River Cousin’s surrealist airbrushed worlds are borne from a mathematical approach

The London-based illustrator creates his vivid, dreamy scapes digitally, inspired by artists such as Magritte and Robert Beatty.

4 March 2020


River Cousin grew up in a suburb of Croydon, south London, where his dad was often busy programming games and coding software – a pasttime that has influenced the illustrator’s creative process. “I think the way me and my siblings go about creating is influenced by his logical and calculated approach to things,” he explains. “I always found more pleasure in things like K’Nex and origami rather than drawing, which I think is why my approach to illustration can often still be quite mathematical.”

The artist (real name Mikey Burey) creates surrealist, dreamy, often trippy images, using digital airbrushing. It’s a creative community he says is growing globally with artists such as Robert Beatty, Aaron Lowell and Keith Rankin leading the way. And while he often has retro, 60s-80s visions in mind, River is keen to always innovate and steer away from the restrictions of the medium, he says, with other surrealist artists also providing influence. “Magritte is the first artist whose work I absolutely fell in love with,” he explains, “visiting The Empire of Light at the Guggenheim in Venice was probably my first experience of divinity in art. It’s so rare I see a painting I can really connect with in that way but I think most of my surrealist heroes – Tanguy, Dali, Inshaw – pursued the same thing.”

“I’m always trying to engage with this world in my work,” he adds, “to unveil the magic behind the ordinary.” River also has a firm foot in the music industry, having attended The Brit School, the renowned performing arts institution with alumni including Adele, Amy Winehouse and Jessie J. River studied art, but was introduced to “worlds of music I hadn’t heard before” and, by proxy, the visuals that come with it. However it took a while for him to find confidence in his illustration work, pursuing graphic design and photography first, and occasionally making artwork for bands he’d met at college. “That was also the first time I felt like I had found an outlet that I could fully connect with,” he says.


River Cousin

Music continues to be a source of inspiration and commissions for River. We previously featured his mural for Abbey Road, and two of his favourite projects have been for musicians: an album cover for Pixx’s Small Mercies and a cover and booklet for Alice Phoebe Lou’s Paper Castles. Pixx’s artwork started as the front room of a doll’s house, later developing to become an entire house filled with furniture which hints to the lyrics.

“It’s the longest amount of time I’ve spent on a single piece because each item of furniture or decoration was built entirely in Photoshop, so to change the placement or angle of anything meant building and shading it again almost from scratch,” River remembers. “Towards the deadline I’d spend so many hours working on each of the rooms that it actually became briefly disorienting to come away from the screen and see my own bedroom instead.” For Paper Castles, the illustrator looked to create “a feeling of nostalgia and magical/childish melancholy,” therefore employing analogue and digital collage.

Usually, River’s process begins with a sketch “to get the details out of my head and see if they work when confined to a 2D drawing”. Then, he keeps exploring iterations until “something clicks”. “I do worry sometimes that the process can be so stubborn and unpredictable, but I try to surrender to it and avoid questioning too much, like exactly what made me do this better than that, or why could I draw an eye yesterday when today it looks like a potato. It’s often those moments that push me back into drawing from instinct over technique.” He annotates with ideas for textures and details, then jumps into masking each section off, layering and shading, most of the time in Photoshop, but venturing into Illustrator or scans for type and pattern work.

At the moment the artist is working with Sweetest Taboo, a project aimed at raising awareness on taboo subjects like race, money and mental health, while fittingly focusing on a self-initiated project about death and grief. “It’s nice to have something fairly open-ended, especially during periods like this, where everything feels quite regimented and brief-oriented.”

He’s also working with Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared director Joseph Pelling on a brief for Adult Swim Smalls, making a series of illustrated episodes “focusing on the importance of mundane objects, impending global disaster and pig people… I think it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever watched.” As if we needed any more reason to keep an eye on this brilliant creative!

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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