What’s on the menu today…?
Peter reveals through his process for coming up with a cover for venerable title The New Yorker
“My work often begins with a visual dichotomy of some kind. In this case, my initial doodle had something to do with carnivores at a vegan restaurant, the kind of place you can easily find in a Brooklyn neighbourhood like mine. My wife, Randall, has been a vegetarian since she was 12 and though I tried being one for almost eight years. I realised it just wasn’t for me. That moment, when I first began to rethink my diet, is what this cover is all about.
Once I landed on the lion with a salad watching more delicious options walk by, I began to refine the drawing. Originally, I had an anaemic-looking lion, but soon decided on a healthier version. After that, I concentrated on his expression. It’s amazing how the tilt of a head, the placement of an eyebrow or even the height of an eyelid can totally change the tone of a drawing. In the end, I wanted the viewer to hear the lion think to himself, “Hmmm.”
I don’t generally go overboard with references. I always do my rough sketches out of my head, so I’m not too constrained by the facts. Still, there are little touches one can discover by looking at photos of a place he or she is depicting – the little flower in the mason jar on the table and the exposed brick wall all telegraph the kind of earthy, crunchy-granola vibe a place like this projects. It also didn’t hurt to take a closer look at what a lion’s face is really about. It’s easy to convince yourself you know how to draw a thing, but that can lead to an over-reliance on cartoony clichés. I like my exaggeration to be based on reality, at least a little bit, to help me put an idea over the top.”
Brooklyn townhouse, where, second cup of coffee in hand, he sits down at his drawing board and waits for “exquisite, heartrending images to spill from my pen. Hours later, without having looked up from my work even once, I turn out the light and go back upstairs to rejoin my family… None of this has ever happened, of course.”
a gauntlet of distractions
His home studio “is a wonderful place,” which is part of the problem. Bookshelves overflow all around the room. Art from friends and heroes hang on the walls. “Just crossing the room is like running a gauntlet of distractions. I often find myself staring at a book or a picture, wondering what the hell I was meant to do in the first place.”
Ideas typically come to him away from the drawing board, during those distracted times, when he’s doodling in his sketchbook or out running. He divides his time between the two fields, character design and editorial illustration. In both, his aims are similar: to create a character or an image that’s just one or step or two away from reality, something that’s plays of a bigger narrative, a bigger idea, something that drives the pictures towards its ultimate punchline.
“Almost all of my biggest heroes, past and present, are artists whose work is somewhat grounded in reality,” Peter says, “with a general respect for anatomy and perspective, while still disregarding them for the sake of telling a story. Or a joke.
“In my Rat Race picture, for instance, I make dead sure that the first thing you absorb is a lone commuter standing on an empty platform waiting for a train. I don’t want you to see the rat below him doing exactly the same thing until the second beat. I composed the piece so the man is dead centre; you have no choice but to go there first.”
Peter ends with this key advice: “Just like telling a joke or a story: your setup is just as important as your punchline.”
I loved to draw things that would amuse myself and other people. That’s kind of the job of an illustrator
A New Leaf Peter likes works built around a “visual dichotomy”, such as a lion in a vegan restaurant. He then develops the character, capturing details like facial expressions. Constrained by facts Peter doesn’t use many references for his work. Early sketches are done in his head, where he can’t be “constrained by the facts.” Spotting mistakes Peter has created around 50 covers the iconic The New Yorker magazine, but finds it difficult to look at old work. He always sees the things he didn’t get quite right.
The Little Prince character designs One of Peter’s earliest influences was Frank Frazetta. He loves his “exaggerated realism” and used similar techniques in his work on The Little Prince. study on a sofa Even when shown in a quiet moment, Peter’s characters still exhibit life in their expressions and body language.