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Illustrator Profile - Doug Chayka: "I learn with every new assignment"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 18, 2018

Doug Chayka is a New Jersey-based illustrator whose smart, graphic collage images have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. Much of Chayka's work has explored political themes, but he notes that since the November 2016 “it really took off.” He explains, “The Trump administration...is very good for picture making, less good for everything else.” 

MY LIFE:
I live together with my wife Nicola and son Emil in Highland Park, NJ. Before I moved here I had been living Savannah, Georgia, teaching illustration at SCAD full-time while my wife taught at Rutgers University and lived in Jersey, and we were visiting each other on off weeks. When our son was born in 2011 we realized it would be a good idea to live in the same place! So I quit teaching, moved back north and began freelancing full-time.

My parents have always supported and encouraged me to grow as an artist. Even before I could get in an art class in high school they took me to drawing workshops and bought me books and supplies because I was really eager to learn. They also put me through art school, and I’m so grateful for that. No one else in the family is a visual artist, but my twin brother, Jim, is a musician and my cousin, Kyle, is a writer.

I graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in illustration in 1996 and have been freelancing ever since, with a lot of detours in between.

After completing my BFA I moved to Kansas City to be close to Mark English, who I had met at the Illustration Academy workshop I attended as a student, and I stayed there for two years to just soak up anything Mark was doing. My first editorial assignments came from The Kansas City Star and also began illustrating picture books with Boyds Mills Press. I was sharing an apartment at the time with other fledgling illustrators and we just had a blast living together and learning together.

I got restless with the illustration work, mainly because I felt like I had no life experience to really inform what I was doing (which was true) so I left to travel through Europe with my brother for three months on a train pass that I bought with savings from assignments. When I got to Berlin in 1998 for that first time I fell in love with the city, and ended up staying a year while my brother taught English and I sold the occasional drawing. I was determined to stay, so I applied for a Fulbright grant to study Painting and Printmaking at the University of Arts in Berlin, which worked out, and I lived there for another two years studying on the stipend from Fulbright that covered my school and living expenses. It was unbelievable. At the time I was pretty sure I was done illustrating, but as it turned out it those experiences have really helped me grow back into the field and react to assignments in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without those years of experimenting. It hasn’t been a straight path.

I’ve worked in cafes, done a lot of construction work and house painting to fill in the gaps, which was exhausting to do but flexible. Later I started teaching illustration as an adjunct at Pratt, around 2006 in the associate degree program, and then went on to teach full-time at Ringling and later at SCAD.


MY WORKSPACE:

I work in a spare bedroom in our house. The room is very un-sexy. Most of the time it’s a mess, especially if work gets crazy. It’s perfect though because it’s a space dedicated only to work, it’s quiet, and I can get in a rhythm there. I’m fairly oblivious to my surroundings if I’m concentrating on a project and not really particular about the space I’m working in. The beauty of freelance is you are portable, so if I’m travelling I take a laptop, camera, and thin scanner along and work from wherever. We spend a few months a year in Berlin and I work from there as well. A kitchen table is totally fine as a workspace.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
At home I have a table for any traditional media and a separate desk for my computer. I also have a corner for photography with a simple tripod and backdrop. My work usually mixes media, so often I’ll make some drawings or take photos, make scans, and combine things in Photoshop. Most of the time I’m making collage of some kind, though the ingredients of the work are varied.


MY FIRST BIG BREAK:

When I was getting back into editorial illustration around 2006, the literary editor of The Nation, John Palattella, began giving me a lot of assignments. We worked really well together and for a while he was my only editorial client. John gave me the flexibility to try different approaches to the final art and shaped the way I like to think about editorial, which is “what’s my idea and how might I execute it differently this time to make the idea even stronger”? That Nation work started to create more opportunities with other clients, and it’s been great to continue to work with Robert Best, who now art directs The Nation.

MY INFLUENCES:
It was the time away from illustration that was most influential—living in Berlin, learning to speak German, seeing a lot of new places. It really opened my mind to be in a very different setting. My main teacher in Berlin, Wolfgang Petrick, was doing some very wild stuff combining painting and prints, and I got to discuss my work with Georg Baselitz a few times there, too. Understanding their work and what they said about my own work didn’t really click with me until later. I also got to know about John Heartfield and Hannah Höch and the way they used photo collage to make something subversive and new. Now I feel like every job and collaboration is an influence. I learn with every new assignment.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
Mark English. He was amazingly prolific as an illustrator, reinventing his approach over and over again, over decades. He moved on to gallery work in the 90s and is still incredibly productive, making beautiful work and changing and challenging himself.


MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:

My favorite place to find inspiration is illustration work seen in the context of the assignment. I love coming across editorial work where the artist just nailed it and came up with a great idea. The op-ed page of The New York Times remains a big source of inspiration and I look there daily to see what images have been made. It’s inspiring to see what artists can come with on such short notice. When an artist comes up with something brilliant in a couple hours that’s really inspiring to see. It also shows how good the NYT op-ed art directors are.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
I really like working on my own. If there’s a challenge, it’s keeping track of billing. I guess no one gets excited about that part.


A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:

I’ve been doing a fair amount of political work the last years, but since November it really took off. Editorial can be really potent when it shows an irony or exposes some contradiction or fundamental problem within an issue. The Trump administration has provided us with a large supply of irony and contradiction, which is very good for picture making, less good for everything else. I had the chance to do a full-page piece in The New Yorker recently with art director Aviva Michaelov about Trump and his antagonism of the White House Press Corps. It was an honor to be trusted with a big piece like that.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
Any chance to work with smart art directors and thought-provoking text is a dream assignment. Being part of journalism and the social/political conversation, and letting this push my work in new directions is the most exciting thing to me right now.


MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:

In October 2016, art director Minh Uong brought me on to illustrate the weekly New York Times State of the Art technology column. Minh and the editor Pui-Wing Tam have been pushing the work in fun ways, especially encouraging me to include more animation—which I had done very little of prior to starting the column. You have to be able to speak GIF if you’re going to make pictures about the internet. Farhad Manjoo writes brilliantly about a mix of tech/internet, social, and political issues, and it’s been great fun working with his material. The topics can be serious, like Trump’s domination of the media.

But there’s a lot of room to be playful, like with this recent piece about Instagram’s growth rate, and this piece about the power of social media

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
Matt Chase, Matt Dorfman, Jennifer Heuer, Javier Jaén, Oliver Munday, Joanne Neborsky, Christoph Niemann, and Tamara Shopsin always come up with work that is so smart conceptually and seem to always be changing the way they execute things, from drawing to typography to collage. I saw a piece Shopsin did in The New Yorker where it looked like she spray painted a banana peel and took a photo of it. That was amazing.


HOW I STAY CURRENT:

I illustrated picture books when I was starting out, but eventually took that work out of my portfolio because it wasn’t really relevant to the kind of conceptual work that I love now. A quick Google search will show those projects; the first was done in 1998 and a lot has changed for me since. As image-makers we always have to look at our work and what we’re interested in doing and be honest about where it fits. When I took time off to paint and study overseas, and came back to the U.S., I had a bunch of new work that still wasn’t suited to illustration because it just didn’t communicate ideas. And in illustration ideas are everything. I think if you can communicate your ideas visually in an exciting way, you will have work in this industry, whether it’s for traditional print clients, or online, or something else. Illustration is such a broad field, not defined by any particular media, and that is really cool.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
It’s a very fair business in my experience. If you send out work to a client and they think they can use you, you’re hired. I’ve never met most of my clients, so meetings don’t seem necessary. Doing a good job on a real assignment is the best possible advertising, but before I was getting any work at all I sent out postcards and emailed individual art directors that I admired. I still send postcards two or three times a year and it’s been really effective. I post work on social media about once a week and stay visible that way.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
It is so important to take the time to do a lot of different things. Some students come out of school and make a big splash and others need more time for things to take off. If you are dependable and making work that excites you and showing it regularly to clients that can use what you do, you’ll get there.

See more Doug Chayka illustrations, new work, and updates:
Doug Chayka website
Instagram: @dougchayka
Twitter: @dougchayka



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