From Nagel to Niemann

From Nagel to Niemann

I recently visited the National Portrait Gallery in London which got me thinking about editorial portraits. In magazine design, more often than not, photography is the star of the show. But there are more great illustrators today than ever before, and I will always have a special respect for artists who can take an image like a basic portrait and transform it into something uniquely their own---through drawing. Maybe it's a side-effect of my own unrealized dreams of becoming a really cool, famous painter. But for now, I'll settle for being cool by association.

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I bought Nagel: The Art of Patrick Nagel when I was 14 years old. Nagel, who died unexpectedly in 1984 at the young age of 38, has probably influenced me more than any other contemporary American artist. I had a framed Patrick Nagel poster over my bed in 8th grade, and my first junior-high crush was a girl I thought was the spitting image of Duran Duran's Rio. As a teenager I would try to copy his work, and his graphic style of illustration had a lasting influence on me throughout high school and into my first years of college. Many Nagel-inspired illustrations can be seen today on the sun-faded signs of 80s-era beauty shops---with unfortunately no shred of irony. And although I find this slightly depressing, any sight of his work brings back the memory of a fantastic time in my life. Drawing was new, exciting and sophisticated. I was good at it... or so I thought.

I found out much later, during my first year of college, that I couldn't really draw at all. I mean I couldn't draw "properly". My foundation year at art college included most instructors trying in vain to get me to draw people according to the status quo of commercial art at the time---like the drawings you'd see on the brochures in a doctor's office or at the DMV. I spent hours at night drawing heads over and over again, listening to the Cocteau Twins on my headphones and referencing Burne Hogarth's Drawing the Human Head. The night usually ended with me impaling the wall opposite to me with the closest X-Acto knife I could find. (One such incident involved attempting to draw the heads of the entire cast of Beverly Hills 90210.) The only ones in my class who could really draw "properly" were the guys who aspired to illustrate Heavy Metal magazine. (They were killer with an airbrush, too.)

Luckily, during my third year, my illustration instructors were a little younger and happy for me to emulate Francis Bacon, Modigliani and Egon Schiele. The more character and individuality my drawings had, the better. As long as I was consistent. 

In the end, focusing on graphic design was a better fit for me. To collaborate with so many amazing illustrators is one of the best aspects of being an art director, and I still get to enjoy the process from "behind the camera." Below is a small sample of current illustrators I really like, who have a varying and unique approach to portrait styles.

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  • kwcreative

    Particularly, insightful and thought provoking. Brings back a lot of the past for me, and inspires me to make more connects in today's illustration industry.

    I enjoyed this article as much as your last!

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