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Interview: Raymond Biesinger, Illustrator

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger. Print your own newspaper portfolio.

While studying to be a historian, Canadian artist Raymond Biesinger fell into illustration through his university newspaper. "They needed comic strips far more than they needed another arts writer," he tells us. He hasn't stopped drawing for newspapers since, and his witty, detail-oriented style is regularly commissioned by the likes of The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Washington Post.

It is fitting then that Biesinger was chosen to illustrate the cover of Newspaper Design, a new book published by Gestalten showcasing the best editorial design in the news context. He's also printed several newspapers of his own with Newspaper Club, including a series of "paper LPs" for his band, the Famines. "You could call it our response to vinyl being gentrified by a few million bands more popular than us," he says.

Below, Biesinger tells us about his research-driven illustration process and why his biggest inspiration is the clock.

 

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

Raymond Biesinger for Lucky Peach, 2015. "This cutaway illustration shows the Washington State University-Mount Vernon Bread Lab, and it accompanied a 'Science Team 3000' article."

When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator, and how did you get to where you are now?

In university I first studied to be a historian, was seduced by journalism at the student newspaper, and then was stolen by that newspaper’s comics department—they needed editorial cartoons and comic strips far more than they needed yet another arts writer.

When I was passed up for an editor position there, I sent a small collection of comics and house party invitations to all the big publications in Canada, and most of them hired me. Then The New York Times hired me and I was picked up by Monocle when it first started publishing, right when every art director in the world was excited by it.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

Spread from Biesinger's newsprint portfolio, printed as a digital broadsheet. "These are 36-point anatomy charts illustrated and researched in late 2013."

What does your workspace look like?

It’s a 240-square-foot room at home, with half of it occupied by myself, the other half by my assistant, Zinta. I do the creative things, she makes sure I don’t get headaches from all the practical things like pre-press, mailing print orders, bookkeeping, etc.

We’re surrounded by paintings, maps, prints and visual ephemera that slowly adjusts to new acquisitions. Also, there’s a giant blueprint file that’s threatening to collapse under the weight of its contents.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

 "You could call it our response to vinyl being gentrified by a few million bands more popular than us," Biesinger says of the decision to release "paper EPs" for his band, the Famines.

Do you carry a sketchbook with you?

I do not—sketching for me is a very practical step to producing a specific image, but it’s not something I need to have access to at all times. My sketches end up on large sheets of scrap, most of which are drawn while I’m lying on the floor. How’s that for eccentric?

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

Spread from Biesinger's newsprint portfolio, printed as a digital broadsheet, showing silkscreen and digital prints.

You recently designed the cover for Gestalten's new book, Newspaper Design. What was the process for that like? Did you go through several iterations before the final cover?

Gestalten and I have worked together a few times, and the origin of Newspaper Design actually goes back to an illustration of a woman popping music pills I made for a Swedish hospital magazine published back in 2014.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

Biesinger illustrated the cover for Gestalten's Newspaper Design, a new book showcasing " the best of editorial design in the news context."

Gestalten wanted this illustration for the cover of 2017’s Visual Journalism, and I gave it to them. They wanted Newspaper Design to have a companion illustration of a man reading a newspaper and enjoying a coffee, one drawn to match the woman. A few sketches and minor adjustments later, he was born. It was quite easy, since all the main aesthetic decisions were already made back in 2015.

What are some of your favourite examples of newspaper design in the book?

This may come as a shock, but I haven’t read it yet. Ha! It looks great, but I just haven’t had the time to give it the examination it deserves.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

Raymond Biesinger for FT Weekend, 2009. "This is one of my favourite FT Weekend illustrations, one that accompanied a column about the studies of physicist Cesar Hidalgo and development economist Ricardo Hausmann."

You've done editorial illustration for newspapers like The New York Times, Le Monde and The Financial Times. What's your process for translating an abstract idea into something visual?

I come from the “more information is better” school of thought, so I read the article thoroughly and research all the possible visual elements I could work with.

The first step is to build the possible visual vocabulary out of things I know I can draw and want to draw. Then I find a relationship between those things that runs in parallel to the article.

Usually I produce three roughs and suggest one is my favourite. The art director may or may not agree with that favourite, but I’m careful to only propose things I’d be comfortable drawing. The final is almost like a collage that doesn’t look like a collage – like found and made geometric pieces combined until they assume another identity.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

The Famines: The Complete Collected Singles, printed as a digital broadsheet. The illustration is "very loosely based on a revolver’s cylinder."

You've also printed some newspapers of your own – a portfolio and a series of  “paper EPs” for your band, the Famines. What do you like about the format?

It’s inexpensive, fast, large, and recyclable. It’s really a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material.

Can you tell us about a piece of work you’re most proud of from the past year?

Since January I’ve been drawing my way through the “lost buildings” of North America starting with Canada and now hitting the United States. These are notable and interesting buildings from the last 150 years that have been knocked down, burned down, or otherwise lost before their time. It’s required a tremendous amount of research and time, but it’s been worth it.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

For the past year, Biesinger has researched and drawn the "lost buildings" of Canada's nine largest cities.

Which 3 books should be required reading for anyone interested in illustration?

Three books that have nothing to do with illustration. Sometime the worst designers and illustrators have the best design and illustration libraries. Find inspiration other mediums, not just in other examples of what you’re trying to create.

Who are some of your favourite illustrators working today?

I actually keep my head down and don’t pay much attention to who else is doing what, but I always love Josh Holinaty, Lisa Czech and Jenn Kitagawa.

Interview with illustrator Raymond Biesinger, who designed the cover for Gestalten's recent Newspaper Design book and thinks newsprint is "a unique and practical way to make impressive printed material."

Spread from Biesinger's newsprint portfolio, printed as a digital broadsheet, showing work for The Washington Post and silkscreen prints.

Where do you turn for inspiration or to combat a creative block?

The clock. It reminds me that I do not have the option of creative block. Deadlines can’t wait.

What’s your advice for someone just starting a career in illustration?

When you’re first starting out, you may feel pressure to accept horrible working conditions for exposure. Don’t. Just do your own project on your own terms and push it as far as you can. It’s a much better way to get known and express yourself.

"Paper LPs" for the Famines, printed as digital broadsheets. The collages feature found patterns, photos and illustrations and were "constructed digitally in the stream-of-consciousness style."

"Paper LPs" for the Famines, printed as digital broadsheets. The collages feature found patterns, photos and illustrations and were "constructed digitally in the stream-of-consciousness style."

Can you tell us about something you're excited to be working on now?

New photocollage art for a new Famines “paper EP.” It’s just so easy and fast compared to my usual image-making.

And finally: Where’s your favourite place to read a newspaper?

The kitchen table. Every Saturday morning. I think we’re the only people in Canada under 60 with a Globe & Mail subscription. Ha!


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