Fixing a Hole Where the Rain Gets In


After a whole year of (virtual) silence, I’ve accumulated a variety of notions, experiences, ideas, and scraps that I’d like to inspect and dissect. Would like to give this a shot for the sheer benefit of questioning, understanding, or at the very least perhaps shedding some light on where I’m coming from professionally, and what may (or may not) lie ahead creatively.

To be honest, I’m not sure what compels me to write publicly (as opposed to doing so on a private, old-fashioned paper notebook), since there’s a really good chance anyone who used to pay even the slightest attention to this space has most likely stopped doing so, even long before the previous post appeared. So this inevitably feels a little bit like talking (typing?) into the void. Maybe that’s not a fair or objective assessment, given that I would not want to upset, alienate, or take for granted any (casual or longstanding) visitors or readers. Either way, blogging this here, now—at this particularly uncertain, tumultuous time in the world—though small-minded and narcissistic to an extent as it is, is still fed by the impulse of making an ongoing internal dialogue indeed external; not only in the hope of finding clarity, but maybe also making room for an exchange of ideas or common ground with whomever feels compelled to share their own experiences or opinions.

To cease the intrigue—and to start on a rather blunt note—I’ll let the cat out of the bag first: After a promising start in revamping my career as a freelance artist in mid-2018, and a premature drying up of prospects almost exactly a year later, I decided to quit the illustration field for good. I figured it’s been about 18 years of giving it my best shot—in my own flurried but determined ways—and about time I close up shop to seek greener pastures. I guess what sparked this turn of direction was an unshakeable, vague, but persistent dissatisfaction with my both my commissioned illustrations and self-generated projects. Still not sure whether what’s showcased in the various sections of this website truly conveys who I am; not just as a creative person but as a flesh-and-blood individual. The work feels like an idealized, sanitized, commercialized, rather skimpy version of “my best foot forward”. And yet, for better or worse, here it stands: at its best hopefully it shows some promising, thoughtful visual solutions and a dedication to the craft of image-making; while at worst, I suspect the thin, derivative threads of my inconsistent mixed bag of an art career might lay a little too painfully bare.

Isn’t there too much of this stuff out in the world anyway? Thousands of kids graduate art school every year in the United States alone. An alarming percentage of them already have a ridiculously high level of raw skills, as well as being equipped with astute, tech-savvy minds for self-promotional tactics. Compared to these young go-getters, I’m absolutely inept at selling my work. The idea of being indefinitely chained to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other platforms in order to show my work to the world—not to mention to constantly struggle to promote it—doesn’t exactly thrill me. I love making images with all kinds of mediums… but then, where (and how) do I even start to get all that work in front of art directors, editors, buyers, collectors, publishers? I’ve tried all the tried-and-true, standard industry methods (and then, timidly, some less conventional others) with some success, but I’d be lying if I said these didn’t feel like emotionally-draining, financially precarious impositions. Can I even compete with these amazingly talented kids and their social media–oriented ways?

Leaving aside the commercial considerations, there are the stubbornly insular inner workings of the field itself (as it is practiced here in the United States) to contend with. Illustrators are, for the most part, at the mercy of self-appointed tastemakers and flash-in-the-pan gatekeepers to get accepted into all the fashionable annual competitions, group exhibitions, invite-only industry parties, and spotlighted outlets. Meanwhile, they work in scattered, socially isolated pockets with little chance of achieving more welcoming, less biased means of exposure. (Of course, there are exceptions, and this mold does get broken sometimes; though whenever this happens, it’s often through self-sufficiency rather than via the untouchable, high-exposure outlets.) “New”, “edgy”, and “fresh” seem to be the tag words de rigueur in juried shows—favored over old fashioned ones like “craft”, “classic” or “timeless”. In fact, I once went to an open live panel featuring the jurors for one of the top illustration annuals, and a couple of them said they had been asked by the annual’s head honchos to focus on those entries that exuded the above catchphrases. Someone else in the panel responded that, of course, “new” and “fresh” didn’t necessarily mean “good” or otherwise worthy of merit. At that point, the discussion abruptly changed course without so much as a tap on the subject. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Then there are the stylistic trends that come and go like the seasons. While I was a wide-eyed, impressionable art student at Pratt Institute in the late ’90s, Roberto Parada and Joe Sorren painted technically spotless, lush images that made the pages of all the big print publications of the day, like Rolling Stone and Time. Their ubiquitousness unfortunately spanned a whole school of faithfuls that watered down their distinctive approaches to largely void, mannered imagery full of long-limbed, big-headed characters. Fast forward 20 years later, and there is more variety in the industry than ever before, often aided by the seemingly infinite virtual box of colors that Photoshop offers. There are the dynamically evocative, woodcut-like renderings of Yuko Shimizu; the astute, self-deprecatingly punchy shortcuts of Christoph Niemann; the moody, conceptual stylings of Brian Stauffer; and the fantastically detailed, virtuosic dreamscapes of Victo Ngai—just to name a few but significant current examples. Surely enough—and just like all those years ago—there are legions out there who shamelessly ape these justifiably celebrated, authoritative voices. Not sure what the actual benefits are of living under the shadow of another artist’s work, other than being ready and willing to pocket those cheaper, lowly commissions that the towering tastemakers refuse to take on. Not a particularly smart career move reeking of longevity, if you ask me—even if it might consistently put food on plates for some.

Trouble is, if you have an approach, whether truly original or not—and, let’s face it, what is “truly original” anymore?—that won’t adhere to the capriciously shifting tides of popular taste, then you’re on your own. In other words, you are not doing work that can be easily pigeonholed or compartmentalized into what the industry finds commercially desirable, so the Powers That Be are less inclined to hire you. This is also likely if you have too many styles or approaches, which make you seem unfocused and unpredictable. Having said that, art directors seem in general to be a little more accepting of jacks-of-all-trades these days (as long as you are master of some) than they were twenty years ago. Of course, there’s the slight chance that, with enough persistence, hard work, and continuous exposure, you might spawn your own army of art doppelgängers, regardless of your approach(es)—and start your own “style trend” in the process. (At this point—and needless to say—you have been waved through the gate. Isn’t that peachy?)

You’ve probably realized by now that I use the word “approach” loosely: from personal experience, I’d say that many art directors and editors nowadays often have a preference for style over content. Which is odd, given that, together, these two are the basis of an “approach” to art—and a symbiotic one too, since you can’t have a well-defined style without solid, mature ideas grounding it. However, style can get in the way of communicating something clearly and directly, if it’s too mannered or bombastic. As for my own image-making, for a couple of years I was deeply dissatisfied with anything I turned out. The succinct, self-contained ideas I usually favored were getting muddied up by surface effects, and by contrived metaphors which were most likely impenetrable to the casual viewer. What’s more, anyone who knows me well (or who’s read my sporadic blogposts) is aware that I’m a life-long fan of German expressionist woodcuts, mid-century modern design, Dada, Bauhaus… Why were these influences not popping up at all in my commissioned illustrations and personal drawings?

It was time to shake things up a bit: out went the watercolor tubes and muted tonal gradations, and in came the bold dashes of flat color and simplified, inky contours. Images once again started relying on visual puns and direct messages. My website at its current incarnation, having been revamped last year and with a new body of work at its core (along with some older, compatible pieces thrown in for good measure), tries to reflect this reinvention at its best. However—and as I mentioned earlier—I can’t help feeling that it still does not live up to its promise. That itch to go further and the nagging insecurity that the work is not good enough are still lurking in the background, currently standing unresolved.

Since revamping this website, I’ve grown weary of overly aesthetic directions, which I suspect can’t completely be avoided as an illustrator. In all honesty, illustrating by itself is no longer enough; not that it ever has been, but even more so as I get older and dig deeper. The temptation to produce more of my own content grows ever stronger. Sticking to one particular voice and to very specific esthetic choices has also been losing its luster. As of this writing—and full disclosure—I haven’t picked up a pencil in months for many reasons too complicated to go into here; but no less due to all the points recollected in this increasingly ranting report. If I were to dust off my brushes again, I’d probably be leaning towards more abstract and intuitive creative processes—which will surely kill off any existing commercial appeal in my illustrations sooner or later. The works of Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Bruce Conner, and David Lynch have been around for several decades (over a century, in Duchamp and Ernst’s cases), but yet they seem so much more sophisticated, alluringly mysterious and refreshingly surprising to me than most of what I’ve been seeing on illustration annuals and websites in the last ten years or so.

Rounding all of this up is the fact that, for almost a full year now, I’ve become a full-fledged member of the St. Martin’s Press design team here in New York, creating page layouts and typesetting book interiors for many of its imprints. Once a long-time dream, and now a daily creative challenge that I whole-heartedly welcome and nurture. Just like illustration, publishing is a tough industry to break into, but—through multiple ventures, projects, connections, and sources of employment—it has been a big part of my life for the better part of two decades, and therefore more welcoming to me than illustration’s guarding lions.

So yes, introspection, insecurities, disillusionment, career moves, and new influences are all pointing at a drift away from a field that I used to be obsessed with, but that—for one reason or another—consistently disappoints and alienates me. Don’t get me wrong, though: illustration is a multi-layered career with a broad and diverse scope. Grounded as much on tradition as it is on innovation, is spurred on by humanity’s need for visual storytelling, and evolves rapidly through digital technology’s unquenchable hunger for new mediums of communication. (Having said that, I find it ironic that hardly anyone seems to be aware of illustration as a profession and as a source of accessible imagery, given how much it has been absorbed—as well as reciprocally informed—by pop culture for over a hundred years.) At its best, it cuts directly to the core of a topic by informing and re-imagining. At its worst, it becomes a dull, cliched, easily ignorable addendum to a news article or e-book front cover.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably sensing a certain bitterness coming through in these words, and I’d be the last to dispute or correct you. However, as you’ve seen above, this does not represent a move away from creative endeavors—actually quite far from it, since I am still designing, inventing, composing, performing, planning, devising, arranging, absorbing, recording, researching, learning, living—just from the one profession that (ironically and sadly) has brought me more joy but also far more frustration than any other.

Camus’ The Plague

Design, Illustrations, Personal work

Somehow I continue to get drawn to existential narratives, both in film and in print… Must be a sign of impending middle age? Regardless of where this curious preference comes from, it’s been fully embraced as long as it keeps suggesting or inspiring interesting imagery.

Here is a reimagining of the book cover design and illustration for one of Albert Camus’ timeless classics.

[…] Most important is always to have a play back and forth, back and forth. Between the big and the little, the light and the dark, the smiling and the sad, the serious and the comic.“—BEN SHAHN

The Evils of Consumerism

Design, Illustrations, Personal work

It has been a while since I’ve written something here, so please bare with me—my words might come out a little bit ruffled and/or rusty.

Having said this, hopefully it won’t be true of the new set of drawings I’ve been working on.

The Evils of Consumerism: Good To the Last Drop

These were not commissioned, but actually started life last summer in my sketchbook as small experiments with visual puns and playful graphic shapes. The ideas that came out also reflected my current preoccupation with direct, bold visual storytelling through accessible metaphors—all peppered with tongue-in-cheek humor.

Early idea for the series
Initial sketchbook tomfoolery

Humor is an element in my work that I’ve mostly tried to downplay or even suppress for several years, likely for fear of coming across as “not serious enough” as an artist or visual communicator. Of course this was probably never an issue for many of my heroes, Tomi Ungerer, Saul Steinberg, and Quino among them—all artists that proved that graphic humor can be infused with poetry and wit, while still tackling “serious” subjects; such as the tumults of daily life and their often inevitable existential challenges.

The Evils of Consumerism: Lead The Herd

So, deciding to let the tone of the new ideas evolve naturally—and after telling my inner critic to go peruse some vintage cartoon books—the vehicle for the humor (and target of my admittedly twisted imagination) soon appeared trough the ballpoint haze…

Sketches for what became Lead The Herd

Like any other New Yorker, I find myself staring at subway posters while I wait for my commuting train. Without getting preachy and seeming hypocritical, I often get baffled by modern advertising and its vacuous promises of ever-lasting bliss with products that often can barely fulfill their own intended function. Most crucially, there’s the underlying suggestion that the more we acquire or consume, the happier we could (or should) be, which of course rarely is (if ever) true.

The Evils of Consumerism: Gimme More

Most of us are aware of this. And yet these glossy, pitch-perfect ads that seem to be concocted in a parallel but seemingly faultless world keep luring us into dispensing with our hard-earned cash, in exchange for some ever-elusive nugget of happiness that we’re apparently (inexplicably!) deprived of.

An early idea that payed homage to Cassandre’s immortal Dubonnet Man (while spoofing you-know-who), which I eventually abandoned after deciding it did not fit the tone and intent of the series.

It’s a trap we can’t help but fall into, whether we’re aware of it or not. It poses an interesting conundrum, as well as certain questions of identity and self-contentment. Fitting fodder for the pseudo-ads and aforementioned visual puns that started emerging from my sketchbook—some of them reproduced here in their rawest form.

The Evils of Consumerism: One Cup is Not Enough

On a more technical note, I wanted to experiment with two-tone graphics—usually letting the second color highlight the emotional or conceptual aspects of each piece, while playing with the visual balance of the colors (and I certainly think of black as a color) on the page.

The Evils of Consumerism: Your Bag Is Hungry

Another interesting but enticing challenge was to find ways to add visual variety and expression with that limited palette, and that’s where mark-making and texturing became essential ingredients in each drawing.

The Evils of Consumerism: Take It For a Stroll

Making these images also reminded me of an important lesson that’s surely old hat to many seasoned creatives: let your work breathe and grow without trying to control its direction too much. The more you play and listen to your intuition, the more the outcome will surprise you.

As of this writing, I’m not sure whether there will be more pieces added to this series, but—as a whole—I consider them a breakthrough of sorts. They allowed my “funny bone” to resurface, and hinted at other directions to pursue.

Holler, Won’t You Please Sir?

Illustrations, Reader's Digest UK

Sometimes the simplest of ideas drive through some bumpy roads before emerging triumphantly. Other times, whatever comes out of the tunnel bears only a vague resemblance to the original scribble in your sketchbook—which can be a drag or a boost, depending on your intentions. A bit of both happened with this particular assignment.

This illustration is appearing in the January issue of Reader’s Digest UK, due in newsstands across the pond sometime this month (still not sure if it’s available here in the US or elsewhere). The article it accompanies delves into British news media’s current preference for the viewpoints of non-experts on any given topic, and questions how this focus could influence the way we perceive information.

I had the pleasure of working once again with the Digest‘s design director Martin Colyer, who vastly improved my original idea by suggesting that the opinionated fellow in the drawing should grow angrier with each speech balloon. Initial (admittedly undercooked) sketch posted below…

The article reawakened the cartoonist in me. This proved to be a golden opportunity to have fun with characterization (as seen in the finished piece): enriching the idea with descriptive visual details about the “leading man”, while being careful to not overpower the image with superfluous information. It was tempting to render the whole thing with pen & ink and lush watercolors, but I realized right away that such a direct, catchy pun demanded a more, um… full-throated approach.

And so, Photoshop came to the rescue to put it all together: I drew our spot-lit spokesman with wax crayon (a medium I’m scarcely comfortable with) to emphasize his gruff street-wise roots; rendering each increasing frown and widening mouth separately, then composing them together digitally. Textures and patterns such as the houndstooth print on his cap (“sampled” from one of my wife’s vintage dresses) and the table he leans on (an unused shelf from my bookcase that I placed directly into my scanner) were also collaged in via Photoshop to add some visual interest. Even though I’ve used Photoshop to compose images before, I’m very glad I went with my instincts, tried some new variations on the usual methods, and ultimately avoided going down some of the more familiar routes.

The image then went through some minor aesthetic revisions, mostly to avoid dropping our flustered hero into the unavoidable page gutter (the narrow space in the binding between two pages) over which the printed article would spread. Indirectly, this was probably the biggest challenge proposed by the assignment, and one I always look forward to: how to balance all pictorial elements in the composition and pack the required punch, while working with specific page layout and print format restraints.

It’s difficult to take chances with commissioned work when a deadline is looming, but once we settled on the right idea, the art director gave me carte blanche to try whatever I pleased, approach-wise. Many thanks to Martin for trusting me enough to get on with it, and to the somewhat unpredictable wonders of digital technology for giving me enough guts to temporarily forget that failure is always an option.

Even Ghouls Get the Blues

Design, Illustrations

Care of Cell 44

Halloween aftermath/welcome to November: For the past two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with long-time friend Jesse Paris Smith and her fantastic New York-via-Michigan band Belle Ghoul. They specialize in spectral, lush, sugary pop, having recently released an EP of their own compositions through Elefant Records, as well as a smattering of singles, self-released tracks, and covers.

Jesse asked me to come up with artwork to accompany and promote their online-only/free-downloadable take on the Zombies classic Care of Cell 44—she said they were looking for a visual that was “sweet but spooky”.  In case you’re not familiar with this little gem of 1960s British pop, Care of Cell 44 is written as a tender letter from a narrator who’s anxious to see his lover, after she’s completed an extended jail sentence for an unspecified crime.

Varoom! = Kaboom?

Comics, Varoom!

Photo: courtesy of Martin Colyer.

Photo: courtesy of Martin Colyer.

I’m thrilled to announce that the self-initiated comics adaptation of Kafka’s A Fratricide that I worked on earlier this year has found a happy home in the pages of Varoom!, a magazine devoted to contemporary illustration published by the Association of Illustrators (AOI) in the UK. It came out this past June in issue #22, dedicated to experimentation.

Not only they’ve published the eight-page comic in its entirety, I also got to fill out a fun behind-the-scenes questionnaire. Just got hold of my copy of the magazine, so here’s the article’s text in its entirety. Many thanks to Martin Colyer for the kind words and for making this happen.

The Future’s Past, By Way of Modern Irish Fables

Design, Illustrations, Open Road Media

These are some of the cover designs I worked on recently for a series of science fiction novels by Irish author Ian McDonald. These novels have just being released today, in e-book form, from Open Road Integrated Media (for whom I also did other cover designs, blogged here a few weeks ago).

Cover art & design for science-fiction/fantasy e-novel published by Open Road Media. Art director: Andrea C. Uva.

Most of these books appeared originally in printed form sometime between the late ’80s and early ’90s. Going by the detailed briefs the art director sent me, I got the sense that these are imaginative, unsettling novels with layered narratives that deal with political and moral issues; as much as they are time-warped fables populated by improbable, somewhat tormented characters.

Swords & Sorcery, Screens & Pixel Logic

Design, Illustrations, Open Road Media

Cover art & design for science-fiction/fantasy e-book published by Open Road Media. Art director: Andrea C. Uva.

A few months ago, I was contacted by Open Road Integrated Media—a New York-based digital publisher and multimedia content company—to design and illustrate some covers for e-books by two well-established fantasy and science fiction authors.

Four of these books, which were originally published in printed form in the 1980s, were written by Jane Yolen; a prolific wordsmith with scores of eclectic  narratives and multiple accolades to her credit, including the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, as well as the Caldecott Medal.

It was a refreshing challenge to work on these covers, since I knew very little about science fiction and fantasy before this assignment came along. Being an avid comics reader while I was growing up, I became familiar with the work of some esteemed illustrators of the sword & sorcery genre like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, and I even had some exposure to the spaceships and Martians of Frank Kelly Freas (who I knew through his terrific covers and ad parodies for some 1960s issues of MAD Magazine that my dad had). However, these fleeting acquaintances came only through the casual overlapping of these artists with the world of word bubbles and leaping superheroes.