Kyle Ellingson on how his personal work informs his editorial commissions

The illustrator has been commissioned by the New Yorker, Popular Science and others – here he talks us through his creative process and how he’s trying to build his confidence in his practice

Before becoming an illustrator, Brooklyn-based Kyle Ellingson wrote short stories and worked as a bookseller. It was after a colleague, who read graphic novels, introduced him to the work of Adrian Tomine, Rutu Modan and Moebius that his love for drawing and comics was ignited. “Stylistically I still feel grounded in that world, and enjoy remixing comic elements into my editorial work,” Ellingson tells CR.

Several of Ellingson’s relatives are artists and art professors so he grew up surrounded by art, while doing his undergrad degree in English and philosophy. When he decided to transition into illustration, Ellingson enrolled in the MFA in Illustration Practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Top: Illustration for New York magazine. Above: For BBC Science Focus magazine. All images: Kyle Ellingson

“There I found the time and headspace to complete a year-long project entitled Ellingson’s Dreams: Volume 1, a book of 100 large-scale surreal drawings that served as an initial statement, to myself, of how I wanted to draw as a freelancer,” he explains. “I’ve kept up this exploratory practice and am at work on Volume 2.”

Ellingson enjoys playing around with surreal elements, reshuffling compositions, distorting perspectives, and putting things in the ‘wrong’ place. “This often pulls me into drawing absurd interior spaces and human relationships, themes of how we succeed and fail in arranging our private lives,” he says. “I love editorial projects that feature people at odds with technology, ideology, systems – really any subject that invites a slight scrambling of reality. Also: robots.”

Life II – The Revenge of Life, Ellingson’s Dreams Volume 1
For New York Times Book Review

What he loves most is having the chance to explore and experiment with aesthetics. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of inked lines and bold colours, or of trying to work through the narratives in my life while also making something I think is beautiful,” he adds.

For most personal pieces, the illustrator keeps a few compositions percolating in the back of his mind and then when he has time it’s just a matter of choosing which idea channels his current mood best. “For editorial work, if time allows, I like to give myself a night before starting on sketches,” Ellingson says. “I seem to wake up with better ideas than I fell asleep with.”

Suburban Pencil, Ellingson’s Dreams Volume 2

Using a soft-leaded mechanical pencil for sketching, Ellingson says he tends to work towards a tight sketch before adding any colour. “I scan my inks into Photoshop adding colour and texture digitally. I find this blend of digital and traditional methods to have a nice momentum,” he says.

“I get all the charms of working at a drafting table (freedom of posture, lamp or window light, the smell of art supplies) while colouring in a way that’s fast, highly editable, and relatively cheap. In my texture work, I enjoy using noise and lightening layers to turn my dark values grey or bluish, before adding faint dot or line patterns to liven up my flatter expanses of colour.”

For Standart magazine

Ellingson’s clean sharp lines combined with his dreamlike ideas have led him to build a long list of editorial commissions for the likes of NYT Book Review, the New Yorker, Popular Science, BBC Science Focus and the Hollywood Reporter. “I love the unpredictability of editorial work,” he says. “The moment a new job comes in, it sort of gives birth to my schedule – what I’ll be thinking about, what I’ll be drawing, what challenges I’ll encounter.”

To help his editorial work Ellingson has been trying to slow down the brainstorming process for these projects in order to give himself more freedom to make the concept slightly more personal and create work he’s proud of.

Roommates, Ellingson’s Dreams Volume 2

“I get shy sometimes and second-guess concepts that strike me as far-fetched or unprofessional, even though they might make me happy,” says Ellingson. “So it’s a challenge to try and submit these ideas, to let the art director have their say instead of rejecting a number of my own ideas personally, in advance.” 

To help further enrich his commissioned work, Ellingson feels it’s important to nurture his personal practice as well. “I pin up certain pieces of personal work as guidance when I’m doing editorial assignments,” he explains. “It took me a while to relax enough during breaks in editorial work to really enjoy dipping into my personal practice, but I’m learning to seize those moments when they come.”