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Illustrator Profile - Nora Krug: "Illustrating is a way of thinking"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 11, 2015

Nora Krug is an illustrator, artist, and creator of what she describes as “visual narratives.” In addition to her frequent editorial illustrations for publications including The New York Times and The Guardian, she has created a striking series of illustrated books and graphic novels, most notably Kamikaze, about a World War 2 Japanese pilot, and Red Riding Hood Redux, a remix of the classic children’s story. Stylistically her work ranges from bold, graphic, almost childlike illustrations to a rich, layered mix of drawing and collage. The result is powerful, exciting graphic storytelling for a wide variety of audiences.

There’s a rich multiplicity of approaches in Nora’s work, which includes historical reportage and delightful imaginative excursions into humor and fantasy. Nora created the brilliant children’s book My Cold Went on Vacation, with Molly Rausch, a fun story filled with vibrant colors and smart, original visuals. I love the bright, beautiful, poster-like graphic style of her Shadow Atlas book, a “silkscreened encyclopedia of ghosts.”

Based in Brooklyn, Nora is also an associate professor at the Parsons School of Design.

MY LIFE:
I live in Lefferts Gardens, a Caribbean neighborhood of Brooklyn, with a husband, a garden and a colony of stray cats.

I came to illustration rather late, and more or less by accident: my background is in music (I attended a classical music high school in Germany). I got a bachelors degree in Performance Design from a school that Paul McCartney founded in the mid-1990s in Liverpool for musicians, dancers, actors and visual artists, where I created set designs for theater performances and posters and CD covers for the musicians who studied at the school. From there, I moved on to Berlin to study documentary film and communication design at the University of Arts. It was only by coincidence that I ended up studying illustration in Berlin; I liked the artistic approach of the professor who taught the illustration class, because he approached illustration not as a medium, but as a tool for commenting on the world. I finally moved away from making documentaries and, when I came to the United States to study in the M.F.A. Illustration Program at the School of Visual Arts, began to focus on illustration as a medium entirely. I got my first commission in 2003.

My parents were teachers for the blind (the opposite of what I do, really), and neither of them were professional artists. But they had a strong interest in the arts and dragged my brother and me to museums whenever possible (I am still traumatized and a strange urge to escape befalls me when I visit museums). We went to Italy each summer for our family vacation, and on the long rides in our non-air conditioned Volvo, visited tiny village after God-forsaken village to admire Piero della Francesca’s masterpieces. My favorite was the Madonna del Parto, the pregnant Madonna in her ill-fitting blue dress. In his spare time, my father made sculptures of wood, clay and plastic, depicting mysterious scenes involving everyday objects and mutated creatures, half-human, half-animal. My mother painted them. Unfortunately, they’re now collecting dust in their basement.

MY WORKSPACE:
When I draw, I work in my studio at home, because I can focus best when I’m alone, when I can make myself endless pots of tea and listen to the BBC as loudly as possible. The studio faces a street of brownstones and trees, and, other than two old drawing tables and lots of art supplies, it contains mostly shelves lined with children’s books and graphic novels from all over the world, collected by my husband. When I write, I sit in a cowhide butterfly chair in the living room and wear a black baseball cap with a white skull symbol, which I call my writing cap, because it helps me focus. Next to the chair, there is an old pharmacist’s cabinet filled with locust shells collected after the insects’ last invasion, and with shells, sea horses and sea dollars picked up at various shores. The walls of the room are covered with objects and framed artwork: a Japanese 19th-century woodblock print of a hungry ghost, a plaster figurine of a dancing bear and goat dressed in traditional Russian garbs, a series of natural history prints of skeletons, a small, Florida alligator head, a 1950s ash tray that looks like the face of a yawning man, a postcard sent from Paris to Tokyo in the 1920s, featuring the photograph of a smiling woman in a white dress, a small display case that shows the developmental stages of a pearl inside the shell of an oyster, and two Japanese papier-mâché Daruma talismans with their pupils marked black, because my wishes finally came true.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
Form and content always belong together in my work, and I usually choose the medium based on the content of a given project. For example, if I create a visual narrative on a historic event such as WWII, I choose a medium that best represents that period, such as color pencil or watercolor. If I work on a project that’s highly conceptual, and where an elaborate execution would only get in the way of the idea, I use a medium that is direct and simple, such as black pen and flat Photoshop ink. I never draw directly in the computer. I need to feel my drawing tool move across the surface of the paper.

Illustration, to me, has never been about the act of drawing. I’ve never owned a sketchbook, and I don’t enjoy drawing without the purpose of working on a particular project. I try not to conscribe myself to any particular medium, theme or platform within the field. To me, illustrating is a way of thinking—it is about telling stories, about addressing questions that I ask myself about the world. Research is an integral part of my process. When I draw, I try to dissect each question I have into a series of more (and hopefully more complex) questions.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
I can’t really pin it down to one particular moment or person. My career built up slowly but steadily, rather than taking one big leap into success— maybe because I never specialized in one particular field. Because I went into teaching early, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to do the kind of work I really want to do. My most personal pieces, I think, are the ones that have most strongly shaped my career. An early example is an animated internet guide to Japanese cultural etiquette, which was my thesis project at the University of Arts in Berlin, and which was featured in the New Frontier Section at Sundance. Other projects included my graphic novel, Red Riding Hood Redux, a retelling of the original fairy tale from the perspectives of the five characters in the original story; Shadow Atlas, a limited edition silk-screen book chronicling some of the ghosts and spirits believed to exist in the world; and my short visual non-fiction narrative, Kamikaze, about a Japanese kamikaze pilot who survived his mission only because of a series of unlikely coincidences.

MY INFLUENCES:
As a visual artist, my early (and therefore probably most important) influences were the children’s books by Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, and later, the work by German Expressionists, such as George Grosz and Otto Dix. Over the years I became less interested in style and more in how narratives are constructed, so many of my influences have shifted.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
I admire many creative people for many different reasons. I respect artists who expand our perspective on the world, who are brave enough to constantly reinvent themselves, and for whom creating art means looking for some sort of truth. Some of the people who I admire and who are currently working in the visual field include Brian Cronin, Chris Ware, David OReilly and Olivier Schrauwen.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
That you have to make every decision on your own. To me, writing and illustrating is a constant decision making process, and with every word you write, with every line you draw, there are dozens of alternative approaches with which you could have approached a subject. When you’re deeply involved in your work, it’s hard to remove yourself and look at what you’ve done objectively. At the same time, you have to move forward without constantly doubting what you do. Trusting your instinct isn’t always easy.

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
I am grateful to a lot of art directors and editors who have believed in my work and helped shape my perspective as an artist. Out of all of my clients, working for The New York Times has probably been my most educational experience. I got my first assignment from Steven Guarnaccia at The New York Times Op-Ed Page in 2003. I was still a student, and because Steven was always extremely critical with my sketches, I learned a lot about how to boil down essential information to a minimum and yet communicate a large idea (little did I know that I was going to end up being married to him and would be getting the chance to criticize his work in return). Since then, I’ve worked for the same page under Aviva Michaelov and Brian Rea, and for Nicholas Blechman at the Book Review, all of whom have always given me a lot of artistic freedom. I’m also indebted to Monte Beauchamp of Blab magazine, who was one of the first editors to publish my visual narratives.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
There is no visual source I look at on a regular basis. I depend on a daily intake of The New York Times and the BBC, because their articles, documentaries, interviews and plays inspire me creatively.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
I’ve been dedicating my past year to one particular project, a 350-page non-fiction illustrated memoir on WWII and my German family history, slated to be published in 2017.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
My dream assignment would be to create visual non-fiction essays about issues in the world for newspapers and magazines, and to continue to write and illustrate a series of long-form books on those subjects.

MAKING GRAPHIC NOVELS:
Over the past few years, I’ve been creating a series of non-fiction visual narratives about the lives of people who have experienced war. Working on these narratives has allowed me to combine my interest in documentary film, politics, and illustration. I am interested specifically in war, because I feel that our understanding of it is so steeped in popular culture, which often represents the subject in a very polarized way. My goal is to try to depict more of the in-between, to explore the everyday realities of war, and the effect it has on people who couldn’t be clearly defined as perpetrators, victims, or heroes. The challenge of telling those stories is to figure out how to balance text with image and the historic with the personal, and how to evoke feeling without drifting off into sentimentality.

MY CHILDREN’S BOOK:
The idea for the children’s book I illustrated, My Cold Went on Vacation, came about when my friend Molly Rausch and I got together for lunch while I had a cold. We imagined what it would be like to portray a cold as a character that travels around the world and from person to person. We thought a story like this could be comforting for children as they go through being sick. Molly wrote down the story, I created some illustrations, and our illustration agent, Riley Illustration, sold it to Putnam. It was a fun project!

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
Thinking of yourself as an author, rather than an illustrator who interprets someone else’s content, is crucial in the climate of the current field. Because of the monumental change in the publishing industry (fewer publications continue to survive, many publications move into the digital space), illustrators need to look for new platforms that allow them to create their own content and think of ways of pushing the boundaries of the field as it once was. That said, I still believe that the most important thing is to follow your instinct and to do the work you really want to do, because the more personally invested you are in what you do, the more strongly your work will communicate. In the past few years, I’ve specifically been seeking out publishers who focus on the kind of work I most want to do, rather than advertising broadly to a large pool of clients.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
I don’t promote myself as an editorial illustrator. Editorial work usually comes in through my website, and probably through the annual competitions I take part in (American Illustration, the Society of Illustrators and the Art Directors Club). I’m not that invested in social media, because the kind of work I’m interested in doesn’t communicate well through those platforms. My main focus at the moment is to try to sell ideas for books which I write and illustrate. I don’t currently have an illustration agent, but a wonderful literary agent who has been representing my non-fiction narrative work, and who helped me put together a lengthy proposal for the book I am currently working on.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Be critical of your work, but also believe in yourself. Inform yourself about the world, the field, about what possibilities are out there for you, and about which clients are the best fit for the kind of work you want to do. Be flexible, but don’t try too hard to please. Be truthful to who you are as an artist and a human being. Work hard and don’t give up.

See more Nora Krug illustrations, new work, and updates:
Nora Krug website
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