Illustrator Profile - Christopher Silas Neal: "I move shapes and colors the same way that a designer lays out a page"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 18, 2015

Christopher Silas Neal creates beautiful, graceful illustrations that have appeared on the covers of numerous books and the pages of many publications including The New Yorker, Real Simple, and The New York Times. Neal has illustrated an elegant series of children’s picture books, and will publish his self-authored book debut, Everyone, in 2016. He has also illustrated animated videos for Kate Spade and Anthropologie, and delightful posters.

Neal’s artwork has a rich, thoughtful sensibility. He says, “I move shapes and colors the same way that a designer lays out a page,” and his cover designs and page illustrations share an awareness of graphic space and impact. Neal can illustrate complex concepts and stories with an almost childlike simplicity, yet there are layers and layers of graphic sophistication and smart visual storytelling in his work. His series of children’s books are breathtaking in their illustration quality, with a retro feel that conjures up classic picture books from back in the day.

I'm an author and illustrator. I've been making illustrations for about 12 years and live and work in Brooklyn, NY. I share a studio with a handful of illustrators and designers in what used to be an old Pencil Factory. I primarily make book jackets, illustrations for magazines, posters, and picture books.

I was born in San Antonio, Texas in the late 70s. It’s a border town and my ethnic background, like a lot of people in South Texas, is a mix of Mexican, Native American, and European. My mom was a single parent so we moved to several places including Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia all before I was four. We didn’t have a lot of money and we lived in a trailer park, various apartments, stayed with friends and family and even lived out of our car once or twice.  We finally landed in Florida where I lived until the age of 13. Then we moved to Colorado.

Like most artists, I loved to draw as a kid and also dabbled in special effects/monster make-up and played musical instruments. When it came time to think about higher education, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was playing drums and figured I would play in bands while working a part-time job. Art schools like RISD, MICA, and Pratt didn’t enter the equation. I didn’t really know they existed. College in general, from my limited point of view, was for rich kids.  When my mom suggested I apply to school, I looked into the Art Institute of Denver to study animation, special effects, or something art and film related—a back up plan if music didn’t work out. Coming from a working class family, even the Art Institute seemed far-fetched and my mom insisted I go to a “real college.” So I decided to study music at an in-state university and get a degree in music education. The tuition for an in-state student was really affordable and coupled with the grants, and loans awarded to low income families, I was able to go to a big state school, the University of Colorado.

Eventually, I switched majors to mass communication and took a graphic design elective. The teacher of that class gave me a job at his design studio and I worked as a designer for four years before moving to New York City in 2002. I met an illustrator named Rachel Salomon and when I saw what she was doing for a living, I left my job and became an illustrator. It sounds very matter-of-fact but that’s really how it happened. I worked up a portfolio, built a website, mailed postcards to magazines and just kept at it until I started getting work. Twelve years later, I’m still doing it.

I draw, cut and paint various black lines and shapes, scan them into my Mac, add color in Photoshop, and arrange them in layers until it looks like a picture.

My first published illustrations were for Paper magazine. They didn't pay and the content of the essays, a column by Mr. Mickey, were pretty light in terms of inspiration. It was my first interaction with an editor and first experience handing over sketches and delivering a final piece of art, so I was more than happy for the opportunity. It was my second assignment for them, a piece about gossip culture, that gave me my big break. The image depicted a girl in a dress on the phone with a gaggle of lips flying out of the receiver. I used the image as a promo card and it got into American Illustration. Art directors referenced that piece for years after. At the time, most illustrators were using acrylic paint and other traditional techniques and there were only a handful of digital artists. Not many illustrators were using texture and Photoshop so my work stood out. I was drawing really big, scanning the work, and scaling it down which made the line work really fine. Most art directors thought I was doing some kind of etching process.

My influences are a mix of mid century art and design, and pop culture from my youth. The picture books I read as a kid, music videos, films, and my mom's record collection seeped into my creative DNA. The design influence comes from having worked as a graphic designer for three years or so before becoming an illustrator. When I make a piece of art, I move shapes and colors the same way that a designer lays out a page. There's a flatness to my images that stems from that graphic design process.

I admire film directors like Wes Anderson who create work without compromising creative vision that can speak to a broad audience. His films have beauty and humor while also maintaining a peculiar quality and they make a little money, too. I enjoy having one foot in the mainstream with the other foot in a more tangental puddle, and then doing a little dance to see how the two will mix. I feel like Wes does something similar.

One of the hardest things about working for yourself is being able to fully let go of work outside of the studio. I sometimes miss that feeling when you have a full-time job and are on vacation, getting paid, with no obligations. If something goes wrong back at work, someone else will take care of it and you don’t have to worry about missing a cool project or lucrative assignment. The paycheck dribbles in no matter what. But the freedom one has as a self-employed artist is worth sacrificing a few paid vacations. It is certainly a challenge to separate what’s happening at work from your personal life. However, there’s plenty of office crap that as a one-person-business, I’ll never have to deal with.

I’m probably not the first editorial illustrator to mention SooJin Buzelli. She has a way of pulling fresh ideas out of artists and it’s great to work for an art director who has final say on the outcome. In publishing, I always enjoying making book jackets for Carol Carson at Knopf. The books are usually literary fiction / hardcover and she always seems to pick the best of my sketches.

I'm working on one now. I've written and illustrated a picture book that Candlewick will release in Spring 2016. It's called Everyone and it's a book about our feelings and how they shape the world around us. I signed a two book deal and I've already started preliminary work for the second book which so far is about a hungry cat. Of course there are other things that I'd love to do and clients that I'd love to work with, but it would be a shame to not recognize how lucky I am, to make the work I already make. But to be more hypothetical, something for the stage would be fun. Something in film. Something large scale. I'd still love to make covers for The New Yorker.

I'm lucky that Chronicle Books approached me for my first book project, to illustrate Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner. I hadn't given much thought to making picture books before they called and it was through my covers and posters that Chronicle had found my work. Over and Under the Snow did well and won a few awards which opened the door to more opportunities. Once I decided that I wanted to write my own books, I hired a book agent who helped me develop and sell my pitch.

Kate and I just released a follow up to Over and Under the Snow with Chronicle titled Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt. It's a book about the bugs, insects and critters that help a garden flourish.

I’ve changed the way I handle sketches for book jackets. I used to send three to four pencil sketches and go to final painting and drawing from there, where as now I send between nine and 20 rough pencils before creating several color comps. In some cases, I skip the pencil phase and go right to designing digital comps. Color comps, an in-between step that I hadn't been doing until a few years ago, is often necessary to sell an idea to an editor. Although it adds a bit more work on the front end of a project, going that extra step has been a useful creative step resulting in more approved covers.

Jumping into picture books, it was necessary to rethink my process again. Up until my first book project, I worked as a commissioned artist paid on a per image, per usage basis. In picture books, you have to think like an author and look at the bigger picture. It’s not a per image type of deal. If you try to count images and fees, you'll be disappointed and frustrated in the amount of work that goes into a book. It's better to think about it like a personal project. Even though you have to answer to an editor and art director, it's far better to concentrate on making the best book possible whether that takes 10 simple images or 100 complex images. You have to take ownership of the process and accept some risks, such as, the book might not sell well. Or, you put a lot of work into an idea and the editor wants to go in a different direction. You work on advance of royalties and cross your fingers. It's a leap of faith. Now that I'm writing my own books, it's easier to get into that mindset.

As far as finding unconventional clients, I was for a time, working directly with fashion brands directing animated videos. I did one for Kate Spade and one for Anthropologie. I'd like to do another one and am just waiting for the right project. Animation is a lengthy process and in my case requires hiring an animator and a music/sound designer. A lot of pieces need to come together for it to work out.

Early in my career, I would send two postcards a year and still believe sending postcards can be helpful. I’m less aggressive with promotion these days. Having worked in the business for awhile, word of mouth goes a long way, though I'd be silly to rest on my laurels. There are plenty of young art directors and designers who are not familiar with my work.  

To source books I say, hell no. Waste of time in my case. To annuals I say, do it to be part of something but not necessarily as direct promotion. There's always a chance that a juror will see your work and hire you but I think annuals play a different role than they did 10 years ago.

Social media goes a long way but it's a very passive way of reaching clients. Emails are OK if you have a very targeted and personal approach. I think mass-emailers are often seen as offensive.

I have an agent for my picture books and he's amazing. A rep may be useful for advertising. For editorial work, having a rep isn't very useful

To students and people that hope to jump into the field of illustration I say take risks. Take creative risks like trying something new without any guarantee you'll be good at it. Take personal risks like moving to a new city or approaching someone you'd like to meet. And finally, dream big. Let reality scale things back rather than your ambition and imagination.

See more Christopher Silas Neal illustrations, new work, and updates:
Christopher Silas Neal website