Raymond Biesinger’s intricate illustrations have popped up everywhere from The Walrus to The New Yorker to GQ—so many places in the past 10 years, in fact, that the Edmonton-bred, Montreal-based artist has collected them in one convenient book. And since Black & White Illustrations has a chapter of rough sketches tucked in the back, we asked Biesinger to guide us from his initial, ballpoint-pen idea to its polished, published form.
1. “This image is from a six-page visual essay I did for Print this fall. The magazine simply gave me a theme: International. I knew I was going to create personifications of various international organizations, and it was a no-brainer to do the Soviet Union and its counterpart, NATO. Some of the other bodies included Coca-Cola, the UN, and, for a bit of levity, the Freemasons and the International Cat Association.”
2. “I liked the idea of showing the Soviet Union as this industrial behemoth that is a lot more Industrial Age than high-tech. The tank tread is a stand-in for militarism. There are an incredible amount of IOUs, because the Soviet Union was heavily in debt at the end. And his right hand is pointing towards the red button: nuclear arsenal.”
3. “My roughs are done rapidly and meant to capture the spirit of the work. I do notes to myself: the G is for the gulag. I spent my years right after high school re-reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and then I studied Eastern European history at university, so it was fun to express that knowledge in this way.”
4. “My figures are exceptionally inarticulate. I sometimes get a little ambitious with roughs—someone’s holding something in a fist—but it isn’t typically the kind of concept that I care about when I’m making my finals. What matters to me is all the information, the data, not the body language.”
5. “The only edit in the entire essay was here. The art director’s wife is from Latvia, and so he was like, ‘Where’s the Latvian flag?’ The flags in the Soviet Union’s hand represent each of the countries of the Warsaw Pact, and technically, Latvia wasn’t part of that. But I thought, I’m going to sub out Bulgaria, throw Latvia in there, and no one’s going to notice, and his wife is going to be so happy. I hope there aren’t any Bulgarians who are mad that I’m revising history.”
6. “In the rough, I drew the AK-47, but the square I reserved for it was inappropriately shaped, so I slipped typography into it instead. Or maybe I was just short on time. That happens.”
7. “I’m a notorious repurposer of my own work—I love ripping myself off. That skull is from a book that I’m working on that won’t be out for a few years, but I thought, Why not put it in there?”
8. “I learned how to illustrate in black and white, and it’s my favourite thing to do. Colour makes me crazy. I haven’t yet figured out exactly why and how I feel about certain colours—it can be this emotional, irrational thing. And given that my stock in trade is rationality, the fact that I don’t get this part of things is really frustrating.”
9. “If you look at the heads, there are, in sequence, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev. They’re very simplified; that was always my intention. However, you can see Gorbachev’s birthmark.”
10. “I often use geometric shapes I’ve found, and I scan them into the computer. If you look at almost any figure I’ve made, you will probably see arms [with] a very familiar curve, and the reason for that is they’re all derived from the same child’s toy. It’s an old, semi-oval racetrack, and I cut and paste a different width of lane for whatever size arm I need. When I reuse these shapes, which I do all the time, it creates a vocabulary that I have and that people can recognize, and that’s the foundation of style.”
Raymond Biesinger launches Black & White Illustrations on Dec. 7 at Kid Icarus, 205 Augusta Ave., 416-977-7236, kidicarus.ca.