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Work / Illustration

R Kikuo Johnson on the importance of narrative in his illustrations

We are not the first to confess to being an admirer of illustrator R Kikuo Johnson’s work. The illustrator has gathered a large troop of followers mostly due to his knack for narrative, explaining that “most of my illustrations are designed to be ‘read’ more than ‘viewed’”. He’s right, whether Kikuo’s drawings are presented as a book, a magazine cover or a spot illustration, multiple possibilities and situations are present. Where most illustrators translate a quote or a sentence into one drawing, Kikuo’s drawings seemingly translates paragraphs.

“I fell in love with comic books at a young age and spent my teenage years devouring them and creating my own,” the illustrator explains of his introduction the medium. “In college, I started drawing a graphic novel, Night Fisher, which would ultimately become my first significant professional work.” Night Fisher’s success, a surprise for Kikuo, has ultimately led to much of his other work. “Conveniently, many art directors who hire illustrators also read comics, and soon the reputation of Night Fisher earned me gigs as an editorial illustrator. I never intended to make illustration my primary creative outlet,” he explains, “but it was a happy accident that has allowed me to continue to tell stories with drawings”.

Kikuo’s illustrations from publications such as The New York Times to educational supplements such as Georgia State University’s publication may be more familiar to those who don’t regularly read comics, but it is covers for The New Yorker that introduced us to Kikuo. “_The New Yorker_ covers are my favourite illustration projects,” he explains. “Unlike most other illustration gigs where my role is primarily to decorate or illuminate a text or concept conceived by an author or editor, The New Yorker cover offers illustrators a large platform to make a fairly personal statement.” Encouraging the illustrator to have a voice clearly works, with Kikuo creating some of the most striking, relevant and narratively driven covers of the publication’s recent history. “Working with The New Yorker’s art editor, Françoise Mouly, is like a masterclass in illustration. She makes the work so much better, I always learn a ton.”

Throughout Kikuo’s portfolio, across the different narratives and types of publications he works for, is a common use of the colour blue. We thought this was intentional, it’s always there, in different iterations, sometimes boldly and others just in the background or as the shade of someone’s clothing. But, as the illustrator explains it’s not actually intentional. “A few people have recently pointed out that I use a lot of blue in work, which is funny, because I never noticed it before.”

However after asking the illustrator more about this use of blue he’s come to three possible conclusions to why he’s inadvertently using it in most of his work. “For one, my typical approach to designing a colour palette for a drawing is to start with a pair of complementary colours: yellow-purple, green-red, or orange-blue,” he explains. “Juxtaposing complimentary colours makes both colours seem brighter, and limiting a colour palette to just two predominant colours gives images the graphic pop I’m shooting for. Because my drawings typically include humans with a flesh hue in an orange range, blue makes a lot of sense as a dynamic compliment.”

The following reason, Kikuo continues, is a little more technical: “The second reason blue, specifically cyan, probably shows up a lot in my work probably has to do with the fact that most of my illustrations still end up in print,” he says. “Using varying screens of pure cyan ink gives my images the punch I want on the printed page.” Also, the illustrator admits, “I seem to always return to cyan because over the years I’ve realised what a versatile colour it is. It can read as warm or cool, day or night, bold or quiet.”

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