THE NEW YORKER cover artist, Peter de Seve.
For years I’ve chosen books by their covers and read picture books over and over to my children because I enjoy them as much as they do. And all this time, I noticed the author’s name but not the illustrator’s.
More recently, as friends have had books published, I’ve listened to their joy and disappointment when they see the cover art that’s been selected. Again, I paid attention to the author and not the illustrator.
Then along comes a friend (I’ll introduce him later in the week), who talked to me about the process of designing a book cover and my eyes were opened to this whole other world. So today, I’m delighted to kick off my weeklong focus on illustrators who will discuss the process of drawing and collaborating, the career breaks that changed their lives, the choices they make between well-paying commercial work and the kind of art they’d create even if it never sold a penny.
My first interview is with a man whose art I’ve known for years and years but whose name – shame on me! – I never bothered to learn until recently. Like many writers, the moment I get The New Yorker in the mail, I take a long look at the cover and then rush to the table of contents to see who wrote the fiction piece.
But who has drawn those New Yorker covers for the past 13 years?
Meet Peter de Seve, an incredibly likable and generous man, who – besides creating magazine and book covers and Broadway posters and characters for movies like Ice Age, A Bug’s Life, Treasure Planet, and Finding Nemo – still makes time for my little blog!
Let’s start with the NYer. When did you design your first cover for them, and how did that job come about?
Incredibly to me, it was in 1993! I had done a few drawings for Chris Curry, the Art Director for the interior pages of the magazine. Francoise Mouly, the cover editor, contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in pitching designs for covers. I had always daydreamed about doing covers for the NYER but never imagined I’d get the chance.
I don’t usually go looking for an idea but I felt that this time I needed to go out and actually find one. I decided I would go to Coney Island. It had just the combination of character and atmosphere that I’m drawn to. My wife Randall and I went for a stroll down the boardwalk and it really is a creepy place. There’s something really depressing about old and chipped painted signage depicting cartoon kids of a different era eating hotdogs and ice cream.
Anyway, there we were, looking for a New Yorker cover, when Randall pointed to a rather rotund man selling balloons and said something like, “Hey, that guy looks just like one of his balloons.” And I said, “yeah, that’s cool, but we need an idea!” Well, of course that ended up being the concept for my first cover.
Can you describe the process of designing a NYer cover – do you have free reign? Do you have to pitch ideas to anyone? And please describe how you get an idea, how many drafts, and how long it takes to have a final product.
The process is unlike working for most, if not all of the mainstream magazines being published today. Essentially, Francoise is ready to look at any ideas I think are worth pitching. They can range from seasonal ideas to specific holidays, from the absurd to serious social commentary.
There are some rare occasions where she will call and ask me an artist to tackle something specific. For instance, during the first Bush/Gore race, ballots were still being counted in Florida and the outcome of the election was still anybody’s guess. Apparently, Francoise had commissioned a few covers but for some reason they hadn’t solved the problem. I never saw them, but my guess was that perhaps they were too decisive in one way or another and the only real solution was to be ambiguous.
The result for me was a drawing called “By a Nose”. It was a drawing of a donkey crossing the finish line ahead, but maybe not, of an elephants’ trunk. I had less than twenty-four hours from the phone call to the finish. It’s one of my favorite drawings. It has a spontaneous quality to the line that only pure terror can produce.
Generally, the process goes like this: I think of an idea, and email it to Francoise. I never title it or send an explanation. If, Even in this rough form, it doesn’t communicate the idea and requires explanation, it’s a failure.
Occasionally, Francoise will make a suggestion on how to improve it and that’s where the ballet begins. We both try to make our points understood without rankling the other. It has, more than once, ended in a stalemate.
Doing a cover is like telling a joke, one has his own style of delivery and a suggestion from another person doesn’t always translate. To her credit, though, I have to admit, Francoise has convinced me a couple of times to alter a drawing to its benefit. That’s why I always, at the very least, try to consider her suggestion.
If you want to say, I’m dying to know what you get paid per cover and what kinds of rights you give up.
I’d rather not say exactly what I’m paid for a cover but I will tell you that it is pretty well above the average in the magazine world. As for reproduction rights, the image is mine, minus the NYER logo and I must agree not to republish it within a year of it’s running on their cover.
I know you do plenty of other work – animation, book covers. Can you tell my readers about some of the other art you’ve created?
Over the years I’ve done drawings for book covers, including a fun series called The Enchanted Chronicles which was a very clever young adult series that took a wry look at the world of fairy tales. It was just right for me and allowed me to indulge my love of that genre without taking it too seriously.
I’ve created a few posters for Broadway shows, which were thrilling to do. It’s pretty wild to drive through Time Square and see a drawing that you’d done a few weeks before, plastered onto the side of a building, three stories high.
I worked in the trenches for twenty years doing editorial illustrations for countless magazines, including Forbes, Newsweek, Business Week and The New York Times. It was pretty demanding and required turning around two or three pieces a week at times. All of which was fabulous training but ultimately exhausting. Somewhere around 1995 I got a call from Walt Disney Feature animation, inviting me to help with the character design for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and although the drawings went largely ignored, it began my career as a character designer on feature films, which continues to this day.
The invitation came at a perfect time for me, when I was starting to feel a little burned out by the editorial grind. It was a chance to let my sketches do the talking for once and have them be the final work. I always felt that, like most artists I know, that my sketches were some of my best work. To be honest, though, character design has been a little bit of a deal with the devil and has taken my energies away from creating finished work, which I recognize is ultimately what I need to get back to.
Speaking of character design. I just designed some for a Dodge car commercial involving a focus group of unspeakably cute characters and their reaction to a car that is designed to be “Anything but Cute”. I did this through Hornet Inc. who represent me for commercial work and it was animated by Framestore, a brilliant animation house in Soho, NY. The commercial started running the second week of June 06.
Where were you trained? And what’s the most helpful thing you were taught?
I went to Parsons school of Design and to say I was “trained” would be a little inaccurate. At that period in time, 1976-80, the philosophy at Parsons was to let the student discover things by himself, without being spoon fed techniques. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded a little spoon-feeding. Most of what I learned technically I taught myself or learned from other students. In fact, I would say that the greatest thing about art school was the introduction to other young artists, each with a different point of view. It was from the other students that I learned the most.
Describe the difference (in satisfaction, pay, etc) between the art you do that is commissioned versus the art you feel compelled to do regardless of knowing if it will sell.
Here is my guilty secret: The work I am commissioned to do, is my art. When I am given a job, I bring everything I can to it and when I’m done, I just want to relax. I wish I were one of those driven people compelled to create, no matter what. I’m a pretty lazy guy when all is said and done.
I do enjoy sketching and have published a little book of those doodles (Editions Paquet) and am working on another.
While I’m on the subject, I should also mention another project that I’m a part of; A beautifully produced little anthology of comics by 10 of the visual development guys at Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Robots). They were kind enough to invite me to throw in with them and I produced a minor little four page story called The Mermaid. The book is called OOP (Out of Picture) and is again published by Editions Paquet.
You’ve received a number of awards. Which ones have meant the most to you?
I would say that The Hamilton King award remains the one of which I’m most proud. It’s given by the Society of Illustrators for the best piece in show by a member. Did I do the best piece in the show? Of course not, but I see the award as a recognition for being around for a while and still being worth a nod.
What do you consider your breakthrough job? How did you land that job, and what kinds of doors did it open for you?
I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what were breakthrough jobs for me. My career has evolved in a very gradual and organic way. From tiny jobs, to medium to great and wonderful.
Who are some of your favorite writers and illustrators?
I won’t presume to recommend writers but will stick to what I know. There were a whole cadre of artists that had a huge impact on me. It included Wally Wood, Graham Ingles, Jack Davis and of course Frank Frazetta. These were the EC comic artists from the 50’s. Their work appeared before my time but I discovered them through some of their artistic descendants; Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones and other comic artists who were in their prime during the 70’s when I was growing up. Collectively all of these guys made a huge impression on me. All of them were great draughtsman but with a love of humor and darkness, in equal measure.
Beyond them I’ve been influenced by and copied an endless stream of artists. Here’s a fraction of the list: Lautrec, Daumier, Kley, Frost, Dulac, Rowlandson, Doyle, Tenniel, Sorel, and well, tons more.
One other major influence I always forget to mention, but more and more recognize as having been defining, were the Chuck Jones cartoons. Especially Bugs Bunny. Now he was a great character.
I also love illustrated books, and years ago rationalized the purchase of any book that gave me any artistic nourishment. As a result, I’ve got a pretty good book collection. I’ve also applied the same rationale to purchases of original artwork, which of course has been severely limited by my budget.
The good news for me though, has been that I love the art of the sketch. I love to see how an artist thinks and to see his mistakes on the page. The half-erased drawings underneath the ink tell me volumes more about the artist than any of his finished work could. And lucky for me, sketches are cheaper than paintings!
Share 3 pieces of advice for anyone interested in this field.
1. Figure out what you love to draw and what you want to say, then find a way to do it in a way that also serves the illustrators raison d’etre: to communicate.
2. Never stop observing, even when you don’t have a pencil in your hand.
3. Do what I’ve never done enough of: EXPERIMENT! You’ve got nothing to lose!!
Thank you, Peter!
And to the rest of my readers, take a moment to notice who illustrated the book or magazine you’re currently reading. Maybe look up what other work they’ve done.