The day Christian Northeast got an assignment from Rolling Stone, he quit his job at the art supply store where he’d been working since graduation. “Getting a job with Rolling Stone was a big deal,” he recalls, sitting in a booth in an Italian eatery, facing the gentrified Queens West area of Toronto, not far from the art school where his got his start. “Fred Woodward was the art director there. So the day they called, I just walked out.”
Northeast, 42, now admits that this was “a stupid, immature thing to do,” although it seems to have, well, worked out. He has worked consistently since that day in 1995, for magazines from Raygun to the New Yorker, for clients ranging from Southern Comfort to Nickelodeon. And it’s not like the Rolling Stone gig–an illustration for the coveted first page of the reviews section, in this case featuring a split review of Guided By Voices and Mike Watt, paired with an illustration of a boy-faced sideshow Atlas in underpants—was Northeast’s first success. Rather, it was the last step in a difficult process of discovering the first phase of his still-changing style.
Christian Northeast–that is his real name, although he’s accustomed to the question—was born in Bath, England, and his family moved to Newmarket, in suburban Toronto, when he was a toddler. After struggling in high school—“I'’m amazed that I made it through,” he says—he enrolled at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He studied design before switching to a more experimental course of study, focused on painting. None of his student work, however, resembled the mix of illustration and collage that would become his signature in the mid-1990s.
“I floundered around for a few years, not doing much,” says Northeast, who is gangly, with pale, English looks—like a Canadian Peter Murphy. “Not knowing what to do. I would do that job [at the art supply store], come home and try working on stuff.” Inspired by outsider art, cartoons and antique signage, Northeast’s formative work was an amalgamation of found paper, ink and gouache, which he says he chose so he could constantly revise and fix errors.
“I used to go to junk stores and buy all the old paper and old paperback books and rip the covers off them and glue them back together,” he says. “My work kind of came out of mistakes. I hated everything I was doing, so I would just paint over it and paint over it. And then I realized that all those mistakes were actually what I was liking.”
Through the mistakes, he explains, he “started feeling more confident,” so he submitted work to the American Illustration annual, where his work first appeared in 1992. “At the time, when I first got that, I thought I’d won the lottery,” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh man. I’m going to quit my job, the phone will be ringing off the hook.’ Two years later, I was still working at the art supply store.”
Though not for too much longer. In 1994, he was the given the cover of American Illustration—he has appeared in every issue since that first appearance—and then Rolling Stone called. He remembers that time, and this neighborhood, fondly. “It’s changed a lot, but I really like Queens Street West. There really isn’t a place [in Toronto] where you can be a poor artist. This strip used to be that. This is just the area that I know and the area I’m familiar with. It was a great time. I went from a crappy art supply job to feeling good about my work and feeling as though I was going somewhere. It was a great time.”
Since then, not just Queens Street has changed. Seven years ago, Northeast moved to the town of Cobourg—an hour and a half from Toronto—where he now lives with his wife and two daughters. And more than ten years ago, he began working completely digitally. Rather than working with gouache, ink and tape, he now works in Photoshop and draws from a library of found paper that he is constantly scanning onto his hard drive. And although his body of work is cohesive, it has at once evolved and diversified.
“I have to be progressing, even though to some people it may look like I’m going backwards—and they may not like it—to me, I have to be moving forward, going onto something else.” Northeast confesses to feeling pigeonholed in his commercial work in the late ’90s, when art directors would frequently come to him looking for a “circusy sideshow kind of thing.”
“I love old posters and graphics. The standard reds and yellows of old, cheap printing, and I could see where people would see that in my work,” he says, while admitting that, “it sort of got turned into something I didn’t really want it to be.” For awhile, he even turned to a pseudonym, Julian Trout, to market some of his more linear, cartoon-like work, although he never really pursued it. His recent portfolio ranges from the impossible machines of his early work, to dense type treatments, to tone-perfect takes on artifacts from matchboxes to postcards, all tied together by Northeast’s talent for making even the digital feel handmade. “The stuff I collect or the stuff I’m drawn to is always something that looks like it has a bit of history,” he says. “I’ve always been drawn to stuff that has a patina to it.”
Still, over the years, Northeast’s work has also displayed an increasing clarity and refinement. It looks less like assemblages of found images than like actual found images, recovered from an imaginary past where Terry Gilliam animations, letterpress posters, vintage cartoons and visionary art coexist and comingle. All of these influences culminate in the scuffed precision of Prayer Requested, Northeast’s 2009 book from Drawn and Quarterly, in which he illustrates and handletters prayers he’s found on the Internet. He’s anxious that the book not be taken as too snarky or jokey, and indeed the overall effect is poignantly and affectingly human.
He’s been diversifying in other ways as well, playing around with animation in Photoshop and After Effects—he already contributes illustration and branding elements to Nick Jr.—and with products. He recently created brand elements, in a Southern folk art style, for Southern Comfort, and he’s also contributed the illustrations for an offbeat set of children’s blocks that teach kids the alphabet with objects like “Biker” and “Underpants.”
Northeast is keenly aware, however, of the effect the Internet has had—and could have—on the field of editorial illustration. On the one hand, it’s easier to connect with art directors than it was in the mid-’90s. (In fact, Northeast hasn’t had a North American agent in a decade.) On the other hand, the future of illustration appears to be tied up with the (increasingly dim) future of print. “I’ve been pretty lucky,” he says. “I’ve managed to keep going and keep making a living at it, but I can’t see it getting easier. Print editorial is not going to heal, I don't think.”
Not that you get the sense Northeast would rest on his laurels if it did. In discussing his work, he is cautious, tentative and sometimes even apologetic. He is uncomfortable. Even when discussing Prayer Requested, he admits, “Halfway working through that book, I was kind of like I’d rather these just be typography, but I’m an illustrator, so I have to illustrate them.”
After seventeen years of creating a tremendously diverse body of work, is Christian Northeast still creatively restless, like he was when he kept revising and revising until he realized it was the mistakes he was in love with? “Probably not as much as I used to be,” he says. “I’m 42, I really enjoy the work that I do and like to do the best job I can for people. I like when they’re happy.”
Still he’s driven forward, he says, by the thought: “What can I add? What can I keep adding?” ca