Los Angeles-based illustrator and artist Brian Rea is the former art director for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. He has produced drawings and paintings for books, murals, posters, music videos and magazines including The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Nylon, Men’s Journal and Time Magazine. His design clients include Herman Miller, Honda, Malcolm Gladwell, Marni, Billabong and MTV. Rea’s work has been exhibited in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo and Barcelona, Spain, where he was part of the group show Murals at the Fundació Joan Miró. He is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale and currently teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He spends his down time traveling, surfing and taking pictures.
Knock on Doors
How did you get started in illustration? While studying illustration in college, I was introduced to the incredible artist and illustrator Ruth Marten. I spent an afternoon at her studio in New York City. I owe so much to her for that one day—she was super encouraging and gave me a list of art directors she thought I should meet. After graduation, I went to New York and knocked on their doors. There was no plan B.
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? Watching my grandfather (a mason) build stone walls, growing up in New England and spending two years in New York working in a studio alongside Paul Sahre were all giant influences on my work in terms of structure, design and storytelling.
What excites you about illustration right now? The splintering of the field into so many new forms of image-making. Whether it’s murals, books, fashion, motion, self-authored projects or products—all of it certainly makes the studio different each week. Plus, fresh new work from around the world is so accessible to everyone now, and that has helped inject more life and excitement into what is being published.
Where do you think the field of illustration is going? Instant access to everyone’s work now has made the illustration pool really, really big, so shifts in the industry are naturally going to be smaller. Imagine pouring some red paint into a half-gallon bucket of white—it would turn pink immediately. But if you poured red into a 10,000-gallon pool? Very little change. What I do find cool, though, is that you can still discover a new artist or group of artists in some part of the world doing their own thing, way off everyone’s radar and not in any pool at all.
What is the strangest assignment you’ve ever received? I recently finger painted a bouquet of flowers in mud on a car.
What would be your dream assignment? Producing an installation at the Hammer Museum.
Which illustrators do you most admire, and why? Saul Steinberg, Olle Eksell and Alexander Girard for making the world visually better. Christoph Niemann for his ideas. Tamara Shopsin for her vision. Leanne Shapton for her stories. Jessica Hische for her attitude. Graham Roumieu for his humor (though Jennifer Daniel is super high on that list too). And my former students Ariel Lee and Andrew Ho for their young-blood goodness.
What is your biggest challenge as an illustrator? Staying on top of billing. But honestly, I paint and draw for a living. I can’t complain about that.
What other profit centers could illustrators explore besides commissioned work? Self-authored projects for sure, but I’d also say that simply embracing an entrepreneurial attitude about what you create could help. Technology allows things to be made so quickly and efficiently now, as well as letting individuals create their own digital “window displays” to sell products.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Be good. Eat well, read a lot and travel. If you can’t do any of those things, work harder than everyone else and don't listen to the haters.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Smiles count. And all the people you meet keep score.