My First New Yorker Cover

By Adrian Tomine

In 2003, after I’d been drawing illustrations for the inside of The New Yorker for a few years, I got a call from [art editor] Françoise Mouly. Françoise is basically (in consultation with editor David Remnick) in charge of the magazine’s cover every week, and she very kindly told me that she’d be open to me submitting proposals to her.

I think at that moment, a more ambitious, professional illustrator would’ve dropped everything and begun inundating Françoise with sketches. But I was very intimidated by the thought of doing a cover, and for reasons probably better explained by a psychologist, I let almost a year pass without so much as responding to her invitation.

Fortunately for me, Françoise is a very determined and persistent person, and she’s also very familiar with the neuroses and temperaments of cartoonists. So she eventually called me up and said, “There’s a specific issue coming up that I think you’d be right for. The theme is books. Here’s the deadline.” So she made it an actual, concrete assignment, and that was extremely helpful to me.

With most illustrations, you don’t have to worry too much about what you’re going to draw. You’re usually told what the subject should be, and you have to make some choices about composition or color or things like that. But with a New Yorker cover, even if you have a starting point like “books,” you still need to basically invent an image out of nothing. I found that if I was just working on something else and I tried to simultaneously think of the “perfect” New Yorker cover idea, nothing happened. So it was useful for me to just get out a blank sketchbook and force myself to start filling up pages with ideas, no matter how bad they were. And in fact, I’ve only included one page from that step of the process here because most of them are, indeed, quite bad. But I do think that getting those bad ideas down on paper, in a sense, clears the way for better ones.

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The next step was to pick any of the ideas that I thought might have some potential, and to see if I could develop them into something usable. So I started sketching them bigger, with more detail, just trying to see if I could make them work.

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This was one of the first sketches I did in this step of the process, and there’s not really much to it. I was adapting to living in a smaller Brooklyn apartment after recently moving from California, so I guess the idea here was just not having enough space for all your books. As I mentioned, the process involved a lot of weeding out of bad ideas.

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I thought that maybe adding more detail and clutter (and changing the person’s gender) would make it better somehow, but it still didn’t amount to much.

At this point Françoise intervened and gave me a little pep talk and basically told me to approach this more like a cartoonist than an illustrator. She told me that she didn’t need every cover to be a funny gag or a political commentary or whatever, but that she did want it to be “a picture that can be read.” Even if it’s very slight, it should have some hint of a narrative in there … something that might take a second longer to “get” than if you were to just glance at it. And that’s something that I still try to keep in mind whenever I’m submitting ideas to her. So I moved on to some different options, ones which I thought told a little more of a story.

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The idea here was, basically: a needy author trying very hard to be recognized in public. Which is not at all autobiographical in any way. Françoise said it was a little bit … I think “pathetic” was the word she used, and maybe there was some concern about how the authors whose work was being published inside the magazine would feel about it. So I went back and started working on an earlier idea I’d had.

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I think this is one of those ideas that’s more likely to occur to someone who had just recently moved to New York. If you’ve lived here your whole life, you probably just think of the subway as a way of getting from point A to point B. But to me it was fascinating the way subway cars sometimes run alongside each other, just inches apart, and occasionally line up at the same speed.  Sometimes you make eye contact with someone in the other train, which is usually more awkward than anything else, but I turned it into something kind of romantic or wistful.

Françoise saw some potential in this one, and I have to give her credit for one crucial addition. You’ll notice in this original sketch that the books are just blank, like they’re just generic, random props. She made the suggestion of putting some detail on the books so it would be clear that the two people are reading the same book, and that ended up being the most important, memorable part of the finished image. It would probably be better for my career if claimed this idea as my own, but it’s too late now.

After that, Françoise basically left me to complete the image on my own, without any further editorial input. This is pretty unusual, at least in my experience, when it comes to  illustration work, and in fact it’s usually this final stage where the real head–butting begins. I suppose Françoise wanted to make sure we got the concept just right, but then trusted me to execute it independently, which felt extremely flattering and generous.

So this was the finished drawing. People ask me about this a lot, so I’ll mention that the artwork, up to this stage, is drawn by hand, using very basic tools: some pens, a brush, ink, and paper.

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Finally, I scan the artwork and add the color on a computer. This is the finished cover, which was published on November 8, 2004. I’ve done a few more since then, and the process has remained mostly unchanged.

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Adrian Tomine

New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine features classic illustrations from the New Yorker cover artist (‘one of the most masterful cartoonists of his generation’ Village Voice).