Illustrator - Chris Buzelli: "Art can communicate a powerful message"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 5, 2015

Chris Buzelli is a powerful and imaginative painter and illustrator with a classically precise style and a surreal, cutting-edge creative sensibility. His graphic oil painting illustrations have been featured in magazines large (Rolling Stone, Reader's Digest) and small (Nautilus, Plansponsor), on book covers and posters, and have been exhibited at galleries around the U.S. and France. He also recently created a large series of portraits for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 29th Annual Induction Ceremony.

Chris’s illustration style is so universal that it could be at home in a children’s book, a rock & roll poster, or a 1960s science fiction paperback book cover. His fantastic approach to imagery leans heavily on animals and beasts of all kinds, as well as a broad range of flowers and plants. Chris has built a large community of fans of his work via a smart and active social media and blogging presence.

Based in New York City’s East Village, Chris was born in Chicago and has been working as an illustrator since 1995. In his “spare” time, Chris also  teaches at SVA and RISD, and chaired this year’s Society of Illustrators competition. He will host the SoI57 book and editorial exhibit that opens on February 6.

My mother is a nurse and my father was a machinist working in the steel/glass factories around Chicago. My whole family was very supportive of my artistic pursuits. I had plenty of part-time jobs early in my career: line cook, millwork, assistant at a scientific book publisher, grade school computer/arts teacher. I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design.

My studio is in my apartment. My wife SooJin Buzelli and I live in an old walk-up tenement building in the East Village, with original brick walls, window transoms above all the interior doors, and creaky pine wood floors. It definitely has its charm, but living and working in the same space has its pros and cons. I really enjoy being able to wake up early and get right to work. Especially since it seems like my brain is firing on all cylinders during the early morning hours. But sometimes the line between work and life can get fuzzy when you live and work in the same place. For me, it’s best to keep a very consistent work schedule in order to keep them separate.

I usually start by frantically creating pages of ideas/thumbnails. Next, I bang my head on the table a few times, hoping to create an idea that suits the article and works on its own as well. Then I create a graphite underdrawing on board before the final oil painting.

I never had a “big break.” It was more like a very long and slow series of breaks. Even though I started illustrating in 1995, I’d say it took about another seven to 10 years before I could call illustration my full-time career. I think it just took me that long to understand the nuances of the business and to find my voice as well. That important incubation period allowed me to make many mistakes, experiment and grow.

Painting with my grandfather as a kid had an huge influence on my life. He recognized my desire to paint early on and bought a couple of easels/oil paint sets. We painted together almost every weekend in his television workshop while I grew up. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons that I still oil paint and feel most comfortable with the medium. 

I really admire the artist Paul Cadmus. While in high-school, I saw his Seven Deadly Sins paintings and was immediately drawn to them. Each painting was a beautifully painted grotesque figure depicting each sin, full of visual metaphors. Cadmus painted this series in the 1940s but they look very contemporary and could be on a cover of a graphic novel or book today. I think it was the first time that I began to really understand that a piece of art can visually communicate a powerful message to the viewer. I wanted to do the same and they really set me on a specific career path as an illustrator.

Feeling like I’m missing out on the shared studio situation. I have friends that share studios in the Pencil Factory and I’m sometimes envious of their situation. Batting around ideas with friends, looking over the shoulders of other artists and sharing war stories seems like such a perfect situation. But I’m not sure if I could handle all the distractions that come with a shared space.

I really enjoy working with Irene Gallo, Associate Publisher of and Creative Director of Tor Books. She has opened up a new avenue for me and for other conceptual/editorial illustrators like myself. Science fiction and fantasy has traditionally been illustrated mostly by sci fi illustrators, but Irene hires a very diverse group of artists. She also pulls the best out of an illustrator by creating a fantastic work environment with the perfect mix of art direction and freedom. And the sci fi/fantasy stories are just really exciting and fun to illustrate.

I actually look to get inspired by each new assignment. I love to get immersed in a project. Sometimes by investigating the details and history behind the article. Sometimes by becoming obsessed with the subject matter. Sometimes by learning something new and exciting from the content. I’m also really drawn to flora and fauna, so I regularly get out of the city and usually hike around the Catskill Mountains for inspiration.

One of the most memorable assignments from last year was illustrating the cover for The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and working with art director Steven Charny. And then attending the live concert event at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was just so thrilling to see some of the musical greats up close. I also had a solo show in the middle of France which turned out to be an incredible and beautiful experience. It was refreshing to see that illustrators are so well respected in France.

When I first started out, I dreamed about illustrating for Rolling Stone magazine’s music review or getting the cover of Time magazine. I’m still hoping for that cover, but honestly, I have had projects that have totally blown away those dreams. Most of these projects were very unique and unconventional. I think that’s the reason why they are my favorite assignments. They were unexpected and didn’t have a preconceived limit. My dream assignment now is to top the last dream assignment. No limits!

Most of my promotion happens on social media. I used to send out postcards in the beginning, but no longer. I’m so glad that I don’t have to prepare thousands of envelopes every few months. I also try and enter the major illustration competitions each year. I stay in touch with the illustration community by going to openings, award shows, and industry functions. It helps that many of my friends are in the industry and I really enjoy the community. 

I teach a class once a week at SVA and also at RISD. I don’t necessarily have any general advice but I try to ready my students for the tough transition from college to real world through each class.

I was selected to be the chair of the Society of Illustrators 57 competition this year. You actually don’t get to judge as the chair. However, I did have a hand in choosing the judges along with the past 10 chairs. I also got to choose the illustrator (JooHee Yoon) and designer (Lotta Nieminen) for the SOI call for entries poster. JooHee and Lotta made my art director job very easy and created a fantastic poster.

Even though I was present during the judging, my main role was to go over the rules and process. The judges—a balanced mix of art directors and illustrators—painstakingly poured over thousands of images. At the end of each day the judges discussed, critiqued, and sometimes passionately debated over the medal winners. It was a fascinating process to witness. I felt like I had a front row seat to an illustration reality show. And I found it very difficult to just sit there silently while the judges talked openly about all these great illustrations and illustrators. I also got a chance to hang out with some of my favorite illustrators and art directors from around the world. SOI's Anelle Miller and Kate Feirtag did most of the work behind the scenes. I just feel fortunate to have had a small hand in one of the most honored competitions in our field.

One of the most special parts of the process was calling many of the award winners to give them the good news. I remember getting that call myself and I’ll never forget it.

[The Society of Illustrators 57 Book and Editorial Show is on exhibit from February 4-28. There's an opening February 6.]

Follow Chris Buzelli on Twitter, Facebook, Drawger and Tumblr.