For any illustrator, the premise of Brian Rea’s book is rich with possibilities. In Death Wins a Goldfish, the grim reaper has been working so much, the HR department says his vacation days are at risk and he must use them or lose them. Death, in his black cloak, ponders how to spend his free time and tries scuba diving, dating and learning to paint, while readers get peeks at Death’s contemplations in his diary.
It’s the first book that Rea has both written and illustrated, and it’s a natural showcase for his evocative drawing style and humor, which he expresses in a variety of mediums. Besides creating illustrations for books, murals, animation and fashion, Rea is also a painter who uses words and shapes on canvas. For the past decade, he has illustrated the popular Modern Love column, published weekly in the New York Times.
Rea’s art is a perfect match for the column’s distinctly different love stories. His figures have universal appeal and a presence that gracefully conveys each essay’s crucial emotional tone. “His drawings aren’t literal interpretations, but interpretations that can signal to the reader that something playful or poignant or devastating is on the way,” says Modern Love editor Daniel Jones. “And then, after reading, the illustration can often be appreciated all over again, in a new way.”
Rea’s work takes place in a studio within a former minimall of storefronts that’s minutes from the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The building is now home to architects, photographers and designers whose offices face the sunlit central plaza. Rea, 48, an East Coast transplant, has been living in California for ten years and appreciates the faded beauty of this weathered shopping complex from the 1970s.
In conversation, he is candid and surprisingly relaxed considering the number of projects he’s juggling. “When I was in New York, there were great opportunities, but I felt there was an unstated rule that you needed to stay in your lane,” Rea says. “If you’re an art director, follow that trajectory. If you’re an illustrator or you’re in fine arts, you follow that. You come to LA and say you’re an illustrator, you’re an artist, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you do murals, you do animation. I’ve got this project. Do you want to do some VR stuff?’”
He’s organized his workspace into multiple workstations. Shelves are filled with samples of merchandise, like the clothing and tote bags from his collaboration with Italian fashion brand Marni. Among the stacks of sketchbooks, drawings and scans are books he’s illustrated for other authors, such as Malcolm Gladwell: Collected, a box set that includes Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers.
Rea also enjoys large-scale work and designed a black-and-white wall mural around the theme of biodiversity for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s Nature Lab. Filled with words, objects and symbols, it projects an energy and playfulness that invites multiple viewings. Using a more minimalist approach, Rea filled a 140-foot-long mural celebrating LA Metro’s Expo Line extension to Santa Monica with a lone bird surfing a wave. Two arrows provide direction; one points to “Ocean,” and the other, with deadpan humor, points in the opposite direction to “Other Stuff.”
Leaning against the studio walls are hand-lettered paintings that reveal another facet of Rea’s art. They are intriguing narratives, such as MEMORIES, 18 and Under, where Rea fills the canvas with hundreds of words, “almost like rings in a tree,” gathering them into a map of his memories for that particular time period in his life. Rea’s shown his art at CMay Gallery in Los Angeles and Seoul, Korea, and had his first solo show of paintings and drawings in the United States in 2019. “I feel like I’m doing something different, and it’s exciting every day, but it’s also like being a ten-armed starfish,” Rea says. “Eventually, I may have to cut off a couple of arms because I can’t go in all the directions I want to go.”
Hard work was a theme of Rea’s early years. Growing up in Chelmsford, in eastern Massachusetts, Rea had a strong work ethic instilled in him by his Irish Italian family, who were also gifted storytellers. “There were two options,” Rea says of his childhood, “either tell great stories or have stories told about you.” He was a quiet kid who spent most of his time outdoors, playing sports and fishing with his two brothers. His grandfather, a stonemason who kept a sketchbook, gave Rea his first look at its pages, filled with images copied from advertisements and Tarzan comics.
Encouraged by a supportive art teacher, Rea applied to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) with his portfolio of photorealistic drawings. Rea smiles, remembering how proud he felt at his first critique in Advanced Drawing, when his work was singled out. “Whose is this?” asked the instructor, adding, “Don’t ever bring this high school bullshit into my class again.”
Calling it “tough love, but necessary,” Rea was determined to go beyond work that was too precious, safe and unexplored. He spent his years at MICA in the library, looking through design collections, illustration annuals and fine art books, studying work by his favorites: Saul Steinberg, Paul Klee, George Grosz, Antoni Tàpies and Richard Diebenkorn. Eventually, Rea’s collages gave way to casual drawings of characters and places from his artsy Hampden neighborhood in Baltimore.
After graduation, he moved to New York and shared a studio with graphic designer Paul Sahre, who introduced him to a circle of talented creatives. “You could throw a rock in New York and hit six art directors, three illustrators and four photographers,” Rea says. “They’re all superstars, and you don’t get that if you’re quiet and reserved. New York shook that out of me a little bit.” Though he was seeing amazing work in Rolling Stone, The Progressive, Ray Gun and The Atlantic magazines, Rea’s early assignments were requests to illustrate articles about business-related topics like “this new thing called modems.”
When the New York Times Magazine hired him to fill in for its art directors, Rea felt like he was in graduate school for design. “I made tons of mistakes,” he says. “I was new to New York, this job and design, but I never got upset about it. I was just like, ‘OK, let’s figure this out.’” Every step of the way, he felt someone pushing him to work harder and to think about, look at and consider his work in a more conceptual way.
Rea continued to develop his freelance illustrations during his years at the New York Times Magazine and, later, the newspaper’s Op-Ed section. A full-time job as the Op-Ed art director opened up while Rea was on a road trip in Southern California, and he was asked to interview. He bought a suit and returned to New York.
The job gave him the opportunity to collaborate, do some design work and manage projects while working with many different types of artists. “It was such an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful for it,” he says. The one thing that was missing was his ability to tell his own stories. When he decided it was time for him to leave, his friends called him crazy because the job would have led to a bigger job, but Rea felt the bigger job is “to protect and feed my heart.” “The art director thing was what I thought I wanted to be,” he says. “The artist is what I know I am.”
After moving west, Rea became an instructor at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, team-teaching with illustrator and educator Paul Rogers. Rea soon learned that every illustrator is not a conceptual illustrator. “Some have work more rooted in emotion, others are more graphic and do more style-forward work. So we try to arm them with tools to tell those kinds of stories as well,” he says.
When asked about Rea, Rogers says he is “just like his drawings: honest, modern and smart. Brian’s a great one to encourage students to make work they are proud of, and not to make the kind of illustrations they think everyone expects.”
Both are trying to shed some light on the mysteries of the industry by focusing on the complex factors of making a living as a freelancer while keeping pace with a profession that is very different than what it was five years ago. “We’re hoping we can smooth out some of the bumps,” Rogers says.
“Technology has created new channels for image makers, and nowadays, illustrators have to be more like designers, entrepreneurs, muralists and animators, with skill sets that weren’t required when I first started out,” says Rea. “It’s super exciting because as it’s become more flexible and open, I can make clothing now. I can make products. I can design a mural and have it digitally printed and mounted in a space that I might not be able to visit to paint it.” He can create a family of characters, “and that can become a book, a series, a movie. It could become merchandise or an amusement park.”
As he expands his possibilities for image making and factors it with spending time with his family, maintaining balance seems like his biggest challenge. Rea’s new book has kept him busier in the last six months, which is ironic considering where the idea for it came from. Rea had been having a conversation with his father, who was the hardest-working person he knew. “He always said, ‘Make yourself indispensable. Outwork and outlast everyone,’” says Rea. “So, when he retired, I asked, ‘Do you have any advice for me?’ And he just said, ‘Work less.’” ca