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Illustrator Profile: Birgit Schossow: "I like to find new ways to tell a story"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 6, 2015

Birgit Schössow is a German illustrator who had done extensive work creating book covers, book illustrations for children, and “a little bit of animation with music.” Over the past several years she has also created a striking series of magazine covers for The New Yorker on topics ranging from fashion to the weather to noir fiction.

Based in a small town outside of Hamburg, Schössow describes herself as “an illustrator from the boonies.” Her Photoshop-based illustrations feature an eclectic mix of styles, from the sleek graphic sophistication of The New Yorker covers to bright and fun children's book artwork. She's a smart and engaging visual storyteller with a keen sense of graphic style.

MY LIFE:
I was born in Hamburg and now I live in the countryside not far away from the Baltic Sea—100 kilometers from Hamburg.

My parents were both very creative and my brother and I could play with paint, canvas, pencils, paper, clay, and also music instruments. Though our parents had “normal” jobs they liked to create things. My elder brother Peter Schössow is also an illustrator who has published many picture books.

I studied at the Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften (University of Applied Sciences) in Hamburg—when I was there it had a shorter name—just Fachhochschule Hamburg. My department was children’s book illustration.

I started my job during my studies at a TV station in Hamburg where I learned much about animation, computer, TV design and so on. It was my transition from conventional analog work to digital.

MY WORKSPACE:
I like my studio—it is the whole main floor of my frame house. I like to look into my wild garden with the cycle of the seasons. In summer I sit on my terrace with my Mac and try to do my jobs, though it is nice just to look at the nature or my cat running through the garden. In winter it is fine to make a fire and listen to the crackling wood inside my oven, listening to music and working inside. It is very calm in the countryside.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
Sometimes I make some sketches on paper but mainly I work with the computer (Photoshop) from the beginning.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
There have been so many things that were big breaks. When I started I had the opportunity to make many very different jobs. For children, for adults, for TV and for editorial. For a long time I worked mainly for children’s books publishers. Then I had the wonderful experience of getting in contact with Françoise Mouly and The New Yorker. I felt free to do things that were in hiding for a long time.

MY INFLUENCES:
There is no special artist. Sometimes it is just the color of a photo, or of someone’s dress that inspires me to draw something. Also David Hockney, Max Beckmann, Christian Schad, James Flora, and the title sequences of Saul Bass.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
I was very touched by the work of Sempe. And I liked to read his description of New York and his view of the people. I like Georges Simenon—his characterization of people and places. And Richard Yates.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
An inspiration can be a color of a skirt of the woman in the row in front of me. Or a part of a song in the radio. It’s not necessarily something from art or illustration.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
I am a team worker when I work with a client because it is necessary to find out what he or she wants to communicate with the illustration. But I also like to work free, to have an idea and no one in the back who has a better idea...

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
That would be is two years ago, when I made my first New Yorker cover. That was something that you do not necessarily expect for an illustrator from Hamburg, who lives in the boonies.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
At the moment I am illustrating a story of a German post-war author. I had it in my mind for many years—and last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair I found a publisher who also liked this old short story. It is for adults, but its humanity and the humor are so “groovy” that I'm trying to make it into  a picture book not only for adults but also for children.

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
Mainly I work with German clients. I like it when I work with people with visual expertise, who give me the space that is necessary for creativity. In Germany I often work with editors who have no arts/illustration/graphics background, because I mainly work for book publishers.

I don’t often work with American art directors. The work with Françoise Mouly from The New Yorker has been very careful and respectful and there was hardly anything to modify on the illustrations that they chose for a cover.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
I like Tomi Ungerer for his sense of humor and artistic skill. And there are so many more—when I look at the American Illustration yearbook it is full of creativity and I can’t pick out just one name.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
I started to make my own picture books, calendars and prints that can be bought on my website. I also illustrate websites and am trying to figure out how to make an interesting app for children.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
I’ve worked for nearly 25 years in this job and have no recipe. I sometimes visit the Frankfurt Bookfair. Or visit editors in their office. I’m looking for a rep in the USA, because Hamburg is a little bit far away from New York.

I think it is necessary to promote yourself—or to use any opportunity. The “Blown Covers” contest was such a chance, which gave me the possibility to come in contact with the art director of The New Yorker.

Françoise Mouly initiated the “Blown Covers” blog together with her Blown Covers book and started a New Yorker-style cover competition. The themes closely mirrored what she would suggest to New Yorker artists. After some weeks I sent my first suggestion and eventually I got a notice that one of my works was selected for a “real” cover. When Françoise finished the competitions I was invited to send cover illustration proposals to her New Yorker office.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Illustration (sometimes paired with genius) is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I don’t know who said this originally, but I think it is also a good description of the job.

I like to find new ways to tell a story, especially when I have time to experiment and the client trusts me and gives me the chance and enough space to do it. The results of such a free work are often so much better than those where there are many who want to influence or to give it their personal stamp.

See more Birgit Schössow illustrations, new work, and updates:
Birgit Schössow website
Birgit Schössow's Sketchbooks



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