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Illustrator Profile - Fernanda Cohen: "Focus on what you know and love best"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 28, 2016

Fernanda Cohen is a Buenos Aires-based illustrator who has spent considerable time in New York City. Cohen came to the States to study at the School of Visual Arts, and although she returned to Buenos Aires 12 years later, she’s a frequent visitor to NYC and her work appears in numerous American publications. Cohen uses pen, ink, and gauche to make vibrant, stylish artwork that is a potent mix of fashion drawings, cartooning, fine art, and contemporary editorial illustration. She has created artwork for advertising campaigns, T-shirt designs, window displays, murals, and exhibits her personal art at galleries in Buenos Aires.

MY LIFE:
I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, moved to New York when I was 20 to study illustration at the School of Visual Arts, and moved back to Argentina 12 years later. While in school I was very influenced by Tom Woodruff, Jack Potter and Sal Catalano—all great instructors.    

My older brother Alejandro Cohen is a great musician, he was the one who really pushed me to always continue to draw, especially back when I graduated from high school and I had no clue what to do with my life. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I'd have gone in a completely different direction.

I moved back to Buenos Aires in 2011. I go back to NY once a year. I miss New York almost every single day of my life (I love Gramercy Park), but it means the world to me being close to my parents and grandmother again. I miss my brother Ale too, he’s lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years now.  

Besides working full time as a freelance illustrator, I’m also currently learning the family business. Last year I realized that once my 90-year-old grandma—who founded a shipping company 40 years ago—retires, I’d like to keep the business in the family. So I’ve been spending eight hours a week at the office.  

I have a two-year-old daughter named Nina who I’m madly in love with, and we have another on the way. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted earlier this year. Fernanda is now the mother of baby Lisa, born in March!] I feel lucky to have met Antonio, my partner, my love.  

My first job ever as a professional illustrator was for Steve Heller at The New York Times Book Review. The illustration came out the weekend after I graduated—I was thrilled, to say the least!

I used to start my lectures explaining why I “hated” nature. Now I can actually truly appreciate it, it really inspires me. I think it’s thanks to a combination of aging and having become a mother.

MY WORKSPACE:
I like having a home-studio, so I don’t have to commute. I have a room at home where I keep all my original art, my art supplies, my drawing table, a desk and an original Ms. Pac-Man arcade I’ve had since I was 18. I really enjoy knowing I’ve got everything I care about—drawing wise at least—in one single room. It gives me peace of mind. I also keep friends’ notes, family pictures and little toys around to keep me company and provide a healthy distraction.   

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I mostly use gouache colors, though I used professional markers (Copic) for quite awhile. I outline either with a 01 pen or brush and ink. I first start with a pencil sketch, on the paper I’ll eventually color on. Then I outline the drawing, erase the pencil, and color it. I scan it and open it in Photoshop to bring it as close as possible to the original. I hardly ever use digital colors—mostly for backgrounds. Quite often, I actually spend more time coming up with a concept than executing it.  


MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
Competitions like American Illustration and the Society of Illustrators did a lot for me. They got my name out there and helped me build credibility. My first big break was a yearly fashion campaign I did for Ikram, a super high-end boutique in Chicago. I was drawing fat people eating naked at the time, and this lady called me out of nowhere to see if I could do fashion illustration. Of course I said yes, though (fortunately) I had no clue what I was getting into. It was a huge challenge because I had to develop a whole new style, and it turned out great. I did monthly mailers for her for two years, plus she flew me to Chicago to do her windows and she bought all the original drawings from the first campaign.

I was also commissioned to do the cover of The New York Times Magazine about a year after I graduated. It was another big challenge: I had to draw President Bush in the oval office!

Besides Steve Heller and Ikram, other amazing mentors that changed my life forever include Tom Woodruff, Anelle Miller, Frances Foster and Ron Grunberg.   

MY INFLUENCES:
Obviously, being from Buenos Aires and living in New York for so long—both very hectic cities. My brother Alejandro, my parents, my step-dad and my grandmother. Saul Steinberg, Tomi Ungerer and Argentine artist Quino.  

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
There are quite a few… I admire how my dear friend Gary Baseman is creating a whole universe of his own around his work, kind of almost like a religion. I have a lot of respect for Milton Glaser, not only because he’s a genius in so many different ways, but also because he’s still focused at 80+.

Now that I’m a mother, I also tend to look up to women who manage to stay busy at work while raising a healthy family.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
Nothing. I walk for a long time, and think-think-think, without looking at or listening to anything. I need to be in a zone to get to the core of my ideas. I also like to think about projects right before I fall asleep, or in the shower. However, if all of this doesn’t work out for whatever odd reason, I take notes, highlighting keywords from the client’s brief, following a more mechanical process that makes sense.    

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Making a stable living, being patient, knocking on doors, keeping busy producing personal work when I have no deadlines coming up.  

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
I was recently hired by The Walt Disney Company to be part of the International Star Wars Day: May the 4th Be with You. I illustrated a Stormtrooper helmet live and it was really exciting to be part of such a huge event.


DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
A couple of years ago I actually got one of my dream assignments: I was commissioned to illustrate a Coca-Cola bottle with my name on it. Now, I would love to illustrate the cover of The New Yorker some day, and an album cover for Argentine musician Andrés Calamaro. I feel extremely privileged though, and I can’t really complain.   

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
I work well with art directors who give me plenty of freedom but within a box. It worked out with Ikram when she only gave me the title of her campaign (inspired by one of my own personal pieces) and told me to simply expand on it. It also went well with Mama Mio thanks to the art director, Dave Dye, who literally said that if my women had to have five arms, so be it, because it was my universe and I understood it best. Other great examples of great creative, boxed freedom for me have been The Gap and Coca-Cola.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:

James Jean, Gary Baseman, Yuko Shimizu, Hanoch Piven, Martha Rich, Marcos Chin, Chris Buzelli, Maira Kalman, Olaf Hajek, Christoph Niemann…. Not only because of their talent and personal styles, but also because of the different venues they’ve all gone into, adding the kind of versatility the illustration field needs.

OTHER WORK:
I’ve done a lot of window illustration for fashion stores, both in NY and Buenos Aires. I work mostly with advertising campaigns, which I think tend to get the best out of me. I did permanent mural installations at two restaurants in NYC a couple of years ago. I do a lot of live drawing at events for fashion and corporate clients. Lately, I’ve been getting my illustrations printed on all kinds of clothing and accessories including notebooks, cushion covers, plates and such. Finally, I exhibit my personal work at art galleries mostly in Buenos Aires, where I’m represented by Elsi del Río Gallery. I’ve had eight solo shows.  

HOW I STAY CURRENT:

I’d like to come up with my own comic strip one day, though I’m not ready yet. Also, I now understand the role of PR companies in our job, because clients sometimes use them to find people like us.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
We all know the best self-promotional tool is the work that gets published by clients. That said, I’m a big fan of meeting people in person, going to meetings, events, openings, anything that gives the real experience of making eye contact with someone who will remember me, AND my work. Social media helps, of course, but nothing beats a memorable face to face.

How important self-promotion is to my work and success is a mystery to me. Sometimes everyone seems to be thinking of me for jobs, and all of a sudden they all stop calling at once. It takes patience and perseverance.   

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Make sure it’s the one and only thing you want to do in this world, otherwise you won’t have what it takes to stay in the race. Don’t be part of a trend, because then you’ll have way more competition and you’ll expire too soon. Focus on what you know and love best to create your portfolio, so you can get the best out of yourself. Support the illustration community—we’re really your friends, not your competition. Talent is not all you need to make it; business and social skills are as important. And, again, be patient and persistent, always.     

See more Fernanda Cohen illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Fernanda Cohen website
Twitter @fernandacohen
Instagram @fernandacohen13



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