The Artist Q&A: Melanie Reim

By Peggy Roalf   Monday March 23, 2015

Q: Originally from New York City, what are some of your favorite things about living and working here?

A: I am a New Yorker- born in Brooklyn, grew up for a short time in Queens, and then, on Long Island—always close to the ocean. I moved from my parents’ house to my apartment on the Upper West Side over thirty years ago and it looks as if I landed in the right place, on the right side of town. As an artist who works primarily on location, I love the diversity of the city in all its ways, and that there is always a story, everywhere.

Q: When did you know that you were a sketchbook artist? 

A: Though we cannot change what the world calls a “sketchbook”, I would characterize myself as a draftsman, whose love and strength is drawing and reportage. The notion behind “sketch” implies unfinished, and I think of the works in my “sketchbooks” as drawings. That being said, I cannot remember a time that I did not draw in a sketchbook. The day that I was admitted to graduate school in Syracuse, I realized that was my forté. 


Mercado: On Location: Outside Mercado Modelo, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Q: What was the first subject-driven sketchbook you did? 

A: I have always brought a book to the beach—an ongoing love and theme.

Q: How many sketchbooks have you kept since you made this art form part of your practice?

A: I am looking at my shelf now, and a quick count, to what is visible, says 82, though I am sure that there are some tucked away—oh, and the one in my bag, ever-present.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio? 

A: Is that kind of like, “what would you grab first in a fire?” My kitty, Pablo, is a constant companion, though not really an item. I love being surrounded by my library and my filled sketchbooks.


Vegas Casino: On Location: Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Q: What was the strangest or most unusual assignment you’ve taken? What did you learn from the experience? 

A: Drawing on location brings about so many unusual assignments. It could be my Hong Kong Factory Reportage, where I followed a series of factory tours and documented production processes from design, to manufacturing, to button selection—and the environs of the factories themselves, ship containers to jade markets. I learned what I needed to pay attention to when on assignment like this. Neither the machines nor the workers stopped for me, and those who led me through did not want me to linger. Getting the right information in a short amount of time is key.

Q: What’s the best way to finish an assignment? How do you know when the art is finished? 

A: I ask myself: “Have you said what you need to? Is it clear?” Reportage artists sometimes have to educate those who have a different notion of what constitutes a “finish.”

Q: What was your favorite book as a child? 

A: Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carting Buttons: On Location: Hong Kong Street.

Q: What is the best book you’ve recently read? 

A: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose? 

A: I will answer quickly—Conté a Paris compressed charcoal (3B)—but it brings to mind an exercise that I was given when studying with my late mentor, David Passalacqua. I had to spend one year working in pen—only line, no wash, no smudge. I hated it at first, but of course, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My work got clear, and definitive and every line that I chose had meaning.

Q: What are some of your favorite places/books/blogs/websites for inspiration? 

A: I have a few kinds of places that inspire me to draw. I love drawing crowds and events, though am horrible at attending openings or parties; put me at a beach anywhere and I am in heaven; character, motion and body language everywhere. And, I feel especially lucky to live and work in NYC, home of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I walk into the Great Hall and I immediately feel centered and grounded, and of course, inspired. 

Gaga On Location; On Location: GaGa Ceremony, Dominican Republic.

Q: What was the painting or drawing or film that most affected your approach to art? [the Tunderbolt]

A: There have been different ones for different times. Early on, it was Rockwell and the Four Freedoms. When I discovered reportage and the purity of line drawings, it was Franklin McMahon, Jack Potter, Rico Lebrun, John Gundelfinger. But the single painting that I can still look at all day is Guernica—for its draftsmanship, its power, emotion, composition and message.

Q: What is the most interesting/challenging trip you have made so far? 

A: I have been to some amazing locations—deep into the sugar cane fields, bateys and voodoo ceremonies in the Caribbean, on safari in South Africa and to Soweto, and through the tea plantations and then, down to the backwaters in India. It is hard to choose-as I am in the midst of drawing wherever I am, I usually think that this is my best trip, ever…

Q: Where are you going next? 

A: I am on my way to Singapore, Bali and Thailand this summer—I will be teaching a workshop at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Singapore. Indulgent travel to follow.


Sikhs: On Location: Gate of India, Mumbai, India

Q: Where do you teach—and what do you like best about teaching?

A: I teach at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where I am the Chair of the MFA in Illustration program. Rewarding, exciting, invigorating, gratifying and a great learning experience for me, as well—teaching is all of those things.  

Q: What advice would you give a young artist about applying to an art school or college? 

A: You are about to embark on the great life of being a visual storyteller. Bring your passion and your voice. Be a sponge wherever you are, with whomever you study with. Get curious. Ask questions. Draw every day. Love what you do. You will be rewarded. 

Q: What would be your last supper? 

A: I am a New Yorker born and bred, so it would have to be a bagel and a schmear. 

Collioure Beach: Collioure, France.

Melanie Reim is an award-winning illustrator with a sketchbook never far from her side. Melanie lives in New York City and works at FIT, where she is the chairperson of the MFA in Illustration program. Her visual journals are featured in articles and numerous drawing books. Her work is part of the Air Force Art Collection, Washington, DC, as well as other group and solo shows. As Education Chair on the Board of Directors at The Society of Illustrators, she advocates for the love of drawing and the rich and well-rounded education of illustration students everywhere, as they are the future of the industry.