Christoph Niemann On Wit, Distilling an Idea, and How the Internet Has Made Us Better Readers
The act of drawing, of envisioning an idea and conveying it visually, produces the same feelings in Christoph Niemann (previously) as it did when he was a child. A wildly successful artist, author, and animator with a keen wit, Niemann reiterates that “there is no trick” to making the creative process easier. The clever drawings he produces are the result of a precise and somewhat painstaking process, and no matter how many New Yorker covers he illustrates (there are dozens) or books he publishes (also quite a few) or how many people interact with and enjoy his work on a daily basis, all of these external factors are irrelevant when sitting down to a blank canvas.
Over Zoom in February 2023 when Niemann was in his Berlin studio, we discussed his practice and process, how he consumes news and culture, and how his openness when experiencing a new city or space has changed since the pandemic began. The conversation veers from poetry, distillation, and the purpose of art to the downsides of pitching and finally, to his profound and enduring love for the humble act of putting ink on paper.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Shown above is “Turning The Table” (2022), from the book ‘Idea Diary.’ All images © Christoph Niemann, shared with permission
Grace Ebert: What have you been working on today? What was your day like?
Christoph Niemann: Today was some conceptual drawings about rules for drawing, like very clean line drawings, then some very messy watercolor landscapes. And some coding on a strange video artwork. It’s been really diverse.
Grace: When you say rules for drawing, is that similar to the concepts in your new book, Idea Diary?
Christoph: Well, the kind of drawings are similar. It’s for a client. They asked me to come up with some rules for drawing, and so basically, to accompany the writing, I came up with little doodles. They’re very similar in style to the idea drawings, except for in the Idea Diary, it’s basically free-floating ideas. In this case, they’re a little tied to what I wrote, but they’re still pretty goofy.
Grace: How did Idea Diary come into being? I read that you started with scraps from old sketchbooks. Is that correct?
Christoph: That was only one part. Most of the art is new. I got into it and was like, wait a minute, have I done this before? I went to sketchbooks, and I was like, no, I haven’t, but there’s all this other weird stuff, half of which I couldn’t even decipher.
I’ve been working on a couple of different books—most of them were either about stories or had a theme or were landscape drawings—and I realized that it’s very simple. It’s almost like a one-line poem, something that’s just visual, that’s really a strange contract between the art and viewer, where you can play this little game with false flags. This is something that I really enjoy and that I almost consider going back to the basics. This is also in my editorial work. That’s what I’ve been doing the most and where I come from. I rediscovered that this is so much fun, and I still think that despite its simplicity, it’s such a powerful storytelling tool. You can pack so much in so little, and in a perverted way, it becomes more fun the more you take out. The joy of looking at them becomes better because there are only five lines that you think there could not possibly be any meaning there. But then you realize it.
What’s especially fun about these is that the viewer has to do all the heavy lifting. It pokes at what you already know, at all your storage, pop cultural data, and rearranges that. I think it’s very interactive art.
Grace: It’s interesting that you say poetry because poetry is often thought of as this distillation of language, reducing something down to the bare minimum of what you need to get an idea or feeling across. When I was reading about Idea Diary, I thought that it feels the same way, that it’s really distilling everything down.
Christoph: I once read a definition of poetry. It was something along the lines of, when you have a piece of prose, it’s about what’s in the lines. And poetry is about what’s between the lines. What I love is that this means the most important decision is about what you leave out. Usually, the punch line is about what you don’t see. You have to fill in the blank. This makes the art interactive part, and ultimately, you think, you laugh, and the joy doesn’t come from the art, but from inside your mind.
Grace: I was listening to the interview you did with Debbie Millman a few years ago, and one thing she said was that your work makes her feel really smart. Reading between the lines, getting the joke, also makes me feel smart.
Christoph: Yeah, but the great thing is that this is not a trick. It shows that yes, readers are very smart. It reveals our knowledge, our intelligence as readers.
The great joy of art, whether it’s music or writing or visual arts, is always that you realize that you have something in you. When you listen to Mozart, and it really touches you, it’s not so much that you love Mozart. The music opens, it reveals something that’s already present in you. The art is the key. Sound waves cannot transport that amount of emotion. It’s more about showing what you already have.
This is the amazing, life-affirming effect that art can have. I often find art tends to be less successful when it tries to teach you something. Letting yourself become aware, and basically just poking you in a way, so, you might look at your own thinking differently, it’s much more difficult, but it’s much more interesting.
Grace: I’m curious about your wit. Were you a very witty kid? Or is that something that you’ve developed over time?
Christoph: My brother and my dad, we would make these language jokes. It was just a silly game, but maybe it was a good exercise for what I do today.
But when you look at these drawings, it’s important to remember that there is a difference between what you experience as a reader, which hopefully is this moment of surprise and wit, and the creation. The creation doesn’t have anything to do with an “Aha!” moment. These ideas are never born as an epiphany. It’s a complicated system. You feel like, okay, I somehow want to end up there and then I have to find a more interesting way to get there. You start stripping things away to slowly and deliberately craft this aha moment by rearranging the breadcrumbs that lead the reader. The creation of it has very little to do with wit. It’s more like design, like editing, and tinkering a certain pathway, leaving things out so that you don’t ruin the surprise.
Grace: So the concept comes first and then the wit comes second?
Christoph: Well, I think the wit is when you strip everything out, and it looks like it came to me as spontaneously as it feels to receive. This is, of course, very important because especially with these kinds of idea drawings, when they feel labored, they’re boring. They have to feel like you just jotted them down. It’s the same way when you tell a joke. If you start laughing, you’re giving away that a punch line is coming. That doesn’t work. It has to be deadpan. But in order for it to be deadpan, it has to be really rehearsed. Or in this case, it has to be really designed in a way that it feels very innocent and very nonchalant.
Grace: Yeah, it’s the delivery. Your idea drawings, and even your Sunday sketch series, seem more timeless, a lot about everyday life. But I know that in order to be witty, to tell a joke, to be relevant, you have to really understand pop culture. You have to understand references. You have to understand what’s going on in the world. How do you consume those things? How do you follow the news?
The moment you start drawing, it’s too late for research. You have to have this repository of images, of storylines.—Christoph Niemann
Christoph: Well, on the one hand, I am really interested in what’s happening in the world. But it can quickly turn into a stupid obsession. It’s a great excuse to binge on it and to go down these rabbit holes. It’s like, ah, I have to do this for my work. Where ultimately, you’re just being sucked down some Twitter conversation.
But following current affairs closely is indeed vital. I did a New Yorker cover two years ago when all the different countries pulled out of Afghanistan. With The New Yorker, as an illustrator, you propose the theme. They don’t come to you and say, here’s our take. There’s no article prompting the art, so you have to understand the situation. And also, the event happens very quickly because they have to be very timely. I don’t think it’s possible to, when something like that happens, read a couple of articles on Afghanistan and what the whole political situation is and then come up with a distilled form of a drawing. You have to be on top of that story. You don’t have to have an expert’s knowledge, but you have to have followed that story to understand the relevance of what’s happening.
The moment you start drawing, it’s too late for research. You have to have this repository of images, of storylines. You already have to have that presence. I have to constantly update the visual language because as we discussed earlier, when you are supposed to read the drawing, that means that I have to speak a language that we both share. It might work today, but maybe five years from now, a new visual metaphor comes along. If I would have made a drawing of Donald Trump in 1990, I could have made him as recognizable as today, except he was not as prominent. That’s why it would have taken a different kind of visual rendering to make him recognizable because he was just not in the news every like, second and a half. You always have to consider how familiar your visual elements are to your readers.
This is what I mean when I say that artists have to be emphatic. You have to have a sense of what you know and what your audience knows. In the last couple of years, it has sometimes become much more specialized: whether it’s the pandemic, or the U.S. election, or the war in Ukraine. These are stories that tempt me to go into more detail. And with all the news options out there, you can constantly find out yet another facet of a story. It is bottomless!
I’m really interested in politics, and the economy. But as a designer, it’s key to have some basic understanding of what’s happening on television, in the movies, in books, in music. There’s stuff that I might personally not like, but if there’s a phenomenon like Games of Thrones or Harry Potter or the Kardashians, I need to have some rudimentary understanding of what all this is about. There might be some stories where I go like, okay, you lost me here. Some things I just consciously ignore. But it means also that I can’t ever use a thing in my art if I don’t consume it to a certain degree.
Grace: For a lot of publications, there’s a general idea that you write for about a sixth-grade reading level. Do you have a similar guide or standard that you work within?
Christoph: Well, first I have to say this is actually the beautiful side of the internet. There are so many things that stink about it, especially social media. But one of the beautiful revelations I found was that people are actually a lot more visually intelligent than we always assumed. Since the internet came about, the level of subtlety, of weirdness, of thinking around corners in images has actually increased a lot. I remember editors that were like “people don’t understand. You have to dumb it down” or “write little labels on the drawing so people understand it.” And now you see from the comments, even the likes, that people actually understand incredibly subtle visual references. Yes, you have to think about what people understand, but they understand a lot more than we always thought.
I always ask myself: who do I want to reach? If you do an editorial piece for The Times, at least 90 percent of the readers should be able to get your idea.
Some of the drawings I don’t even get myself. I feel there’s something there, but I don’t quite know what. People might explain it or might read it in a completely different way. Ultimately, you have to have an editor in your head to help you with all the decision-making, but depending on the art project, sometimes strange is important. Sometimes things just shouldn’t make sense, not too much at least.
The real magic is supposed to happen between the art and the reader and not between the artist and the reader.—Christoph Niemann
Our teacher in art school, one thing he said, which might again be a quote from somebody else, is that you shouldn’t be the connoisseur of your own art. Of course, you think about whether it works or whether it can be improved. But you shouldn’t become too smart about what you’re trying to do. Do the thing because it feels right, or because it’s funny or sad or surprising. But don’t expect too much.
The real magic is supposed to happen between the art and the reader and not between the artist and the reader. It sounds like a small distinction, but it’s really important. It’s not about me having a connection with my audience. I have a connection with my art, and then the art has a connection with the audience. What’s happening between them is beyond my control. I cede control the moment I release the art in the world, and I think it’s fun that that might actually be different from what I intend, even if I make it very precisely planned.
Grace: What is your creative community like at the moment? Who do you go to for feedback?
Christoph: I have great coworkers here in the studio. But I rarely ask “is this good?” I usually ask, “do you get it?” Or the most important question, “what do you see?” Often the problem of an idea is not that it’s weak, but that people aren’t able to decipher the elements.
The people I talk to most about that are really my wife and Nicholas Blechman, who is an old friend. We’ve worked together a lot. He’s the creative director at The New Yorker—he’s an incredible art director and illustrator—and I’ve worked with him over such a long time. I can send him a strange doodle, and he gets what I’m trying to say. He can with a scalpel go like, yes, no, this works. If you spend years discussing art with people, you develop are wonderfully precise language. It’s very valuable.
Grace: The trust has to be incredible after that long.
Christoph: The trust is one thing, but the other thing is also that you know what it’s about. It’s a mix of verbal and visual understanding. When you make a drawing, you know which part is the crucial part. Sometimes it’s the concept, sometimes the rendering, or the composition. Within a minute we can pinpoint that a change in the line weight might affect the readability of a dog or something. He’s one of the very few people who if he says make the head bigger, I would make the head bigger. I trust him to have the ultimate understanding for what works and what doesn’t.
Grace: What is your current relationship with The New Yorker? You’ve talked about pitching, and I’d love to know what that process is like. You also mentioned in an earlier interview that you think the competition of pitching is maybe not so good for creativity, and I’m wondering if you could comment on that.
Christoph: I’ve been really incredibly lucky in having a lot of art accepted, but it’s still a tricky process. The good thing is that I’ve been doing it for so many years that I can talk with the editors if I send a sketch. It’s an open pitch, but at least I get some feedback when things don’t work out.
The difficulty about pitches, in general, is that you work differently when you play against other people than when you just play to have the best results. The consideration of what other people do should not be in your mind at all. But it’s still difficult to ignore that 20 other people are trying to crack the same nut right now. In theory, it should be the discussion with you and the client or the art director to find the best possible solution. This is the process that sometimes takes a little back and forth, and with great clients, it can be very fruitful.
With The New Yorker, it works for me personally, but I still dislike pitches. It is a little bit like, you go to a restaurant, and you order 40 meals. You try a couple of them, and you go, okay, I’ll take the steak. The problem is that when you taste different things, your taste buds change. If you tasted a steak and goulash and the pepperoni sausage, and then you go back to a broccoli soup, it tastes different than if you would have started with the broccoli. Broccoli might be the right thing, but after your taste buds went through all this other stuff, you cannot judge a broccoli soup. It’s just impossible, physically or biologically impossible. That’s why I think it’s not a good system, and often, it’s unfair to the artists.
To go back to the restaurant, if you go into a restaurant that you heard great things about, you sit down, you want the food to taste good. If it stinks, you’re not gonna like it just because you heard that the restaurant is great. But you go in there with your taste buds very alert and great things can happen. If I have five meals in front of me, my basic attitude is which one do I not like? Or which was better? This is not what food is about. Food is about a magic moment happening. My biggest problem is that the art quality doesn’t really increase through pitches.
Why do we have pitches? A client might say, oh, I’m investing all this money. I want to make sure I don’t miss out on a better idea. But it doesn’t work like that. It’s not a piece of engineering where I want the most sturdy car, I take five for a spin and see which one works. It is art, and it’s based on trust. Being afraid of missing out is not the right mental state to actually judge what’s good.
Grace: I don’t want to spend too much more time on your editorial work, but I do want to ask a little bit about the deadlines. I know that when you were working for The New York Times, you would have to produce something really, really quickly. I’ve always found fast deadlines, getting something from start to finish in an hour or so, really stressful, but I also think that as a young person especially, it helped me to trust my gut and learn to not be a perfectionist. Did you have any experiences like that or similarly large lessons that came out of that time?
Christoph: I find the rush of tight deadlines really exhilarating. You learn that a tight deadline focuses you in a really magical way. This is what you were referring to with trusting your gut. It doesn’t mean that you just do whatever. It’s this high-pressure situation, and that’s when you have to be able to fully rely on your knowledge and craft. At this moment, you just do what’s really necessary and laser focus. I often look back at pieces and go like, wow, if I would have had another two hours, I would have f***ed it up. The tightness of the deadline was actually what saved me from making wrong decisions.
A lot of the things that I’m working on right now don’t have a deadline at all. What I’ve realized is that the other advantage of working fast and tight is that certain artistic expressions, even though they are not physical, they need a certain dynamic, and they require a certain speed. I have never danced ballet, but I would imagine that if you jump in the air and rotate three times, you cannot do this in slow motion. You can train your muscles, but certain things have to be done at full speed. This is especially true when it comes to painting: if I make a big brushstroke, it comes out different when I do it fast than when I’m hesitant. The bristles and the ink just behave differently.
Grace: Absolutely. And in that way a drawing isn’t a static image either because you have that motion, you have that speed, that movement preserved in it.
Christoph: Yeah. A certain dynamic is absolutely necessary to create urgency with the viewer. Even though an idea might be born in 100 small steps, these steps need to happen in a mental pressure cooker. Even if I would do a vector drawing, with just moving boxes around the page where nothing shows a calligraphic quality, even that, I think, can show whether it was done with velocity.
Grace: How does place, your city, and your environment affect you and end up influencing your work? I know you’ve done quite a few travel series.
Christoph: I like looking at my travel drawings a year or two years later. At the time I felt I just sat down, and I drew a tree or a church or a road. But then looking back later and going, wow, I draw differently when I’m in Rio than when I’m in Tokyo. The images radiate differently, even if there is no element like a famous building that gives away the location. I love that the environment, the air or the food, does something that at the moment I’m not even aware of. Only later through the drawings, I go like, wow, it’s a totally different feel.
This is something I’m trying to embrace. It’s been three years since the pandemic started, and I know that this definitely has messed with my sense of place. I spent so much time at my desk, looking inward. This has created a distance to the outer world. I wonder if I lost a bit of a naive openness.
Grace: There is a certain slowness that was so deeply instilled in a lot of people during the early days of the pandemic, and our tolerance for busyness today seems to be much lower. It seems to me that there is a little bit more distance between what we’re experiencing and when that comes out.
Christoph: On the one hand, my interaction with the world is definitely a lot slower. But I feel at the same time, because I had so much more time to think, what’s happening up there is like, four times faster. So much about when you go places and so much about what you do as an artist, in general, is also to react to the world, soak it in, and understand what’s happening. What happened in the pandemic is that basically everything I saw was made for consumption. Everything was transactional.
At the same time, in my head, everything was completely nontransactional. It absorbed everything and was always self-referential. This idea of going to a place openly was difficult, not so much because I’ve slowed down, but because the car sped up in my head. And so there are two different worlds: one has become much slower, and the other one is three times the speed. They have to somehow go back into balance, but we can’t just go back to 2019. Life has moved on since. It distinctly feels different now.
Grace: After all of your success—The New Yorker covers, the Netflix documentary, exhibitions, so many books—when you sit down at your desk at 9 a.m., and you have a blank sheet of paper in front of you, is the process the same? Is your thinking the same? Are your feelings the same as they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago?
Christoph: Absolutely. Success has huge benefits. It’s silly. It’s unfair: but people are more likely to trust your artistic decisions. This is a huge benefit every day.
But the moment you sit down to draw, previous success means nothing. Absolutely nothing. If anything, everything you’ve done in the past weighs on you because you have to compete against it. The challenge is all about what’s happening on the page. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, no matter what award you won last year.
It’s actually kind of comforting that the reality of drawing is that there’s no secret. Most artists have doubt. I’ve always wondered: is there a secret? Is there something I don’t know? Is there a trick that people have to make less difficult?
From what I’ve found, there isn’t! What I’m doing today is exactly the same thing, with different tools, with different input, but exactly the same thing that I was doing when I was 12. It’s the same rules. If I want it to be better, I have to become better. And sometimes you have to be lucky. That’s it—there’s absolutely no trick. You sit at your desk and try to make something happen.
The moment you sit down to draw, previous success means nothing. Absolutely nothing.—Christoph Niemann
Grace: What’s next for you?
Christoph: I’m working on some installations, drawings in a space, which is really, really difficult. With a regular drawing, I can make a sketch, wait a day, and I know whether it works. If you do something in a space, there’s so much money involved, so many other people, you can’t just jot something down and redo it if it doesn’t work out. It’s a great challenge, but I do love it.
I don’t get bored of just sitting down and doing yet another drawing. I know that once that stops, then I have a real problem.
Idea Diary is available in Niemann’s shop, along with originals, prints, and other books, and you can find much more of his work on Instagram.
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