Illustrator Profile - Peter Arkle: "I like to look at real life"

By Robert Newman   Thursday December 22, 2016

Peter Arkle is an illustrator and visual journalist who is based in Manhattan's East Village. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, as well as in a recent book created with Amy Goldwasser, All Black Cats Are Not Alike. Arkle is known for his graphic storytelling; his work is smart and involved, and he is passionate about his subjects. Arkle explains that “I LOVE when an assignment involves going to a real place and looking at real people.” He has also done a series of live drawings presented on Facebook for The New York Times. Arkle posts his images and thoughts regularly on Peter Arkle News, his Tumblr page which is subtitled “Illustrated Fragments of Everyday Life.”

I live in Manhattan’s East Village. I grew up in Scotland and went to art school in London (degree at Central St. Martin’s and MA at the Royal College of Art). When I graduated (in 1993) I had spent all of my money on my degree show and was totally broke. I walked out of the ceremony (held in the glamorous Royal Albert Hall) and phoned the market research firm where I had been working part-time (cold-calling people at home and at their offices—still the worst job I have ever had). I had missed the normal call-in time so was only given a few hours of work. I remember feeling really miserable—knowing that those few hours and the money I got from my other job in the art department of Dillon’s Bookstore on Saturdays was not enough to live on. I have a photo of me in my rented fake ermine-trimmed graduation costume—definitely not smiling.

I worked at that market research job for another year after that (doing odd bits of illustration on the side) and then got a part-time job as a picture framer. I am amazed that I never cut off any of my fingers while doing that (at a perfect 45 degree angle, of course). Then my girlfriend at the time got a job with Amnesty International at their UN office in New York. I moved there with her—so happy to be having a new adventure.

At first I was meant to be staying for only three months. That turned into six and then suddenly it was two years and I wanted to stay forever. I applied for a green card. My illustration work was picking up. I was working on a set of natural history drawings for a museum in Taiwan and publishing my weekly comic strip in the Big Issue (Planet Arkle which later became Made In Arkle). Both these strips sprang from publishing my own “newspaper”—Peter Arkle News. I managed to get one assignment from The New Yorker.

I still didn’t have enough illustration work to live off, so I was also working as an illegal alien assistant, helping a friend make sculptures for a well-known artist—not doing a very good job of shaping in plaster the folds in the knees of the pants of RF and JF Kennedy holding Marilyn Monroe on their shoulders and the hair of a giant sex doll that looked like JonBenét Ramsey. This work allowed me to pay the lawyer I needed to plead my green card case—essential for me to be able stay in the U.S.

My first legal job in New York was at Strand Books. I loved it. I did all the worst jobs with a smile on my face as it all felt unreal—like I was in a movie about someone living in New York. “Yes, I will do the bathroom-cleaning scene. No problem!” I was still not earning enough to live on. So I got a job in a coffee shop in Park Slope. The pay was a bit better. I worked there for two years. In 1999, with lots of persuasion from friends, I made the leap of quitting my part-time job and began living only off my illustration.

I share an office with my wife, Amy Goldwasser. It’s right next door to our home. We worked from our apartment for a long time but have been so much happier since we could afford the office. It’s great to be able to close the door on work and go home. Also great: not to have cats jumping around on our desks. At first the office was very minimal and professional-looking, but now, after 10 years, it’s just as packed with junk as our home. Amy is a freelance editor, writer and other more complicated things. Her desk is up a flight of stairs from mine. We are pretty good at ignoring each other. My work often involves taking photos of myself acting out things I need to draw. Amy used to be distracted by this. Now she barely looks up—no matter what strange thing I am doing. You can see her working away in the background in a lot of my reference photos.

I rarely have to go into anyone else’s office. The last time I worked away from home was drawing live in the art department of The New York Times earlier in the summer. Amy often has to work in other offices. She always returns with horror stories (gross bathrooms, lack of privacy, annoying distractions and, recently, being given a really dirty mouse to use) that make us so glad we have our own space.

I start my work by reading and doodling in pencil in the margins of whatever text I am illustrating, trying to have an idea. This is sometimes the quickest but most important bit. Then I move to finding reference materials (either via endless Google searches or by taking photos of myself). I then create a “phosketch,” combining photos and bits of doodling. I print that out and make a rough traced sketch, which I scan into Photoshop to adjust before sending for approval. Once approved I print out the rough sketch and make a new tracing in black ink on paper. I scan this and make more adjustments (if needed) and add color in Photoshop again to make the final art. This means that I rarely have any original art—just scraps of paper with bits and pieces on them. The final art exists only as a digital file.

One day, back in 1999, Alice Twemlow (founding chair of the Design Research course at SVA among other things) came to interview me about Peter Arkle News for a London magazine. We got on well and she invited me to her birthday party. At that party I met my wife. Alice and her boyfriend at that time (the graphic designer Martin Perrin) were both early and much appreciated supporters of my work. Alice sent lots of interesting jobs my way. Martin was majorly responsible for me giving up my last part-time job. He promised that he could give me enough work to replace my coffee shop salary. At that time he was art directing a magazine called Salon News, which was a trade publication for hairdressers. I was so happy to be able, at long last, to tell people that I was an illustrator and not just a part-time illustrator. I have fond memories of Martin phoning to brief me about whatever hair-related issue he wanted me to illustrate: “Can you draw something to go with a feature about spying at hair salons?”

As a kid my  brother and I would read Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever and argue about which car or house or whatever was the best.

There’s one spread in that book of a winding road going off into the distance. We would look at that for ages––following the road wondering about the weird looking town it led to. Things in his books do not look Scottish. I didn’t realize it then, but they are SO American—East Coast American/New England in particular. We were puzzled by the shape of his milk bottles, by the appearance of a thing called a “station wagon,” and what the hell was a “muffin”??? Also, a beach scene included a horseshoe crab. I was so excited the first time I went to the beach in New York (out at Rockaway) and found one of these. I still love how realistically Richard Scarry draws the world—even though his people are animals. I was very happy when I showed some of his work during a presentation and it produced a loud cheer from the crowd. As a kid I loved detailed drawings and hated books with blobby or fuzzy paint drawings. I have always preferred crisp lines.

I am a bit ashamed because he is so trendy, but I have to say Haruki Murakami. I was given a copy of The Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and was hooked. I love the way he looks at the world. Yes, there are weird supernatural sexy things going on but most of all, I love his descriptions of everyday life. I love reading about the simple spaghetti he makes, the coffee he is drinking or what music he’s listening too. My own journals are full of drawings and descriptions of everyday life like that—all pretty boring I am sure. But occasionally I write or draw something that makes it to being published in Peter Arkle Newsnow just a Tumblr and not on newsprint, I am sad to say. I am always looking and hoping for something special to happen. I doubt I will ever have a truly supernatural experience like a visit from Murakami’s Sheepman. But I do sometimes come across smaller semi-magical moments on the street or subway or in a post office. Murakami’s books can be repetitive but I think that’s good too. It’s comforting to find all the familiar things again and again––like going to the same restaurant for lunch everyday.

As much as possible I like to look at real life. There is not always time, so sometimes I have to go with what I find online or in my head. But I LOVE when an assignment involves going to a real place and looking at real people or even just allows me to work in an observation from the real world. For example, I did an illustration about happiness for The New Yorker that included a bunch of people riding the subway. It was nice to give all of them ripped jeans, as that’s all I see people wearing these days.

I find working with other people much more of a challenge. I am so used to working on my own and the little routine I’ve made to cope with that. I never feel lonely. Amy is usually typing away just up the steps anyway. She is a really good editor. It’s great to be able to check that something makes sense or is as funny as I think it is before sending it out into the world.

I get up, work hard, go to the gym, have lunch and then do more work. My one worry is that I am missing out by not riding the subway or being involved in the culture of an office.

I was sent by Time to visit Diversity Plaza—a street in Jackson Heights, Queens (commissioned by Chelsea Kardokus). They wanted a spread showing all the people who hang out in what is one of the most diverse places in the world. I spent most of a day there taking photos and making notes. Then I drew a very complicated street scene involving as many people as I could fit. I find this kind of job really satisfying.

I would love to be paid to travel anywhere (near or far) to observe, with no brief other than to document in the best way possible whatever I come across or whatever adventures I have and then put it all together in some kind of publishable form.

I love working with Simon Glick. He’s actually an executive editor (more of words than art—ideas are most important to me anyway) at Bedford/St. Martin’s, part of Macmillan’s academic publishing house. We first worked together on Speak Up! An Illustrated Guide to Public Speaking. He started by asking me to sketch some ideas for images to go with one chapter, liked these and kept sending me more chapters. In the end I did 600 drawings. His ideas and edits, his sense of humor and his energy kept me going. We work together really well. I really think this is some of my cleverest work. It was challenging but so satisfying and I learned a lot.

I really love the detail-packed work of Peter Oumanski and Leif Parsons. I would have loved their work when I was a kid, too. I also love that Leif makes abstract sculptures that make me smile and that I would really like to own. Both these talented people have way better websites than me and are probably capable of squeezing in more detail per square inch than me.

A while ago, while doodling on the blank covers of American Illustration 32 with lots of other illustrators, I was sitting near Monica Ramos and was really impressed by the complex watercolor drawings she makes look so easy. Sharp black lines are not everything, it turns out. I am a big fan of Istvan Banyai. He’s my favorite crazy genius. I enjoy his company as much as his work. We did once attempt to do a book project together but it didn’t quite work out. It was, however, a great excuse for some really nice dinners, endless cups of coffee and great philosophical conversations. I love the dancing movement in his drawings and the long shadows he draws so well. Whenever I draw a shadow I think of him.

Whenever I get a chance I like to draw and paint for the sake of it—mainly to hang on the walls of our home and office or to give to friends. One day, perhaps to exhibit. Some of these can be seen here.

I also try to keep adding stories and drawings (and animated gifs) inspired by everyday life to my Peter Arkle News Tumblr.

I enjoy when I get a chance to draw live as I did for The New York Times this summer (with chalk, on a wall, live on Facebook) and will again be doing for Colette in Paris in October. It’s good to have to just do it without crutches or a safety net.

I have been working with Amy recently on a book: All Black Cats Are Not Alike. We published the first edition with funding from a Kickstarter campaign (only 1,000 copies) and have now gone on to sell it to Chronicle Books, who just released their edition of the book. Managing the Kickstarter campaign and dealing with the publisher has been a ton of work—something I could never have done by myself. People always think I worked hard to draw 50 cats but actually that’s nothing compared to the amount of time Amy has put into writing, editing and customer service. The project could never have happened without her.

I just always try to keep being as nice and as helpful as possible to as many people as possible—hoping that people will always need useful illustrations. Hoping that, if they enjoy working with me, they will tell their friends or remember me when they move jobs. Oh, and I’ve finally managed to learn how to make a gif. Next stop: some proper animation?

I mainly promote myself with the work I have published. It keeps me busy enough that I barely have time to do anything else. The good people of The iSpot are always asking me to update the work I have on their site. My own site is years out of date and in dire need of an update. I’m very glad that The iSpot employs Jami Giovanopoulos, who writes their news blog and is kind enough to send out emails telling the world about new things I have done. I am also so glad that the internet exists. One of my most enjoyable jobs (doing drawings for limited edition whisky bottles) came from a PR person in Scotland typing “Scottish illustrator” into a search. I always enter American Illustration (so far there is no Scottish Illustration annual) because I love the way it forces me to stop and take the time to look at the work I’ve done over the year—a useful thing to do even if nothing gets published by them.

Having my own ongoing project in Peter Arkle News still keeps me sane and productive during breaks in commissioned work. I think it’s really good to have something to distract you while you’re waiting for things to happen. That way you’re ready to go when work comes along. Also the personal work will feed your paid work in some way or another.

See more Peter Arkle illustrations, new work and updates:
Peter Arkle website
Peter Arkle News
Peter Arkle at iSpot