Catapult Artist On Art, Audience, and Activism: Brian Rea, Catapult Artist for October 2018
“If I see the sun come up once in a while, it makes me feel good, like I accomplished something no one else did.”
As part of our Catapult Artist program, Nicole Caputo, Catapult ’ s art director, sits with October’s #CatapultArtist for a conversation on art, creativity, and the artist’s life.
For our new Catapult Artist feature, we collaborate with incredibly talented artists, both emerging and established, to create beautiful and thought-provoking artwork for the magazine.
Brian Rea’s illustrations are not only stunning, but incredibly joyful and intelligent. His work has a simplicity to it, yet he is able to convey complex concepts with great sensitivity, warmth, and humor. For these reasons, I was overjoyed to choose him as our October Artist to help us launch this exciting new program at Catapult.
If you are not already familiar with Brian’s work, he creates editorial illustrations for numerous publications including the New York Times column Modern Love. He is also a fine artist and I cannot wait to get my hands on his upcoming book Death Wins A Goldfish ( @ deathwinsagoldfish ) , coming from Abrams this February. You can find more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram @freebrianrea .
Illustration by Brian Rea for Catapult, as featured in Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s “In The Harsh Climate of Wyoming, I Learned to Listen to My Body”
Nicole Caputo: What does your illustration process look like, from how you arrive at your ideas, the stages in between, to executing the finished piece?
Brian Rea: I like to read over an essay a few times before sketching. Helps me get a better understanding of what the writer is trying to convey tonally. “Is it serious? Is it humorous? How is a piece emotionally charged?” Making lists helps this process. I jot down ideas that are closer to my “voice” or things that are in line with the universe of drawing I tend to do.
Sometimes the work stays simply as words, other times it develops into more narrative drawings. I think about the key moments an author describes, what each event might “feel” like and I try to create images that capture these emotional moments. Things like joy, sadness, isolation, the way two people look at each other and the tension between them… If I can match that in my work, I feel like I’ve done my job. I never try and repeat what an author describes. Instead, I try to create a parallel story for the reader or viewer. Hopefully the people seeing my work (and the clients) enjoy this approach.
What are your favorite tools to work with?
Pencil, pen, ink and paper all the way. For some illustration work, I use Photoshop as a finishing tool, but everything always begins with drawing and painting.
Photograph courtesy of Brian Rea
How does your fine art practice inform or influence your more commercial illustration process?
I tend to move in and out of different types of projects at the studio. Some work is made for clients, some for collectors, some work that moves and other pieces that hang on a wall. All the work overlaps in varying ways and I think this keeps things fresh in the studio. I might discover something in a larger piece that I might explore in an illustration or something in an animated story might inform one of the paintings. It’s a big stew really with lots of flavors.
Illustration by Brian Rea for Catapult, as featured in Katie Rose Pryal’s “Finding a World Big Enough for My Twice-Exceptional Kids”
Do you have any thoughts about the importance of the role/responsibility of the illustrator/artist/designer in today’s turbulent times? What do you feel your responsibility is?
There have always been powerful illustration images, but nowadays we’ve seen an increase in that power. We share more, we see more, and we are exposed to more visual noise more often and more quickly than ever before. This visual power has helped candidates get elected (think of the Obama campaign’s “Hope” poster by artist Shepard Fairey) and it has inspired people to march (think of all the images you see at the Women’s March). This power, however, can spark intense debate as well. Sadly, at times, it has motivated groups to carry out some gruesome actions—the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris is a frightening example.
It’s on each image maker and designer to be responsible with this power, particularly with how each of us uses social media. These tools are megaphones when images are applied and posting recklessly without some basic consideration of the images’ impact would be like shouting out the window of your home each time you were upset by something. We’d never do it! Part of the issue is that these media tools are brand new—in comparison to society—and we as users of these tools are inexperienced with how best to utilize them. I’m including myself here too.
When used correctly, these tools offer all the power in the world to affect change. In the wrong hands, however, these tools only assist in creating more angry visual noise or clumsy reckless imagery. The end effect is the same as a screaming child’s tantrum or a bully in a playground mocking everyone they see.
I’m not interested in stoking fires to make them visually burn brighter. As frustrated as I can get about the news sometimes, the truth is I’m not that kind of artist. If I do anything politically, I’d much prefer to get viewers to emotionally “feel” the fire first. A good example of this approach is a series of call-to-action animations I worked on with the designer/illustrator Pablo Delcan we titled Election Anxiety . These were created in the run-up to the presidential election in 2016. So i f I can touch people emotionally, sometimes that can “burn” more, and maybe that affects some change in a viewer’s behavior or thinking.
Illustration by Brian Rea for Catapult, as featured in M. Leona Godin’s “Parting the Sea, and Why the White Cane is a Symbol of Power, Not Helplessness”
Did you always want to become an illustrator or was there a different path you took that lead you to here and if so, what did that path look like?
I come from a family of wonderful storytellers that inspired me, but drawing was the thing that came naturally. It only made sense to eventually find that place where those two skills intersected.
Do you have any advice for those interested in becoming illustrators and how they should go about sharing their work and receiving commissions?
Every artist requires different advice and has a different path to working as an illustrator, but here’s a good place to start: If being an illustrator is the thing you love more than anything else in the world, then wrap your life around this—what you read, what you do, your friends/family (or lovers), your spare time, your space, your home. Make being an artist your life’s work. Without compromise.
With all the tools capable of sharing our work, it’s a wonderful time to be an illustrator. I think the best approach is to be consistent; have a plan that best fits with the nature of the work you do. And don’t shy away from the business and promotion aspects of the job.
Photograph courtesy of Brian Rea
What does your day-to-day life look like living as an artist? What have the drawbacks been for you and what are the things you like most about this lifestyle?
Things are a bit different these days with a two-year-old at home. I tend to be up earlier for breakfast and a little nature time outside with the lil’ guy looking for lizards, hummingbirds. It fills me up with goodness. I tend to get to the studio by ten, later than I used to, but I’m more efficient while I’m there. The workdays vary depending on what ’ s on the schedule. Sometimes illustration and animation, sometimes painting. Other days, I do invoicing and estimates. I stay busy and mix it up to keep things fresh. I’m usually home by dinner, then I do more work once the lil’ guy goes down for the night. I love working late, when I can. If I see the sun come up once in a while, it makes me feel good, like I accomplished something no one else did. •
This interview has been edited for clarity.