Peter de Sève

The Amer­i­can artist tells Gary Evans why draw­ing well is like telling a good joke

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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.

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