Illustrator Profile - Eric Nyquist: "Every image centers around drawing"

By Robert Newman   Thursday November 10, 2016

Eric Nyquist is a Los Angeles-based illustrator, artist and educator. His illustrations have appeared in many publications, including National Geographic, The New Yorker, Nautilus and Audubon magazines, as well as on a series of covers for The New York Times Book Review section. Nyquist’s work has also appeared on book covers, Beck tour merchandise, murals for NASA, and much more. His illustrations are rich and gorgeously intricate. Nyquist uses a variety of techniques, but says “Every image centers around drawing.”

I live in a neighborhood called Brentwood in Los Angeles, California. I originally moved to Los Angeles to attend Art Center College of Design in 2003. I’ve been working as an artist for the past 10 years.

I grew up in California’s Central Valley in a town called Turlock. The surrounding area is mostly agricultural, so I was surrounded by almond orchards, cornfields, and dairies. My family owned and operated a muffler shop, and I was constantly around hot-rods, lifted trucks, and low-riders. Our shop had a never ending supply of Ticonderoga #2 pencils, yellow legal pads, and cardboard muffler boxes that I would unceasingly repurpose for drawings, sculptures, and performance pieces. When we weren’t working on cars, my Dad and I would build things like dinosaurs, furniture, and muffler men from scraps of metal around the shop. On the weekends, we would take weekend trips with my grandparents to flower shows, antique fairs, and swap meets.

Aside from the family appreciation for making things and unusual objects, plants and animals were always around. My grandparents belonged to a lot of garden clubs, so I was always around cool plants like spider chrysanthemums, daylilies, and timber bamboo. Growing up in the country meant there was a lot of space, so I had lots of pets—a catfish, a chicken that fell off of a Foster Farms truck and lots of dogs. Why do these details matter? I’m always thinking about the relationship between the industrial and the organic in my work. Growing up around agriculture made this relationship more tangible for me.

Before working as an artist, I had a few different jobs. I had a summer job where I worked for the Boy Scouts in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Looking back, the highlight was when I was woken up by a young black bear trying to break into my flimsy, screened cabin. There was also an encounter with a timber rattler, which we had to capture and release outside of camp.

I also worked for our family friends’ veterinary hospital in Turlock. I learned a lot and seriously considered going to veterinary school, but I would find myself drawing on post-its or charts while at the front desk or waiting for blood work results. Although I loved working with animals, art has always come first and come naturally for me.

My first commissioned illustration was a business card for my parents’ Muffler Shop when I was in the third grade. It was a drawing of a man with a rocket pack holding a muffler in his arms. I also started a hover board business when I was in elementary school. I made the hover boards out of cardboard and did illustrations of Ninja Turtles on them—they went for two to three dollars each. Kids would slide them around on the carpet.

I mostly work from my home studio on my drawings, though I have had to work on site for some projects. When I created artwork for the walls of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I would work on that campus at night and have whole sections of the lab to myself.

I usually don’t need much. I have a table where I keep my Staedtler HB technical pencils, pigment liners, and erasers. Eventually my drawings make it onto my computer, where I add color and sometimes collage. I like to keep my working process simple, so I also have a messenger bag filled with pencils, pens, and even a portable scanner. I’ve been on trips where I’ll get a call, and I just find the nearest coffee shop and get to work.  

Every image centers around drawing. I usually use an HB Staedtler Technical Pencil to layout a design; then I go for it with a Pigment liner or brush. Eventually I scan a drawing or group of drawings into the computer, experiment with color and texture. My process used to be pretty dramatic. I would start out with my pencil on a pristine piece of Strathmore drawing paper and refuse to erase anything. I enjoyed the process of unapologetically creating a drawing where I was forced to deal with its consequences to make it succeed. Eventually, it became too linear, so now I try to experiment more. Sometimes, I’ll revisit this way of working (lately with colored pencils). Now I don’t really care about the drawing living on a pristine piece of paper that can be framed. I’m much happier if it lives as a book, or in newspaper, or as an animation. Every piece of artwork is a process, and I now include everything from the initial sketching to multiple printouts to Photoshop layers as my drawing process. Oftentimes I’ll work on tracing paper—it allows me to work quickly—and I can keep layering on top of it (in the case of animation).

Art school culture has a way of discouraging ways of working. When I was in school working digitally or with an airbrush was frowned upon. A few years later, they are mainstream tools. These days, I try not to discourage old or new ways of working, but I realize it’s a conversation that is always changing.

Shortly after graduating from Art Center College of Design, I was contacted by the visual strategist Dan Goods of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory about helping to design their Project Design Center. This department at JPL was responsible for thinking up missions like the rovers on Mars. Within months of graduating I was walking around JPL with a NASA badge, creating everything from detailed pencil drawings of rovers to painting 20-foot murals of nuclear powered spacecraft.

In addition to NASA, another memorable project was the artwork for Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. I was in New York, and I contacted the amazing designer Charlotte Strick. During our first meeting, she asked if I’d be interested in working on some covers for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I began reading the first book, Annihilation, on the flight home to LA. Within a year, all three books were released and since then the artwork has been used for editions in countries like Finland, France, and Brazil. The books are even set to become a movie starring Natalie Portman. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and it’s exposed my work to a lot of new people.

Nature is the master of detail. While walking through a forest, it’s impossible to see everything, so I usually let go and just try to enjoy the experience. I’ll zero in on things like a deer, or a chipmunk on a branch, but they aren’t always revealed quickly. I’ve always been influenced by Albrecht Durer’s work for this same reason. You have to spend time looking at the image, and experience things as they’re revealed. I also appreciate the time spent on Durer’s work. Everyone works in different ways, but I enjoy spending a lot of time on a drawing, and adding details that don’t reveal themselves right away. I want the viewer to be patient and spend time looking at my work. I think Durer was also my first exposure to printmaking—I love making a drawing and then being able to experiment with it through etching or silk screen. Even when working on something digital, I’m thinking about printmaking processes.

Even though I’m a native Californian, I don’t surf or skate, but I’ve always loved the imagery that’s resulted from those cultures. In 2012, artist Doug Aitken and I started working on some projects together at a surf shop in Venice Beach owned by Scott Anderson. I was introduced to legends like Skip Engblom (Zephr), Lance Carson (Endless Summer), and Jeff Ho (Zephr). I was absolutely blown away by huge longboards with fluorescent airbrush gradients and psychedelic resin tints. I think that the California surf and skate scene has really pushed my color usage.

I remember when I was first starting to think about studying illustration I always gravitated towards artists with a great sense of graphic design. I’ve always loved how the Push Pin Studio incorporated beautiful, iconic illustrations with expressive typography. Saul Steinberg, Tadanori Yokoo, James Audubon, and Franz Ackerman are some other influences.

Definitely my wife, Kathryn Nyquist! She’s a creative director and illustrator herself. Not only does her wonderful work inspire me daily, but she’s my greatest source of encouragement and support. Without her I’d be a mess!

TIME! I always try to fit all of my wonderful clients in, but that can come at the expense of sleep and going outside. I like to spend a lot of time on my work, so I have to be really good at time management. I haven’t really found a way to outsource anything yet.

It’s always really cool to do a New York Times Book Review cover! I also worked with Kevin Fisher of Aubudon magazine on reimagining Audubon’s Peregrine Falcon image. I even got to animate it!

I have always loved National Geographic; I’m still obsessed with it. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had a solid yellow block of those magazines (sometimes a few feet long) stretching across my bookshelf. Books are a labor of love, and a Jim Harrison or Hemingway cover would be at the top of my list. And anything for The New Yorker of course!

I really enjoy working with Nicholas Blechman, previously at The New York Times and now at The New Yorker. I always value his feedback, and he has called me for subjects ranging from digital apocalyptic diseases to a portrait of Henry Thoreau as “pond scum.”

I’m always happy to hear from Len Small at Nautilus. He has great projects, and actually calls me to discuss ideas at the beginning of the project. I think he’s an amazing advocate for illustration.

Currently, I’m having a blast working with Paul Buckley on a collection of Penguin Classics that includes titles from David Foster Wallace and John Steinbeck. While drawing a questionable looking blow-up doll for The Broom of the System cover, I ran it by Paul to see if it would fly.  His response was “Dude… have you seen our Kama Sutra cover?”

Matt Dorfman was my first call from The New York Times, and I’ve really enjoyed working with him on a variety of subjects.

I think it’s easy to get discouraged and give up in this business. The artists who have been consistently cranking out amazing work for a long time are inspiring to me. In addition to being an amazing artist, Anne Field has been an advocate for my work and for illustration. We’re all lucky to have her around. I absolutely love Andrew Holder’s colorful, surf-inspired artwork. His pieces feel so perfectly designed—they don’t need any more or less. I know I’m not the only one, but Paul Rogers is someone I look up to as an illustrator and a fellow teacher. In both contexts, he always makes all the right moves! I love driving around LA seeing his Metro illustrations on giant billboards.

In addition to book and editorial illustration, I’ve worked on artwork for all types of products. I recently worked with Beck and his wife Marissa Ribisi on tour merchandise. Right now, I’m doing a lot of animation in my work. I started creating my own detailed, looping animations as a way of extending an already detailed drawing into something different. Lately, art directors ask me to animate my illustrations, which I’m always thrilled to do. I see it as a whole new frontier for me to learn and experiment with my drawings.

Printmaking is a really important process for me. At Art Center, master printer Tony Zepeda introduced me to processes like etching, silkscreen, and lithography. In addition to making prints when I can, I’m always thinking about printing processes when I create a drawing.

I’ve been teaching at Art Center College of Design for the past couple years. It’s a completely inspiring and challenging experience. In my class “A La Mode” I’m trying to get students thinking about drawing as fuel for experimentation. We experiment with online fabricators (Spoonflower, PAOM, Zazzle etc.), push the limits of animations, and in the spirit of Franz West, create interactive sculpture. I’m completely inspired by my students’ talent and willingness to roll up their sleeves and create something innovative.

I’m sure the industry will have changed before this interview is over, IT’S ALWAYS CHANGING…

There is always one trend in illustration that is going away and another that is on its way in. I try to stay current. I do this by trying to experiment as much as possible and keep growing as an artist. I work on my personal work in between assignments and try to get better. I started creating animations on my own time and eventually started getting requests for them. I work on everything from tattoo designs, to murals, to book covers, to tour merchandise. I love working with new clients, and you never know where one project can lead. It’s imperative to stay open and work in a lot of directions.

Self promotion is essential, but it’s also a lot of fun. The most important self promotion is obviously your work. I annually go on trips to New York or different cities and run around town showing my work to all types of new clients. If I work with a really cool client, I ask them if they know any more people I should meet. Most of the time I’m emailing back and forth with a client, so it’s great to get real, in-person feedback on your work.

I also enter all the annual competitions like American Illustration, Society of Illustrators and Communication Arts. They are great ways to expose your work to new people.
My rep, Jigisha Bouverat, does an amazing job of exposing my latest projects to people all over the world. Partnering with Jigisha has helped my business grow, and also allows me to focus on the creative fruition of a project versus the paperwork.

I think social media is part self promotion as well. I try to post my projects to all the different platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. I’m sure there will be a new one by the time this interview is over. I know a lot of artists that make amazing work, but don’t put it out into the universe for people to see. Advertising your work is part of the job, and you never know who is going to see it.  

Don’t get comfortable, and put in the work. A lot of the best work I see out there is from the people who work the hardest.

Get paid! There’s this thing people will try to compensate you with called “exposure.” It’s a wonderful thing when used properly, but it won’t pay your rent. GET PAID!

See more Eric Nyquist illustrations, new work and updates:
Eric Nyquist website
Instagram: @ericbnyquist
Twitter: @EBnyquist
Pinterest: Eric Nyquist
Etsy: Eric Nyquist