Illustrator Profile - Brian Rea: "It's pretty damn fun to be an illustrator now"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 13, 2015

Brian Rea has a great passion for illustration. Based in Los Angeles, the former New York Times art director creates editorial illustrations for numerous publications (including a remarkable ongoing assignment for the Times's Modern Love column), and has been making a brilliant series of animations, books, posters, murals, installations, commercial work, and more. His artwork is smart, subtle, and multifaceted; simple line drawings with wash that can convey deep and complex meanings. There's a great sense of both joy and intelligence in Rea's work, and it looks like he's having a blast working across so many formats and platforms. As he says, "It's pretty damn fun to be an illustrator now."

My mother was a bookkeeper and my father worked at Polaroid. Neither was an artist, but they were great storytellers and were always supportive of me drawing. My grandfather was a mason and kept a sketchbook that I remember seeing as a kid—mostly drawings of old advertisements and comics he had copied like Tarzan and King of the Royal Mounted. He was a really private person and only showed it to me once or twice, but it had a big impact on me when I was a kid. As I got older, I would share drawings with him—I could tell he genuinely appreciated seeing the work.

I grew up in a big Irish/Italian family in Massachusetts. Being from New England means you learn to tell ridiculous stories or eventually, you have stories told about you. I have two brothers, lots of aunts and uncles and too many cousins to count. Growing up I absorbed anything that had drawing or painting in it—books, magazine ads, comics, Bob Ross shows, Atari cartridges, Pink Floyd albums…everything! I was obsessed with Garfield for a while and got beat up a lot for stealing my brother’s Mad magazines and comic books. For a while I wanted to be a truck driver (see the world) and my fallback plan was drawing Def Leppard logos on jeans jackets.

I was like most other art kids in high school, drawing crazy realistic images of water, self-portraits, reflections, etc.—the usual stuff. My high school art teacher, Eric Hoover was incredible though—he ran a wonderful art program that inspired hundreds of kids to pursue art/ illustration in college. Which I did, at Maryland Institute College of Art under James Yang, Whitney Sherman, Lew Fifield, and Ken Krafchek.

While still at MICA, my painting instructor Ken Tisa organized a meeting in NYC with a friend of his, the illustrator and artist Ruth Marten, to show her my portfolio. She was really the one I can say connected everything for me. I spent the day at her studio in the city talking about illustration, art, NYC…life. It was super inspiring and it left me thinking that was it. That’s all I want to do.

I was in NYC for 11 years and took part time/full time design jobs to fill in the $ gaps. I worked at Little Brown under Paul Sahre. I also sat in as a designer at The New York Times in the magazine and a few of the other sections. I had no business being a designer at either place so I tried to absorb as much as I could before they figured it out.

During my final five years in NYC I became the full time art director for the Op-Ed page. John Hendrix, Sam Weber, and Kim Bost all worked with me at the Op-Ed at various times. All were wonderful to work with and truthfully, I don’t think I could have done that job without them. When I moved to Los Angeles, I sat in as guest art director at Good magazine. I now teach at Art Center College of Design alongside the great illustrator Paul Rogers and have a studio in LA.

I work at Yosemite Studios in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles—the building has a number of artists, photographers and illustrators in it. It’s a big space, it’s cheap and it’s in California. Working on the West Coast has changed my work and also my approach to it—better balance between living and working and that feeds back into my work. I tend to be more focused while in the studio; maybe more so than I was in NYC. I’m about 45 minutes from the ocean, too, so if I need to recharge my battery, I can sneak out to the water.

I usually start out with writing first. I then develop these ideas into simple pencil drawings on paper to get comfortable with the shapes and composition. Then I draw the image again and again, adding or subtracting detail as I go along and develop more confident marks on the page. I tend to use pencil, pen or brush, and then digitally add many many layers of washes and color.

Meeting Ruth Marten was certainly one of those lightning bolts in my life, but I would also say sharing a studio with Paul Sahre in NYC really helped me understand illustration, design and the relationship between the two a lot more. We’d discuss work quite a bit, and I got a chance to see how he shaped his stories and concepts. A few years ago, Paul and I collaborated on a three-book art box set with Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm’s feedback on that project really helped shape the work I’ve been doing recently.

Ben Shahn, David Park, Francis Picabia, Antoni Tapies, George Bellows, Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg, George Grosz, Roy Andersson, Mel Bochner, Push Pin Studios, Nicholas Blechman, Christoph Niemann, Jason Fulford, UFOs, animal programs, plants, travel, family, and the ocean.

One person…? That’s impossible to answer. I admire anyone and everyone whose passion borders on obsession no matter if they’re a farmer, sushi maker, or subway singer.

Billing. I hate paperwork—probably because I’m absolutely terrible at it. Apologies to all the art directors whom I’ve driven nuts over the years.

It’s helped me generate ideas more efficiently for sure, but I think the bigger impact has been on managing the working relationships within a project. An art director and an illustrator may be trying to accomplish different things at times—so getting aligned with a common goal helps us both. Hopefully that can level off the relationship so that the project becomes about collaboration rather than just “banging out style” for someone.

It’s probably too easy an answer, but I’ve loved working with all the designers and art directors at The New York Times over the years: Nicholas Blechman, Alexandra Zsigmond, Aviva Michaelov, Rodrigo Honeywell, John Cohoe, Corinne Myler, Arem Dupplesis, Kristina DiMatteo, Gail Bichler, Leo Jung and so many others—a lot of challenging projects and so much trust. I had a GREAT working relationship with Barbara Richer (before she left the NYT) working on the Modern Love series. Her editors have given me a lot of room to create a parallel perspective on the column and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Friends, family, ocean.

Collaborating with Pablo Delcan and California Sunday Magazine on an animated short film about the director and artist Mike Mills. I was excited to work with Pablo again—he’s an incredibly talented designer/ animator, but we were pretty anxious (scared) what Mike might think of it. When he posted the film on his blog—that was definitely the “fuck yeah/phew” moment of the year.

Painting a plane.

There are sooo many unusual and exciting formats that illustration work is now being used for—it’s pretty damn fun to be an illustrator now, right? I don’t have a favorite however; nowadays I choose projects based on three criteria: collaborate with good people, work on projects that offer a creative challenge or allow for creative input, or projects with a solid budget. It seems pretty obvious sure, but I have made the mistake so many times of choosing projects that offered one or even none of these and the results are usually less satisfying. I’ve found if a potential project falls into two of these three categories than I tend to say yes. It makes me feel excited about who I work with, makes me work harder on each project and in the end I tend to feel more satisfied with the results.

I’ve been lucky to collaborate with Pablo Delcan, a great designer/animator based in NYC on many of the short animated films. I’m new to animation honestly, but Pablo comes from an animation background so his expertise is invaluable. Obviously, animation is a very different process than traditional illustration because we can rely on many scenes (rather than a single panel illustration) to develop a story as well as music, narration and pacing. I tend to write out the “actions” of each film in words first and discuss this with Pablo. We throw this back in forth a bit till we find the things that we think work best visually and emotionally. We then develop drawn storyboards and animatics to work out pacing and transitional elements between scenes. Nearly all the finished animation is created using hundreds of drawings for each film, then fine-tuned by Pablo and his crew. We know there are certainly quicker ways to create the films, but we enjoy the process and the results.

I think all artists evolve over time, right? Their interests, their stories, their work—it changes. When I first started out, I was producing a lot of collage work, but I outgrew it; it didn’t feel like my work and so I focused on my drawing. I’m not overly strategic about “reinvention.” I just hope that the stories I like telling, designers and audiences are interested in buying. Lately I’ve gotten into murals, products and most recently animation because I was curious about exploring them and opportunities presented themselves. It’s allowed me to experiment with some new things and extend what I have cooking in the studio. It’s re-energized me. Hopefully the phone keeps ringing.

I’ve never been great at promotion. Early on, I sent out postcards, xeroxes, original art… hell, anything I could to generate work. But that was a long time ago and the methods were more simple back then. Now I try a combination of things that seems to be effective for generating the kinds of projects I’d like to work on. Most importantly I try and collaborate with energetic people that have a desire to produce special projects. The next is being true to the types of stories I want to tell in those projects. I only show work I’m excited about doing more of and I push this on my website, within blogs, on social media and in annuals.

Temperament is everything, especially when starting out. It’s brutal in the beginning so stay energetic (productive) and tell YOUR stories.

See more Brian Rea illustrations, new work, and updates:
Brian Rea website