Design Notes · · 20 min read

The Magic Question for Creativity: Laurie Rosenwald, Illustrator and Author

Illustrator and author Laurie Rosenwald on how to make mistakes on purpose and avoiding being alone with a blank page.

The Magic Question for Creativity: Laurie Rosenwald, Illustrator and Author

Liam speaks with illustrator, editorial designer, and author Laurie Rosenwald about how she’s managed to cultivate an aesthetic—and a career—around “making mistakes on purpose.” Learn how chaos and collage can come together to reveal unexpected creative potential, and let Rosenwald help make sure you’re never alone with a blank page.

Liam Spradlin: Laurie, welcome to Design Notes.

Laurie Rosenwald: Hello.

Liam: I wanna start off the interview the same way that always do, which is by asking, what brought you to your current work and how that kind of creative journey has influenced what you're making now.

Laurie: Well, my current work is my always work and it was really fun because... oh my goodness, what is your name again that I met this morning?

Phil Maniaci: Phil.

Laurie: Phil (laughs), sorry. Anyway, Phil asked me, um, "How long have you been in New York?" And I said since 1955, which is always fun answer to that question. So I've always, you know, I basically been painting and drawing since when most people start, when you're two or three years old. The thing is I never stopped. And I don't really draw much of a distinction between the commercial and the noncommercial or fine art and commercial art even though maybe I should. Uh, for me because I've always done painting, graphic design, illustration since I can remember.

And for me, it's a kind of a big mush and sometimes it's a commission, sometimes I get paid for it, sometimes I don't. And everyday I'm doing visual art of one kind or another, but I went to RISD when I got out. I wasn't really thinking about, oh, this is a career. I just never thought about it. I was always kept doing what I started with, drawing.

Liam: You said that you don't make a distinction between commercial art and fine art and that maybe you should, and I'm really interested in why you say that?

Laurie: Well, I been joking a little bit that, you know, commercial art makes a swell hobby because the fact is the last, uh, couple of years I been concentrating on doing books, which are not necessarily a fabulous way of making lots of money. I've spent a long career doing mostly editorial illustration and graphic design projects that I think what I do is compared to what most people do, much more all over the map and nonspecialize. So like one day, I'll be doing a type of graphic poster, then I'll be doing a portrait of Amy Winehouse, then I'll be doing an animation with David Sedaris, then I will be doing writing or doing a story telling event.

It's always been like that even when I was in school. I was in several departments at RISD and I've continued to do very varied things, but to me they all help each other and they all affect each other. Like, a lot of my paintings are of letter forms. So there's graphic design and painting me. Or I do portraits as an illustrator and I also do portraits as a painter. Or you know, hand lettering or whatever it is sort of feeds the other practice.

Liam: How do you decide which medium is right for the thing you're trying to make?

Laurie: Well, that kind of depends. It's a, sometimes I'll use a really unusual thing like I've spent a lot of time in Sweden and I wanted to have a friend film me while I was doing lettering and then put it on Instagram or something. And I wanted to do things that people could steal and maybe sign their emails with. Like for instance, I did one with ink that says, "You magnificent bastard," which I think is a great phrase. And I did it in ink and it's a little bit Ralph Steadmany if you know Ralph Steadman it's like very spiky and angry looking in a fun way.

And then I was looking for a squeeze bottle, I was in my friends apartment, uh, because I often draw with a squeeze bottle full of paint. And I make a very blobby line with that. Uh, sometimes they use fabric paint and the only thing I could find in their fridge was a bottle of sriracha. So I did all this lettering in sriracha a very angry, but I think funny. Like I did, you ma- you magnificent bastard in sriracha. And then I just wrote the word sriracha (laughs).

Liam: That reminds me, I saw you speak at the type directors club recently and one thing that stood out to me from the beginning of your talk was the example you gave of creating a bird out of paper scraps. And I'm wondering if you could describe that a little bit for the listeners.

Laurie: Yeah, well, I always show images of that particular story when I talk about my, my workshop. I also been teaching a workshop for many years called how to make mistakes on purpose. Because I found that I was, it came from my own insecurity and my own feelings of inadequacy because even though like I said, I been drawing all my life. Sometimes I would get especially as an illustrator a brief that I thought was silly. Like draw the 21st century mom. Like what does that look like?

So I would just start with a blob on a paper and it could be anything. So the blob turn into a detail of her dress or her hair or the background or a cloud or anything, but if I started with a white blank sheet of paper and really trying hard to envision what the art director was asking me to, that didn't help me. What did help me was a formal thing, which is having a blob or a mark of some kind on the paper and building from there. So that I was never alone with a white sheet of paper.

So another good thing about that is that in my opinion, a lot of things look alike because we've all been working with digital media for what? Since the '80s, including me and I'm not against digital anything. I use Photoshop and illustrator and all that stuff every single day. But I think if you only use digital media, it's a drawback because I think that let's say you're making a drawing and I'm making a drawing, if you're doing it in illustrator, you're both using illustrator program, they're gonna look more alike because illustrator wants to do certain kinds of perfect things.

But if we're drawing with shoe polish on a paper towel, they're gonna be more different and I think you need that kind of, uh, clash between the digital, you need to bring something handmade and organic and spontaneous and a surprise into the digital realm for it to be exciting at least for me. That's something I needed to do. So for instance, I was doing a children's book and I had to draw a picture of a canary. So, uh, like everybody on earth, I could go to Google images and get a billion canaries. Nothing against Google images, I also use that every day, like everybody does.

In this case I didn't want to do that. So what I did was I took some ripped black construction paper and ripped it into 10 or 12 pieces and then I took a digital picture of it and then I turned one of them into a canary by coloring it yellow and sticking a beak and some legs and the word canary in 800 point type. And it's a, it's a canary.

I like the power of the wrong thing. So none of those ripped papers looked like canaries, but I forced it and I think that because the virtue of doing it things that way is that it's surprising. So it's fun for me and it's also fun for the viewer because it's not gonna look like if I went to Google images and then looked at a canary picture and then drew it in illustrator. It's just not. It's gonna be different and I like different.

Liam: You mentioned earlier this idea of sitting down to a white page or a blank art board or something and then trying to put what the art director said onto the page with nothing, no blobs, nothing to go on. And I think a lot of people can probably relate to that feeling of like trying to sit down and turn on creativity.

Laurie: Exactly.

Liam: And I'm wondering how you get around that especially in settings where you might be on a deadline or when it's just more difficult.

Laurie: Well, it really has everything to do with the element of surprise and wanting to be surprised myself rather than going from A to B. It's more like finding things rather than starting from nothing and creating something from a void. So like I said, I would make a blob if I'm doing a drawing or even if I'm doing, you know, a poster, I could take for instance in my computer I have a zillion things that I've made by hand in black and white. And that's what we do in the workshop to is basically create chaos.

So I have all these different chaotic images sometimes they're washes or torn paper or different kinds of lines or blobs or squares or patches or whatever, textures. And when I want to make a poster especially when I'm on a deadline. I'm just saying poster, but it could be anything. I could grab one of those washes, usually things are in black and white so I can change the color in Photoshop. And I can make that the sky or I can make that the hair or I can make that whatever so that these things live like having a fantastic like on a cooking show or, you know, you have this pantry, which everything imaginable that goes on forever.

And that's what's in my computer in those files, in those folders are elements that can become anything. So I'm never alone with a blank screen or a blank piece of paper. I make sure I'm not because I don't like it. (laughs).

Liam: You mentioned this element of surprise being something that can help you get started on this and start putting together these ingredients. Have you ever been surprised at the end of a creation?

Laurie: Yeah. With things that I come up with, of course. Sometimes I run into trouble because especially on a formal level, if it's a style or the thing looks different from a lot of the things that I've done before. A creative director, an art director doesn't like it because they were expecting, oh, it will look like they Uncle Sam that you did for the Atlantic or that page you did for the New Yorker, but I think that if you get a good rapport with an art director, they maybe will see that there is even though it wasn't what they were expecting that there's something good in it. And that's, that happens nine out of 10 times, but not every time.

Because a lot of people, you know, they have a picture in their minds eye what they're expecting. And nothing else will make them happy.

Liam: So you work in this really broad range of media with all these different materials and techniques and you mention like the art director who doesn't get what they might have in their mind or expect. So they have some conceptualization of like what your work is even though it encompasses like all of these things. How do you conceptualize it?

Laurie: Well, I think the people that I work best with and really know how to use me as a designer or artist or whatever the hell you want to call it. And I think that there are certain wonderful people that are willing to, uh, take a chance on me that I'll do something exciting because when I start, I don't really do the whole thing where you make a sketch and then you make a, you know, that you know exactly before you even begin what it's going to look like. I'm bored with that myself. And I don't want to spend my days doing that. So every thing I do is kind of an experiment, although, I have to say, uh, I'm very experienced as a draftsman, sounds such a weird word. [inaudible 00:12:27] and um, I've trained these all my life so I know how to draw and I know how to create something from nothing.

So it's really important to me like I said to combine something I draw by hand with something digital and not just be digital because I mean, I've done that. It's like wallpaper magazine used to have like a lot of illustrations, I mean, I actually never worked for them, but I did some things that looked like what I called the wallpaper style, which is drawing an illustrator very clean. And I like the way they look, but you can't tell one illustrator from the other. They all look the same because they're all using the same technique and the same applications.

And that's, I think especially among younger creative directors, their discovering of course, that it's wonderful to have elements that are made by hand and it brings individuality and warmth to whatever project you're doing. So yeah, I guess the most successful projects are where, sort of like a collaboration where you're both sort of discovering something new.

Liam: Something else that stood out to me from your talk at type directors club was at the end during the Q&A when someone was asking you where do you get inspiration or like how do you get inspired and your answer to that was that you have never been inspired (laughs).

Laurie: It's true.

Liam: And that really made me think. So I'm interested in expanding on that and also knowing where does your work come from?

Laurie: Uh-huh. Well, like I said, probably a lot of the people at Google and, you know, people doing creative, they, they just keep drawing and they grow up and they bring their experience, their life experience into their drawings and their work. And it's more like that, that, um, when I say I'm never inspired because it's the word inspiration to me, it's sort of like your, uh, [inaudible 00:14:24] or something. And some muse, the lights on your shoulder and whispers in your ear. I, I just never had that romantic kind of experience of, uh, breath of inspiration like a poem or it's more like I wake up, what am I gonna do today?

And if I have an illustration assignment, I look at that and then I start experimenting and if I don't have any assignment, maybe I'll make a painting or work on a book. I think, you know, work is more fun than fun. I think I would be lost if I didn't at least attempt to do something creative and fun everyday. And sometimes it's writing, sometimes it's painting, sometimes it's an illustration or a piece of graphic design.

Liam: Something that I'm really interested in recently is understanding how the work that we create as creators or artists or designers or whatever, we happen to be relates to the world and one thing that you said I believe in an essay was that your work or your aesthetic tends to fly better in Europe. And I'm curious about that, why you say that and why you think it's the case?

Laurie: Well, I'm from Manhattan, I'm born in Manhattan. I've lived here most of my life. And, um, except for when I went to RISD, mostly here. And, but I've also spent a lot of time in Europe and I always since I was a teenager started turning right. You got to go somewhere, but if you're from Manhattan, where do you go, you know? (laughs) I think the artists that influence me the most were always, you know, Matisse and Picasso don't come from, you know, Kansas. Uh, and also Japanese art and I also had a lot of clients, especially, when they're economy was crazy booming in the 80s and 90s in Japan.

I did department stores, all kinds of things just, really fun big projects in Japan, packaging and stuff for Shiseido. I had a show there, um, so I had my five minutes of fame in Japan back then, but in Europe for some reason, I think probably it's like a mirror reflecting the things that I like, which happen to be a lot of art from Europe. I mean, I kind of hang out at the metropolitan museum and, you know, I get very, if the word is inspire, but I get ideas from the paintings there and you know, artists like Stewart Davis or Charles Sheeler or Arthur Dove or Marsden Hartley or that's the period of art that I like the most is early 20th century painting.

And a lot of them actually were American, come to think of it. But them and Picasso, who's my favorite.

Liam: So do you think that, that it's this kind of really trying not to use the word inspiration, but this

Laurie: Oh go ahead.

Liam: ... but this kind of reflection of the art that you seeing from European artists or have seen in Europe that makes the work more successful. Do you think that it's a kind of aesthetic sensibility that's different between the two places?

Laurie: Well, I think that, you know, Andrew Wyeth is a good example. You know, I think or Grant Wood or somebody like that. In American art, I think in general, people are a bit suspicious still of abstraction or things that are kind of abstract, which I would guess, I would describe my work most of it is kinda abstract or like kinda minimal, but you know, I'm still telling a story. But the abstract tradition in painting anyway is mostly coming from Europe. So if that's what I relate to, then no wonder, you know, I had a lot success in France and Germany and doing a lot of magazine work especially.

In Italy, I worked with Ferrucci back in the day, which was really fun. So yeah, it's just we sort of like the same stuff.

Liam: I think when you talk about abstraction and the desire for something to be as close as possible to your photograph, it's interesting because a lot of your work incorporates these handmade elements that are essentially a composition or a photograph of certain pieces like the paper canary or like cardboard or something like that.

Laurie: Well, I use photography, digital photography, changed everything for me because I would make those, like I was talking about, the elements, you know. Like I'll have a scribbler, I have a texture in a file, I have a folder called textures, okay. So in there I have like paint roller, I have ripped paper, I have, you know, wishy washy wash. It's very practical like the stuff we do in the workshop is super practical. And a lot of people do the workshop that have nothing to do with art and design. And they're the ones that love it the most. Like they, they send me letters afterwards saying that they came up with some great business idea, like you know, I always show the moving Working Girl with Melanie Griffith, which is an 80s movie, which is fun.

But she comes up with a great business idea because she's reading a gossip column just for fun. She's not trying to come up with a business idea, but it's really about the random, bringing in the random because we're also good at our jobs and I think that's a bad thing sometimes that, you know, let's say you're young in your 20s and you get very good at a certain kinds of you know programs and you get so good at that and you can give your clients exactly what they want and deliver every time perfectly.

And then all of a sudden you're 60 and what have you discovered? Nothing. Because you know, to get somewhere new, you have to do things you don't do and you have to surprise yourself. I kinda don't like to say what we do in the workshop, but it really is creating chaos, but don't worry, in a safe way. And then afterwards saying the magic words, oh, what could this be? Rather than going from A to B and problem solving, which is nothing wrong with problem solving, but there should be also room for surprise. So therefore, room for, you know, discovery and innovation, something new because you got to break the pattern, you have to sabotage yourself.

This is what I do. I need to sabotage myself and I discovered that and I help other people do it to make something new and different happen.

Liam: I think what could this be is super interesting and it speaks to the point that I, I think I was trying to get to, which is that using actual tangible materials and not just software veers away from abstraction and then sharply towards it because you understand like what this thing is, but then it's presented to you as something completely different.

Laurie: Right. Like one of the things that are very often, you know, talk about and I'm working on a book also about this work, mistakes and purpose book, is that I once did this and I'll always appreciate Kurt Anderson who has a studio 360 radio show and he's a brilliant writer and he was the MC or something for the AIGA conference national conference a number of years ago where I did the workshop and he liked it. And so he said, why don't you do it on my radio show. And I was thinking, okay, because this is a very, you know, visual thing. But I did end up doing it just for his staff, the people that worked on the show and they didn't air it, but I didn't care.

It was really fun, but right before we did this, the producer called me up and said, so I want to just talk about what's gonna happen next week, da, da, da, da, you know. And then he said, we- well, well what if you're not a designer, what if you're not an artsy person or what's the point of this workshop? And I said, well, suppose you're a radio producer. And he says, I'm listening. So okay, so I say well, part of your job is to maybe talk to Laurie and find out what's gonna happen next week like you're doing right now. So I said you could ask me like how I came up with the idea or where'd I go to school or any number of... where was my studio or anything?

That's problem solving and that's good. And I don't want to get rid of that. I don't, I don't want to go into this baby state of ignorance. No. But for one question, you could bring in the random and I said, okay, I opened a book on my desk. I said, I'll do it now. So the first words happen to be gold bullion of this novel I happen to be reading that was on my desk. So I said, okay, Laurie, uh, do you reckon the big bucks with these workshops or is this hippie thing you do for only art schools? Or you know, I made it be about money, about gold, and maybe that's not a good question, but what's valuable is that it's probably one he wouldn't of asked me.

So when you bring in the random, like flipping open a book at a certain page, you know, I could ask you a question based on, you know, this piece of tape that I found on this table. That is valuable because it gets you somewhere you haven't been before.

Liam: Now I'm thinking about what questions I should ask.

Laurie: Well, sometimes it's as simple as like literally like what's on the table before you. You have a can of soda, you have your phone, I think either of those could create a question.

Liam: Yeah, maybe have you ever tried designing something on a phone?

Laurie: That's a very good question and I'm glad you asked me (laughing). The answer is, not really, but I've used my phone in my work because I'm lazy and I'll see something that I want to photograph and of course you always have a camera with you with an iPhone. So uh, I've used it certainly to, you know, I could take a, a picture of my glasses or whatever and so I've used the phone in that way, but also now I have a iPad Pro and I draw on that sometimes. There's this really great magazine called American Bystander that I been working with and there, I published like a full page, I worked in this particular case with Risa Mickenberg, a friend of mine.

But we did this piece called Amazon Prime Suspect and I did all the illustrations for it on the iPad because I wanted a rather realistic representations of al- it's a shopping list of things that are available on Amazon and all of them are available verbatim. Exactly. So it's a shopping list that tells the story of a murder. So it's this woman, there's like cozy shack rice pudding and a onesie and, you know, cat food. And there's this woman living alone and, and she's lonely. Then some man comes into the picture and at first they have real sexy times so there's like believe it or not, octopus sex chair is, you can get it on Amazon. So I drew the octopus sex chair and then he starts to annoy her so I have like beard restraint, fart dampeners.

And it ends up with a body bag. They have all these things on Amazon so to draw these things, I just went, I did the most opposite of what I u- usually do and I would just draw products. I would trace them in the, the program called Procreate and it worked great because in that particular story, I needed to be very realistic and not abstract and show that these things were really available on Amazon. And that was a lot of fun. So yes, I draw on an iPad, which is sort of like drawing on a phone and you can draw on the phone. I've tried in, in, um, uh, notes or, yeah, but it's a little bit, it's too small. And also drawing freehand, not tracing or anything, but to draw, you can just draw with your finger on the, um, iPad and it's really kind of great. I want to get better at that though.

Liam: Well, the system works. That is... I didn't know that, that question would end up at octopus sex chair. (laughing).

Laurie: Exactly.

Liam: I also want to talk just a little bit about another book you've done, which is called All the Wrong People Have Self-esteem. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

Laurie: I did this book and it was kind of the opposite of all the touchy feely, self-esteemy things that are out there that seemed a bit disingenuous to me. Like, how can I put this? Like, the reason I called it All the Wrong People Have Self-esteem first of all because I think it's funny and second of all, I think it's true. And thirdly, you could feel bad about so many things. You could think you're fat or you're ugly or you're stupid or you know, all kinds of horrible things. And it's not like I want people to think, I think that the people that don't have these doubts their jerks that nobody likes, you know, it's like all the wrong people think they're all that.

They think they got it all figured out and there's nothing more unattractive than someone who thinks they're, you know, the bees roller skates, whatever. So you know, you don't want to feel bad about not having self-esteem like you should. So it's another thing that you could feel bad about. So that's why I called it that. But it's, it's funny because it's also a very just like me, I guess, it combines, you know, collage, free-hand drawing, computer drawing and writing and a lot of different stories. And people weren't sure, you know, is this a humor book? Is this a graphic novel? Is this really a self-help book just because it has self-esteem in the title?

So I'm trying right now in my career to unconfuse people, I'm not sure that's a word. But like I'm redoing my website, a friend is helping me do this right now and I'm gonna make it a little bit more traditional because the way it is now, even though it looks fun and I like the way it looks, it's Rosenworld, right, And they go there and there's a part about the, uh, workshops. And there's a part about the stories. And there's things about the paintings. And then illustr- and it's too much. It's just too much.

Liam: Yeah, and that leads into my final question, which is where do you see your work going in the future?

Laurie: Well, what I'm hoping for is that memoir will be a big hit because I spent many years writing and this is really a collection of all the things that I've written and I've put a lot of time and work into it. Because it's really funny and you know, on the one hand, it, it's with an agent now. Um, and he's a good agent. His name is Paul Bresnick and he has done some very high profile books with some really good writers. But you know, this is not and easy sell because you know, who's gonna read the memoir of somebody's who's not famous, I wouldn't. So it's got to have something else. I think my strength is the funny in the book and it's kind of unusual that at least the illustrated version is also very colorful and fun.

And so I'm putting a lot of maybe eggs in one basket, but I want to do because I love books, I want to do more books, I want to do more workshops in interesting places, in big places, in unexpected places. Um, I want to do the book about the workshop, so those are some of the things I want to do. What will happen, nobody knows. I don't know.

Liam: But that's the exciting part, right? (laughing).

Laurie: Absolutely.

Liam: All right, well thank you again, Laurie.

Laurie: Thank you for inviting me, Liam. This was fun.

Read next