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Illustrator Profile - Robert Neubecker: "I fell in love with editorial illustration in all its forms"

By Robert Newman   Thursday December 28, 2017

Robert Neubecker is a Park City, Utah-based editorial illustrator and children’s book creator. In addition to his prodigious editorial work, Neubecker has written and illustrated dozens of children’s books. After many years of creating illustrations with pen and ink and watercolor, he now works in Photoshop, but says “I’m exploring the wonders of digital illustration with one requirement: It can’t look digital.” Neubecker’s latest picture book is Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, written by Kay Haring (Keith’s sister).

MY LIFE:
I’ve been an illustrator for a while now. I started at The New York Times  in 1975, when I was 21, my senior year at Parsons. Steve Heller  gave me my first job, as he did for so many others of my generation. I’ve been mostly an editorial illustrator ever since, and still freelance for The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many others.

I’m blind in my right eye, but it’s very sensitive to light, so I sometimes wear a patch. Children are thrilled.

I grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, then a dying factory town surrounded by dairy farms and a lake polluted by paper mills. Staying was not an option; a one-way ticket to NYC was the way to go. They’ve cleaned up the lake now; it’s beautiful, and there are pelicans and bald eagles.

I live on the side of Iron Mountain in Park City, Utah. I’m married to the loveliest human being in the world; everyone likes her better than me! We have two teenage kids and live in the woods at the edge of town with a whole bunch of dogs and cats. Moose come around and eat our garden.

I was in New York City for over 20 years, from ’72 to ’94. It was a wonderful time to be a young artist in the city. It was cheap to live and the music and art worlds flourished. The streets were dangerous, but us kids pretty much owned Downtown.

When I started out, before I could make a living drawing, I painted houses, or rather, interiors—mostly loft conversions in Soho and Tribeca and pioneering East Village tenements. My friends were musicians, actors, painters and sculptors, and everyone had a trade. Kiki Smith was an electrician and helped wire my loft. I had crazy sculptor friends that did demolition and ripped out asbestos. Lower Manhattan was all but abandoned in the 70s and 80s. My generation of artists pioneered and rebuilt it.

I studied painting and Illustration at Parsons, class of ’75. A lot of good people came out of those years: Vic Juhasz, Duncan Hannah, Joe Ciardiello. Donna Karen was in the fashion department. DK was always in the cafeteria—she left school to become head designer for Anne Klein.

My most influential teachers were Barbara Kruger and the late J.C. Suares—Kruger because she was so politically furious, and J.C. became a mentor to me. I took Milton Glaser’s course at SVA, and I try to remember everything he said.

Times were lean, and J.C. took me under his wing. He gave me a general gofer job at Push Pin Press where I worked in the Push Pin building on 32nd Street and got to see Chwast & Glaser creating…everything… up close. Patti Smith came in once for a photo shoot. I served her tea.

MY WORKSPACE:
I have a really nice studio in my house with a ton of natural light and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. I miss New York—I was a punk rocker and a club kid in the old days, but the Wasatch Mountains really put the zap on my head and I’ve been out here for 23 years now. I've learned how to ski.

When I left the city, the worry, of course, was, could I still work? I had spent years drawing for The New York Times, later Newsweek, Business Week, Time, Sports Illustrated and many others. Everything was face to face, working together with art directors and editors. When I moved out here, thanks to the internet, it was like that again— virtual—without the traffic jams on Sixth Avenue. I’d work for Slate in Seattle, ad agencies and the Tribune in Chicago, and the New York clients all in the same day, like I was right there in the art departments. The personal relationships I developed in New York were very important, however. I work with a lot of the same people today.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I have moved around. In ancient times, black and white pen drawings. Then I painted in watercolor for many years, magazine work mostly. Then in fat black and white brush drawings for early internet work (Slate.com), to which I later added color. Now I’m working in Photoshop with a Cintiq and exploring the wonders of digital illustration with one requirement: It can’t look digital.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
Aside from Heller, which was pretty funny, because I walked off more than one minimum wage job when he would call… My favorite “break” was Slate.com in ’96. Bill Gates created Slate to prove that a newsmagazine could exist solely on the internet with no print equivalent. He hired Michael Kinsley from The New Republic as editor, and Patricia Bradbury, the design director of Newsweek, to design it. I’d done a lot of work with Patricia over the years at New York magazine and Newsweek. She was interested in a series of stark black and white brush drawings I had done as personal work and shown in the East Village with Gracie Mansion. The modems were so primitive in those days—the simple B&Ws were all that would quickly download. She brought Mark Allan Stamaty and myself onboard as staff illustrators with a political voice. We created the look, and added more illustrators. I stayed with Slate for 19 years, two drawings a week. There was no time; it was same day stuff, no sketches. They posted what I sent. It was glorious. Jeff Bezos bought us, cut the illustration budget and let us all go a year or so ago. I think the publication is poorer for it.
 
When I first started freelancing at The Times, it was the most thrilling thing in the world to me. The deadlines were so tight that the illustrators parked at a spare desk in the art department, and we’d draw right there, sometimes all day. Art directors would walk by and drop extra assignments on our desks before we could finish the first one. The pace was languid early in they day, and approached hysteria by presstime. People running…hollering. It was very exciting. I felt like I was on the cutting edge of history. I fell in love with editorial illustration in all its forms.

MY INFLUENCES:
Conceptual artists: Saul Steinberg, Andre Francois, Tomi Ungerer, mid-century European illustrators.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
Yuko Shimizu, Steve Brodner, because they also teach. That’s two.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
My extensive art library.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN WORKING ALONE:
Working on my own. When the magazines were flourishing, I had a good 20-year stretch where I worked with an assistant and an intern or two, turning out an astonishing amount of editorial work. I draw a lot of picture books now; a more solitary endeavor. I miss the company. 

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
Not to slight my other wonderful projects, but it would have to be the Keith Haring book. Written by his sister Kay, entitled Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, it’s a loving picture book biography from Dial Books for Young Readers. We worked with the Haring Foundation to incorporate Keith’s drawings and paintings into each illustration. Someone remarked that my subway scene wasn’t dirty enough. Ha! Then, the entire subway looked like the bathroom in CBGB’s, but with better graffiti: whole trains would be gorgeously painted. I used to see Keith around, in clubs and in the subway. His drawings were everywhere. He died much too young, of AIDS, at 31. This was a dream project.

Kay Haring and I did a book launch signing in February at the New Whitney Museum. It was like a homecoming with my old downtown friends.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
See above. But I’m thinking a wordless picture book. Love those. I’ll get to it.


MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
Among others, I love working with Keith Webb at The Wall Street Journal because we get to do such great design. The “Middle Class Squeeze” from AI 35 is a case in point.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
Well, I mentioned Yuko Shimizu and Steve Brodner. Edel Rodriguez of course, Bob Staake, Leo Espinosa, Barry Blitt, Victor Juhasz, Christoph Niemann. I appreciate almost all illustrators, many of them not so living…

OTHER WORK:
I’ve been doing kids books since ’04 or so. I have taught illustration at SVA and BYU. I’ve done a fair amount of conceptual illustration for corporate websites, medical firms and non-profits, visually describing complex issues. I may also moonlight as a ski instructor once I get the hang of it.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
My kid’s book adventures are very exciting. Things are moving to the web, of course, and my print work is designed to show well there. I get bored easily and experiment with new techniques continually. I’ve never enjoyed doing a cookie cutter style, what binds my work throughout is the thinking.  

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
There is less print work, especially magazines, than there was a decade ago. For most of my career, I was independent and worked with a steady stable of magazines—Time, Newsweek, Business Week, U.S. News, etc. Slate.com, of course, plus the newspapers. The key is to be smart, do good work, be dependable, hit your deadlines—and they come back. I’d have a slow week, send out a postcard, and get swamped.

The internet has eroded ad revenue, budgets, and some print has disappeared entirely. So today, I work with agents who basically do all of the above to cast a wider net. I also keep the e-mail addresses of everyone I’ve worked with in the last decade or so and keep them abreast of my latest work. My agencies are Gerald & Cullen Rapp for general illustration and Wernick & Pratt as my literary agents. They’re both top agencies and I love working with them, but I often caution students not to think that an agent alone will get you work. Your work gets you work.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
We are at—past—a turning point in popular culture where print is giving over to electronic media. Print, like radio, will always be with us, as in the printed books I so adore. Still, we must reinvent our field for the new technology. National boundaries are being erased; think globally.  

See more Robert Neubecker illustrations, new work, and updates:
Robert Neubecker website
Books



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