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Camping alone in the Québec woods wasn’t the hard part for Sophie Casson. Neither was walking for an hour in morning rain from there to the woodcarving workshop she took one weekend last summer. No, the challenge for this editorial illustrator was thinking in three dimensions, using hand tools to chip away at a twelve-inch block of pine until a monkey emerged.

“I like to try new techniques because it brings me to new places with my work,” says Casson, who has also explored ceramics and silkscreening—the latter changed her profes­sional life thirteen years ago when it led to her current style. “But recently, I’ve wanted to give my illustrations more depth,” Casson says. The aforementioned monkey, her first wood sculpture, poses on a shelf in her crowded studio, in her apartment near Montréal’s Lachine Canal. “It was great to come back from that carving workshop and say, ‘I can still grow.’”
Recognized for her keen conceptual eye, she renders simple shapes and distinctive color blocks in her silkscreen-like digital illustrations that often interpret complex ideas. “I’m a visual poet,” says Casson, who prefers to illustrate articles and stories related to emotional experiences. “I try to find the right visual elements to convey emotion, whatever the subject, and always hope there’ll be a second or third reading in the image I’ve created.”

Many of Casson’s illustrations—like the one of handcuffed hands dripping with blood—certainly invite a double take. The image was part of a multimedia display of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The 45,000-square-foot museum, which opened in September 2014, is the only one of its kind in the world. Casson was among eight illustrators hired by museum designers and planners Ralph Appelbaum Associates, of New York City, to highlight the UDHR’s 30 articles and nine selected conventions. The eleven flip-card images she illustrated, which were paired with summaries of various pieces of UN human rights legislation, landed her on the shortlist for the World Illustration Awards 2015 and in the Communication Arts 2015 Illustration Annual.

“We were looking for attractive images to give an immediate visual understanding of something complex, in a direct way that brings ideas down to their essence,” says Christiaan Kuypers, art director at Ralph Appelbaum Associates. “Sophie’s technique and general aesthetic appealed to me. It’s very open, and I love the texture of her artwork. It has warmth and depth to it.”

Casson says, “We had carte blanche, and that’s how I work best. It was a big honor for me to illustrate very serious issues that touch humans collectively. That’s where I can really use my talent.” Empathy motivates her best work. From images that tell of torture and domestic violence to those that reveal the inner worlds of psoriasis sufferers and end-of-life euthanasia patients, all of Casson’s work utters her personal vision. “And I like working with clients who want my vision, my colors and my sensibility.”

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Kim Van Dyke, creative director at Baltimore Style magazine, is one of those clients, for three years now. “I like to work with people who work from their hearts. Each time I collaborate with Sophie, I love her more,” she says. For a short story in the magazine titled “Birds and Other Things We Placed in Our Hearts,” by Timmy Reed, Casson came up with an illustration of a girl with flies at her lips, who digs her fingers into her heart. “The blue of the girl’s skin brings her to life against a beautiful yellow background, and her eyes just grab you,” Van Dyke says. “Sophie gives us a lot of expression in so few lines. You’re immediately drawn in and you want to know what’s going on with this person. You want to read the story. And that’s the whole point.”

She’s made herself a trademark for this kind of narrative work that carves out emotional truths. For about fifteen years, Casson has illustrated for L’actualité, a Québec magazine covering news and general interest. Its art director, Jocelyne Fournel, says, “We often have very difficult subjects that are not easy to illustrate. Sophie is good at solving problems, visually and simply, and we understand the story just by looking at the illustration.”

For any image, Casson takes pen or pencil to paper, filling pages and pages with the bulk of her creative process. She surrounds herself with inspiration in her studio—framed vintage children’s book drawings; Franz Marc and van Gogh reproductions; a book of Cape Dorset Inuit woodblock prints; a bookcase packed with art titles, old textbooks, children’s books, graphic novels, fiction and illustration annuals; and the little carved monkey. “I draw, draw, draw the bad ideas, getting them out of my system, knowing they’ll lead me to more interesting things. Then I wait for a vision to appear. More and more, I’ve learned to trust that that’s my voice.” And if she gets stuck, she revisits the words she’s illustrating, confers with her client, asks her fifteen-year-old twin boys what they think or, if time allows, gives up until the next day.

When I illustrate, I feel I’m at my best to say what I know about the human experience.”

Casson then selects a few of her best ideas, creates line drawings more detailed and realistic than the end result will be, and sends them to the client. “It takes all that detail to understand the three-dimensional aspect of what I’m drawing,” she says. “And if it’s not happening in those line drawings, it’s not going to happen in Photoshop.” Next, she scans the selected final, removes the line details and leaves the shape. Inspired by stencil art, she computer-draws an image, cuts it out and adds color, repeating for each visual layer. “I work with the contrasts of empty and full spaces. It’s the same thinking as silkscreening.”

Amidst L’actualité’s busy advertisements, Casson’s illustra­tions make a strong visual statement, Fournel says, “which personalizes the editorial side of the magazine even more.” She has seen Casson’s work over the years become “cleaner, with fewer details, a refined color palette and greater conceptual impact.”

Born in Montréal to French immigrant parents, Casson spent part of her childhood in Africa. She and her family moved to Algeria and then Burundi because of her father’s mechanical engineering jobs (her mother, formerly a social worker, became a teacher abroad). “I felt different, and I think this contributed in some way to making me an artist,” says Casson. But it wasn’t until she started college that she discovered illustration could actually be a career. Then she ditched her reluctant plan to be an economist and, in 1996, earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Québec in Montréal, with design-instructor luminaries Frédéric Metz, Michèle Lemieux and Mieczyslaw Gorowski.

After graduation, when not at her part-time marketing job, Casson cold-called art directors to meet with them and show her portfolio of kraft-paper-and-ink collages, followed soon after with gouache and colored-pencil illustrations. She mailed out beautiful handmade promo pieces, and for two years, she volunteered as president of Illustration Québec to connect with other artists and further her work. She gave illustration workshops for children, which she still does in several of Montréal’s primary schools every year. Quickly, she learned to constantly get herself out there by using a variety of approaches, something she’s never stopped doing. “What works best is perseverance,” Casson says. Back then, she took every freelance illustra­tion job that came her way, her firsts being Québec Science magazine and Shape. Two years in, Casson took a nine-month-long entrepreneur-education program, subsidized by the government, to learn how to run a successful business.

It’s important that I’m not stuck in some recipe that’s always expected of me.”

But a decade later, she was still working in gouache and felt frustrated. “For several years, I hadn’t been able to approach illustration the way I thought in my head.” She started exploring oil pastels and enjoyed it, but that wasn’t her medium either. Then she took a weekend silkscreening class and remembers feeling “really alive.” Though the process was too time-consuming for editorial’s fast turnaround, she adapted its basic technique to the computer.

But it doesn’t stop here for Casson, who continues to evolve her work. “It’s important that I’m not stuck in some recipe that’s always expected of me.” So she keeps moving, and not just by experimenting with other mediums. From kayaking to indoor climbing to cardio-ball exercise, “I try to push the limits with everything I do.”

Most recently, she has begun exploring surface design patterns for textiles, paper products and food-packaging design, and she’s excited by the possibilities of animated editorial illustrations. “A lot more people are looking to make a living off their illustrations, so your portfolio has to be your voice. I work with who I am and trust that it’s not the technical aspect of what I do that’s important, but the me part that makes my work interesting.”

What makes Casson’s work interesting to her? “When I illustrate, I feel I’m at my best to say what I know about the human experience,” she says. It’s like facing a block of wood poised for the chisel’s first cut. “I’m not sure what that work will look like, but it’s in my head somewhere, waiting to be born.” This much she knows: whether she’s making illustrations, prints or sculptures, Casson’s work is taking on an even more genuine shape and richer dimension. ca

Claire Sykes (sykeswrites.com) is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. She covers design, the visual and other arts, business, community, philanthropy and health for national magazines. She also writes website pages, blog posts and annual reports; and works with authors on their nonfiction books.


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