice of medium?
It’s similar to what I think a character actor would go through. Adjust the emotions and viewpoint of your own art to fit the demeanor of the writing. I’m drawn to projects that will challenge me and give me a little bit of fear because I have no idea how I will approach it. I’m not the type of illustrator to stick to one aesthetic or keep a visual consistency from one project to the next. I want to explain what I feel with a new set of visuals and gain excitement as I use my artistic range… I also choose my projects to right the wrongs I see in the American educational system if not in American society. There are so many enriching stories about brown people’s history and America has often neglected these amazing tales. I never learned about the heroes that I’ve found today through reading and I want the society to have a balance when it comes to learning about every culture’s historical achievements.
Anyone curious about America’s past should learn about George Washington Carver whenever he learns about Thomas Edison. Phillis Wheatley or Matsuo Basho whenever studying William Blake. A Multi cultural lesson plan, builds self-esteem, cross cultural understanding, empathy and I think creates a well rounded society. I truly believe this, but unfortunately our world history is brutal and in such cases I only choose to do a historical book when it’s honest and gives a sense of dignity to the people it’s about.
It takes a type of sophistication to leave your own current day problems in order to have empathy for other ethnic cultures’ past injustices and it takes a open heart to be inspired by their survival. I use my work to parallel these sentiments for my historical paintings. I try to create art that will be a challenge to a viewer and hopefully it will stop them from just taking a quick glance.
However after some time as a means of survival, I have chosen much lighter subject matters to illustrate. Jazz Baby, The Deaf Musicians, Yesterday I Had the Blues, these are my whimsical light stories and I adjusted my style accordingly. As I suspected many people love entertainment over education so these top sellers have eclipsed my heavier historical books that often are a real challenge to educators and parents to put in the hands of a child. Certain history will raise certain questions but a lot of thought is given to the preparation of these books.
We the manufacturer’s of these tools know they are for children so, it’s treated that way, often these stories are meant as a doorway to things that they can learn in detail as they get older. For me, the aim of the work is to tell a story without having to read the words but hopefully the viewers will feel the emotional direction I’m trying to bring forth. I want a bridge between abstraction and realism and tend to alter the proportions of the figures. But I always direct you to the faces, the excitement, anger, fear or happiness in my characters’ expressions. At the end of the day I’m influenced by the feel of the story through the author’s words.
3) You seem to be always traveling around the world! (I think you told me that you travel about 6 months of the year, if I remember correctly…) How do you divide time and work schedule between when you are in New York and when you are somewhere else? What do you get most out of traveling?
I’ll start with the later part, because It’s the most clear answer in my head, I get peace of mind out of traveling. At the end of the day, as social as I am I’m still shy in many ways and I have a strong need to understand people. Often a need to comprehend people’s actions rather than their words. Simply stated, I understand the actions of the cultures I come in to contact with overseas.
I like how societies are still living with a collective sense of what’s morally important and the places I’ve seen where corporations still have a fear of the public. It’s refreshing to visit societies where paying taxes actually help you in terms of health care and education. I’ve found that when those two things are taken care of you can often walk down what’s considered that societies “worst” street without too much of a worry. People get outside, know their neighbors, have a love of geography, history, culture and down time.
It’s very inspiring and stimulating to me and the way technology has made the world smaller as governments and businesses get larger, I feel that I want to see as much as I can while it’s still my idea of…”clean”.
I often hear people talking about living life to the fullest and being unique in ideas and actions but I think if you don’t get out of your circle and see the world a bit you are missing out on a clear perspective of who you are and what you need to do during your short time here.
Go to Senegal and see children with hand me downs and bare feet, fighting over a free book given to them and compare that to cursing NY teens spitting on a subway car, fighting over which celebrity has the most money. Watch a grandmother ride her bike in a small town in Holland or China and compare it to unhealthy people in the American south on golf carts riding in public to get their next fried Twinkie.
None of these scenarios are the norm but they all exist and go on whether or not you are there to see it. As for myself I embrace it all, reflect on it and know that I am very fortunate for my opportunities and for being born in the United States. So I do work hard, but have a job rather than it having me; I take breaks in order to be humbled and to use my opportunity to really live and reexamine my life’s purpose.
We are just visiting the surface of this planet until we go back inside of it, but what we can see during our short time here?!
I made a conscious decision in my childhood to get as much as I could from the world. Not in a monetary sense but to develop my talents and myself as I leave something behind. I have balance these days and embrace my lazy do nothing days the same way I embrace the all night-ers and painting marathons. It works for me, works for my personality and lifestyle fit for a freelancer, so I make the best of my time and use technology to free myself from one set environment. I keep in contact mainly through email, internet phone calls when needed, often will buy a pawnshop scanner then give it away as I leave a place. I take sublets, rent rooms and live in extended stay hotels all based upon the energy of the room. I’d turn down a castle and estate if I felt it was wrong for my paintings, it tends to be all about the feeling and energy of a spot.
The trips inside the US and abroad are gifts to myself but they come with the price of time spent inside. Sure when I walk out there’s a mountain, metropolis, cafe or beach with beautiful women running around but the key words are when I walk outside (not beautiful women.. at least not today).
Unfortunately I don’t get outside too much these days. Illustration for me is spent with a duo lamp, (dented from baggage handling) the British Broadcasting Channel, painting set up and an internet connection. Cat naps, late night painting sessions to get the work completed and the aroma of a soup or stew cooking in the background is the norm. No more parties in nightclubs like I did during my first years in New York. These days the price is a lot higher than a twenty something’s morning hangover, if I like this lifestyle then I have to earn it. I do this by consuming all I can about art, painting in mediums I am not familiar with, taking classes, observing techniques then putting them to use and finding the discipline to sit in front of that canvas.
4) American illustration world is still dominantly white. (As a minority myself, I constantly feel this.) I am curious to know if you are conscious of this fact when you are creating new projects. As one of a very few African American illustrators on the top of the career, do you feel that you have messages that you can send to the young readers and artists of the next generation?
Absolutely, and its a simple one — Your hair, skin, features and culture are all beautiful and with the new technology, guard the tangible things as a keepsake for the future. I challenge anyone to find a blond blue eyed child in my body of illustration work. There’s enough of that out there, that and colonization has damaged people’s perception of what’s attractive.
Also I think that specifically as an illustrator of color it’s important to get in the door the best way you can… then show them what you can do. One must be very calculating as an artist in such a competitive industry. First and foremost find a niche, this goes for any type of career if you plan to make your mark. I think that one must be true and honest about the art, to take a chance and find something that separates you from the thousands of other artists out there. Also be sure you really want to do this, does it wake you up in the morning? Do you think about what you have to do in your day in order to clear the night for your art. I can honestly say yes those questions. For me it’s not about money on the largest scale, it’s about having enough to survive and keeping my art pure.
5) what’s on your horizon? Upcoming projects? Next travel destination?
Mainly kids’ books and this year will see somewhere new. I am tempted to go see Rio, but I think if I go to Brazil I’m going to catch “Brazilian fever” become Gregorio and throw my passport in to the ocean, so NOT there but I would like to go visit friends either in Europe Africa and Asia again as I see a new place near by them.
I really miss my friends overseas, every trip brings new experiences and new friendships. On the other hand, we shall see because although children’s books in a way seem economy proof, these are rough times and the world is changing. I’m back in NY again and have put a clamp down on gallivanting across the planet.
I used to joke with a friend that I’m Clark Kent in America but Superman once I leave the shores. Amazing things always happen due to my perception of the circumstances and openness to them.
These days I will find that excitement with my American story. So I am at the daily planet for a little while and will focus on completing the portrait commissions, books on contract, jogging, learning a language, paying bills and other respectable stuff like that. Professionally I have a book about the history of Blues and the southern experience called Roots and Blues coming out. A book of poetry for children about the word black named Black Magic another in the sketch stage called Pettina and the Windrope about a sailor girl and her talking dog, a biographical book on Bill Traylor and a couple more ideas that I think will be good for society.
6) If you have any thing you want to add, want to say… please do!
Just that it’s an honor to be interviewed and that I thank everyone for taking the time to look at my art. Also want to encourage anyone reading this to take planned chances in life and with your talent. Please do these things while you are young, do them now, responsibly, in a balanced way and without guilt.
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Find more of Greg’s amazing work here.
Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1) I read that when you were in art school, you were initially thinking of becoming a concept artist for film. It is hard to imagine that past from your current work. Can you talk a bit about your artistic transition?
In school, one of my first drawing teachers was this artist, Ruben Hickman who was a background painter at Dreamworks. He was a huge influence on me and showed me how I didn’t necessarily have to be a starving artist and could still etch out a living for myself doing commercial work. I’ve always really been into video game art and animation design so going into concept work for film didn’t seem like a big stretch. Around my junior year at Art Center I had an independent study with a teacher who was an art director in the entertainment industry. Midway through the semester and many, many graphite film composition studies later, I realized that I didn’t have the interest to work as a concept artist. During this time I was also taking a printmaking class which opened my mind to a whole new way of making pictures. I figured that I should really pursue what I was passionate about and not worry too much with the financial side of things. Luckily things worked out OK after graduation. I’m really happy with my traditional background and feel like all those graphite studies and landscape compositions play an important part in how I create images now.
2) You have a background in print-making. But I assume you do most of your works digitally now. Can you explain a bit about your work process? (you can leave out the secret!)
I usually draw everything in pencil (sometimes brush and ink) on paper which I scan into the computer. I separate out my linework and color in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet. My colors are pretty simple, like a silkscreen, so I tend to use a limited palette. My photoshop files are very stripped down, only a handful of layers. No secrets! A high school student could probably work this way. I try to rely more heavily on my drawing and compositions.
3) You have moved around a lot when you were growing up, lived in multiple countries with completely different cultures and languages. How do you think this experience has affected you as an artist and your work?
Having a bit more exposure to different cultures can really only help your vocabulary as an artist. I’m sure some of the mix of asian and western influences work their way into my work somehow. I grew up with an American Dad and a Chinese Mom, both with strong personalities which gave me a very even mix of the two cultures. For example, growing up as a kid in Taiwan, our meals at home would be a mix of Chinese and American dishes. Like Hamburger Helper with bok choi. Hopefully my work reflects a little bit of that split personality.
4) And, you recently made a big trans-continent move from LA area to Brooklyn, NY. What was behind this big decision, and how is the life in New York working out for you?
I’ve always wanted to live here in New York. I’ve met some really nice friends out here that helped get me settled and it seemed like a natural progression for me. I think one of the great things about being an illustrator is that you can live anywhere you want. So I didn’t feel especially tied down in one place. My wife was also looking for a career change and wanted to get into publishing. New York has been really an extreme change from the laid back lifestyle California has. Living in Brooklyn has been a nice in between for me. It’s not quite as crazy as Manhattan but still just a few subway stops away. Plus I was able to get rid of my car!
5) In a rather short period of time since you started working and became successful, you seem to have become one of the most copied illustrators. I am curious to hear what you have been feeling about this phenomenon? Do you have anything you want to say to all the copycats out there?
I try not to get too bogged down with people that emulate my colors, or linework. It’s really more of an indicator that I need to keep moving and pushing my own skills. Hopefully, my work isn’t just defined by my aesthetic but also by the way I think and solve problems. I think if you focus too much on people copying you or get too protective of your “style” it could really start to hold you back creatively.
6) You are still young, yet already accomplished so much. You have worked with every magazine and book publisher I can think of, some cool advertising clients, also designed tote bags, created animation, had solo shows internationally…. Now, what’s on your horizon?
I’m really interested in larger scale projects. I just completed a wallpaper project for the Ace Hotel in Manhattan that was extremely satisfying because it was such a departure from how I normally work. Also, I will be exhibiting a new silkscreen at Art Basel in Miami curated by Neon Monster and FENDI.
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See more of Josh’s work here.
Thanks Josh and Yuko!