Illustrator Profile - Lauren Simkin Berke: "Create space for the unexpected"

By Robert Newman   Thursday May 25, 2017

Lauren Simkin Berke is a Brooklyn-based illustrator, artist, and zine creator. In addition to regular editorial illustration, Berke's artwork has graced book covers, and appeared in gallery exhibits, and is available on a wide variety of merchandise via the Etsy  and Brooklyn Collective. Berke has also been an active comic artist and writer. Most of Berke's illustrations are created pen, ink and watercolor, with the recent addition of sculpted 3D "puppets."

I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for 13 years, though in the first few years the illustration work I got was spotty. When I was in high school I did my first paid illustration job drawing yoga diagrams for a parent at my school. If you count that, and don’t mind the gap of years between jobs, then I’ve been working as an illustrator for almost 20 years. If you define working as actively engaging in image making and storytelling, then it’s been well over 30 years.

My mother was a U.S. copyright and trademark lawyer, with an interest in preserving artist rights. I grew up with an awareness of U.S. copyright law, how it relates to fine art and commercial art, and I was trained early to put copyright notices on everything I produced (while not legally necessary, it can help as a warning to potential poachers).

I took art classes to supplement my school art programs as early as five years old. I took my first class meant for adults when I was 13 (a figurative sculpture class at The Art Students League). I had great high school art teachers, Daphne Taylor and Yarrott Benz, who made it easy for me to be a part of regular art classes while often doing independent projects.

The summer before I started college I had my first job, creating and testing palettes for wallpaper designs at Collier Campbell, a London based textile design company. All my work at Collier Campbell was done by hand with gouache on watercolor paper (here’s a nice video about the history of the company); I interned as an art director at Grey Advertising for a summer during college; after grad school I spent time as a web and print designer for small bag company; and I spent a few months as heat press operator at Neighborhoodies (now InkEasy), affixing custom text to garments. While working at Neighborhoodies I also did single panel comic ads for them, that ran exclusively in the NYC print edition of The Onion (a couple pictured here). I have, on occasion, worked as a freelance designer, but I try to limit that now to family and friends.

I went to Cornell University for my undergraduate studies. I started as a BFA student in the college of Architecture, Art, and Planning. I was bored, and frustrated when I wasn’t allowed to take on second year courses. After my first year I transferred to the college of Arts & Sciences, and ended up majoring in Anthropology. I created art as much as I could outside of my coursework, and did summer programs at SVA and The Burren College of Art. I did an illustrated honors thesis in Psychological Anthropology, focused on universal dreams, with an attempt to draw universal dream imagery without any cultural symbolism. I went directly into the Illustration as Visual Essay MFA program at SVA, which I graduated from in 2003.

I work at home. My apartment is more of a studio with a sleeping space than a living space with a studio. I’m on a corner, with abundant natural light, and I’m on the back of the building, so it’s quiet. Having my home as a studio means I have access to all my books, my collection of personal and found photographs, all my old sketchbooks, and my cassette tape collection, all of which find use on a regular basis. When there are too many distracting chores I go out and work at a local coffee shop.

I start illustration jobs by printing out the provided text. I read the text, then put it away. After a bit I reread it with a pen, underline concrete details and visually important elements, and doodle in the margins when compelled to do so. I put the text away again. When I go back to the text I focus on the underlined elements and doodles, and start drawing thumbnail sketches. If there’s a very short deadline I might combine the first and second steps. Ideally I like to have a night of sleep before starting the third step. Once I’ve drawn thumbnail sketches I assess them and decide which ideas to pursue, and draw as many variations as needed before I have at least three sketches I really like.

Primarily I draw in ink, and color in watercolor. I create the ink drawings and watercolor layers on separate sheets of paper, scan them, and combine them in Photoshop. Sometimes I include scanned found paper for areas of color and texture, and sometimes I draw ink for color separations, or to easily cut out areas from the watercolor layers in Photoshop. When in the studio, or in another safe environment, I use a dip pen with india ink, but when out and about I use Sakura micron pens and a Pentel brush pen. I don’t do pencil underdrawings, but I do make liberal use a correction fluid pen.

I don’t think I’ve had anything I would really call a “big break.” I’ve done a couple projects with notable corporate clients, but for limited edition books, with quite small audiences (the latest for Rémy Martin, part of “L’Odyssée d’un Roi”, made in an edition of 10).

Working with art director Laurent Linn to create the cover illustration for Katie Rain Hill’s memoir Rethinking Normal (published by Simon & Schuster in 2014, selected for AI33), might be the closest thing I’ve had to a “big break.” In June of 2015 The New York Times ran a front page article titled “Transgender Children’s Books Fill a Void and Break a Taboo,” and they used a thumbnail image of the Rethinking Normal cover as the accompanying image.

The series I consider most important from my early years are the covers for Seal Studies, a set of eight introductory college-level academic feminist books, published by Seal Press. This series includes A History of U.S. Feminisms by Rory C. Dicker, Transgender History by Susan Stryker, Women and Violence by Barrie Levy, Girls’ Studies by Elline Lipkin, Men and Feminism by Shira Tarrant, Women of Color and Feminism by Maythee Rojas, Feminism and Pop Culture by Andi Zeisler, and Motherhood and Feminism by Amber E. Kinser. The covers for these books were done between 2007 and 2009, and most are still in print (only the earliest, A History of U.S. Feminisms, has been reissued in an updated edition with a new cover). These books have given my work a presence in the daily academic life of teachers and students in the areas of gender and sexuality studies, which I greatly appreciate. They also happen to be the work my non-illustrator friends are most likely to see while out in the world, and are the work I’ve done they continue to express pride and enthusiasm in.  

I am most influenced by late 19th and early to mid 20th century photography and ephemera.

People who’ve influenced me include: Alice Neel, Ray Johnson, Egon Schiele, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Roland Barthes, Ursula K. Le Guin, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, George Perec, Charles LeDray, though there are many more...

My favorite books, and therefore those that have influenced me the most, are The Alien Diaries by Maris Bishofs, The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd, Outline of My Lover by Douglas A. Martin, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes.

Hands down the creative person I admire most is Ursula K. Le Guin. Her work has been a part of my life since I was a kid, and I continue to be a devoted fan. I admire her economical and elegant use of language, which always feels like a representation of something true. I’m in awe of her ability to create thoroughly believable, tactile worlds, and am ever thankful she chooses to use these worlds to examine complicated socio-political issues.

I don’t believe in inspiration; I believe in acute observation of the world, awareness of one’s interests, discipline in time devoted to working in the studio (or out in the world, if the world is your studio), and making sure you have enough time to allow for doing nothing, to create space for the unexpected.

For over a decade I’ve had a daily practice of drawing from found photographs, and that has been the grounding force of my studio practice. I carry around a stack of photos, and at some point during the day pick one out and do a freehand ink drawing based on it. I kept a blog through 2014 that acts as an archive of this practice. I stopped scanning my daily drawings when I joined Instagram. I don’t have an exact count of them since I ceased posting on the blog, but I suspect there are well over 1600. This archive of drawings allows for a seemingly endless supply of subject matter to pull from for my personal work, but also functions like a drawn version of central casting, to use as reference when I am working on illustrations.

I don’t see working on my own as challenging, but perhaps sometimes it leaves my social skills a bit rusty.

I loved working on the cover and interior illustration for The Art of Business Value (an IT business book designed by Joy Panos Stauber, written by Mark Scwartz, and published by IT Revolution Press). The author wanted the illustrations be surreal line drawings. He pointed to the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, and the paintings of Di Chirco as reference, and wanted to include calculations—ideally calculations that did not fully make sense, or didn’t add up properly. I felt incredibly trusted by both the designer, publisher, and author, which allowed for a freedom I don’t often feel, and I had a lot of fun. I particularly liked creating an internal logic of surreal representations of the content of the book (major characters being: business value, the CIO, collective memory, and time).

These illustrations, as a series, got into The Society of Illustrators latest annual, Illustrators 59, and were on exhibit at the Editorial and Book show in February.

The dream assignments that first come to mind: covers for a full set of classic fiction, stamps for USPS, picture books where the illustrations are made to look like found ephemera (fiction or nonfiction), and a regular weekly or monthly column.

The best, and longest, working relationship I’ve had with an art director has been with Jane Martin at The Boston Globe. I’ve been working with Jane regularly since 2009 (and other art directors at the Globe as early as 2006). From 2006 through 2014 I was regularly doing illustrations for the Sunday Book section. In the spring of 2014 I did my first illustration for the Address section, about a couple buying their first condo in Brookline in the 1980s (which was Selected for AI34). I’ve since primarily been doing illustrations for the Address section.

I enjoy working with Jane because I feel both understood and trusted. She easily reads the shorthand of my roughs, and I know she’s hiring me because of the kinds of images I make. My latest pieces for the Address section include an interior of a Maine cottage where the author mourns the loss of her son, a couple’s first home in the 1950s taken by eminent domain, and an excerpt from Marie Kondo’s book about decluttering, where I had the pleasure of drawing precious objects from my own home.

I had Henrik Drescher’s Simon’s Book as a child, and have ever since been in love with his use of line, as well as his material explorations and non-linear narratives. David Hughes is an illustrator I loved as a teenager in the 1990s, and have continued to follow (also for his lines). I love John Cuneo, in part for his commitment to Rapidograph pens. Cuneo is my favorite illustrator to hear talk about anything. I became aware of Tina Berning’s work in the early days of her “girls on cheap paper,” and have since continued to enjoy her elegant watercolor drawings. I came upon a few drawings by Daehyun Kim (Moonassi) at the Society of Illustrators annual exhibit a few years ago. His work is stunning and timeless, smart and sweet, always a joy. The 3D illustrations created by Chris Sickels (Red Nose Studio) are both realistic and surreal, always beautiful and smart, with attention to detail. I was recently introduced to Armando Veve’s work, which I love. It makes me happy to know the kind of work he produces, which is both representational and conceptual, is sought after.

I do a lot of different things. I make work shown in galleries. I’ve made comics, zines, and self published fine art books. I design and produce merchandise. I bake, do bookbinding, embroidery, and sometimes collaborate with my best friend, Cori Olinghouse, who is an amazing choreographer. The following paragraphs go into these activities more in depth. Feel free to skip to the next answer, if you so desire.

Before I had the thought that I could be an illustrator, I knew I’d be making work to exhibit in galleries. I’ve been exhibiting regularly in group shows since 2003, and have so far had four solo shows: “a text, a fiction, a fissured envelope,” “excavations and adaptations,” “To Be Kept,” and “Small Items Enclosed” (with my fifth scheduled for this coming August at A.I.R. Gallery). The work in these shows has included large paintings, small collage, mixed media, assemblage, and a hint of sculpture. The subject of the work comes from my daily drawing process, mentioned earlier.

I’ve drawn comics on and off throughout most of my life. In grad school I did a weekly strip, Fineberg, that I distributed to all my classmates. I was ultimately unsatisfied with my comics, having never found a way to include text that I liked visually, so I stopped. I just did my first comic in years, a five-page piece about a group of friends on a quest to make their voices heard, in an imagined future where the president has had his head added to Mount Rushmore, and his campaign billboards are still up on the sides of highways. The first three pages of this comic were created for Resist!, the one-time political comic newspaper edited by Francoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman (published by Gabe Fowler), which was distributed on inauguration day, and at the Women’s Marches around the country the following day.

I’ve been making zines for years (an early one is in the prints collection of the NYPL), and I’ve published two books, To Be Kept and Dear Letters Office, under the name Captain Sears Press. I’ve also produced postcards, greeting cards, iPhone cases, buttons, and tote bags. I sell most of this merchandise on my Etsy shop, and at Brooklyn Collective, a small boutique in the Columbia Street Waterfront District of Brooklyn.

I’ve done a couple projects working with choreographer Cori Olinghouse. We experimented combining our studio practices when Cori had a residency at New York Live Arts. The work from this process culminated in in-progress showings titled “The Little Destroyer and a Collection of Others,” where I drew environments live as part of the performances, had life scale drawn figures and scenic elements, and drew abstractions in response to performer’s movement improvisations. A year after “Little Destroyer” Cori had a residency at BRIC Arts Media, for which I took on the ridiculous project of designing and constructing a large hand crank mechanized scrolling panorama (10 foot wide by 7 foot high). I made a 150-foot line drawing to use with the panorama, that debuted as the set for the showings at the end of Cori’s residency.

Last spring I taught myself to do frame animation in Photoshop, and over the summer started building stop-animation puppets. I took Chris Sickles’ workshop at ICON9, which helped in advancing the structural integrity of my puppets. While I created the puppets with the intent to make animations, so far I’ve mostly used them to pose in still photographs (samples can be seen here).

And bookbinding, mostly in the context of making my own sketchbooks.  

I would love to teach, but besides the occasional workshop or guest lecture, have not yet had the opportunity.

Years ago I created a very simple character called “The French Guy.” He came out of drawing vocabulary cards, in an attempt to teach myself French (with words like “manchot,” “funambule,” and “nicher”). After years of doodling this character I created a semi-secret section of my website for him. I’ve pitched books with him as the main character, and even though everyone seems to find him delightful, he has yet to be in print for something I’ve not designed myself.

The puppets are similar, except that I gave them a more public audience early on (via Instagram). The response to them has been overwhelmingly positive. Within a couple months of making them they were featured in a 20-image visual essay for Five Dials issue 40. I just made them their own section on my website called “Alpaca & Friends.”

I did not create these divergent lines of work in order to deal with the changes in the industry, but I have to believe having multiple modes of working must help in this matter.

I don’t think there’s one smoking-gun fail-safe method of promotion. I think one should use as many methods as is possible, ideally focused on ways one feels the most capable. While not terribly helpful to those just starting out, the best promotion over all is doing excellent work.

I do two annual mailers, one around New Year’s, and the other in early fall, when folks are getting back from their summer vacations. My mailers are in the form of little books. The New Year’s books have 14 pages that usually includes 12 or 13 images. I allow myself more freedom with the fall promo, experimenting with format and size.

I have a website that I keep updated; I submit to competitions every year (American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, etc.); I post work and studio process photos on Instagram daily; I do a quarterly email news blast; I’ve exhibited at the ICON Roadshow many times; and there are certain industry events I make sure to attend. I’ve had a rep for 10 years, but she is retiring, and I am just starting to attempt to represent myself.

Work in a process you enjoy. Make a website, preferably not just a blog or profile on a portfolio site. Get business cards and always carry them with you (and unless you specialize in lettering, please put an image you’ve created on at least one side of your card). Submit to as many competitions as you can afford to. Submitting series will often allow you to submit more images for less money and is a good way to get more stuff in front of the judges. Make personal work, whether or not you use it in your illustration portfolio, because it will inform your commercial work, and allow you to control the direction your work takes.

See more Lauren Simkin Berke illustrations, new work and updates:
Lauren Simkin Berke website
Instagram: @lsberke
Twitter: @LSBerke
Sketchbook drawings


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