Chloe Cushman's eye-catching illustrations are filled with nuances
With just a few carefully applied brushstrokes and a modest palette, Chloe Cushman produces incredibly nuanced portraits that capture far more of the character of a subject than some of the most photorealistic artworks ever.
Whether Angela Merkel's sobering, reserved expression or the penetrating look of the author Fran Lebowitz, Cushman's talent for distilling the elements of a person's character is clear. The Toronto-based illustrator's instinct has already been commissioned by leading publications in the United States, including the New Yorker, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Cushman's choice of tones and her skilful application of texture result in a colorful yet thoughtful representation that creates endlessly fascinating illustrations that feel elaborate without fuss. Even in their more abstract creations, there is a sense of richness with minimal colors, as can be seen in their illustrations, which accompany reviews by Margaret Atwoods The Testaments and Ezra Klein's Why We’re Polarized.
In the following, she explains her love-hate relationship with portraits, the development of a “visual vocabulary” and the highlights of her career so far.
Above: Bodies in motion for the Atlantic. Here: Fran Lebowitz for the New Yorker. All Photos by Chloe CushmanIllustration for a New York play at MOMA's Judson Dance Exhibition
Creative Review: Were you creative at a young age?
Chloe Cushman: The arts were a big part of my childhood. None of my parents are visual artists, but their love of art in general, especially theater, has encouraged my creativity from the start. When I was growing up, my drawings were usually accompanied by writing. Most of the time there was a story that matched the pictures. I think unfortunately the idea of whether you are artistically "talented" or not is rooted very early, especially when drawing. I definitely learned at a young age that I could draw (as if someone couldn't) – but there is no substitute for discovering the joy of designing and getting lost in it.
CR: Can you tell us something about your training?
CC: I studied English literature and contemporary philosophy at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for my bachelor’s degree. I never thought of going to an art school – I was also in love with the idea of a traditional education in the liberal arts. I then studied illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. Before this program, I had no real idea what an illustration career was. The art school was important to gain an understanding of the profession and the industry, but I still consider my first degree as the basis for what I do now, especially for the editorial and conceptual work. For me, illustration is just as much about ideas and references, if not more than rendering. You need to build your visual vocabulary from something.
CR: Who or what do you think influenced your illustration style the most?
CC: The influences that had the greatest influence on my direction usually move between design and illustration, like the works of Milton Glaser, Saul Bass or Paula Scher. I have always been inspired by iconic poster art. It's more about mind than style, but Maira Kalman's work and career are a real inspiration when I think about what illustration can be. And of course Christoph Niemann not only for his work, but also for his insights into the creative process and the struggle. Outside of the industry, Kathe Kollwitz is a longstanding touchstone. My longest lasting influence is probably Matisse, since he was my favorite artist as a child and is still the one I'm looking for color inspiration for.
Cover for the New York Times Book Review, accompanied by Salman Rushdie's review of Namwali Serpell's debut novel The Old Drift
CR: What was your favorite project in your career?
CC: Illustrating the cover of the New York Times Book Review for the first time was a personal highlight. I have always loved the Sunday Times and especially the book department, so I was thrilled to be asked. The book was Namwali Serpell's debut novel The Old Drift, which was an embarrassment of image wealth, and the review was by Salman Rushdie (unprinted). But above all, Art Director Matt Dorfman is a pleasure and privilege to work with.
CR: Do you think there was a specific job or project that felt like your big break?
CC: The piece I illustrated for the New Yorker about tensions between Angela Merkel and Trump was a breakthrough for me. The task was a particularly tricky combination of portrait and concept illustration, and there were many agonizing roughs before the final. The simplicity of the image and the balance of substance and style that I achieved in the last illustration are what I always strive for in my work.
An ocean apart for the New Yorker
CR: What do you particularly like about portraits?
CC: I have a real love-hate relationship with portrait illustrations. Grasping a resemblance can be incredibly frustrating, but I love the riddle of getting to the essence of a particular face and how that appearance can reveal an element of a person's character. The real challenge is to grasp a similarity without displacing life from it. There is a big difference between a portrait that is accurate or realistic and a face that has life on the side. Also, I just can't refuse a good face. If you look at my portfolio, you can probably tell that I have a guy.
CR: The colors are often very striking in your work. Can you tell us how you design your pallets?
CC: I tend to stick to a limited palette in my illustrations. This was not a conscious decision at first, but over time I have found that it helps me to combine the intellectual and practical aspects of my process. Color is one of the most powerful tools you, as an illustrator, have to convey the concept and tone of a piece. A simplified palette forces you to make your color selection much more targeted. I like the graphic appeal of strong colors, but in the context of an illustration, I always try to deal with its effect in a targeted manner.
Illustration for a Washington Post book review on "Why We Are Polarized"
CR: What is the creative scene like in Toronto?
CC: This is a difficult question at the moment. I also grew up in Toronto so I never feel like I have an unbiased view of the city. The art scenes here are chronically underestimated, but it's still very difficult to say that they're compared to London or New York, especially for something as niche as illustration. When I visit New York, I definitely feel like the industry and the community for what I do there, as it is nowhere else. More than once I connected with other Toronto artists for the first time … while I was in New York. Everything is more diffuse here, so you have to make more effort to be part of this community – I know I will!
CR: What would be a dream story or brand that you could work on?
CC: Book covers and theater posters will always be dream projects for me. I'm also a fool for working in a series. I would like to do cover illustrations for a number of Shakespeare editions. Really everything with great source material and an excuse to read a lot before starting a project. Illustrating the New York short story would also be a dream task, especially if Zadie Smith had written it.
Illustration for a New York review of The Mirror and the Light, the last book in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogyJustice Kagan in the New YorkerTaking responsibility for Sunday New York Times sports in the NBA, part of the 1619 project to mark the 400th anniversary of the onset of American slaveryRachel Ingalls for the New Yorker
chloecushman.com; @ Chloecushman