Raymond Biesinger: Security Versus Autonomy

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Raymond Biesinger is well known in the field of Montreal illustration. With regular customers like the Financial Times Weekend magazine and projects in The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, WIRED and the Globe & Mail, Biesinger has created a style of his own marked by flat colors on black and white images and a predominance of political and historical subjects, characters and physical males. He agreed to answer our questions.

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Baron :How would you describe your work and your style?
Raymond Biesinger: Hmmmm… I'd call it an efficient mix of minimalism and DIY construction. It shuns decoration and it includes things only if they support an argument directly. It tries to stay close to black and white. 99% of the time it has white background and one to four colors of ink. We're in a place where technology is populist and almost anyone can do anything. The interesting thing for me to do is accept limitations and work within them.

B. :How is your typical (work)day like?
R. B. : I wake up at 9 AM, answer e-mails and do business until 10 AM. Then I work on an assignment (either a single image or a set of roughs) until it's done, leaving a few hours in between finishing and quitting time (6 PM) to do odds and ends and personal work. My favorite days are those like today, though, where I have a dozen small things to do instead of one or two big things.

B. :You are self-taught. How did you discover that you wanted to be an illustrator?
R. B. : By accident and practical need. I was studying Eastern European history in university and became involved in the student newspaper as a writer and editor. Eventually, someone suggested that because I could tell a good story, I should try making comic strips. So, I did. Then I did political cartoons. Then I was declined for a job at the paper, and thought "fuck this, I'm going to get hired by real newspapers." So, I sent some samples around and was hired to draw for the Globe & Mail, National Post, Saturday Night magazine and others while still finishing my degree. It was a fantastic part-time job to have while still in school - much better than washing dishes or competing with the many skilled writers for writing jobs in Edmonton.

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B. : What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
R. B. : I have no problem being motivated or finding ideas or finishing things on a deadline. I do have a problem with risk. I started illustrating to make a pay check and pay the rent, and the safest way to do that is to take on assignments. Nowadays it's a struggle to convince myself to make a set of prints or make a book instead of taking on magazine jobs. It's the classic "security versus autonomy" debate. I think a lot of people might be amused that debate still happens in a self-employed and very creative situation. Another thing is that the future of illustration might be uncertain. There are more illustrators than ever, competing for fewer paying assignments than ever. The "cult of free" on the internet is helping reduce fees, as is the desirability of jobs like this that allow for creative self-expression, as well as a few other things. I've written about these things before. It's a great time to have eyes and see beautiful work. It's an increasingly hard time for people who want to support themselves creating that beautiful work.

B . :You have worked and still work for American and European clients. How did you find those clients?
R. B. : Just by doing good work, being easy to work with and sending postcards to everyone I've ever wanted to work with. Geography really doesn't matter at all anymore. Most of these relationships were started when I still lived in Edmonton, a place most people outside of Canada have never heard of and people simply do not seek culture from. Canada Post and a website are all an illustrator needs these days.

B . :You have done more than 1000 illustrations. Of which ones are you the proudest of and why?
R. B. : Hmmmmm…. The "This is World War One" book illustrations I put together last year are definitely some of my favorites, as are some new city prints (Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto) that I just finished up last week. Also, my bands, The Famines, are an absolute joy to build projects around. One more, I made a 28-foot long chart that documents Edmonton's music scene from 1950-2010. I'm sure you can imagine how much research that involves. I find most of the things that I truly love involve minimal color, are self-directed and are heavily driven by concept and research. They are things that nobody else would even think of making.

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B. : Where do you find your inspiration(s)?
R. B. : This may sound funny, but I keep my head down. I spend my time reading history and politics and I try to stay away from what other illustrators and artists are doing. I hate that feeling of jealousy or competitiveness that I get when I dwell on other people's visual work. I don't like being that person. My true motivation comes from wanting to flesh out an argument and my means of visually fleshing out that argument comes naturally. I render things the way I do because my technical abilities are limited and I can't do it any other way. That makes things easy, I have no other choice.

B. :On what project(s) are you currently working on?
R. B. : Hmmmm.... What projects am I currently working on? Rebuilding my portfolio, to be far more about quality than quantity. That's boring, though. There's a tremendous project I'm slowly putting together, a history of the Cold War in 125 images and 30000 words. Should be ready in 2015 sometime? That and a mix of assignments those aren’t too special.

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