Illustrator Profile - David Cowles: "I've always preferred drawing people instead of objects"

By Robert Newman   Monday May 15, 2017

David Cowles is a Rochester, New York-based illustrator, master caricaturist, animator, and teacher. His distinctive, colorful, graphic portraits have graced the pages of countless consumer magazines and newspapers. A former newspaper art director, Cowles brings a consistently smart graphic and editorial focus to his work, whether it's his many caricatures or more conceptual illustrations. In addition to his print work, Cowles has created a large body of brilliant animated work, for clients such as They Might Be Giants and Sesame Street. He also has very active Instagram and Twitter accounts that feature an entertaining stream if archival and new portraits, oftentimes pegged to birthdays.


I live in Rochester, NY, born and bred. My father, Hobart Cowles, was a ceramics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and my mother, Barbara Cowles, was manager of the gallery Shop 1, so art was always around growing up. After working in a potato chip warehouse and at Waldenbooks, I landed my first art-related job at the local newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, after attending a one-year trade school named Graphic Careers. I started seeking out freelance illustration work around ’84. I have two grown and mega talented kids: Clayton Cowles, who works as a freelance letterer for Marvel and Image comics, and Alison Cowles who works as an illustrator, painter, designer, songwriter, character designer and writer.

I have an in-house studio. The desk is cluttered with piles of current and past jobs, and there is either music or a TV going in the background while I work. This would probably be a nightmarish scenario for some artists, but after growing up as the youngest of six kids, I think I thrive on having some noise going on. Plus, music, TV and movies have definitely fed my creativity over the years.

I’ve pretty much settled into working exclusively on the Mac, in Illustrator (formerly in the much-missed Freehand) and Photoshop. In the past I used colored pencils and then gouache, which I will sometimes revisit when the occasion calls for it. But mostly I’m painting with ones and zeros. I do still sketch everything out with a pencil on tracing paper first, so that analog aspect will probably always be there.

I usually use photographs for reference, with various angles and expressions, so that you can’t trace my portraits back to one particular image. Sometimes I’ll use video if the photos aren’t cutting it. The pause button can get you some angles you haven’t seen a million times before.

Over the years my style has gotten simpler. When I first started working at the newspaper I was using a Rapidograph to do tight, detail-heavy cross-hatched portraits. I quickly learned that that wasn’t going to work for me. It took a long time to do all those little criss-crossing lines, which didn’t work well with the tight newspaper deadlines. Plus, the printing process of the newspaper at the time wasn’t great—half those lines would disappear anyway by the time it got to the page. So I started down the path to simplifying my style to accommodate the deadlines and printing. The Rapidograph eventually gave way to colored pencils. When those started to seem a little too fussy, I shifted to gouache, and then digital. I do have fun sometimes going back to the more rounded, detailed style, but mostly I stick to flat and simple these days.

My big break into the majors, would have been when I got a call to do a job for The Village Voice from one Robert Newman, after he saw a postcard I sent him. At that time, every art director read The Village Voice, so it really got the ball rolling. I started working regularly for places like Spy magazine, Rolling Stone and Us magazine (which was a very different magazine at that time). Then when Entertainment Weekly raided the Voice’s art staff I got to go along for the ride, and did a weekly spot for them for the next 15 years.

Illustration-wise, my first love was Mort Drucker in Mad magazine. In fact, most of the illustrators in Mad were an inspiration. From there I branched out into Al Hirschfeld and David Levine. Seeing caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias for the first time in the 1980s, though, was probably the biggest influence on my style. Add in comic book artists Jack Kirby and John Buscema, genius animators Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, directors Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder plus the Beatles and you probably have the tip of the iceberg.

Lennon and McCartney (I know that’s two people). I look to them as the perfect collaboration, the combination of sweet and sour, each tempering the other to not go too far in one direction or the other. They almost created a third entity between the two of them. That 10-year explosion of creativity the Beatles had is an endless source of inspiration to me to this day.

TV, movies, magazines, books. The same things I always looked at, but with the added blessing/curse of the social media sites like Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.

I’d say the one thing I miss is being able to bounce ideas and get opinions from co-workers. Luckily, though, on some projects such as animation, I get to have that spark of collaboration back.

I’ve always preferred drawing people instead of objects and landscapes and such. Getting somebody’s likeness, especially trying to do it with as few clues as possible, is always an enjoyable challenge. (The only downside would be when I can’t quite nail them down)

I’ve always said that the hardest person for me to draw is Tom Hanks. I’ve drawn him many times over the years, some getting closer than others, but I feel like I’m still trying to get him just right. It can be a challenge to draw somebody who doesn’t have any facial quirks, just perfect, flawless features. On the other end of the spectrum, when I’ve drawn Jay Leno in the past, I always think I’m exaggerating his chin so much, but when the image is done, it practically looks like a photo of him. Somebody beat me to that caricature.

When I draw someone for the second (or third time), I usually try to build on what I did the first time, but maybe try it from a different angle. Or feature more of their body. Or, if I didn’t quite get them down the first time, I can refine it a bit to get closer to their essence. When I post images of a celebrity for their birthday on my socials, I make a point of showing earlier versions I’ve done of them to show the evolution a bit. I find with most presidential candidates, I’m getting to know them a bit still in my first images of them.

I recently did a full-page illustration of Norman Lear and Kenya Barris for Entertainment Weekly; it’s a pleasure to work for them again. Feels a bit like home.

I’ve done a little bit of book illustration, mostly covers, but would love to do more, inside and out—children’s books and otherwise. It would also be a dream to do a movie poster someday.

It’s always a pleasure to work with Mr. Robert Newman. Also, it’s been fun working with editor Richard Peréz-Ferria and design director Kathleen Gates at Elliman magazine lately. And it’s always a pleasure working with Alice Alves and Florian Bachleda at Fast Company magazine, doing both illustration and animation. And the illustrating and animating work I’ve done for John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants has been super creatively fulfilling over the years.

In no particular order, I’m always inspired by the work of Kirsten Ulve, André Carrilho, Drew Friedman, Bob Staake, Maria Picasso I Piquer, Hanoch Piven, Philip Burke, Anita Kunz, Christoph Niemann, Steve Brodner, Robert Risko, Lou Romano and countless others I’ve forgotten to mention.

I’ve been doing more and more animation related work, for clients like Sesame Street and They Might Be Giants.

I also worked on an animated short with my daughter, Alison, for Frederator (Adventure Time) Studios and Sony Pictures Animation called “Boots.” It should be out later this year, but you can see some work-in-progress posts here

I’ve also been teaching illustration and storyboarding at Nazareth College for the past several years.

I think getting into animation is the biggest step I’ve taken to adapt to the changing landscape. With web versions of magazines and the iPad, you’re seeing even traditional illustration put into motion more and more.

I still send out the old-fashioned postcards and email promotions, and hit social media fairly hard, with posts most days of new work and celebrity birthday caricatures. Not sure what works the best.

Get your work out there for people to see. At the very least you should have a portfolio online, but also have a presence on Instagram and the like. Networking and relationships with people in the business are also very important. Building up good word of mouth about your work is important, but so is the experience people had working with you. I also recommend a big, heaping spoonful of luck, but be prepared when a lucky break comes along.

See more David Cowles illustrations, new work, and updates:
David Cowles website
Instagram: @dvdcowles
Twitter: @davidhcowles