In Conversation With Aaron Marin
last updated 20 June 2023
Interview by Rachel Moffat
Aaron Marin is an American illustrator and artist living in Upstate New York.
He draws people and places in bold and reimagined color palettes. He aims to capture the defining essence of an environment or person with a fresh perspective and childlike imagination, often challenging assumptions of beauty, power, and intelligence relating to the Black experience in America.
He purposely likes to change the colors of the things that he draws. Choosing these colors reminds him that art should be fun, it allows the inner kid in him to make bold choices without embarrassment and full of love and kindness.
Here’s what Aaron’s agent Susan Penny has said about working so closely with him:
“Aaron’s ethos is a reminder that the process of creating the work is equally important as the end result. I’m always inspired by the playful honesty of Aaron’s art and how open he is to absorbing influence in any environment and illustrating the joy of it in his own vision.”
Talk us through your creative process. How do you approach a brief?
I start with research, in two parts. Firstly, nonspecific to the brief, I research how other artists work and I buy children’s books. I have tons of these books. I’ll Google the artists to discover their thought process. Rebecca Green has a great blog: myblankpaper.com.
Next, I research the brief and the story. Then there’s a due date. I used to be in the military, so I like dates. When I know how much time I have it pushes me to work earlier. I’ve adopted Christian Robinson’s approach to thumbnails: using little post it notes because they’re small and the ‘stickies’ allow you to reposition them to figure out the flow of the book. Part of it is trial and error.
What helps sometimes is giving myself a block of time to work on something and then, if nothing happens, doing something else. Go work out, go cook, go for a walk, read a book, don’t worry that ideas aren’t coming. The good ideas come after you’ve struggled: a little bit of viridity and a little bit of freedom.
Your work is aesthetically unique to you, how do you approach translating your ideas to the page?
When somebody gives me a thing to draw that isn’t my story, I kind of have to make myself believe it is my story. They’ve done their part, they’ve written this and given it to you, now it’s your part. They’ve already seen your work, so you can’t worry about whether or not they’re going to like it. You just have to realize that who you intrinsically are is going to come out on the page and people will like it. It’s you because it’s you.
How did you begin illustration?
The short story is, I didn’t go to art school. I went to a military university and then I did 11 years in the military.
I always was a ‘doodler’ as a kid but I never thought I’d be doing kids’ books. My first children’s book was in sixth grade, I was 12 or 13. We had a ‘big brothers, little brothers’ program and one of the assignments was to draw a kid’s book for our ‘little brothers.’ So, I wrote a story about a mom elephant and a baby elephant. I had to write and illustrate and bind, and then give the book to my ‘little brother.’ I wish I still had that book. That was my first experience of really creating something and then putting it out into the world, but then I didn’t think about it again until maybe a few years ago. I do editorial illustration for magazines, a lot of collage work, and then a year or two ago I started doing digital illustration just for myself on my iPad. Then, after a while, I deleted it thinking, “oh, this isn’t going anywhere.” But I kept going back to it and experimenting with different methods. I had no intention at that time of becoming a children’s book illustrator.
Someone told me, “hey, you could merge your collage with illustration.” It reminded me of artists and authors like Ezra Jack Keats who did that in all of his books. I did a lot of research and realized that there is this whole world of adults who are essentially just playing with colors. So I thought, “let’s just see what happens.”
What’s your favorite part of the illustration process?
It’s being critical of my own work while I’m creating, but then looking back at it and thinking, “wow, we really are creating stuff. Remember when we couldn’t do this? Now we can do that.” It feels like being a kid. That’s the only way I can describe it to people. That’s the fun part, looking at my work and seeing progress, or that serendipitous, “oh, I didn’t want that paint to bleed into this but it did and now this kind of looks cool.”
Where are you from and how does that affect your work?
I grew up in San Francisco and Oakland California, and then my parents moved to Upstate New York. I would say it’s not necessarily the places where I grew up that inform my work, but moving around at an early age and then joining the military has. Moving every two years and seeing the world: I lived in England for three years, I was in Israel, Japan, Korea. You’re seeing humanity, you’re seeing colors and different textures. You see the news, and all the doom and gloom, but you also see the beautiful tapestry of humanity. I try to tap into that rather than to extract it. You don’t own beauty, you can’t command it at will, it’s not a resource like water or coal, and even then, it’s not up to you. It’s a gift.
How do you develop your art skills?
Copy people. That’s what I tell people. I’ll use my collage work as an example. I got to collage because of heartbreak. I did film photography and portraiture, fell in love with somebody and that person was my muse, so, when the relationship ended I was all teary, but I still wanted to make art. But I couldn’t do the thing that reminded me of that person yet. That’s when I learned, photographers do collage: “What’s that? How do I get good at it?” So, you just copy people, you ask, “how did they do that?”
There is one thing that took me forever to figure out: Laura Carlin does really soft illustrations with no hard outlines and I thought, “How is she doing this?” I have all this chalk but when I use it on paper it always leaves a mark, but I want that softness of chalk.
So, I was looking to buy paper for another project when I saw an ad for a device to sharpen chalk, essentially a plastic container with this little metal sieve. Instead of spending $18 on this I got my tea strainer from the kitchen and a cup to collect the dust. I then used my finger and the chalk dust to draw someone’s hair and suddenly I was like, “Ohhhh! That’s how she does it!” So, copy people, and then once you figure out how they do what they do, you can figure out how you want to use that. It’s like music: learn the notes and then say, “okay, well now I’m going to play jazz my way.”
What does an average day in the studio look like for you at the moment?
My studio is my bedroom. I wake up early. My mum is 74 and still working so I drive her to work. Once I’m back at home I go through emails. Either Sus has sent me something or I have emails to send. I like to get admin stuff done early, then I light some incense and make a pot of coffee or tea.
Usually, the day before, I’ll have set up my table, which is actually just a door from a hardware store that I’ve put on top of two Ikea table legs. That’s my desk. I’m talking to you from a MacBook that’s sitting on top of a door. It’s not ideal, but I don’t have some big studio. I used to do this in the dining room and I only moved this in here so that I could wake up next to art, so there’s no excuse not to touch this.
So, say I’m trying to learn how to do backgrounds. I sit down with a pen and split my screen with an artist I really like—I like how they do backgrounds. I’ll bring up a Pinterest, Google some terms and make a board full of towns I want to draw and I’ll say, “okay, we’re going to do this for the next hour and a half.” Once I’m done I’ll go work out, or talk to some people, and then I’ll come back to my desk and keep going.
Some days I have sciatica, so it’s, “okay—I guess we’re going to stand and draw today.” You figure it out. There is someone else that does not have the ability to do what you’re doing, who would love the chance to do this, so, honor the gift. I’m not going to be able to do it forever, so I just try to touch it.
What was it like seeing your work out in the world for the first time?
The first illustration I did was for the LA Times. It was an article about relationships, a woman who was dating a man who just wasn’t receptive to all of the nice things that she was doing for him. They saw the movie Purple Rain, and she got him cookies and dressed up for him. To put all of this into an illustration was interesting. Then there was the realization that people are going to see this— that’s kind of cool. I just think of myself as being a kid, I don’t think of myself as an adult.
When I was 10 or 11 my mum asked me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and I told her I wanted to play. “What are you talking about? That’s not a job.” But that was it, that’s all I wanted to do—play. I couldn’t conceive of why that couldn’t be a job, why there wasn’t an exchange of money for play. But essentially there is, because that’s what I’m doing. I remind my mum of this all the time.
To an up-and-coming artist, what’s one piece of advice you would give?
If you’re new to the ‘business of art,’ but you already have your techniques, then make the art that you want to make. Don’t worry about an audience, there is always an audience for you. A lot of people go chasing audiences. They have the technique, they know color theory, and there is art they want to make but they don’t see how it will make them money. To chase the economics—that is a mistake.
For those people that don’t have formal training in art and are trying to figure stuff out: give yourself the latitude and freedom to experiment with everything (within your budget). The better paint isn’t going to make you a better painter. Doing the work is. Touching it, playing, having fun, giving yourself the space to say, “I’m not going to be good at this, I’m going to fail a lot.” Keep all of it, keep your ‘failed stuff’ because you’re going to look back at it in six months and think, “I know how to do that better now.”
What would be your dream brief?
I would like to make a movie—I love cartoons and animation. I’m obviously black, and I don’t see a lot of movies for black kids. I don’t see a lot of movies for Asian kids. Movies are beautiful because they’re super accessible, people watch them all the time. There’s spoken word, there’s music, there’s visuals. So, I think being a part of that, even if it’s just doing mood boards, I think that would be beautiful.
If I could go back in time and talk to eight-year-old me and say, “Hey, one day you’re going to make a cartoon,” that would be amazing!
To work with Aaron, get in contact here.