Christoph Niemann is an illustrator, graphic designer, and author of several books including some children's books. After his studies in Germany, he moved to New York City in 1997. His work has appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine and American Illustration, and has won awards from AIGA, the Art Directors Club and American Illustration. Niemann is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. He has been a speaker at Design Indaba Conference twice, in 2006 and 2013. After 11 years in New York City, he moved to Berlin with his wife Lisa, and their sons, Arthur, Gustav and Fritz. Since July 2008, Niemann has been writing and illustrating the New York Times blog Abstract City, renamed Abstract Sunday in 2011, when the blog moved to The New York Times Magazine. In 2010, he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. In 2013, he launched his first interactive illustration at Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town, in the form of an iOS application called Petting Zoo by Christoph Niemann. On June 21, 2013, Google used two of his images to celebrate the 2013 summer and winter solstices as the Google Doodle of the day.
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Hello, it’s Christoph Niemann.
If you want to see some New Yorker covers,my column for the New York Times, animations and stories have a look at my website.
I was recently invited to contribute a story for “The Art of Saving a Life”, a terrific initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to highlight the importance of vaccination around the globe.
Very much looking forward to answering your questions!
Thank you everybody for joining in!
It's been a pleasure chatting!
Please remember to check out the Bill and Melinda Gates initiative "The Art of Saving a Life" here: http://artofsavingalife.com
And remember: Be nice to people, everybody is fighting a fight.
Has the unfortunate Charlie Hebdo attack changed your perceptions about working in this particular industry at all?
What a truly horrible and depressing event.
Worst of all so much more of it happens all the time, without that level of press and outrage.
Apart from having been utterly shocked and disgusted with the brutality and ideology of the attack, the most depressing realization I had was this:
Usually my art is fairly uncontroversial, so I'm in a safe place. But if for some reason, I had an idea that I think would be good and important, but for some reason I thought it could offend the wrong people, I may have very serious doubts about putting it out there.
I wish I could say with conviction that "je suis Charlie". But these guys were so incredibly brave and fearless in their fight for a freedom of expressing your opinion.
Are there any drawing exercises or routines that you recommend to develop the art skills?
That hasn't changed much since the 1200's I guess:
The human face.
The human body.
I've you've mastered those, you're good to go.
Just for the fun of it you can learn to draw cats and dogs (I still can't draw cats btw).
Oh: and iPhones. Somehow every other assignment I get requires drawing an iPhone these days.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to get into journalism/news illustration?
You have to be an avid reader (especially of the publications you want to work for). At some point you will feel: I would have done this or that differently. That's when you know you're ready to contact them and present what you do.
I'm awful at drawing. What should I do to get better?
The big question is how much you really and truly and desperately desire to be good at drawing. If so: just draw. As much as you can. And you'll find it's a surprisingly learnable skill (5% talent, 95% practice)
Did you have a mentor during education? who was it? why were they awesome?
I had a great teacher (Heinz Edelmann, of Yellow Submarine fame)
I was an amazing designer, and opened my eyes for a lot of art and literature that is still important to me that day.
But in terms of mentoring, I have to be very grateful to Paula Scher of Pentagram (I interned with her and she's just awesome), Steven Heller of the NY Times and Nicholas Blechman.
Why did you move back to Berlin?
When I moved to NY after graduating, it gave me an incredible boost of energy. Eventually I realized I want to change the way I work (more self generated stories, a wider range of outlets etc). This is a pretty big step, especially when you're busy and things are going well. I hoped that moving would shake everything up a bit and help me with that process (I think it did).
Oh: and they have great Schnitzel in Berlin!
Hi Christoph -
Do you have any advice for a jr illustrator to get his work in front of art directors (in larger cities)? I live in a small centre without much industry and am trying to get editorial work. Thank you!
Make a nice website and show that you're really as good as you claim (don't show you're 2 or 3 lucky shots). Show stuff that you think you could repeat under time pressure when the job actually comes.
find out the names of ADs from publications you really like. Address them by name. Tell them why you really want to work for THEM. Don't send PDFs or big attachments. Go on twitter and FB and Instagram and let the world know what you're capable of.
People want to create their passion and hobbies into careers, but are often discouraged from doing it to keep "play and work" separate.
What made you realize this is what you want to do for life? How did you stumble upon hour first opportunity to allow this career to start?
It's a pretty big step to become an artist.
If you creating art, you should create art.
But one shouldn't forget that in order to make a career in art you have to make art and you love AND that other people love.
People often think their own enthusiasm for their work will guarantee enthusiasm from others.
does the New Yorker tell you exactly what they want you to draw ?
Not at all. They specifically pick their artists for their ideas and creative vision. That doesn't mean that they just accept anything I do. There's always a LOT of back and forth.
Thanks for doing this, Christoph!
What are the books that you refer to over and over again?
What are some of your working routines/rituals?
Thank you for joining in!
Re. books, a VERY short list:
Doré, "History of Holy Russia"
Jeno Barczay, Anatomy for the Artist
The MoMA Catalogue "Drawing Now"
The most important working ritual: trying to draw things outside from assignments as often as possible (a quick portrait sketch, a landscape etc).
I think you need to keep revising the way you draw things — when you get too much routine it starts to look stale.
I love your work, Christoph! How do you come up with your creative works of art? Do you just wait until you accidentally bump into something or do you stare at it and almost "force" yourself to come up with a piece?
It's mostly staring at a blank piece of paper, so "force" is actually a pretty apt description. So much of it is routine, practice, and the desperate attempt not to be overwhelmed by creative anxiety.
And when you actually manage to come up with something decent, then you need another few hours to cover up the labor and make it look like you just doodled it in three minutes while nursing a glass of cold Sancerre.
If you have a few minutes:
I gave a talk a while back where elaborate on my creative process
How do you make such lovely drawings like this: https://twitter.com/abstractsunday/status/544108974120124416/photo/1 - do you paint the ink with a brush? Probably a very silly question, but I've never tried doing that and I love trying new art forms all the time.
Colored ink and brush (regular watercolor doesn't flow well enough).
I have to disclose something though: It often takes me hours and 15 to 20 drawings to make it look like I did it in the first attempt in 2 minutes.
What do you think the difference is between the US and German illustration market/community? And what would you like to see improved in either?
When I started out, they were completely different markets. I felt when you didn't live within 5 miles from Times Sq you couldn't get a job in New York (one of many reasons to move there).
In the last 5 years it has become one big world, and Art Directors and clients hire all through the world without caring much where you live, whether it's Berlin, Tel Aviv or Rio.
How many years did you study art for until you launched into your professional career?
I went to the Academy of fine arts in Stuttgart Germany from 1991 to 1997.
I had my first professional illustration job for Rolling Stone when I interned in NY in 1995. It was exhilarating (I didn't sleep for three nights after Fred Woodward called — I was so scared to mess it up). It worked out great, but I made sure not to seek more assignments at that point and instead focussed on my degree. In retrospect I think that was a smart move.
How did you get hired by the New Yorker? Was it through an art director or did you pitch your work to them?
I had been working for the inside pages for a few years before pitching cover ideas to Francoise Mouly (the art editor for the covers).
What do your sons think of the mass transit in Berlin? Also, what was your favorite recent piece or assignment?
Berlin is nice, but the mass transit doesn't live up to NY :)
I just did a crazy series of drawings: The band Kraftwerk performed in Berlin's New National Gallery (a great Mies van der Rohe building)
I took photos for a day outside the museum and during the concert, and then drew robots and type on top of them.
You can see a slide show here:
Who are the illustrators/artists that inspire you to follow this path? Are there any of them you're really envy about? And Why? :)
Envy is a pretty bad inspiration in any job I think :)
There are so many artists and illustrators I admire (Steinberg, Doré, Kalman, Ungerer). It's easy to get fooled by their brilliant work though: I read the Steinberg biography and learned that he was actually miserable most of the time. Maira Kalman is a genius, and from what I can tell she's rarely miserable, but I know that she has to fight for every good picture like any mere mortal would have to.
What are you doing with the Gates Foundation?
They started an initiative to promote vaccination by asking artists to present all different aspects of the topic through photography, drawing, video etc.
I was given a range of stories to pick from and chose the so called "Cold Chain". It's about the complexities of actually getting the vaccines into remote (and often hot) places around the world. This is a fascinating, but very complex and technical story.
I know however that these very dry topics actually lend them selves best for an intriguing visual solution.
Here's what I did (I explain the concept through animated GIFs):
You can see all the entries here
With which software do you mostly work ?
Illustrator, Photoshop, 2H Pencil
what inspires you?
Thank you that question!
Apart from books, movies, politics, the biggest inspiration is looking at art.
It's what has gotten me into my profession and what still makes it the coolest job on the planet (IMHO).
Hello Christoph, big fan of your art here. Please continue creating awesome stuff!
It is always said that the most important step for an artist of any kind is the moment when he/she gets to distinguish him-/herself, steps into the limelight and finally starts to attract the attention of high-profile venues and/or employers.
What do you think was your personal move or development that kickstarted your career? What was the moment when you realized you "made it"?
I remember riding the subway one day in NY and seeing 2 or 3 people reading the NYT Oped page, with my drawing right there. That was pretty incredible.
When you work in this field being a pro (delivering consistent quality, being nice and NEVER EVER missing a deadline) is more important than one big break through moment. Especially in the day of the WWW, you can have a million likes one day and be forgotten tomorrow.
How has your life turned out differently than you once imagined it might?
It's funny: in a way I spend my days doing EXACTLY what I did when I was 14 (minus drinking coffee). Every once in a while I have to pinch myself— it's pretty incredible to be able to make a living from doing what you love.
The one thing that's odd: I always thought that the creative insecurity would fade a bit. But even though I'm by now confident that I can finish a job in a professional manner, the doubts won't go away.
And at this point I believe (hope) that this is actually a good thing.
Why can't I win the New Yorker caption contest? I'm witty as fuck.
Ha, I wish I could give you a hint here. In the meantime: you might enjoy this page here: they always add the most literal and obvious caption, and it's actually pretty funny:
would it ever be possible to purchase some of your commercial work? i absolutely loved the cover you did for the October 12, 2014 The New York Times Magazine (the little girl flipping the fried egg). http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2014/10/12/magazine/12cover_type/12cover_type-sfSpan-v2.jpg
It;s always difficult to make good prints of these pieces (given the spot colors), but you can gladly email us at studio (at) christophniemann.com
your illustrations are wonderful. I should probably be able to tell from your drawings alone, but do you have a favorite medium?
Viele Grüße aus Berlin nach Berlin!
Ha, danke Dir!
I still thank the gods for Photoshop and illustrator. But when it comes down to it, I could happily live on an island with 200g medium grain, off white paper and a 2H pencil.
Any advice for someone who has recently migrated from the world of RGB (web graphics) to CMYK (print graphics)? I miss my vibrant, consistent colors! These ink density limits are killing me.
I know it's tough. When you stay away from blues and greens and focus on rich black, yellows and reds life is a bit more bearable.
Thanks for replying!
I hope I find great mentors and teachers during my design career!
Design and illustration are still relatively small fields. I found that the vast majority of designers are driven by passion for what they do, and are very willing to mentor when they see a young designer doing inspiring work.
Your work strikes a fine balance between humor and sensitivity- we love it! What do you suggest non-profits do to engage people- specifically Westerners- who might be apathetic to international development without undermining the issues?
I guess when it comes to anything important, we're all like 4 year olds. Saying something once, and being very reasonable may not be as successful as one would hope.
Even an important story has to be repeated, and if we want people to listen we have to find smart ways to get their attention. Being loud and shrill is not as powerful as it once was (too many Kim Kardashian stories in that department).
I think people are curious and interested, but it is important to constantly find new and intriguing ways to present important issues. In theory it should be enough to just point to the facts. But often story telling, humor, wit and a subjective artistic viewpoint may actually be a great way to open people's eyes. That's why I thing the "art of saving a life" initiative was such a smart new way to tackle an issue.
Can you tell us a story about your thinking process? Like how you came up with the idea and made something, maybe "Let it Dough!" http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/let-it-dough/ ?
It's a pretty tedious and twisted process.
At first I just collect random ideas on topic. More often than not, I realize that things dry up after 4 or 5. Good by idea.
Sometimes though, I feel that there's more and keep going. When I feel there are 15 good ones, I try to put them in order and see if there are good and surprising connections. It sounds terrifying but for a story of 25 pictures I usually need at least 75 ideas, and then weed out ruthlessly.
Hey Christoph! First off, thanks for doing this AMA. As a designer I often find myself looking for inspiration across the internet. I want to train myself to become a better thinker and to focus more on getting things done instead of just constantly seeking inspiration from artists like yourself.
What's the best way to strike a balance from inspiration seeking to actually making good work?
I think it's important to constantly look at all sorts of images and design.
But all good work only happens in the process. Once you start working, you start seeing connections that you could not have planned. And as you struggle to pouch an idea forward, all these little things you've seen will automatically flow into you're process. When I work on a job, I deliberately DON'T look for inspiration, but try to shut myself into my own world.
mac or pc for illustrations?
Frankly I've never heard of an illustrator working on a PC. That said: maybe they work just as well.
I couldn't waste a chance to thank you for the wonderful work you've done over the years. Lovely stuff. Simply lovely. So conceptually concise. Your sense of color needs to be heralded as well.
To follow the AMA rules, do you prefer margarine or butter?
But I fry my omelets in Olive oil.
and THANK YOU for the kind compliments