Interview with illustrator Sunny Eckerle

Sunny Eckerle is an illustrator from southern Colorado now based in Brooklyn. Using lovely pastel  and soft colours, her work is utterly charming, including maps and editorial illustrations, as well as being full of distinctive characters, cosy houses, and cute cats, with her series ‘Brooklyn Bodega Cats’ capturing the cats that live in local Brooklyn shops. She has created work for clients such as Penguin Random House, Urban Outfitters, Father/Daughter Records, and Country Living Magazine, among many more. We asked Sunny herself to tell us more about her illustrations and use of colour, her work for clients, and creative dreams.

How did you get into illustration? What compels you to create?

I have a BFA in Graphic Design, but my programme was very studio art based. When I was in school it felt a bit disjointed, but now I realise I was able to have the best of both worlds in that I learned technical skills such as the Adobe programmes, but was also able to experiment with medium and style in a studio environment. During this time I was always most interested in drawing and illustrative elements. It took a few years after college before I was able to marry my interest in illustration with an actual career, but I had the foundation and passion to make it work. I can’t remember back to a time when I wasn’t drawing, writing, or creating. If I don’t make things it really affects my mood. I can become cranky and anxious and generally irritable. But as soon as I focus that energy into making or finishing something, I feel more peaceful and and at ease. It’s a necessary part of my well being.

Your work has a lovely distinctive style to it – how did you develop this?

Repetition and editing! I’ve found that no matter what, my work will always look like I did it. I’ve had a few phases over the years in which I actively wanted to change or adjust the look of my illustration, but no matter what I could always see my hand in what I drew. I realised that having a specific style isn’t about deciding on a look and forcing it to happen, but rather identify the elements I liked from my own natural style and improving on those. It took a lot of repetition to start seeing what I liked, but from there I was able embrace certain aspects of how I naturally drew and build upon it. I’m sure that will continue to happen throughout my career and I welcome it – I would feel quite sad if the best thing I ever made was already behind me!

I like your use of quite soft colours, it’s interesting to see compared to a lot of very vibrant illustration. Tell us about this use of colour.

I like to find a balance between precision and looseness in my work. There are some aspects that are more hardened, such as the black line work I use throughout and the isometric projection in some pieces. While I’m drawn to a certain level of exactness, my work is also imperfect and organic. Using soft colours can bring a lightness and ease. I want my work to convey a quiet happiness or a simple contentment versus being loud or demanding. I think the colours reflect that mood.

Tell us about your ‘Brooklyn Bodega Cats’ series.

‘Brooklyn Bodega Cats’ is an ongoing, illustrated series of bodega cats and the stores they call home. I started this project in 2014, a few years after moving to Brooklyn. The bodega cat, or store cat, who lives permanently in a shop to keep mice and pests away is a uniquely urban element, especially so for New York City. The first time I came across one of these cats I was so thrilled by it, both as a cat lover and a new resident of Brooklyn. This series was a way to share my excitement with others and in a more technical sense, a way to challenge myself and improve upon my work through an ongoing series. The response to the series has been quite good! It has been featured on sites such as Design Taxi, Time Out New York, My Modern Met, and Design Crush. I’ve also turned a few of the cats into enamel pins with Valley Cruise Press. I’ve received a lot of requests to illustrate people’s cats in a similar manner in front of their home or a favourite coffee shop or restaurant. It’s been a really fun way to connect with people in Brooklyn and beyond.

“While I’m drawn to a certain level of exactness, my work is also imperfect and organic. Using soft colours can bring a lightness and ease. I want my work to convey a quiet happiness or a simple contentment versus being loud or demanding.”

What kind of briefs and clients are you drawn to?

Lately I’ve been working on editorial assignments which I’ve really enjoyed. With editorial work, there is an additional layer to the challenge! Not only is there the task of illustrating something that works visually, but it also needs to make a further connection with the writing, whether it’s in a funny way or through a clever combination of symbolism. I like that it challenges me as an artist, but also as a thinker and communicator.

Which commissions have you most enjoyed responding to?

There was a bit of controversy at the end of last year surrounding a bodega cat named Star. Someone left a negative Yelp review for Star’s deli after seeing her in the store. I suppose this person wasn’t familiar with bodega cats or the love that people have for them. The internet got very upset with her and indignant that she would dare leave a bad review just because of a shop cat. While bodega cats were getting all this attention, I was commissioned by Bedford and Bowery, a NYC centric news website, to illustrate the bodega and cat at the centre of the controversy. It’s always nice to be asked to do more of what you’re already doing (and to also get paid for it!).

Do you have a favourite series or piece of work that you’ve created?

It can change so quickly! There are illustrations I absolutely loved at the time but when I look back on it on 6 months I only see what I would have done differently or something I’ve since changed with my style. But that’s okay, it means I’m continually growing! Over the last year I worked with Curbed for their Home Handbook project. It was right up my alley as I got to draw tons of houses and home scenes. It was also a unique challenge to work on one project for such a long period of time. The illustration needed to be cohesive and part of the same body of work but I also wanted to push myself so it didn’t feel repetitive or dull. Finding that balance was a great experience and I’m very happy with that project as a whole.

Is there something you ultimately want to communicate or achieve with your work?

A few years ago I became interested in something I dubbed “the feeling of overwhelming contentment” which is just a sense of wellbeing that comes over me when I am happy to be where I am at that moment. It’s typically very small things – having coffee in bed with the sun just starting to come through the window or staying in on a Friday evening when the apartment is freshly cleaned. A lot of my work explores and incorporates this notion. That’s why many of my images centre around the idea of home as a haven or a welcoming place to be. I want to express that idea of space and emotion through my work. Even my ‘Brooklyn Bodega Cat’ series carries similar themes in that the illustrations showcase the cat’s homes and the bodegas within my own area that make up a community.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now I’m finishing an assignment for Intercom and another for Brooklyn Magazine. I had a lot of freedom on both and have really enjoyed them! I’m also releasing two new Brooklyn Bodega Cat enamel pins very soon!

What’s your dream creative project? 

So many things come to mind! My fiancé and I are hoping to pitch some projects we’d work on together – he does a lot of freelance writing so he’d provide the words and I’d handle illustrations. I’d love to create the artwork for a beer can or wine label or coffee package, draw custom maps for different cities or for the National Park Service, illustrate a book cover, make more bodega cat products…I’m always excited by the different opportunities that arise and allow me to do this for a living.

Check out more of Sunny’s work at: www.sunnyeckerle.com or on her Instagram.