New Yorker illustrator plays with his art on Instagram

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From Abstract Sunday, an Instagram Feed by the illustrator Christoph Niemann. Illustration by Christoph Niemann
From Abstract Sunday, an Instagram feed by illustrator Christoph Niemann. Illustration: Christoph Niemann

Artists don’t always explain themselves well.

Even acclaimed illustrator Christoph Niemann, who can articulate the mysteries of creativity better than many, doesn’t always understand the moment when the head, heart and eyes merge with skills and gifts to produce a brilliant piece. It’s like trying to put into words the act of breathing.

But every Sunday, we can behold the headwaters of his creative flow.

Best known for his New Yorker covers and illustrations for The New York Times, Niemann carves out a little time each week to add to a personal body of work called Abstract Sunday. Each Sunday, he posts the last week’s creation under the same name on Instagram.

Everyday objects combined with Niemann’s sweeping pen strokes get an alternative life. Half an avocado with pit becomes the ball and glove of an outstretched outfielder, a drug-store comb becomes the grill of a vintage luxury car, and loosely coiled earbuds become the eyes of a mosquito, the plug its stinger dripping with blood.

Put Niemann on a plane — he frequently flies between New York and his home in Berlin — and the scattered little lines that are on the cabin’s wallpaper become hair clippings flying off the scissors of a barber at work (see for yourself in the gallery below).

Abstract Sunday displays the playful nimbleness of Niemann’s brain. We see how he sees.

“The work of an illustrator involves reacting to content that has been given to you,” Niemann told Cult of Mac. “With (Abstract Sunday), I come up with the idea; these are my stories and I am communicating through the image. It’s kind of a breather from my regular work but it also is the essence of my regular work.”

Illustrator Christoph Niemann. Photo: Gene Glover
Illustrator Christoph Niemann. Photo: Gene Glover

In some ways, the illustrator is a wordsmith without the words. Shapes, forms, characters and scenes are arranged and charged with communicating the essence of stories, ideas and opinions.

In his New Yorker covers, Niemann’s sparing and graphic style are carefully crafted sentences — smart, funny and poignant — that match the legendary writing between the covers. His work is also reportage: Niemann once made illustrations of the New York Marathon as he ran it, and he has also drawn live from the London Olympics and the 2012 Republican Convention.

He is comfortable with animation as well and developed the app Petting Zoo, a quirky collection of characters with stories that are advanced with swipes and touches of the finger. It has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

A member of the Art Directors Hall of Fame, he will have a solo show at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna that will run June 30 through Oct. 11.

With assignments and deadlines always in front of him, Abstract Sunday is Niemann’s play time. The Instgram name sets an expectation that he will deliver on that day. So while he plays, he still works to connect with an audience.

“I can look at a screwdriver or a lamp and have absolutely no clue where it will take me,” Niemann said. “I am completely open to letting the object dictate. But sometimes, a millimeter can make the difference in an image that people can read versus one that makes no sense. So I draw and redraw and it is completely opposite from effortless. Like any artist, it’s about one idea, not the 19 you don’t show.”[avocado-gallery ids=”309690,309691,309692,309694,309695,309696,309697,309698,309699,309701”]