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Work / Publication

“It was strangely liberating” – Christoph Niemann on creating his new book Sunday Sketching

Illustrator, artist and author Christoph Niemann has published his new book, Sunday Sketching, which is part autobiography and part heartfelt essay on what it means to work creatively. Packed with over 300 original images, the book is a frank and inspirational look at the trials and tribulations of a life spent producing artworks that have been seen the world over. Having produced work for the cover of The New Yorker, Time, and Wired, and exhibited in galleries the world over, Christoph has now gathered his thoughts on his creative process his compelling and honest book.

It’s Nice That caught up with Christoph to talk about the publication, one of two he has released recently, and what he learned as he worked through his ideas.

Why choose to produce a book like Sunday Sketching now? At what point did you decide it was right to produce an autobiographical book of this type?

There was a body of work with the Sunday Sketches and a number of unassigned materials that I thought was enough for a book. I could edit out a lot, and still have enoug. Whenever I do a book I always think that you need to have 300% material, so the best 30% will make for a tight publication.

Initially, I felt like doing a monograph. A nice, thick book full of sketches. But I had written this talk on the creative process, and I realised that these two things went together. The drawings that had been done without assignment, they weren’t supposed to mean anything, I realised that when I put them next to my text there was a nice tension. Each image illustrates a point, but they say their own thing. Ariane Spanier, the designer I worked with, took the ideas and images put them where I personally would never had put them – then interesting connections were happening.

The honesty in the book is startling – you are very frank about the creative process. Why share these thoughts and hang ups?

I always feel ambivalent about a “Listen Kids, This is How It’s Done” kind of book. I wondered when is anyone wise enough to share their knowledge with the world? I never feel that really. On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time doing what I do. At some point you think so much about it, it boils over and in this case it was really heartfelt. I found I wrote what was really an essay for myself, to sort out a few things that had bothered me for a while. And I felt better once I had committed to putting it down. I really did have a terrible time doing so many assignments I should be so grateful for, and it has gotten a little better since I wrote my thoughts down. I did what most people would do and showed it to a couple of people and when they said “yes, its good enough for a book”, I gathered a little more confidence and approached a publisher.

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Christoph Niemann: “Horse”, Sunday Sketch, 2015

Who is the book for? Who did you have in mind when writing it?

Ultimately, I always have an audience that is half myself and half somebody who might be on a similar path. Many of the questions I tried to tackle for myself: There are always certain assumptions. No one ever taught me that an artist should always be confident or feel a certain way. but Somehow I always believed that if you don’t feel self assured, you might be doing it wrong. So I hope there will be someone reading it thinking “I’m not alone in this, this is normal”.

But apart from the words, I the book is about the art, that is supposed to communicate a certain spirit. You can talk about art and creativity, all day long, but how does it manifest itself? The drawings are the drawings I did while tackling that question. There’s free spirited creativity and then there’s having a balance between having fun and being concentrated – which I think is the most difficult part. This is really what the art in the book tries to accomplish. I hope there are people who will enjoy the book for the arts sake, as many as there are who will actually read the book.

What did you learn when actually making and editing the book?

It was strangely liberating. I had been, for the first ten years of my career, doing editorial design exclusively. What I love about editorial design is the insanely tight deadlines. You have be in total control of what you are doing because when you have two hours and something goes wrong, or somebody says “can you change the colour of the shoes?” you have to be able to do that. It has to be done right away and look as perfect as the rest of the drawing. You can’t say: “I was inspired two hours ago, but I’m not now”. It’s a bit like you are an actor when they have to cry from the bottom of their soul, and the director says: “that was great, can you please do it again, but with your elbows pointing outward?” In a way, I feel I learned that, and it’s great, and otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to mentally survive the jobs I had.

On the other hand if you give up control it’s terrifying. You wonder if, maybe, there’s a certain kind of art where you get to a different place, where you can just let things happen and do stuff that you might not be able to repeat. There are certain drawings in the book that just happened. Afterwards it looked like someone else did it and I could not do that drawing again, even if I tried. The result is what the result is. There is no editing. This is the subtext of the art in the book. It’s about giving up control. I can’t be in command the entire time – ultimately, that is limiting.

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Christoph Niemann: excerpt from the book “Sunday Sketching”, live-sketching the New York City Marathon, 2011

The narrative is interrupted by deliberate sections covering your Gummi Bears Chronicles, Live Drawing the New York City Marathon and 72 Hours in Venice projects. Why did you include these?

They were the three columns that I took the vocabulary of earlier work, but became a little looser and let the story drive itself a bit more. It was something that was a very important turning point for me. I read a book on writing by Stephen King. I don’t normally read his work because I don’t like horror stories, but this book was formative for me. He writes about two approaches to writing, one where you start with an ending and lead the story to that. The other is that you create a character then let the character loose and see where it takes you. This is something I never dared to do, yet with these three stories it happened and became looser and looser. With Venice I knew I had three days, with little editing, and the Marathon was the most extreme example where I had no time and physical exhaustion. I asked what can my body produce even if I don’t have time for any self pity. I ran and saw, then walked and drew.

At the very end of the book. you write: “I can’t force a great idea… everything else is luck”. Do you feel lucky?

I do feel lucky. The problem with luck is that I really care about what I do and it is really hard to accept that it’s based on luck. It takes a certain humility to sit there and try your best, and accept that there’s such big element that is beyond your control. There’s this thing about Hollywood that I love. There is so much money and so many smart people there who know exactly what they are doing, yet no one to this day has figured out what makes a blockbuster movie. There are great artists who do great work, then they can’t repeat it. In a strange way it’s fantastic that no one has broken the code. In creative endeavours there is some magic that no one ever really works out. Maybe you have fired your last bullet. Maybe you have been lucky once or twice. There’s something very sad, but comforting, that for some stuff force of will alone won’t get you there.

Sunday Sketching by Christoph Niemann is published by Abrams

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Christoph Niemann: Design and Violence, for the project “Commoditized Warfare”, curated by Yokuke Ushigome, exhibited in the Museum of Modern Arts in New York, 2014

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Christoph Niemann: Cover of the 20th issue of “American Illustration”, 2001

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Christoph Niemann: “Relaxation Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4”

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Christoph Niemann: “Menu”, on occasion of the exhibition “Menu” at the Museum of Concrete Art and Design in Ingolstadt, Germany

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Christoph Niemann: “The Gummibear Chronicles”, 2014

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Christoph Niemann: Sunday Sketching