New Assistant Professor of Illustration Calef Brown finds inspiration for his playful drawings in the rhythms of music and conversation.
Music and the cadence of conversation have long inspired Calef Brown, who has been drawing and painting wonderfully lyrical images based on sound for more than 20 years. As he joins the Illustration department, the new assistant professor is especially happy to introduce a studio called Picturing Sound: Music + Illustration. “Sometimes the rhythm of a line of music or an overheard conversation will suggest a series of words or a character that leads to one of my story-poems,” Brown explains. “I’ll start with that germ of an idea and keep expanding on it.”
Brown has written and illustrated a dozen picture books for children including, most recently, the well-received Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems About Just About Everything (2015, Henry Holt and Co.). He also takes pride in his collaborative work, along with countless freelance projects for a wide range of clients. “You have to continue to reinvent yourself and push back on limitations,” he explains. “It’s like being an actor. [As an illustrator], you have to be careful not to get typecast.”
Since earning his BFA at Art Center College of Design in California, Brown has worked for corporate clients, magazines and newspapers, advertising agencies and children’s book publishers. He’s best known for his appealing, whimsical style and the hand-lettering he incorporates into many of his images. “I threw in one piece of hand-lettered typography when I was creating my first portfolio out of school,” he recalls, “and that’s what potential clients focused on. The work it brought in—mostly for magazines and record labels—helped me survive my first couple of years as a freelancer.”
In terms of influences, Brown says he grew up with Dr. Seuss, Miroslav Šašek and Maurice Sendak. As he grew older, he often found himself drawing inspiration from the contemporary classics of 20th-century Swiss painter Paul Klee. “He’s a huge influence on me color-wise,” says Brown. “He creates work that’s playful and experimental but also very thoughtful—with quite a lot underneath.”
In his ongoing explorations and search for variety, Brown has developed unique ways of working with digital tools. “I found a way to integrate traditional and digital processes that feels organic and experimental,” he notes. For the past few years, he has been drawing with ink and watercolor and then using Photoshop to revise colors, work in layers and compose images. Like most contemporary illustrators, he acknowledges that digital editing has become essential to his process, noting that “it allows you to move things around easily in the final stages of a project.”
Brown has been happy to share his discoveries with students—most recently at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada—but also pushes them to experiment with tools and find their own ways of working. “Many students today want to work traditionally or to mix traditional and digital techniques, which is kind of cool,” he notes. “The RISD students I’ve met so far are creating really sophisticated work. And the incredibly strong liberal arts program here is definitely feeding their work.”
Next semester Brown will teach a studio in hand-lettering and will continue to work with sophomores. He encourages students to focus on critical studies and feed their work with research. “It’s important to be aware of what’s going on in illustration and painting,” he notes, “but it’s just as important to find inspiration in the outside world.”
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