Flavorwire Interview: Adrian Tomine on Drawing Everyday People and Fantasies of Writing a Novel


Although he’s originally from California, if you look at any of Adrian Tomine’s many illustrations for publications named after the city that he currently calls home, it’s difficult to think of Tomine as anything other than a New York artist. His work for The New Yorker and New York magazine capture the everyday look and feel of contemporary New York City, with single scenes begging you to fill in the blanks for the rest of the story: the New Yorker out of his element (in this particular case, a Yankees fan in a sea of Red Sox caps), two readers on passing subways making eye contact, and the bored teenage tourist reading great literature set in the city instead of looking at the tourist destinations. If you’ve spent any prolonged amount of time here, Tomine’s illustrations are scenes with which you’re familiar.

Now, with his New York illustrations receiving the postcard treatment in New York Postcards: 30 Illustrations from the Pages of The New Yorker and Beyond, I talked with Tomine about his storytelling, his influences, and more.

Flavorwire: I’m thinking less about your comics, more about the postcards and New York Drawings, but when I look at some of the things you’ve drawn, I imagine some of them were specific moments and people you saw. It made me wonder what catches your eye about a person or moment enough that you’re compelled to draw it.

Adrian Tomine: There’s a practical element that factors in. There’s always interesting people I’d like to sketch, but if they’ve already noticed that I’m drawing, or if I’m afraid I might be opening the door to some kind of confrontation, I’d rather not bother. So you’ll notice that a lot of the people I draw are either asleep, deep in conversation, or facing away from me. Basically I’m a coward who’s terrified of imposing on anyone… Two terrible qualities for a real artist, probably! Beyond that, if I’m going to go to the effort to draw out in public, I try to focus on people or things that I normally wouldn’t be able to draw from memory sitting in my studio. These kinds of drawings are usually rough and sketchy, but on some level I feel like I’m doing field research, making note of specific details I wouldn’t have thought to draw otherwise.

Image credit: Adrian Tomine

Do you like to apply your own stories to the people you draw?

I do think about people as I draw them. I think it’s a natural result of drawing comics for my entire life: stories and pictures are inextricably entwined. But to say that I “apply my own stories” sounds a little grandiose. It’s probably more like I consider a range of hypothetical stories. Or sometimes it’s even less ambitious than that. Sometimes it’s as small as just trying to imagine what a person’s voice might sound like, or what they had for lunch.

Has anything originally intended for Optic Nerve ever been turned into a cover illustration?

I don’t think so. I consider my comic work and my illustration work to be fairly distinct endeavors, both of which require some pretty specific skills. Of course they inform each other in some ways, but for the most part, they feel like two different jobs.

Image credit: Adrian Tomine

You graduated from college with a degree in English literature, and you’ve shown over and over that you know how to tell a story in your comics and graphic novels. Have you ever given any thought to writing a novel or book of stories without your illustrations?

I have — usually when I’m banging my head against the drawing board because I can’t figure out how to draw a person getting into a car in two-point perspective or something like that. I know that prose writing has its own set of incredibly daunting challenges, but sometimes I do fantasize about just being able to type, “She got into her car.”