Our first encounters with the illustrators who shape our world often occur before we even know who they are. Their images become part of our lives when we notice their stunning ad work or eye-catching animation in the course of a busy day. That’s how I first encountered Marcos Chin: while riding the New York City subway to work in the early aughts, I became fascinated by his evocative campaign for online dating platform Lavalife. His alluring characters and the starry and butterfly-like trails of flirtations that floated between them perfectly conveyed the start of a magical—and sexy—romance. Some years later, I again ran into Chin’s work when his panels for MTA Arts for Transit graced my subway car. I delighted in his reimagining of Grand Central Terminal’s crowds as a fashion show, with the station’s architectural elements doubling as dramatic skirts and hats. The style was more intricate than that of the Lavalife campaign, but the inspired visual storytelling and spellbinding illustrative world still drew me in.
Chin’s real-life world, as embodied by his studio in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, has the cheerful order of an artist who is both disciplined and endlessly experimental. The small space somehow accommodates an inviting, organized work area complete with computer desk, drawing table, comfy toile easy chair and sheepskin rug; a jam-packed storage area; dressmaker’s dummies and stacks of fabric; and a serious industrial sewing machine.
The illustrator, 41, has an instantly engaging, friendly energy mixed with a sense of quiet reserve. It’s not surprising to hear that although he enjoyed playing with friends as a child, he spent a lot of time alone (often under the care of his much-loved aunt), drawing and “making objects.” Chin, the youngest of three, grew up in Toronto, where his family had moved when he was about two years old. Ethnically Chinese, Chin’s extended family had lived for decades in Mozambique, but his parents made the decision to relocate in the wake of the Mozambican civil war, so his childhood was spent entirely in Toronto, in a neighborhood he describes as “incredibly multicultural.” Neighbors included another Chinese family, from Macao, who lived down the street, as well as families from the Philippines, the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. “I played cricket with my Guyanese friends; I ate roti when I went to my friend’s place,” recalls Chin. “I learned about different cultures through my friends.”
When he was a child, Chin’s love of drawing led him to reproduce his favorite characters from TV and comic strips, like Wolverine and Garfield. Kind of random, as he puts it, but then again, “They’re both bad dudes, right? They embrace the dark sides of themselves.” Chin’s siblings were also artistically skilled; he used to copy his brother’s drawings. “We would sit on the bed together and draw,” Chin recalls. Around age ten, Chin started watching a Canadian TV show focusing on fashion; mesmerized, he was moved to make his own clothing designs. He particularly liked the work of the late American designer Patrick Kelly, a fashion star of the 1980s. “His clothing was really bright and colorful,” says Chin. “[In] one particular show … there was this transformation component. I remember doing a drawing of a dress that turned into a butterfly.”
When the time came for college, however, studying fashion was out of the question. Chin’s father, who had worked at a few different factories in Toronto, among them a clothing factory, warned Chin that a career in the fashion industry would require significant financial backing. Chin attended York University for a year on a scholarship in fine arts, but then transferred to the Ontario College of Art and Design, “sort of behind my parents’ backs.” Art school proved to be a lifeline. “I was surrounded with people I could really identify with,” he says. He ended up focusing on illustration, in part as an outcome of this exciting new creative and social environment. “I didn’t know that illustration even existed as a career back then,” he explained. “I just saw that there were students in the school who did these drawings that I really connected with, so I decided to apply.”
After graduation, Chin established himself in Toronto as an illustrator, with early editorial assignments coming from trade magazines and other publications. Then, in 2001, he was hired for the Lavalife campaign; its immediate and lasting success—the campaign continued until 2010—provided him with more financial freedom and visibility than many illustrators enjoy so early in their careers. He says, “I don’t think anyone knew that [my] illustrations would become a branding device [for Lavalife]. I thought that branding was about logo. … We didn’t know that the campaign would carry on for as long as it did.”
With Lavalife bringing him a steady paycheck and with more ad work coming in, Chin began contemplating a move to New York City. “A lot of my heroes and mentors came here, and I just wanted to be part of that,” he says. “There was still a lot for me to learn, and I felt that being in New York could help me learn some of those things and turn me into a better artist.” He visited the city repeatedly over the course of two years, and in 2005, he moved into his first New York apartment. Within two weeks, he had started dating his now-boyfriend; today, they share an apartment in Prospect Heights, walking distance from Chin’s Gowanus studio.
Reflecting on his early days putting down his professional roots in New York, Chin recalls, “It didn’t really feel like a formal networking kind of thing; it was more like building friendships.” Chin’s ability to connect with people often informs his work, and not just as a means of getting assignments. “I think my style [is] shaped strongly by the interactions I’ve had with friends, acquaintances and even strangers—talking with them and letting them introduce me to more art, illustration and design.” Chin has had summer residencies at Cooper Union and the School of Visual Arts, where he currently teaches, and he loves having those opportunities to meet other creatives. “You can see what [other people] are doing. And they’re artists from around the world, some of whom can’t speak English, yet you’re still talking with them somehow.”
I didn’t know that illustration even existed as a career back then. I just saw that there were students in the school who did these drawings that I really connected with, so I decided to apply.”
Learning, in all its forms, is essential to Chin, and he is always taking a class of some kind. A course in silkscreening led to further classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, forays into drapery, sewing and textile design, and a T-shirt line (currently on indefinite hold). He has studied animation and, more recently, creative writing. He plans to take swimming lessons soon. “As an adult, I’m trying, if I can—because life’s too short—to do as many things that I’ve always wanted to do while I can still do [them].” That attitude applies to his illustration work, too. When I visited his studio, he was finalizing his second coloring book, the follow-up to last year’s Fairies in Wonderland: An Interactive Coloring Adventure for All Ages, from HarperCollins Publishers’ Harper Design imprint. Chin approached Harper about creating his own book, and the editor responded by inviting him to make illustrations as part of the increasingly popular adult coloring-book genre. “To be asked to participate and to create a coloring book—I thought, ‘why not?’ I’m that kind of guy who’s like, ‘Don’t say no unless you’ve tried it.’”
His Fairies in Wonderland illustrations are in an intensely detailed style—“carpal-tunnel-detailed,” he says, with a laugh. The patterns of intertwined vegetal and floral shapes, drawn with Chin’s signature sinuous line, would be right at home on a lush textile. This book and other projects demonstrate the virtuosity with which he molds his style to suit the needs of a specific client or concept. On his blog, Chin wrote about making an illustration for Complex magazine of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his various on-screen foes. As with the images in the coloring book, one can get lost in the details, but here it’s the sharply conceived composition that holds the eye. Chin writes in his blog, “You’ll notice in my rough drawing, there are blue shapes; I do this oftentimes, i.e., block in shapes that represent elements on the page in order to figure a composition that suits me.” When he starts working on an assignment, Chin generally makes thumbnail sketches (“chicken scratches,” he calls them) of a few concepts, then uses Adobe Illustrator to create final images. He often will layer in hand-rendered techniques, such as airbrush painting; sometimes he’ll print out the digital piece, paint on it with watercolors, and then rescan it. It’s a process of adding and taking away, he says. “Kind of like how I used to work when I was doing paintings—very organic and intuitive.”
The rich results of this approach are on display in his illustrations for the parodic children’s book Ella, from Viking Children’s Books, Mallory Kasdan’s sendup of Kay Thompson’s Eloise set in present-day, hipster New York. The colorful drawings in Ella have a playfulness and sensitive use of space that pay homage to the legendary Hilary Knight, illustrator of Eloise and one of Chin’s illustration heroes. “Marcos’s work for that book just brought it to life in a manner that no one else could have executed,” says Jim Hoover, Chin’s art director at Viking Press. “He brings a sense of whimsy, style and a legit cool factor that is incredibly difficult to balance, and he does it effortlessly.” Len Small, the art director at Nautilus, who hired Chin for a series on the topic of symmetry in science, also speaks to the illustrator’s ability to make complicated, smart work look easy: “Marcos has a deceptively dashing combination of line and shape. You don’t know how cleverly all the elements work together until you’ve looked into the artwork and back out again. Marcos is polite and thorough, yet his artwork wildly pushes boundaries and expectations.”
There was still a lot for me to learn, and I felt that being in New York could help me learn some of those things and turn me into a better artist.”
Pushing boundaries is exactly what Chin likes best: “I enjoy working with clients who want to use illustration in an unexpected way, beyond the printed page.” He likes seeing his work in book and magazine form, too, but “to see it translated into textiles, a projection, or covering an entire vehicle feels wonderful.” Luckily for Chin, he has had the opportunity to see his artwork in all of those contexts. As part of a multipart campaign for the 2013 launch of Target in Canada, his visuals were wrapped around city buses, and in the spring of 2015, his illustrations were animated and projected for an event promoting season six of Game of Thrones. “It turned this 2-D, traditional illustrated piece into something that moved and was interactive,” he says. He was thrilled when people began standing “in” the piece so the projected drawings covered them. “I love the idea of having viewers participate and dialogue with artwork.”
Chin says that one of his forthcoming projects will use 3-D mapping technology to present the illustration in a way that’s unique and unexpected (a nondisclosure agreement precludes further description). And he’s challenging himself in other ways. He says he is “trying to build up courage to someday do a graphic novel.” Meanwhile, he’s exploring what he can do with writing fiction, a genre he loves because it’s all about “being introduced to a new world.” Whatever he does, we can count on Chin to keep expanding his own horizons—and ours. ca