The Changing World of Illustration: An Interview with Joanna Neborsky

The Changing World of Illustration: An Interview with Joanna Neborsky

Joshua Isackson

Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

Illustrator Joanna Neborsky has a unique sensibility that borrows from period newspaper clippings and all things vintage, while having a distinctly modern, streamlined quality. Neborsky studied literature at Yale, lives in Brooklyn, and her clients include the New York Times and HarperCollins. After spending a day volunteering for Hurricane Sandy relief in Coney Island, she sat down for an interview with OOO to discuss her work and the illustration industry.

OOO: How would you describe your illustration style? Collage? Playful? Doodles? How did you get to where you are now?

Neborsky: You can call them that; “doodles” is fine. I don’t mind—that’s how they began. When I studied at the School of Visual Arts, all I knew was how to draw funny faces. I would draw free-floating figures, and my professors would tell me, “If you want to add volume, add depth, just use collage.” That way, I can meld my messy brushwork with magazine clippings and stuff from the 1960s, for example.

It would take a lot of effort for me
to make something not by me.

My style pulls from a lot of different things. I’ve heard Steinberg meets Monty Python, among other names. I think there is like this absurdist collage, blended with a loose hand. My style also might have something to do with Ralph Steadman, Andy Warhol’s children’s books, etc.

OOO: What details do you focus on in your illustrations? What do you emphasize, and what do you pass over as less important?

Neborsky: I think it depends on the assignment, and who is assigning, and what venue, and at what size. With the New York Times, I have to be very conscientious; if I use collage, I have to go to the weirdest and most obscure corners of magazines because of copyright issues. Before 1916, I think I’m okay, but if things are from the 60s or 70s, I have to hope that no one’s mom will recognize herself in my collages.

I like to start with the theme. Let’s say it’s climate change. I will page through random books with agricultural topics, look for agricultural images, print them out, paste them on one sheet, and just play and look for different combinations. Sometimes turnaround time is two hours; sometimes it’s more panic than method.

Longer-range projects, of course, like books, take more time—I have to ask myself: do I want it to be graphic and saturated? Do I want it to be minimalist and clean?

OOO: Do you think your style lends itself more to a particular type of story or theme?

Neborsky: There are so many different camps in illustration, and I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in. For better or for worse, I am in a literary ghetto—anything that requires miscellany from the 19th century, any comic, blackly humorous, historical subjects, I could be called upon to illustrate. I work with cutouts from old photographs. I can’t do what Edward Gorey does, but I can pretend to.

OOO: So some of your projects are quite serious, and some are less so (gift guides, for example). How do you maintain your aesthetic and your braininess throughout your projects?

Neborsky: There is no way to not maintain your aesthetic, and this true of almost any illustrator. It would take a lot of effort for me to make something not by me. I’m always looking for the easiest way. My style is loose and clumsy, but my work is going to look loose and absurd, because I have to work fast and love to work fast. I don’t know how to work painstakingly. I can’t do pointillization. I can’t do it, actually do not know how to do it. My limits determine my aesthetic.

OOO: Does your style ever spill over into your life? Does your life ever seem to become an absurdist collage? Or does your life inform your style?

Neborsky: I don’t erect boundaries between life and work. I make things based on what I like, and what I like are things that are blackly humorous in the realm of literature. I’m a little vintage oriented—my work borrows from another era. That’s what I love, what I gravitated toward. My mom worked in art galleries in the 70s, so prints and lithographs, that‘s what I grew up looking at.

The old joke is that you read Playboy for the articles…
I now read Playboy for the illustrations.

My style is imitative, so I imitate and imitate, and hopefully something original possibly happens. Maybe I’ll have ten years of imitating what I love and then produce something original.

OOO: Earlier this year, you had a sort of writer’s block, which you call “the Great Illustrator’s Block of Early 2012.” How did that happen? What was it like?

Neborsky: This was the first time in my career when I had to think: what am I trying to do as an illustrator? Am I trying to hustle and just get by? Or am I trying to make one lasting project? I was interested in too many things; everything seemed too possible. You don’t want to make a false step, don’t want to devote your time to a subject that would never sell, and so I felt a lot of pressure to choose wisely, in a way that I had never before felt, and so that was absolutely stopping me from making anything. I didn’t know where to go.

OOO: How did your most recent project, “A Partial Inventory of Gustave Flaubert’s Personal Effects,” get you past that?

Neborsky: What was so great about the project was that it was an orderly list of things. It was like: I have to illustrate these 155 objects. I don’t have to strategize; I simply have to work. And when you work—the answer to any neurotic artist’s life is to work, to sit down and stop questioning—you find your way. The fact that it was so uncreative actually helped me. The project ended up being completely fun and stimulating and actually led me to other creative endeavors.

OOO: Who is your audience? Are these children’s books before they are for the general audience or are they just illustrated grown-up books?

Neborsky: I think my books are for weird adults. I do one day want to get into children’s books. Everyone wants to write a children’s book because they think it’s easy. They think they can just write a paragraph of words, but it’s so hard to make something good, funky, hard to not treat kids like idiots. I still think I’m in the world of adults. I don’t think there are a ton of them who think like me, but I think there are some of them. I’m not an established illustrator quite yet, but I’m slowly figuring out whether I have an audience that could grow and that’s not just 25 people.

I thought to myself: this would be
a great chance to read all the stuff
that I never got around to reading.

Going into all this, I didn’t have a full sense of the illustration world. I thought I could illustrate children’s books and classics. I thought to myself: this would be a great chance to read all the stuff that I never got around to reading. I thought I would be illustrating books like Moby Dick. I’ve only illustrated a few obscure classics in my career so far (classics is an elastic term, of course), but I still might illustrate Moby Dick one day.

OOO: What do you think of illustration as a discipline, as a career?

Neborsky: I’m so psyched that I found this thing that lets me draw, and read and draw, so very lucky. Illustration is completely changing, from what I hear, but still, there’s no deficit of people looking to hire people to sell a story visually.

I’m making an incredibly modest living from illustrating. But I’m told many times over by people who have a stake in the publishing industry surviving and a stake in illustration as a career: illustrated books is an emerging market. I hope that’s true. Otherwise, I’m completely screwed.

There definitely is less reliance on newspapers and magazines. The emphasis is shifting toward advertising, away from editorials, and I think I have to be more amenable to the fact that I have to get into motion design. I have to get better at designing for screens because that’s how we communicate with each other these days.

OOO: Do you know a lot of other illustrators? How do illustrators network?

Neborsky: I went to illustration school, so I met a lot of people there. There are industry events, parties, etc. The old joke is that you read Playboy for the articles…I now read Playboy for the illustrations. You read the name next to the illustration, and then you go to American illustrators’ parties, people wear nametags, and you match name to face. People come from all sides of the coin. Some have been doing this for a long time, others came from graphic design, or from an English degree. It’s a wild, wide world.

OOO: What do you think is the best part of being an illustrator?

Neborsky: I’m not an accountant. I’m not filing inventory reports. I am sharpening crayons and drawing people running across a field. My assignments are so absurd and ridiculous and lighthearted, even though there may be a crisis in my work, there really is no crisis. I love the bare bones creativity—it’s fun, simply fun, it’s working my hands, with scissors. It’s so kindergarten that it’s fun.

OOO: Is this your dream career? Has illustration been what you thought it would be?

Neborsky: I think it will be my dream career. I have some dream projects in mind. I would love to involve travel in my work. It does a little, but I want it to be more institutional, and I know that happens with a certain amount of achievement. If I could travel, I would call you back and say yes, it is my dream career.

There’s no deficit of people looking
to hire people to sell a story visually.

I would love to work on an animated music video. I’ve been told the way to do that is to make a fan video and then get linked up with the artist, and so one day, when I have 4 million hours, I’ll do it. I would also love to do some opening film titles of neo noir films, but right now, nothing feels impossible; I’m just starting out.

OOO: What’s next on your plate?

Neborsky: I’m moving to Los Angeles for a few months to work on a book about the city. I’ve fantasized about living there for a decade. I’ll be living in this tree house and working around the clock. I will also be illustrating a literary almanac coming out next year for another author.

OOO: What illustrators do you admire that may be outside your genre?

Neborsky: Sammy Harkham. He runs Family Bookstore in LA and has done a lot of album covers for Bonnie Prince Billy, and his work is great. I just bought this book of paintings by Jonas Wood called Interiors, and it’s really beautiful. I’m completely going to take this to LA. He does this large scale.

Also, a couple weeks ago, I got a book in the mail called Comics Sketchbooks. Gary Panter is in it, and I was surprised to find out that I’m in it too! It is so crazy and awesome, because I love these guys and I’m there too. It was a good day.

You can view more of Joanna Neborsky’s illustrations at

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