Illustrator Profile - Richard Borge: "Stay true to yourself and what you want to do"

By Robert Newman   Thursday December 7, 2017

Richard Borge is an illustrator based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He builds his illustrations in 3D software, but says that "everything still starts with a simple sketch on paper." Borge recently started a project he calls Bad Hombre Toy Co. It's not a real toy company (yet), but is basically an Instagram feed, which he describes as "satirically pointing out the ridiculousness of our current political climate." One of the pieces was selected to be in the American Illustration 36 annual, and another recently ran on The Nation's OpArt site here.

[Editor's note: The American Illustration 37 call for entries is now available. Don't miss your chance to enter the coolest illustration competition for a chance to see your work in the AI37 book and on the AI website.

I live and work in Brooklyn (Williamsburg). I’ve been working as an illustrator for around 25 years.

I’m the youngest of six children, and was born in Madagascar. My parents worked in setting up a couple of clinics there in the 1960s. We traveled quite a bit, and I’ve been fortunate to have a really good relationship with everyone in my family. I think the “traveling gene” was passed on to me, as I love to travel when time allows. I like to see how other cultures do things in their day-to-day lives. I grew up in Fargo, ND (like the movie) and spent lots of my childhood around North Dakota and Minnesota, with lots of “lake time” in Minnesota in the summers. We still have a family lake house in Minnesota, and I see most of my siblings there each summer for a week or two.

My brother John is a photographer, and my mother always did a lot of traditional Norwegian painting called rosemaling. Additionally, my father was always building various things, and just sort of figuring out how to make things. I learned a lot from both parents as well as John regarding being an artist.

I worked at various restaurants as I was going through high school and undergrad, along with a bunch of odd jobs (including industrial roofing, roast beef cutting and a janitor in a PVC pipe factory). While in college, I worked for my brother John in a college photo/communications office. This was terrific experience in learning a lot of basics about photography and lighting.

For undergrad, I went to Concordia College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. Because it was a liberal arts degree, it made sense to go on to grad school to get an MFA (University of Arizona, 1990). While in grad school, I did a lot of teaching, which has fed into my role as an educator ever since.

After graduate school I took a tenure track teaching position in North Carolina. While teaching, I began sending out samples for freelance work, and once that really took off I left the teaching position to move to NYC in 1994. That was when I became a full-time illustrator.

I currently bounce between teaching at Pratt. the School of Visual Arts, and FIT (the MFA illustration program). I really enjoy teaching and working with upcoming artists.

I live and work in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The building I’m in was originally a Civil War era munitions foundry that was rehabbed into apartments in 2007. It’s a great building, and comfortable place to live/work. I’m on the ground floor, with a large garden in the back yard. Because it was a foundry, there are still a couple of huge smokestacks, with one of them being in my yard. It’s still functional, so I use that as an outdoor fireplace. In the summer, I spend pretty much every morning in the garden drinking coffee and working on whatever sketches are due at the time. Among my other possessions is a vintage VW Beetle, which I find pretty inspiring to drive around Brooklyn, and is great for beach trips in the summer. When I post pics of my car it almost always gets more likes than my work, and people are always stopping me to tell me about their VW experiences as a kid.

For the past year or so, I’ve been making almost everything by combining handmade sketches and bits with Cinema4D (3D software) and Photoshop. In the end, it’s a digital file but it always starts outside of the computer. In the past, I was using more actual sculptures and found objects, but I’m really enjoying the 3D software. Everything still starts with a simple sketch on paper; then I build the final piece.

While I was teaching at Western Carolina University in North Carolina (right after grad school), I curated an exhibit of some of my favorite illustrators. It was a terrific show, which included Henrik Drescher, Marshall Arisman, Ellen Weinstein, Stephen Byram, Pol Turgeon and Gordon Studer, to name just a few. To be honest, it was the first time I had ever encountered original illustrations before, and these were some of my heroes. Up until that point I had only seen illustration in print annuals and magazines. It really opened my eyes and made it seem like more of a reality. To top it off, I got Stephen Byram to visit, and David Carson to write the opening text for the catalog. Carson also came to the school as a visiting artist, and it was great to spend a couple days hanging out with him and hearing about this upcoming project that he thought would be called Raygun. I was living in Asheville NC, and commuting an hour into the mountains to WCU. We rode back and forth a few times and had some great conversations about art and design, as well as how to get started as a young illustrator. When Raygun came out, I contributed a few illustrations, which helped getting my work and my style rolling.

1950s vintage toys, Jasper Johns, Vaughan Oliver, Duchamp, Dada, Russian Constructivism, Beastie Boys, Tom Waits, Pavement, found objects, weathered surfaces and discarded mechanical objects. I mention Tom Waits, partly because of his approach to making music, and his sometimes dark sense of humor. While learning After Effects (Adam Meyers class) I made this animation for my reel, using the Tom Waits track “Misery Is The River Of The World”.

Neil Young. He has been killing it for decades now, and he continues to do his own thing. I admire creatives like that, who keep on working just because they love what they do. 

Lately, lots of vintage tin toy books. I always enjoy trips to the MoMA, galleries around town, traveling, and just random things on the street that inspire me. I like seeing the way things deteriorate over time, such as a painted billboard on a brick wall that has been there for a number of years. I’m also often inspired by student work, which is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching. Also, as I’ve gotten more into motion and animation, I enjoy looking at I get an email from them every couple of days, and there are always lots of great samples of work and interviews.

It’s always a challenge to find a balance between work and life, and since I have a live/work space sometimes it takes effort to get out. Working from home has its advantages and disadvantages of course. The advantage is being able to work whenever the mood strikes you, but the disadvantage is mainly isolation. I shared a space a couple years ago with some terrific people at the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was great to be around other creatives and see what other people were doing, and to be able to grab lunch together.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work for Siegel+Gale in NYC. One of the projects that stands out was working on their Global Branding Simplicity Index 2017. The project included a printed book, a website, video and social media bits. I was asked to create the divider spreads for nine different regions (here are a few: Germany, Sweden, China and India). I had been doing more work with Cinema4D, and they liked my style of illustration that looks like retro tin toys. So, we chose to make tin toys and scenes for each of the regions for the print book. Once this was done, I applied some simple animation to the toys to be used in digital formats. All in all it was a ton of work, and it’s been a pleasure working with such a solid team. I always feel grateful whenever my work is chosen to represent a creative agency’s look. I mean, they are a branding agency, and they using my images/style to represent who they are and what they like. That’s pretty amazing.

Really anything that allows a lot of creative freedom, a decent amount of time, and a good creative director to collaborate with. And of course a fair paycheck doesn’t hurt. One of my current jobs is a project with the team at White Rhino (Boston), where I’ve been asked to make six characters and animate them into a 30-second spot for a division of Olympus. The characters are to be: bigfoot, shark, lizard, frog, Easter Island head, a frog and a tiger. I should mention that this all came out of a White Rhino VR project that we did before the holidays for their Holiday E-Card, where I made a fully populated snow globe in 3D. The viewer then could either use a VR headset (Google goggles were sent out in advance) to explore the environment, or they could experience it via 360 video on YouTube.

There are so many, and it’s really had to single any one out. Several of the Wall Street Journal’s art directors have always been good to me, offering lots of creative freedom and good collaboration. White Rhino, mentioned above, is amazing to work with, and they always really appreciate what I do and let me do it. April Montgomery at Computer World is among my favorite people to work with. She always finds a story that would be perfect for me to illustrate, and it’s oftentimes a series of images. April is also a great collaborator with smart ideas and a strong design sense. I think one of the things that makes “favorite art directors” is the fact that they understand what you do and allow you to do it. Trust is key, and you can tell when a client has trust in you and they know that you will come through for them. I tend to work best with loose art direction and generalities, rather than “we want you do this.”

There are so many strong illustrators out there, always evolving and turning out amazing work; it’s really hard to list them. I’m good friends with Brian Stauffer. We went to school in Arizona together, so we’ve known each other for a really long time. His work is always so smart and concept-driven, and we often share what we are working on, either in person or digitally. From the beginning, I loved Henrik Drescher’s work. His approach to image making and the way he’ll combine many different mediums and looks together in a loose yet cohesive way always inspires me.

I do some branding work, and some toy design. Last year I was contacted by a major gaming company to make a toy based on one of their characters. It went really well, but it seems to have stalled out in the production phase. My fingers are crossed that it’ll still happen eventually. I have been working in animation for a while, using stop motion, After Effects, and most recently Cinema4D. The Siegel+Gale series was really great in terms of making little characters that were used for print; animating them was a natural transition. The White Rhino VR e-card was also lots of fun. It was my first experience working in the VR space, and the team on their end made it really easy. I love doing music videos whenever the opportunity arises. I’ve directed and animated a few, and written pitches for about 50 more. Writing the pitch in itself is a really creative process, and it is usually under a very fast deadline (a day or two to write it, then if you get the gig about three to four weeks total to complete the video). Here are a few I did: Jesca Hoop, Meat Beat Manifesto, Senses Fail, Vampire Weekend (typography only) and here’s a reel.

It’s something I need to continually do. I’m glad that I’ve gotten more into animation, so I can balance time between illustration and animation work. Learning the 3D software definitely lit a fire under me creatively. I know that as an artist, it’s important to continue to learn new things and stay challenged and curious.

It’s a combination of things, starting with social media, such as Instagram and Facebook. I still send out some postcards each year, and I still buy an ad page with Workbook. Another thing that I try and do is to reach out to art directors with a quick email, just to sort of stay in touch and let them know I’m still here. Recently, I reached out to an art director at the Wall Street Journal just to check in. She didn’t have anything but it started a little friendly back and forth exchange, and that afternoon I got an email from her that said, “I got one for you!” These things serve as great reminder that as illustrators, we need to keep up our creative relationships, and keep our names in the minds of art directors, even in a casual way. Another recent example: I did some CD packages for Gov’t Mule a number of years ago. Recently on my Instagram feed, I posted an image and someone said, “you should do their new cover.” So I followed Gov’t Mule on Instagram and Twitter and casually reached out. Two days later I got an email from their manager and they had me create three separate covers for print and motion for their 2017 release Revolution Come, Revolution Go. Here are the Gov’t Mule CD and vinyl covers in motion. Here are a series of masks that I made for a recent exhibit at the Buggy Factory in Brooklyn..

Make great work, get it in front of people and be fun to work with (and make deadlines).

Make things that you love, and stay true to yourself and what you want to do.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. My brother David is a doctor, and I learned early on that a bad day as an illustrator is totally different than a bad day as a doctor.

Remember to thank your teachers.

Create your own reality, meaning do some personal piece that you love and at some point you’ll get hired to do that for someone else. Here’s the personal piece that got me the gaming company project.

When you start to promote yourself, think of your promotion as a series, rather than a one-shot deal. I’d recommend approaching it as more of a campaign. Also, keep learning and try new things. If you make something that you like and you know is good, go ahead and make five more. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to do it, just go with the momentum and if it feels right run with it.

See more Richard Borge illustrations, new work and updates:
Richard Borge website
Instagram: @richardborge and @bad_hombre_toy_co
Twitter: @richardborge