For an illustrator as prolific and as accomplished as Christoph Niemann, the man has his fair share of creative hang-ups. Niemann is regularly published in prestigious publications like the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, but for him, a blank page and an open brief will always be a source of dread, while the creative act itself is ridden with anxiety. And he's not one to mince words about it.
"For anything decent I've ever done," he writes in his new book, Sunday Sketching, "I distinctly remember being in a tense and grumpy mood."
Niemann's trademark wit and self-deprecating humor make his anguished creation process a delightful read. Sunday Sketching oscillates between illustrated memoir and the lessons he's gleaned from his career as an illustrator, and it takes readers through the bouts of self-doubt, fear, and dissatisfaction that will be familiar to anyone working in a creative capacity. But it also acknowledges another helpful (and more hopeful) truism for Niemann: those hang-ups actually had very little to do with the creative task in front of him. Instead, they had more to do with a feeling of fear and unease in life in general, which for him seemed a more manageable scenario.
That revelation came to Niemann while he was preparing for a lecture on the creative process. "We’re always taught through conferences or the generic sayings on Twitter: 'Believe in your creativity. Ignore the naysayer in your head. Do your thing,'" he tells Co.Design. "I realized that, no, all these fears in the background, they’re relevant, they’re not just illusions. I have to face these, but I don’t have to face them while I draw. I have to face them in other moments."
The idea changed Niemann's approach to work and "might even have made life a little easier and more fun," he says. The notes and illustrations from that lecture also became the foundation for the book, which amasses many of the illustrations that have made up his personal projects over the last few years, and for the most part had never been published anywhere (unless you count his popular Instagram). And although he readily admits that "every single piece" in the book was created under the sort of tension he describes, the actual process of making the book itself turned out to be a nice little reprieve.
The reasoning behind that, says Niemann, basically boils down to the fact that the hard part was already done. He had already created the work, he just needed to arrange it. For that, he approached his friend and designer Ariane Spanier with the trove of drawings he wanted to make into a book, and she had the idea to pair the text from the presentation with the images for the layout. Spanier matched text with images in a way that "leaves a lot of oxygen," as Niemann puts it, resulting in an illustrated text that feels loose and light, but makes sense as a comprehensive whole.
When Spanier sent the layouts to Neimann, he delighted in the fact that he was able to experience old illustrations anew. It also sets up an interesting duality, with Niemann's questions in the text (". . . why become an artist in the first place?") answered in some way in the corresponding artwork.
From there, Niemann says, the book evolved fairly naturally into its current form, which showcases everything from his daily Sunday Sketching series where he sets an object—headphones, a banana—on a sheet of paper and incorporates it into a sketch to drawings of his experience running the New York City Marathon. ("Creating is like running a marathon," he tells me. "You're not smiling.") Alongside these images, Niemann's text works through how it feels and what it's worth to make something new. Throughout, Niemann creates his own style of aphorism: "Worry, doubt, and agonize!" a bright yellow page recommends. On another: "Practice and become better!"
If the creative process behind the book was fun and easy for Niemann, it certainly didn't change his mind about agony being inherent in the process of creating good work. "I think this moment where you feel great and at peace with yourself, it becomes a self-referential piece of crap," he says. "What I love about art is there’s someone who feels tension and is able to visualize this tension in a way that I can relate to it, and then gives me a different angle into that tension. Tension or unease or friction is the basis."
[All Images: Christoph Niemann/courtesy Abrams]