Doug Chayka received his BFA in illustration in 1996 from Rochester Institute of Technology and later studied painting and printmaking at Universität der Künste in Berlin. His clients include The Nation, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American, Earth Island Journal, Harvard Business Review, The Progressive, Lee and Low Books, Clarion Books, Boyds Mills Press, Cricket magazine and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. He taught illustration full-time at Savannah College of Art and Design and Ringling College of Art and Design, and has also taught as adjunct faculty at Rochester Institute of Technology, Pratt Institute, City College of New York and The Illustration Academy. Chakya currently works as a freelancer and lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, with his wife and son.
Inventive and Spontaneous
How did you get started in illustration? A few months after graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, I moved to Kansas City to be around Mark English, who taught an Illustration Academy workshop I had attended there. I just wanted to soak up whatever he was doing with his work. I rented a house with friends who had also attended the workshop and we had a kind of illustrators’ flophouse. It was great fun. I got my first editorial assignments at the Kansas City Star and landed my first picture book projects while living there.
You work with various techniques: collage, painting, drawing and lettering. How did your style develop? My work has evolved from traditional painting to more experimental stuff, just from looking at all kinds of things. Early on I devoured N.C. Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Ash Can School and early Picasso, which was in line with the narrative work I was after. Now my influences are all over the place: Dada montage artists Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, and John Heartfield; the way they combine drawing, photography and ephemera to make powerful statements.
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? After getting assignments for a couple of years, I felt I had no depth or life experience to take my work in new directions, so I left Kansas City and traveled through Europe for six months with my twin brother. I eventually moved to Berlin, where I studied painting and printmaking at the Universität der Künste on a Fulbright grant, which covered my living expenses and tuition for two years. It was life-changing. I had some great critiques with my professor, Wolfgang Petrick, who was doing really crazy stuff, so different from what I was used to. Berlin still blows me away with its jarring mix of old and new, and all the art and design being made there. Living there really changed my point of view, and still influences every project. I have a much bigger visual vocabulary to draw on.
What is the strangest assignment you’ve ever received? I was once hired by an auto body shop in upstate New York to draw a picture of Santa’s sleigh getting rear-ended by a Camaro. It was for a local print ad, but I actually saw it on a billboard once. It’s a nightmare come true to see your bad work at that scale.
What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities of editorial illustration? Each editorial assignment has its own special problem, and topics can be all over the place. The challenge is to let the work serve the particular problem, while still bringing my own personal sensibility to the project. That can mean changing up my usual way of doing things, which is exciting. Add in a tight deadline and it can get scary, but the opportunities for being inventive and spontaneous within editorial are huge.
What excites you about illustration right now? The diversity of it. When I entered the field, traditional media and print dominated. Now the lines between genres are completely blurred. Apart from it being inherently problem-solving work, I can’t even define what illustration is now. I see the field as this big open venue for individuals to carve out space for whatever kind of work they want to do. There’s always going to be a place for traditional drawing and painting—that kind of illustration isn’t going anywhere, and neither is print. But as digital keeps growing, the understanding of what an illustration can be is expanding along with it.
What other profit centers could illustrators explore besides commissioned work? Money needs to catch up with some of the new opportunities out there. There are countless beautifully designed digital platforms that haven’t yet figured out how to profit, or realized that they need to pay for the right to use our images. We artists need to get our heads together with writers and computer geniuses to solve that problem.
What would be your dream assignment? Any opportunity that provides intelligent, thought-provoking material and lets me bring something fresh into my work. I recently worked with Dan Zedek for Boston Globe Ideas to illustrate a series of proposals by different writers, each envisioning a twenty-first-century Boston. Dan wanted me to exploit the diversity in my portfolio, and change up my approach from piece to piece. That’s exactly where I want to be with my work now.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Many of us get a toehold in the profession while working through one heavy influence or another, but to get to a really inventive place we have to keep looking at things and digesting them, to challenge our point of view, combine new insights with old ones and turn our opinions upside down. Success will come if you are committed to making inspired work and thoughtful about finding the right place for what you are making, which may change as your work develops or the business changes around you.