Peter de Sève
The American artist tells Gary Evans why drawing well is like telling a good joke
Peter de Sève, aged 16, a student at Parsons school of art and design, walks through Greenwich Village to the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal Streets. It’s snowing. He finds a table in Café Figaro, the New York coffeehouse whose past regulars include Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac, where he drinks cappuccinos and draws in his sketchbook. With his drawings, Peter’s trying to impress people – friends, girls too. And it’s during these quiet afternoons that he starts to understand what it means to be illustrator, and exactly what it is an illustration is supposed to do. “It was a magical time,” the artist says. “It was 1977 when I started Parsons. For a kid from Long Island, living away from home for the first time, it couldn’t have been more exciting. The punk scene was in full swing – yet there was still a faint whiff of the
folk scene down on Bleecker Street. There were hardcore punks and stoned hippies all over the place, and that’s where friends and I spent most of our free time. We’d walk through the snow and hunker down at the Café Figaro.
“I just loved to draw things that would amuse myself and other people. That’s kind of the job of an illustrator in a nutshell, isn’t it? It’s not only about pleasing yourself but you have to communicate to and entertain an audience. Every drawing is an opportunity to make someone feel something specific and to do it in the cleverest, most economical way possible. I’ve always loved that challenge. I think I was hard-wired to be an illustrator from birth.”
Constrained by the facts
In 1995, Disney came calling. Peter accepted an offer to work on character designs for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They didn’t use much of his work, but it was the beginning of a long career in character design. His credits now include A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and all five Ice Age film – he created the endearing character Scrat for the franchise.
Peter says his work is as much about concept as it is technique. He likes a strong image, a split idea – like a lion in a vegan restaurant. His character designs are often about the little details that change the image in a big way: a head tilt, an eyebrow raised. He doesn’t use too many references, because he doesn’t want to be “constrained by the facts.” Yet any exaggerations in his characters must also feel real and credible. He describes his own work as looking contemporary, but “glazed with a 19thcentury patina.” And as a working illustrator and character designer, the viewer is always an important part of what he does.
How your audience views your work determines how well you’ve told the story
“To me,” Peter says, “the viewer is the second most important element in picturemaking, second only to the picture itself. How your audience views your work – meaning in which order he or she takes in what is happening in your picture – determines how well you’ve told the story.”
Peter is also known for his front covers for The New Yorker magazine. For 20 years, he “worked in the trenches” of editorial illustrations, submitting as many as three pieces each week to Forbes, Business Week and The New York Times, among others. He’s also created book covers and posters for Broadway shows.
He’d been at Parson for a year when he was introduced to editorial illustration. The 1970s, he says, was editorial illustration’s heyday. He came across a book called The Art of the Times. It contained editorial art by illustrators “hired for their hand as well as their brain,” such as American artist Brad Holland.
“Man, I loved his work,” he says. “He fit perfectly into that rubric of exaggerated realism I mentioned earlier. But beyond his drawing style, were images that insisted the viewer engage with them. Not literal solutions that simply depicted what the article was about, but visual companions to the written words, which made their own, independent statement.”
Exagg erated realism
For many years, Peter worked late at night and would stick at it until the early hours of the morning. He’s easily distracted. There were fewer interruptions at night. After he got married and had a family, he switched to “a much healthier” nine-to-five. But that doesn’t mean he’s free of distractions.
His dream working day looks something like this: he lives and works in a
Almost all of my biggest heroes are artists whose work is grounded in reality
The Little Girl Peter worked on the recent 3D animated film The Little Prince. This drawing is a development sketch of a “smart and precocious” character known simply as The Little Girl. Scrat Sketches Peter created Scrat, a sabre-toothed squirrel and one of the stars of the Ice Age franchise. He drew these sketches in 2006 using wax crayon on film.
Peter’s big break In 1995 Peter accepted an offer from Disney to work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was the start of a long career in character design. Crocodile Tears This unused New Yorker cover, created in watercolour and ink, shows Peter’s love of an arresting image that’s full of character. Scrat de SÈve This wax crayon drawing shows sees Peter looking a lot like his most famous creation, Scrat from Ice Age.
Crash “Every drawing is an opportunity to make someone feel something specific,” Peter says. Monster Trucks Peter worked on Monster Trucks, a film released earlier this year. This subterranean creature is, appropriately, called Creech. Shangri-La This handsome bunch are inhabitants of Shangri-La, taken from last year’s Ice Age: Collision Course. Rat RAce Peter says a good drawing is like a good joke: the punchline should always come at the end: like seeing the rat after seeing the commuter.