Illustrator Profile - Ellen Weinstein: "Make something you believe in or no one else will believe in it either."

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 12, 2015

Ellen Weinstein is a smart and vibrant illustrator who creates stunningly beautiful paintings and collages. Her illustration work has helped define the look of Nautilus, powered a series of pointed altweekly covers, and brightened the pages of The New York Times, among many others.

Ellen's work reflects her background as a graphic designer. She mixes painting, collage, and Photoshop (alone or in combination) in a stylish and elegant blend. The results range from tough and gritty to delicate and surreal, but always highly intelligent and visually bold.

Ellen has a strong social media presence, detailing her work and creative process on Drawger, promoting herself (and others) on Twitter and Facebook, and showing off new work (and her dog) on Instagram.

The New York City native (and longtime Lower East Side resident) does a wide variety of work in addition to editorial illustration, including posters, calendars, and interactive projects. Ellen teaches at RISD, is a frequent speaker at conferences and schools, and was a board member and President of last year's successful ICON8 illustration conference in Portland. This April she'll be speaking at  the fig. 05 Congreso Internacional de Ilustracion in Bogota, Colombia.

My parents had good union jobs as part of the working-class— something that doesn’t seem to exist much anymore, unfortunately. Although they didn’t “do what they loved” they did find great satisfaction in the jobs they did. They were very supportive and encouraging of my having a career that was also my passion.

I graduated from The High School of Art and Design and Pratt Institute in New York City, where I was a graphic design major. I was an intern in Milton Glaser’s studio my senior year of Pratt and worked as an assistant to Henry Wolf after graduation.

I am married to fellow illustrator, David Flaherty, and we have the world’s cutest mini long-haired Dachshund.

My studio is in our apartment, which has a pretty stellar 21st floor view of the East River and the Williamsburg Bridge. We get a lot of natural light, and having a visible horizon line is a luxury in NYC. My workspace occupies our front hallway and I have a large drafting table set at standing height where I paint and assemble, and my Mac is set up next to it. It’s pretty efficient, like a restaurant kitchen, mise-en-place. Plus, have I mentioned my dog?

I always start with pencil sketches to formulate ideas. Once I have a sketch approved, I paint different elements in gouache and take any photos that are needed. How much is painted or photographed depends on the piece and what works best to convey the idea. I’m often my own model because I am affordable and always available. My finals are usually assembled in Photoshop but work for exhibits is done as original art. I’m using the computer less and less these days and enjoying that much more.

I must admit I’m adverse to the term “style” in referring to my work, but tend to use “voice” or “vision” instead. The look of my work has changed a lot since I started. I launched my career as a printmaker. For a while I created three–dimensional constructions that I photographed with a large format camera, and now I combine traditional media with digital. My process has remained the same: starting with an idea that I am excited about.

It’s been more of an ongoing series of small cracks rather than one big break for me. Like many, I got my first assignment from Steven Heller for the Book Review section of The New York Times.

There have been so many and the list keeps growing: poster art of Cassandre and Savignac, Stenberg Brothers, Alexander Rodchenko, Paula Scher, Tomi Ungerer, Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis, the street artists JR and Swoon…. It just goes on.

I have had the good fortune during the past year to meet two of my longtime heroes: Paula Scher and Tomi Ungerer. Paula Scher was the opening keynote for ICON8 and I was thrilled when she accepted my invitation to speak. Starting as a student, I was a fan of her bold and smart design and in-person she is incredibly warm and funny. Tomi Ungerer’s books captivated me as a kid and his smart political posters and editorial work were a big influence on me early on. He is also incredibly charming and down to earth. Both Paula and Tomi have had prolific careers and they continue to push and challenge themselves. That is truly inspiring.

Although I am physically solitary in my studio, I interact every day with clients and I teach once a week at RISD as well. Illustration is a highly collaborative practice. My biggest challenge is to take a day off, but no complaints! It’s a nice challenge to have.

It is hard to pick just one but I truly enjoy working with Len Small of Nautilus. The subject matter of Nautilus is amongst my favorite and the articles are a good read. I always provide an art director with a number of sketches, any of which I would be happy to do, and Len consistently picks my personal favorite.

NYC is a constant source of inspiration whether it is walking around, an overheard conversation or the ability to see an exhibit, attend a lecture or get together with friends. I’ve been working/traveling more and that gives me the chance to engage with different creatives, take lots of photos I later use in my work, and buy more books than I have room for.

A standout in a year of standouts was my participation in a conference at The Brown Institute of Columbia University. I collaborated with the team from the New York Public Library Labs in developing an interactive prototype during a two-day hackathon that was then presented to the public. I greatly enjoyed the entire experience and developed a deep fascination for working with code, something I want to do more.

My dream assignment would be a series of theater posters or book covers, something I have done previously but not recently. I’m also developing projects of my own I would like to find publishers for. Every project has the potential of being a dream job regardless of what the final application is for.

I have not reinvented myself on a conscious level but my work keeps consistently changing over time and some of the people I work with change as well. I sell more work directly as originals and prints and social media helps considerably with that. What seems alternative or unconventional one day becomes an industry standard the next, so it’s hard to say.

I do all the usual things, but not on a consistent basis. American Illustration and the other competitions are always nice to be in. Participating in the Live Cover Project last year was great PR and resulted in a number of projects. Admittedly, I’m not the best marketer but a firm believer in building relationships with people.

Work hard, harder than you think; it’s 10% magical thinking and 90% practical doing. Make something you believe in or no one else will believe in it either. Be in it for the long haul. Treat people well—everyone—regardless if they are in a position to help you or not. Take every opportunity to travel and to challenge yourself.

Serving on the board of the ICON8 conference has been a great opportunity to meet people, cultivate relationships and shape conversations about the industry. Illustrators are quick to downplay all the skills we develop in our daily practice. Being a board member is a way to develop those skills further and acquire new ones. As President I was constantly going back and forth between the big picture and all the details that go into making that picture work. Like any project, an idea is only as good as its execution and I worked closely with all the board members and director in seeing it through.

See more Ellen Weinstein illustrations and follow her social media pages:



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