Illustrator Profile - Bob Staake: "Every assignment is a dream"

By Robert Newman   Thursday December 10, 2015

Bob Staake is a remarkably diverse and multi-talented illustrator based in Chatham, Massachusetts. He has been creating art and illustrations in many forms for almost 40 years, although he is quick to point out that “I refuse to call what I do ‘work.’” Staake’s illustrations have graced the pages of countless magazines, as well as over 60 (!) children’s books, corporate and product work, poster design, and much more. Staake has also created a brilliant series of covers for The New Yorker, most notably the November 2008 “Reflection” cover, which celebrated the first election of Barack Obama as President.

Staake seems to have as many illustration styles as he does assignments, all of them bright and engaging. His illustrations are graphically strong, with a stylistic duality that is retro and modern, childlike and sophisticated, and always smart. His “work” is a real visual treat.

I live 35 miles flung into the Atlantic Ocean in a little village called Chatham, Massachusetts. I’ve been working as an illustrator pretty much since 1976, though I refuse to call what I do “work.”

I came from a working middle class family that fled Germany after the war and moved to New York—then we fled to Los Angeles because we’d had enough of the pastrami.

I never took any art class after high school. I went to the University of Southern California on a full scholarship and double majored in print journalism and international relations. Basically if WW3 breaks out, I’ll be able to negotiate a global ceasefire by drawing easy to understand doodles on cocktail napkins.

When we moved to this 215-year-old house on Cape Cod full-time I had to finally build a studio. We had a small ancient carriage house that was falling down, so one day I kicked it, reduced it to sawdust and told my contractor to build it on the exact same footprint.

It depends from illustration to illustration, but I think it would be safe to say that I almost always combine traditional techniques with digital mediums. Pencil, pen, brush, sponge, brayer—I draw with all these things and then scan. That said, today (2015) I’m still very “old school” when it comes to working digitally because I still create in Photoshop 3.0 and “draw” with a mouse, which is a little like drawing with a bar of soap, but it somehow seems to work for me

In 1974 I had been drawing and submitting sports cartoons to a local newspaper in Los Angeles called The Daily Breeze—and they surprisingly ran them, though I never thought to ask them to pay me. A year later there was a phone call at my parents’ house. It was the art director for the NFL programs and when he heard my voice he asked to speak to my father—the guy who drew those sports cartoons in the paper. He was amazed to learn that a 17-year-old kid was drawing them. MUCH to his credit, he called me into their Wilshire Boulevard office and gave me my first “real” assignment—4-color illustrations in the NFL programs. I was paid $400.

Like every illustrator, far too many to mention. But truth be told, I’m probably more inspired by architecture, photography, mid-century modern design and typography than anything else. I remain in awe of the minimalist design of Alvin Lustig, how much story Diane Arbus could imbue in her photographs, and while I’m not always crazy about the function of Phillipe Starck’s industrial design, his use of sinuous form is something I greatly appreciate.

Honestly, I’m more admiring of people who are routinely called upon to “problem solve”—which is certainly being “creative.” Mechanics, plumbers, wood workers, roofers—I just love watching these people work. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a very hands-on, DIY and problem-solver type myself.

I never proactively seek out “creative inspiration.” I just try to keep my eyes and mind open—and welcome it whenever shows itself. My studio, home and loft are stacked floor to ceiling with books and you’d think I’d be constantly going to them for inspiration, but I don’t—for the simple fact of the matter that doing so just slows down the creative process. I learned a long time ago (in the pre-Google image search age) that if I had to draw, say, a 1924 Singer sewing machine, Walter Mondale or the Arc de Triomphe that it was far easier to draw from my memories of those things, rather than search for reference pictures. Maybe that’s because of my training as a journalist and always having that daily deadline breathing down your neck. I trust my mind when I draw, but I’m certain it helps that I have a pretty trustworthy “photographic memory” as well.

Remembering to put on pants before answering a knock at the studio door. On the other hand, who’s gonna complain around here if I’m not wearing pants?

A line of canned fruit and vegetable labels that I was commissioned to create. They’re far more hyper-realistic than my usual work, but I knew they needed to be designed that way. For me, it’s the project that dictates the aesthetic I employ—not the other way around. By its very nature, illustration is subservient—and I never lose sight of that. In my opinion, many other illustrators do.

I know this sounds trite, but EVERY assignment is a dream. First, I get paid well to create a piece of art, and secondly, I absolutely love the challenge of taking on something new. I try very hard not to repeat myself aesthetically, because where’s the fun in that? By pushing myself and trying something different, unexpected and unique I am able to surprise myself.

Basically, I either come up with a cover idea that I pitch to Françoise Mouly and David Remnick, or they come to me (and the other 25 regular cover artists) saying “we’re looking for ideas on the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage.” If I have the time to take it on, then I might send in 10-15 pencil sketches—all concept drawings coming at the issue from as many perspectives as possible. Since I was trained in print journalism as an editorial cartoonist, I think I thrive on that sort of high-pressure demand for creativity. My most famous New Yorker cover has to be “Reflection,” or what the magazine calls the “O” cover. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Françoise asked for ideas. I sketched up maybe nine ideas, but when I drew the Lincoln Memorial at night with the columns echoing on the reflection pond and the “O” in The New Yorker masthead highlighted and glowing like the moon, I sort of knew that was the poetic image we were all looking for—though I have no clue at all how I arrived at it. Françoise called up within 10 minutes and told me that it was the cover—and I had six hours to get the piece finished and ready for the presses in the morning. I knew the image couldn’t be stylized visually, so I sat down and created the most hyper-realistic Lincoln Memorial I could muster. Had I not taken that approach, I believe the image and the concept behind it would have failed. Of course nothing humbles me more than knowing it has become The New Yorker’s most popular cover sold at the Conde Nast Collection online store.

I’ve always been a writer, and I honestly see little difference between illustration and writing. It’s a ballet, to be sure, but that’s why I enjoy the process of creating children’s picture books so much. Some stories come very quickly and are finished on the first draft; sometimes I find myself writing 10-15 versions before I get the story to where I want it. The illustration part is very “mindless” for me—I just sit there at the drawing board for six weeks and with each spread ask myself “now, what kind of art would little five-year-old Bobby Staake growing up in Redondo Beach, CA want to see in this book?”. At this point I do about four to five picture books a year, but I am fortunate in that I work very, very fast. My favorite book? It’s always the one I can’t wait to get to next.

Any one of them that commissions me for a project, tells me to “just do whatever you feel works best,” and really means it.

I refuse to answer this question because many of them are my friends—and if I forget to mention any of them, I’ll never hear the end of it.

Every since I began working as a professional illustrator I made a very conscious effort to be as “venue-diversified” as possible. I always thought that if you want to be successful as a self-employed creator, you had better spend as much time learning about business as you do about pens and pencils and bristol board. I have always worked in editorial (consumer and trade), greeting cards, product design, books, animation, paper products, advertising, etc—and all at the same time. That way, if advertising slumps, maybe greeting card work spikes. If magazine work gets dry, you may find yourself taking on my animation design. I understand that not all illustrators have graphic styles or approaches that enable them to work in so many disparate disciplines, but I forced myself to learn how each of those “micro-worlds” worked. Adopting this approach over the years absolutely enabled me to weather countless storms within the industry that quite literally put many, many other illustrators, photographers, designers and creatives out of business.

I have always been a very curious, kinetic and engaged person and so I have welcomed change—in both the marketplace and myself. It really is the key to not only surviving in a very, very mercurial business, but in prospering in the face of the fickle morphing and shifting visual tastes within the industry as a whole. I’ve never shied away from reinventing or reimagining my work, but you don’t do that overnight—you let it happen naturally, almost organically, and over time.

I haven’t promoted my work in years. Honestly, the best promotion is in getting today’s successful illustration published—because that always leads to the next job, and the next.

If you have true talent, nothing will stop you. If you have questionable talent, recognize that—and stop.

See more Bob Staake illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Bob Staake website