Marcos Chin: "I want to create pictures that reflect who I am"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 29, 2015

Marcos Chin is a multi-talented illustrator and artist whose recent work has been featured on everything from custom T-shirt designs to a new edition of the Kama Sutra and a hipster reimagination of the classic Eloise book. His vibrant editorial illustrations have graced the pages of Fortune, Nautilus, Ebony, Rolling Stone, and many other magazines.

Born in Mozambique, Chin later lived in Lisbon and Toronto, before settling in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; he’s been working as an illustrator for the past 13 years. His style is powerful, graphic, and colorful, with a rich intricacy and a beautiful sense of style. His illustrations feel like they’d be equally at home on a tapestry or in a graphic novel. With writer Mallory Kasdan, Marcos has just published Ella, a modern version of the classic Eloise book that is filled with rich, delightful illustrations.

Marcos has a lot of fans, both illustrators and art directors (and now kids, too!), and he seems like a perfect choice for the first of the illustration Profiles. Here’s a look into his work, influences, passions, and more.

Mine is an immigrant story. Although I’m ethnically Chinese, my parents, siblings, and I, as well as many of my extended family members were born in Mozambique, Africa and have lived there since the early 1900s. We left in the mid- to late-1970s to escape civil war. We moved to Lisbon, Portugal for a little while and then finally immigrated to Toronto. My parents didn’t carry much money or possessions during our move because much of it was lost or taken away from them during the war, and so we relied on the help from extended family and friends to set up a new life in Toronto.

My father used to be a draftsman in Mozambique, but when we moved to Toronto, he and my mother worked in modest jobs. My father was a factory worker and janitor, and my mother did data entry for an educational publishing company. Although my father was good at drawing nobody in my family studied art formally, nor did either of my parents go to college or university. I went to the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto.

I’ve worked so many part-time and full-time jobs since I was 10 years old, of which most had nothing to do with illustration. I worked as a newspaper delivery boy, grocery clerk, cashier at a fast food restaurant, day care worker, administrative assistant at a college, telemarketer, stock clerk in clothing factory, and a retail salesperson.

I have a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn near my apartment, which is about 20 minutes away by subway. I go there to not only work on my illustration assignments, but I use the space to essentially play and to work on self-initiated projects that aren’t directly related to my illustration work (I’m presently working on projects related to sewing and textile design).

My studio is filled with a lot of art supplies. Having a variety of art materials at my disposal allows me to constantly refresh, or challenge the way in which I work. It lets me explore and develop the content of my work that can’t be expressed on a commercial illustration platform. My illustration work is rooted mostly in editorial, some advertising work, and book covers, and so I’m often limited by the client brief that I’m given. I’m fortunate to have a continuous stream of assignments; however, since the turn-around times are so fast and because I take on so much work, I become easily burnt out. I learned years ago that one of the most effective ways to lift myself out of this creatively stagnant place was to engage in personal and self-initiated art projects. My studio is built around this way of thinking. I have sewing machines, an airbrush, fabric, a loom, yarn, clay and other sculpting and carving materials, so that when I feel inspired, I can pick up any or several of these things and play with them. I work alone and so I don’t have to compromise at all. Having my own studio prevents me from infringing on anyone else’s space; I can focus on what I’m making in a private and intimate way.

I spend a lot of time brainstorming to come up with a good concept for my illustration. Once this has been established, I begin gesture drawings in order to create a composition that I’m happy with. Then I start to refine these loose drawings into something that has more details until it becomes a semi-tight drawing. I often use the paintbrush tool to execute all of this. Afterwards I place this tight drawing into Adobe Illustrator to use as a template on which I trace the image using the pen tool. When the drawing is complete, I open it up in Photoshop and then tweak the drawing and layer hand textures on top of the vector drawing.

My big break happened when I did the illustrations for Lavalife, an online dating service. This particular campaign propelled my career forward by expanding my presence within the industry, which in turn inspired more work to come my way, and helped to build my confidence as an illustrator. The Lavalife campaign began about two years after I graduated from art college and lasted for about nine years.

My major influences continuously change. But I think comics and cartoons, manga, anime, children’s books, fashion, pop culture and music (videos) have continued to influence my work to this day.

I have a crush on Keith Haring. I’ve had this for a very long time. I love how prolific he was at such a young age. I love his energy and the thoughtfulness that went into the marks that he made, and I also love that he was gay. Keith Haring Journals is a book that I own that I keep very close to me, and continue to go back to over and over again.When I pick it up I start in random spots and read excerpts from it, sometimes even out loud. I scribble some of my thoughts after reading his, and then it feels a bit like I’m having a conversation with another artist. I love some of the commercial applications that his work has had (and I don’t mean the posthumous over-saturation of his images in the form or trinkets and puzzles in stores), and the various manifestations of his work such as semiotics, video, performance art, floor paintings, installations, sculpture, and graffiti. The intent, content and meaning within Keith Haring’s art pieces coupled with a prolific and diverse body of work are why I have so much admiration for him.

Being too close to my work. As much as I do love to work on my own, I miss the spontaneity of taking a break with my studio mates, and also getting someone’s else’s critique of whatever it is that I’m working on.

SooJin Buzelli, who is the creative director at Plansponsor, Planadvisor, and CIO is someone who I really enjoy working with because she’s able to bring some of the best work out of me and respects my creative process. The magazines that I work on with SooJin are often filled with content that’s pretty stale; articles about business and numbers, and things that I don’t find interesting. However, SooJin understands this and so she provides me with one sentence that describes the article and then lets me run with it. What she doesn’t want are illustrations filled with computers, dollar bills, and men in business suits climbing up and down ladders, instead she wants the opposite, for me to explore imagery that’s unexpected and visually engaging.

I'm very inspired by other people’s (personal) stories, particularly through documentaries, podcasts, and books. I also love fashion. I look through a lot of fashion magazines, I love fashion photography, and fashion related websites. I pay special attention to how garments are styled, fashion photography, and print and textile designs.

One of my favorite assignments of the past year was creating illustrations for the Kama Sutra, published by Penguin India (pictured above). The entire process from start to finish was a collaboration with the designer, from the interior layout of the book to designing the slipcover.

My dream assignments keep changing as I get older. My hope is to create pictures or other forms of art that reflect who I am, and my interests, at whatever age that I am. I will say this: one thing that I would like to do are more collaborative projects with experts in other fields, such as fashion, interior design and architecture.

For me, the success of self-promotion is a combination of everything, plus having an updated website.

I’ve made it a goal to expand my education and to learn about particular creative industries and the individuals who operate within them, in an effort to find more unconventional clients. One good example is the “fashion” client because fashion is an industry that is very interdisciplinary, and is one that I’ve had a deep affinity towards since I was very young.

Recently, I decided to learn more about the fashion industry. It started in a very small way by creating handmade cut and sew tees from my studio, and then it evolved into enrolling in continuing education classes in sewing, draping, and pattern making. I soon realized that as much as I was gaining skills and techniques in the craft of making clothing I wasn’t learning about other parts of the industry. As a result I began interning with fashion designers on and off a few years ago. Currently, I’m working with a women’s label called SUNO in Manhattan, two days per week. Although it may be too soon to quantify, I believe that having a more intimate and honest connection with people in this industry will one day result in the possibility of working on those collaborative projects that I dream about, which fall outside of the normal spectrum of work that I do.

My advice will probably echo the advice of others, but I’ll say it anyway: work hard, be prolific, be persistent, be gracious and kind. Relationships are incredibly important when you are freelancing, not only building new relationships, but nurturing and growing the ones that you already have. I don’t think I know anyone who is working now who did this entirely on their own. Like myself, they’ve had some kind of help and guidance along the way whether through getting published in a magazine, through a friend sharing his or her work to someone else, or even through a teacher recommendation.

More pragmatic advice would be to create a portfolio that really represents the kind of work that you want to do, not the kind of work that will just get you work—there’s a big difference. Learn about the industry and figure out how your work can fit into it, and then create pieces that express your point of view.

The process of creating the illustrations for the book Ella was a very new experience for me. Although I’ve worked on many projects that required several illustrations, I’ve never worked on a series of drawings that had to relate to each other and also communicate an entire story over 50 pages. One of my fears was with time management. Trying to spread out my workload over eight or nine months was daunting, because I was accustomed to much shorter turn-around times.

The book is a parody of Kay Thompson’s, Eloise; however, the girl in this story is named “Ella” and she lives in The Local Hotel. After reading the manuscript, I felt very connected with the characters and the environment that the author Mallory Kasdan created for Ella. Fashion, art and design play integral roles in Ella’s life and so it was important for me to capture those in a believable way. One means of doing this was to reference objects, places, and people in my own life to help boost the authenticity of Ella’s world. As with many of my projects I spend a great deal of time brainstorming and so at this stage I drew a lot—mostly gesture drawings to figure out the posture and personality of this character, how she would move in space, and the kind of silhouette she would likely have.

Eventually this expanded into a more detailed drawing of her and finally I created a sort of character design sheet that I emailed to the art director, Jim Hoover. There were a few tweaks, but once Ella was approved I went straight into designing the drawings for the entire book. I had a lot of flexibility during this stage, and didn’t work from front to back, but instead drew the parts of the book that I felt attracted to first, and then filled out the rest of the book from there. I laid out the entire book end to end and taped it onto my wall in order to see the rhythm that developed from one image to the next. The cover was the last piece that I worked on. The shape and color choices for Ella were especially important visual elements within the book. Although I knew from the onset that I wanted the compositions to be colorful and at times dense, my fear was that Ella might get lost in all of this so I tried my best to make her a kind of visual anchor from page to page.