Illustrator Carolyn Figel imbues her drawings with observations on contemporary culture

Carolyn Figel is a freelance illustrator, animator and designer based in Brooklyn.

Can you tell us about your early childhood and where you grew up? Are you from a creative background?

Drawing was something that I always grew up doing. It’s something I feel the most comfortable with, and it seems to be the foundation of any creative project I’m working on.

I grew up in Evanston, Illinois which is a suburb of Chicago. I took it for granted growing up, but I was raised in a very creative environment. My mom writes poetry, my dad and brother are both writers, my sister is a painter, and my other sister works in fashion. We all seemed to find a different route to go down, and mine ended up being illustration.

But not at first. I always took art classes growing up, but I always considered it to be more of a hobby. Defining myself as an “artist” was never going to be my thing. Then college happened. I attended the University of British Columbia, with the intention of majoring in Asian Studies. I started taking more and more art classes as electives, until I finally realized that I should just major in Visual Arts.

Drawing was something that I always grew up doing. It’s something I feel the most comfortable with, and it seems to be the foundation of any creative project I’m working on.

Carolyn Figel

As an artist who lives in New York, what do you take from the city environment and how does it inform your work? What do you enjoy doing there?

When school ended, I knew I had had my fill of the pacific northwest. I know a lot of people are inspired by lush natural settings, but that’s not really my style. I love (and sometimes hate New York) because it is the complete opposite. I mean, New York is pretty gross. But aside from the stench of hot china town garbage in the summer New York is also amazing. People from every different background live on top of each other here, and it’s fun to see how they influence each other.

The best part about living in New York is leaving it, and then getting excited to return. You get to reset your mind. It keeps my brain active.

Carolyn Figel

I like going to galleries and museums in New York, but sometimes a ride on the subway can be just as inspiring as a trip to the Met. I have started to mix imagery and text in my work, and I think it’s a reaction to the amount of advertisements I’m subjected to everyday. I don’t know if it inspires me creatively, but taking a trip to Flushing to eat noodles always helps me feel better.

 

You use a lot of gestural, mark making to capture people and aspects of contemporary culture. Can you talk us through how your style has evolved? Where do you find inspiration, both within and beyond arts?

In college I remember getting in trouble for the way I held my pen. “it’s too tight- you’re restricting the movement”, said my professor. But I was also 18 at the time, and figured it was too late to change old habits.

A running theme of my work has always been trying to revive old materials into new work. In college I would peruse old thrift stores and buy framed family photos. I was obsessed with drawing over the faces and adding bunny ears and facial hair or glasses.

When I moved to New York I would search through the dollar books at Strand and make collages out of the images I found in the books. Books with a matte finish were my favourite. I especially loved books about weight loss and work out routines.

I think in my recent work, my drawing style is an attempt to make something pretty out of some really ugly content. Sometimes after I read the news, it feels like the sky is falling. I like to create absurd compositions to retaliate against how crazy the world feels right now.

Also, old white men seem to be the most fun to draw. They have all the creases in their faces, and bags under their eyes, and three chins. I have no interest in a portrait of a model there’s no character there!

I like going to galleries and museums in New York, but sometimes a ride on the subway can be just as inspiring as a trip to the Met. I have started to mix imagery and text in my work, and I think it’s a reaction to the amount of advertisements I’m subjected to everyday.

Carolyn Figel

Can you name a recent project you’ve undertaken that you’re particularly proud of? 

Working for the magazine Lucky Peach has been on my bucket list for a long time. I was able to work with their creative director on the next (and last?) issue due out in May. Lucky Peach has always pushed the boundaries of standard design, and I was really excited to work with their art director Rob Engvall.

From start to finish the whole project was pretty seamless. I sent a link to my website to Lucky Peach, and quickly heard back about an assignment. They gave me the article, and pretty much just let me run with it once I sent over a few rough drafts. They didn’t nitpick my work at the end, or ask for any last minute changes. I think one of their strong suits is assigning the right artist for the right article.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working? Where and how do you find inspiration?

A lot of things! I love having a sense of humour with my work, so I go to a lot of comedy shows in my free time. It takes the edge off the state of things (e.g. Trump!) if you have a good joke about it.

I like going to see bands play, visiting the theatre when I can afford it, and taking trips out of the city. Last fall I went to Morocco with a friend and I came back to New York with a new appreciation of textile design, and pattern design.

Until I can afford to rent a separate space, my “studio” is my desk in my bedroom. It is pretty hard to stay busy when your desk is next to your bed, but I guess I have a good work ethic.

Carolyn Figel

Tell us a little about your studio. What view do you have from the window? What are the most coveted things in your studio or on your desk?

Until I can afford to rent a separate space, my “studio” is my desk in my bedroom. Luckily my apartment gets great light during the day, and the commute is pretty decent. It is pretty hard to stay busy when your desk is next to your bed, but I guess I have a good work ethic.

Outside my window is an old factory building that used to have the letters “EE UNSH” on the outside. I recently found out it used to be an umbrella factory, and the sign originally said “Embee Sunshade”. My neighbour-hood still has a large Italian population, so next door there is the Don Bosco Knights of Columbus council. That pretty much just means when it’s nice out there, a group of old men drink beer on lawn chairs out front.

On my desk is my computer, my Wacom tablet, a scanner, and an assortment of brushes, pens, coloured pencils, markers and crayons. I have a white piece of paper taped up on the wall next to me, and I keep waiting for an idea of what to draw or paint on it.

My most coveted items in my studio are gifts from friends (ie- the pair of Camron socks I have framed), artwork by friends, and this one half-finished painting I found on the street and decided to take home.

What are the main challenges for you as a freelance illustrator working in Brooklyn?

Staying original and not getting swayed by all the other great illustrators out there can be hard. The internet can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.

Carolyn Figel

The main challenge is getting work that pays decently. Illustration is too often seen as easy, and can be under appreciated – even thought it’s so versatile!

Besides that, staying original and not getting swayed by all the other great illustrators out there. The internet can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.

Seeing other illustrators success will either propel me to work harder, or start me doubting my own talents. In the end you just have to keep working and block out the outside voices. And know that there will be slower times with less work; you should savour those moments. Because in a week you could have four projects due at the same time, and you’ll live off of coffee and pizza and long for the times that you had less to do.

What is included within your designers toolkit? Why are they so important to your process?

I love pens. In high school my sister and I would drive to Staples to check out the pen collection. Some of my favourite pens and brushes to draw with are: Precise V5, Pentel Arts Water-Based Color Brush Pens, And Le Pens. I don’t do a lot of drafting ahead of time. I tend to keep drawing the same thing on repeat until i’m happy with it. (It’s probably not the most efficient use of my time)

I try to keep a notebook and a pen in my bag all the time. I like to draw when I’m bored on the train, or waiting for friends. I bought an iPad pro because I was going on a long trip, and I had four episodes left of Breaking Bad to watch. It turned out to be a great investment because now I have a portable Cintiq where ever I go!

 What are you aspirations for the rest of 2017 Do you have any specific bucket list ideas you’re itching to tick off the creative list?

I just want to work on more projects that I am proud of, and that I feel meaning in. I would love to work with a writer and create a short for Adult Swim. Or work with a charity and create an animation for them to raise awareness for their cause.

Visit www.carolynfigel.com | Instagram @carolynfigel

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Posted on May 15th, 17 by | Twitter: @inkygoodness

Adam joined Inkygoodness in 2016 and is now a director of the company, working closely alongside founder and creative director Lisa Hassell. He is one of the main contributors to the site, and as editor-in-chief, the first point of contact for artist submissions.

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