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Illustrator Profile - Elliot Stokes: "Make at least half as much art as you consume"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 11, 2018

Elliot Stokes is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and art director (he works at People magazine). Stokes says about his graphic duality, “I love making pictures and using them to tell stories, so I’m lucky to get to do this in more ways than one.” He has created editorial illustrations for a variety of publications, including a notable series of zodiac signs for Teen Vogue. Other recent memorable work includes a marketing project for Estee Lauder and an editorial project for Them.us.

MY LIFE:
Home base is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I live with my partner Taylor and my cat Serra. I’m an art director at People magazine and a freelance illustrator. I commute to Time Inc.’s offices in Lower Manhattan, where I design story pages and head up art direction for People Food. I carve out time nights and weekends for drawing. I love making pictures and using them to tell stories, so I’m lucky to get to do this in more ways than one.

I grew up just outside of Atlanta with my parents and brother. My dad read a lot of business books and self-help books with a business slant—especially those by Napoleon Hill. Growing up, he played Hill’s audio tapes during most car drives for me and my brother. It helped me later on in realizing my goals and how I approached working towards them.

I studied graphic design at the University of Georgia. I had gone to a science and math high school, and in college I started studying biology. About a year later, I was wandering around campus and came across student work of hand-painted letters of the alphabet hanging in a hallway—it delighted me. I changed my major after that.

I’ve been working in magazines for about seven years now. During that same amount time, I’ve been drawing on-commission sporadically, off-commission much more frequently.

MY WORKSPACE:
I typically work in the front room of my railroad apartment. It gets good sunlight and has several surfaces on which to draw.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I start by writing down lists of words that sum up the idea of the article. Then I make a lot of sketches. After a sketch is picked, I’ll draw the image several times, scan each in, and piece together the best parts. I mainly use mechanical pencils, computer paper and tracing paper to make the drawings, and use Photoshop to collage, clean up and color the finals. Since my drawings are simple, I try to shoot for interesting compositions.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
SPD—the Society of Publication Designers—was huge in making my dreams come true. Winning SPD’s student design competition opened up doors and brought me to New York. Another memorable big moment was my first assignment for The New York Times and the events that led up to it. I was eagerly sending a bunch of emails to Aviva Michaelov, The Times Op-Ed art director at the time, with the hopes of landing an assignment. She eventually wrote me back, saying she liked a small series of drawings I’d done on my website. I wasn’t sure how to proceed but ultimately decided to make a zine of the drawings she had singled out and mailed her a copy. It worked!

MY INFLUENCES:
Magical thinking, linguistics, superstition: all ideas that have influenced my work over the years.

Big name influencers: Matisse, Oprah, Ed Ruscha, Jenna Lyons of J.Crew, Ellsworth Kelly.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
This is very hard. I’ll name two and see if I get away with it. I'm very into the photography work of Pari Dukovic and Bobby Doherty—both editorial photographers whose pictures always make me stop.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
Friends say I have the messiest computer desktops they have ever seen. I say that my desktop is like Pinterest, but better, since I don’t have to log in and I can see everything all at once. I just drag jpegs from the internet and into my life. When I'm stumped, I’ll click through random thumbnail images on my desktop until something rubs off.

I keep real-life pin boards up at home and at work at People as well. Sometimes the physical pinning of papers is more effective for absorbing inspiration. I keep several boxes of tear sheets and magazine clippings. I regularly email myself notes as well, mainly lists and attractive-sounding words and phrases.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Being able to swiftly self-edit.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
It’s been a little over a year now, but this one still sticks out: illustrating the 12 signs of the zodiac for Teen Vogue. I had just started getting into astrology when the project was pitched, so it was quite convenient! For those interested: I am a Virgo. I worked with Teen Vogue’s Wesley Johnson who was great. He gave me free reign in coming up with the imagery. I was also happy to work lettering into the pictures. I recently finished another project with Teen Vogue where I drew people’s favorite objects. 

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
Surface design for home goods and interiors and collaborating with a fashion brand.

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
Mica McPheeters and Jeffrey Zeldman at AListApart.com. They push out-there ideas and communication always feels fluid. Also, Mica’s emails are a hoot to read.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
Leanne Shapton and Geoff McFetridge. Both make work so conceptually rich and equally beautiful. Loren Capelli, Laurent Cliffo, Matt Dorfman, Jordan Awan, Tamara Shopsin, and Kelly Blair are others I admire and follow.

OTHER WORK:
Mostly I’ll make collages and zines of drawings and give them to friends or submit them to Printed Matter. I’ll try working in mediums that I’m less familiar with: cut paper, india ink, and linocuts. I made linocut prints of house plants a couple summers ago and sold them at a local art market.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
At times I’ll see work from peers and think I should make my illustrations more complex; that it would widen my appeal or attract new clients. But the illustrations end up not looking like me and become less enjoyable to create. I continue to experiment, just remind myself to be myself. .

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
Mostly, I’ll just talk about myself a lot around new people I meet and that works. But I will also send out emails and postcards.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Look less at finding a style but a point of view. It helps to develop outside interests beyond design or illustration. Make at least half as much art as you consume.

See more Elliot Stokes illustrations, new work, and updates:
Elliot Stokes website
Elliot Stokes Design
Instagram: @elliotstokes



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