Interview with illustrator Nicole Rifkin

Brooklyn based illustrator Nicole Rifkin creates work that is at once dark yet vibrant, drawn in a expressive hand that brings to mind graphic novels and punk imagery. The scenes and characters she draws are realised with stunning attention to detail and a quirky combination of bright colours amongst darker lines and shading. As an illustrator she produces posters, comics, zines, and portraits, as well as editorial work. Nicole graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Communications Design (Illustration) and is currently a candidate for MFA Illustration at SVA. She has created work numerous bands, as well as for the likes of Audible, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, and Variety, and has showcased her work in numerous group exhibitions in both the US and further afield. We caught up with Nicole to find out more about her distinctive visual style, her creative process, and what she aims to say through her work.

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

I got into illustration because I really liked communicating other people’s stories. I think my childhood was a little different, I had family that was ESL (english as a second language) and a younger brother who was diagnosed with autism when we were very young. My brother learned how to speak via image flashcards that helped him associate words with objects, actions, emotions, and later broader concepts. I knew that I liked art but I didn’t feel that I necessarily fit in with the kids I knew who did fine art. I was more into it for a joke or for a strange narrative. Also, when I was fifteen I was mostly making show posters for my band and other bands in Gainesville, Florida. At the time I didn’t realise that it was illustration, but later I did a pre-college course at the School of the Art Institute Chicago that discussed illustration to contemporary art and I was stricken with the amazing realisation that illustration as a field was PERFECT! You can do anything you want under that field of study because it teaches you to communicate with a visual language. I think what compels me to create is that nothing really is as fulfilling as working on a piece. It’s really simple for me, I just like working. Currently I’m getting my MFA in Illustration at School of Visual Arts in New York and that is also a major compelling factor haha. I’d really like to graduate.

Your work has a really distinctive, almost graphic novel-esque feel to it. Tell us about this – how did you develop your visual style? 

I remember in undergraduate that I was really flailing when it came to finding a style. In a lot of schools and just in general, it is taught that you need a distinctive style in order to even begin to have a career. I was all over the place. I loved cartoons and comics, and more so I think I was drawn to punk imagery that yields itself to a very graphic style. I think in terms of line (there is a whole thing in illustration where often people posit that people think in either shape or line and I am 100% a line person), I love the way it feels when I draw and how emotion can be conveyed with even a single mark. However, after a lot of experimentation and failure I began to do line drawings and trying out what it looks like to drop flat colours behind them (I am still haunted by a drawing of Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females that I did over 4 years ago). Eventually that just grew more complex as I began to freelance. The standards for work are just higher. Also I definitely make comics.

Tell us about your use of very bright colours against darker imagery. 

I really enjoy that duality. I know my work is pretty dark (common phrase, “hey Nicole, you’re a bummer,” and I totally am), and I think that adding brighter flat colours which are generally more organic or graphic shapes brings focus to the subject matter. Also I think It makes it more accessible to a wider audience.

What’s your creative process? What materials or techniques do you use? 

Lately I’ve been trying to think more about the subject matter I’m drawing. So I think about things for about a day (if I have the time, usually I don’t), then I sketch out some failures, then thumbnails, then loose sketches. The rest is done digitally. My final work is created completely on a Wacom Tablet from 2005 and drawn directly into photoshop. I colour the image and then I fix things that I didn’t notice. Also, I generally do this all at night and I know it’s weird but I rarely sleep.

“I usually have an agenda, I know right now things are awful politically and I’m dedicating time to responding to that because I feel that it is my responsibility as an illustrator.”

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

I do! Last year I got to do a ten piece series for the Intercept about Rikers and prison reform. I really had a great opportunity to explore narrative and surrealism with a very difficult topic. However, I absolutely love most of the band work I’ve been asked to do, like show posters and shirts.

What kind of briefs and clients are you drawn to? 

I’m drawn to stories, I like briefs that I can work into. I love it when I get contacted and an art director, or the designer/creative director lets me know why they asked me to do the work. So I really like it when people are to the point so I know what to do. However, if someone was like, “hey I’d like you to draw something for this review…” music or otherwise, I’m elated, it’s really fun to do work like that.

Which commissions have you most enjoyed responding to?

I suppose I answered that in the previous question, but I really enjoy responding to commissions that ask me to interpret things. For instance, I got to make a shirt for the amazing folks in Mannequin Pussy, and we had a pretty prolonged conversation about what we wanted to do for it. It just happened that I absolutely loved their new record, ‘Romantic,’ and that a lot of my work overlaps with love and sometimes failed love. Which is why we both genuinely agreed on a half wilted vase of roses. Sometimes the work I like to do the most is when I reach out to people and ask if I can do something for them. Maybe that’s selfish, but it’s fun!

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

I guess the ultimate thing I would like to communicate most with my work, like if I were to look back at it when my career is over, I’d like to know that I discussed heartbreak, isolation, and love in a weird way that somehow people can connect to. I think those are things I think about a lot and I know that it often seeps into my work. I usually have an agenda, I know right now things are awful politically and I’m dedicating time to responding to that because I feel that it is my responsibility as an illustrator. But deep down, I know that though I resist, but it does not ultimately define me as an artist.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on my thesis with an amazing advisor. Currently it is a series of images that satirises blind faith by appropriating religious iconography and subverting it with symbolism of intersectional feminism. I’m also doing some gallery work, a charity poster for a great band, and also doing editorial work every week. I have a to-do list that makes me panic whenever I go to my studio, so I need to work on that.

What’s your dream creative project? 

Woof. Well, I’m 25, I feel like just being able to work is the dream. However, my gut reaction is to say: I’d like to make album art or a shirt for my favourite band, Pile. But I feel that’s not dreaming big enough for an ‘ultimate’ creative project. So a mid size dream: album review art for Rolling Stone, Spin, etc because that’s been my dream for about ten years. However, the big dream creative project is do do a project for the Criterion Collection. I would be over the moon if any of this happened.

Check out more of Nicole’s work at www.reformforest.com.