Chances are you’ve already been charmed by Eric Chase Anderson’s distinctive illustrations. Working on his brother Wes’ films, Anderson has helped invent the now famous Andersonian aesthetic for cult classics such as the The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Rushmore. For The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson designed the bedrooms for each of the main characters and was the hand behind the moody paintings by Luke Wilson’s character, Richie.
Aside from his work on films, Anderson has also created illustrations for hotels, album covers, numerous publications, and has authored a children’s book, Chuck Dugan Is AWOL: A Novel, With Maps. We caught up with the sought-after illustrator, who was just recently named brand ambassador for Winsor & Newton pens.
You’ve said that an old surveyor’s map inspired you to pursue a career in illustration. What was so special about that map?
I say it was a “survey map” that caught my attention, because I don’t have any other reference point for it. But it may have been an insurance map or a highly detailed real estate map. My father made maps for Sinclair Oil in Texas in the ’60s.
However, this thing was so large and in such incredible detail—right down to the individual trees, all hand-drawn—that I think it must have been some kind of surveyor’s map. It was very large: four feet across by four and a half feet tall, in a big wooden frame. It was in color, presumably hand-painted, and it was probably a lithograph or some kind of industrial reproduction.
I didn’t snap my fingers and decide to become an illustrator right then and there, but I did go to a toy store nearby, which had a small art supplies section. I bought a pen with a replaceable nib that you dipped in an ink well and a set of watercolor paints. For a while, all I did was make maps of the neighborhood, switching things around. And then, simply doing that led me to make maps of more things, other things. And that was the beginning. Maps were the beginning of the journey.
What other objects inspire you now?
There are many objects I find myself returning to. The American Museum of Natural History houses many of them, as does the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But a lot of the time it’s a particular spot in a particular neighborhood that possessed a certain feeling I want to return to and re-experience, either to remember, or just to see what it feels like now. I do think it’s important, however, to continue exploring new places with new associations.
I have many homemade bulletin boards that I look at a lot, which… will often have a mix of illustrations and photographs, often from movies and TV shows. One thing I particularly love are the TIME covers from the ’50s. They’re all illustrated portraits, often with strange props and thematically relevant imagery swirling together, yet all rendered with tremendous skill and verve.
Can you tell us about working as an illustrator on a film? How does it differ from a print project or a project for a commercial client?
Mostly, the film work I’ve done has been separated from the actual filmmaking by a long chunk of time, either way ahead or way behind—particularly with the drawings I’ve done for the Criterion Collection DVDs.
My one proper experience of working during pre-production and then throughout production was on my brother’s movie The Royal Tenenbaums. It was an incredibly busy time. There were multiple ideas he had of things for me to do, which included me making my first attempts in oil paint. With the oils, I just opened them up and started painting. Of course, I almost always had incredibly specific parameters and ideas of his to work with.
For contrast, I’ll tell you about a campaign I worked on for Virgin Mobile. I was asked to make a small series of drawings that were meant to be as if young Richard Branson had made them back in the early ’60s, presciently envisioning some slightly skewed, crazy young person’s vision of their future communications empire. But with my first drawing I think I disappointed them slightly. I stuck too closely to their preliminary sketches and ideas—something I was accustomed to doing. They told me, “Eric, just go crazy.” They wanted to be surprised. It was a perfect piece of direction.
What projects are you most proud of?
One thing that left a deep impression on me was seeing the main menu of The Life Aquatic Criterion DVD (disc one). It was a very gently animated version of my illustration of the cutaway of the ship from the story, with a white dolphin and various sound effects and the flag in the sea breeze. It was pretty magical, and I thought, I made this? Of course, I didn’t really. I helped make it, but it was the work of many people. Nevertheless, it’s a drawing that I really like, and which was based on a proper architectural schematic by an old draftsman at the Rome studio Cinecittà, where the movie was shot.
I’m also very proud of my book, Chuck Dugan Is AWOL. For one thing, it was a big step forward in terms of trying to be more of a more craftsman-like illustrator. It was also the culmination of a long-running dream of being an author. I was so convinced that kids everywhere were being deprived of good maps in stories that I made it a point to include like a minimum of three maps in every single chapter.
Last fall I made a map of Washington Square Park for the NYU Alumni Magazine. It was a big production, I believe, since it came as a fold-out supplement inserted into the magazine and had a hand-lettered chart on the back for identifying all of the creatures. It was one of those more demanding jobs that left me with numb fingers and toes and these spastic tremors. I looked it up and found that these are all symptoms of repetitive-motion tasks. Presumably, every illustrator experiences this kind of thing. I wish I had more sophisticated advice than a tube of Bengay, but that’s about all I’ve got.
What are your favorite drawing tools? Do you draw on the computer or is everything made on paper?
My favorite tools are pencils and paint. I use a .3mm Sanford drafting pencil with a semi-hard (H) graphite lead and Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache, primarily because I learned, at one point, that it’s the same thing Richard Scarry used to illustrate his books. I also really like colored pencil (I use Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils), which I’ve only been using in the last couple of years to just add a few details here and there.
Work isn’t really possible anymore without a scanner, so that and Photoshop to prep an image before I send it out, are essential tools. But everything I draw, yes, is done the old-fashioned way, on Bainbridge Board No. 80—cold-pressed and double-thick.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working with an author to illustrate her next novel. It’s not something I’ve done before for anyone other than myself. I’m also doing a logo for a company that’s about to launch a venture capital operation to fund creative initiatives.
And, of course, I was flattered to be contacted by Winsor & Newton to try out their new pigment markers. They’re reaching out to various illustrators, asking them to make something from their hometown that emphasizes the color possibilities. Since I’m here in New York, I made a chimpanzee climbing the Empire State Building. Maybe the antenna and viewing deck of the Empire State Building look like my normal thing, since they’re made with a drafting pencil and a few dabs of gouache paint. But the Hudson River and sunset over New Jersey are very different for me: bold areas of bright color just stacked above one another like stripes in the atmosphere.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
I was trying to get more commercial illustrating work, and I’d put off the problem of a website for a long time. I was talking about it with a guy I know who’s very sharp about real life, and I said to him, “You know what? Fundamentally, I just don’t know what a website means. I don’t have a sense of what it’s saying.” He said. “It means you’re open for business.” That pretty much put things into perspective.