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.

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes