How I Got Here: Brian Rea

Modern Love illustrator Brian Rea recounts a childhood filled with stories, shares the struggles of embracing his style and tells CR why words have gained a new importance for him later in his career

CR readers will probably recognise Brian Rea’s work from the New York Times’ ongoing, and enormously popular, Modern Love series, which explores the joys and sorrows of dating and relationships. Rea has been illustrating the column for over a decade, using his colourful, line-drawn style to bring the essence of the stories to life.

Over the course of his career, the LA-based artist – who was previously art director for the paper’s Opinion section – has contributed illustrations to magazines, book covers, murals and, most recently, turned them into animations. He’s also written and illustrated two books, one of which – Death Wins a Goldfish – was recently optioned for TV.

Here he tells CR how a childhood spent in New England honed his skills as a storyteller, shares his experience of a disastrous first week in New York, and talks about how words, and narratives, are becoming a new focus for his creative practice.

A family of storytellers I grew up on the East Coast of the United States in New England, in a really lovely part of the world. It was obviously cold in the winter, so you spent a lot of time indoors and I grew up in a really big family that weren’t artists necessarily, but were great storytellers. They were constantly telling these wonderful tales for me that kept me thinking and my imagination going. I didn’t necessarily become a storyteller in that way. I think I gravitated towards drawing because it was the other thing I did to pass the time when it was cold and you were stuck indoors.

The magic of drawing My grandfather was the only one who I could say was creative visually. He was a stonemason, and built stone walls and brick walls in people’s homes, but had this lovely sketchbook that I remember seeing when I was really young – and it absolutely blew my mind. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. He was very private about it, and rarely, if ever, showed anyone. This was way before I really took an interest in art, but this thing was like a magical treasure chest. He’d open it up and reveal all these wonderful little drawings he’d done – mostly recreations of what he’d seen in adverts in the 30s or 40s. It was so magical he could recreate that, and I started to attempt to do some of that on my own. That was probably the earliest version of me engaging with drawing.

First time in the big city I went to Maryland Institute College of Art, located in Baltimore, Maryland. I picked the school that was farthest away from home that I got accepted to … I felt I had outgrown where I grew up, and knew that I needed to step away from it. I was concerned that if I went to a school that was close to home, I’d continue to go home each weekend and I wouldn’t be dedicating myself to it. It was a pretty big shift, living in a city for the first time. Going to a city was super foreign to me, so that was a big shift. Baltimore was a pretty challenging city to live in at that time, with quite a bit of crime, so that was eye-opening on that level, and also eye-opening in that I was suddenly amongst other amazingly talented artists.

A big fish in a small pond Most of my high school work was in drawing, and I chose that school because it had a really strong painting programme. I wanted to learn how to paint, and a bit more about fine art. I struggled the first year or two, trying to figure out where I existed in that universe and understanding it. I felt like I was trying to get up to speed with the other students. I felt like I was maybe behind. Even though I had great drawing ability, all the students at art school have great drawing ability and I felt like I was missing an extra gear. You’re the big fish in the small pond – the best of your class in high school – and you get [to university] and it’s all the best of the best and you realise you have some work to do. There’s a moment where you have two options: you can fold-up shop and go home, or wrestle with it, struggle through it and figure it out. I have two brothers and we were all quite close and competitive growing up, and some of that, and some support from home, helped get me through that.

Illustration from Rea’s newest book Death Wins a Goldfish, published by Chronicle Books

“This is it” Drawing was the thing that I loved, but I was pushing in all these other directions. Through college I explored collage, I was taking a lot of painting courses … and this one painting teacher introduced me to a number of artists and illustrators in New York. I was invited by a few of them to come up to New York and show them my portfolio, and they really opened the doors to what could be done as an artist/illustrator – someone who could straddle both of those worlds comfortably. I went to meet them in their loft studio and home in Soho, and I was just like, ‘This is it. This is the most amazing. I want to be these people’.

I was so impressed and inspired and motivated after that … it just opened my eyes to what was possible. The lifestyle and what’s possible as an artist who can not only have exhibitions but also work as an illustrator. I took that back to college the next week and they were like, ‘You gotta pick one’. I was convinced the other path is the path I want to go on. I don’t want to do just one thing. These people were able to pull that off in this amazing, exciting city and I was like, ‘That’s the place I’m going as soon as I graduate.’

A disastrous first experience of New York I went straight to New York, and it was a disaster. I went to visit art directors, and all of them said no thank you. I thought I was going to meet with them in person, we’d talk about art, life, all of these things … and instead I was dropping my portfolio off in the mailroom in the basement of Conde Nast. And you’d get your portfolio back and it’d be all torn about, the promo cards weren’t taken, and there wasn’t even a note in there. I did that for two weeks. I was staying at the McBurney YMCA, which was part gymnasium, part youth hostel, part drug-shooting gallery.

It was a really sketchy place to stay overnight for someone who had only been to New York once or twice. But it was exciting. You felt like a professional. You’d wake up in the morning, get your portfolio under one arm and everyone would say goodbye to you on the doorstep. You’d go off, have a terrible, disastrous portfolio meeting – if there were any – and then you’d come home, go up to your room and cry for a little bit. It was a tough first visit, but what was cool about the experience was I kept a journal of my time of all the meetings I took, and all the things people said. I re-read that recently and it was so strange. It was this blind optimism. I was convinced someone was going to say yes, and everybody said no.

Being awesome
Los Angeles Metroline mural

Back to Baltimore On the very last day in New York I got a call from a business magazine, and I was like ‘oh, that’s it’. It’s funny, all it takes is just one, and that was enough to keep me going. I didn’t stay in New York, I ended up moving back down to Baltimore. It was very inexpensive to live there at the time, and for the next three and a half years I just worked on my work. I didn’t have a plan B. This is what I was hoping to do, so I continued working in Baltimore and developing my craft and reaching out to publications.

Each week I’d send out promo material and try and get more jobs so I could do this on a consistent basis. I didn’t have a style that was going to lead to any big commission. The kind of illustration work I was focused on was primarily editorial. There was a lot of editorial work at the time. I managed to get hold of a list of art directors and reached out to all those. I was doing stray work but I was just scratching by. I was just barely able to make a living, and because I was in Baltimore that was possible. If I was in New York it wouldn’t have been possible, because it’s so expensive and continues to be. But Baltimore allowed me to devote my time to working on illustration. I didn’t have to pick up a part-time job. I wasn’t working in a coffee shop. It was this, and it was sink or swim. Each day I wasn’t working on any commission – I’d get a job every couple of weeks – I was working on the other side of it.

Photograph by Tony Pinto

The style switch I got to a place where I was evaluating my work, and outgrowing what I was doing. During the day I was making mixed-media collage, part-painting, part-drawing, and at nights and weekends I was doing sketchbook drawings of my neighbourhood and the people that lived in it. I lived in this quirky, John Waters-esque neighbourhood in Baltimore, full of incredible characters. I was doing all these crazy drawings and I shared some with art directors I trusted and respected, and they were like ‘this is you, this your work, why aren’t you doing more of this?’ I was sensing that already, and I decided to make a proper switch from this mixed media collage work. It was getting me work, but it was illustrating stories I had no interest in illustrating – things about modems and desktop publishing and that kind of thing.

I wanted to be telling more narrative and emotional-based stories, and the drawing was the thing I was hoping was going to get me there. The big challenge was at the time no-one was doing work like that within the illustration community, and I wasn’t able to see a path to it. So it was like standing out on the ledge, and either I jump into it fully and give it a go, or continue to do work that’s keeping me afloat but not really satisfying my heart.

That’s a tricky place to be. When you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, you have to commit to a trust in it. I took the jump and eventually weaned myself off doing the collage-based work and devoted myself fully to drawing. It was probably the best decision I’d made up until that point. At that point I knew I was ready to go back to New York.

Beauty
Islands

Turning lists into artwork I’ve become a bit of an obsessive list-maker over the last 10-15 years of my life. Although I don’t write in a journal, I write these lists of different episodes and things in my life. Instead of writing five pages of what I did that day, it’s a single page that’s just individual words related to a dinner party, or the presidential election night. These lists have developed into a method of working on some of the personal work I do.

It started back when I was in my final days of New York, before I left and moved to California. I had this crazy sense of a white noise of anxiety in my life, where I was feeling anxious and couldn’t quite figure it out. I started keeping a list of all the things that were making me anxious and nervous, like a mind-mapping of feelings and emotions. That list ended up becoming a reference point for a lot of other work. I did a mural based on it in Barcelona, and I’ve gone on to do paintings based on happiness, love, beauty and anger, and all these other topics. For me it’s a different way of telling a story.

From illustrator to author My great friend Christoph Niemann was talking about how many good years he has left, high level years to produce … and it got me to thinking about what I have to do to keep the lights on and pay my bills, but what stories am I telling? Is it the stories I want to be telling at this point? That led me to start exploring books, not only through pictures, but that incorporate my writing. With the pandemic all of us as creative people have taken a step back, and paused life, whether we want to or not. I’ve used this opportunity to write a lot more.

I’m not incorporating drawings, I’m just writing stories, and some of them are a page long, some are fully fleshed out ideas. I don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day, but like any creative person I wake up and go to sleep thinking of ideas. I don’t believe in creative blocks. For me they don’t exist because I’m always thinking about stories – whether that’s observing things, looking at how I might draw something, or the way the light comes in the window. Or you see a funny episode in the street, or a moment you’re captivated by, and jot it down. I’ve probably gathered maybe 30 or 40 different ideas at this point, and honestly maybe ten will see the light of day. But the fact I got them down … the weight of having ideas in my heart and head for weeks on end drives me crazy.

A going away gift for Nicholas Blechmann, former art director of the NY Times

The toughest advice The most honest, but probably most difficult advice to follow, is staying 100% true to your interests and passions as an artist. That’s a scary thing. I’m a good example because I was nervous to shift back to drawing, because I didn’t see a path. If a student is nervous about doing funny, simple drawings of their home country, or their interest in unicorns and sad puppy dogs, I say, ‘Look, if that’s your thing you have to follow that, because it’s only going to lead to more work doing the thing you love’.

Often I see the mistake in students that are struggling to find their style. They look around the room in a classroom, see someone next to them doing this wonderful style, but it’s not theirs. It’s like starting a marathon. You’ve trained your whole life to run it, and you run 25 miles and then stand on the sideline and hand out water to the other runners. You never finish the race. I would tell students that you have to follow your own personal stories, because those are the stories people will be most interested in. I know that advice comes from a place of having all this experience, and it’s hard to say to a student, because in reality they have to pay bills, and rent, and survive. I was in that exact same spot, doing a style I didn’t necessarily love, but generating work and keeping the lights on. You have to wrestle with that. It’s the hardest advice, but the truest advice.

It all comes back around My parents have been going through and cleaning out the old bedroom and closets. I asked my nephew if he could help me archive some of the old drawings … and we’ve been going through drawings from college and summer programmes, and way, way back, all the way to high school and even before that. He found a great collection of some of my earliest drawings and a lot of them combined words and pictures in a way I’m doing quite a bit of now. There was one particular drawing I did of an annotated RV. My family travelled a lot when we were younger, most of it by car or van, and we’d go to Florida or on trips to New England and go camping. I remember doing this drawing years ago and thinking, ‘What can I put in this that would be all the things I could ever want’. It became a time capsule of all the things I thought were cool when I was nine or ten. There’s an Atari console, extra blankets, a tent, some soccer equipment.

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I was looking at the drawing and thinking that I did a drawing like that four years ago, but the adult version is called the survival vehicle. I realised they were one and the same, even though they were speaking about very different things. The one I did four years ago was more detailed and more based on anxiety and panic about the world. But they came from the same place, combining words and imagery to tell a story. I was floored by that. You are who you are, and you may not fully realise that when you’re ten years old, but you go on this crazy, circuitous route of study, observing and exploring all these new artistic styles and ways of telling stories. But eventually you get back to where you were, and who you truly are.

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Milton Keynes