Interview with legendary illustrator Christoph Niemann

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Last week I had a handful of people all send me the same link to a charming story in the New York Times by Christoph Niemann. He illustrated his opinion piece on napkins using coffee as his ink. It’s clearly popular because (as of right now,) it has 614 comments!

The thing I love about Christoph’s work is that he’s a thinking illustrator. His work is lovely but it all has a clever or informative bent to it. His new children’s book The Pet Dragon introduces children to Chinese characters in a playful, informative way.

A father yelling and pointing at a dragon to stay in its cage

A woman searching for her dragon, running down a large stretch of a pathway

I had the privilege of interviewing him recently:

ND: I LOVED your coffee piece in the NYTimes, what inspired you to do this piece and to use a napkin?

CN: I have always tried to explore new styles, but since I started this blog, I have deliberately tried to focus on handmade art (to counter the fact that it only appears digitally). For each post I want to come up with a new distinct look. First I wanted to draw on the bottom of a coffee cup and then photograph inside the cup from above. I realized very quickly that that was not a smart idea. Drawing on Napkins was the next best idea.

ND: Projects that incorporate tactile elements are more endearing to me. What process did you use to make these illustrations? Is it real coffee?

CN: I wanted to draw them with 100% coffee. I cooked up a special, near toxic brew (5 spoons espresso powder, 5 ounces boiling water). But this was still  not dark enough. So I added water color (three shades of brown, to get the right tone). I would say it is 40 % coffee now. You can still see a good number of powder grains on some of them.

I went through a LOT of versions, but I am not sure I kept the messed up ones. Napkins are a terrible surface for wet colors. If you just add a tiny drop too much fluid, you have a three inch blot. Of course this only happens when the damn thing is 90% finished.

And to make things worse, you just cannot sketch on these napkins. So each drawing was made entirely freehand, without any thin sketch lines to guide me.

ND: Your website is full of wonderful high-concept graphics with varying illustration styles. What is your creative process from ideation to final execution?

CN: There is unfortunately no secret to the way I work. I sit in front of a stack of letter size paper, and think until my head hurts. I do not produce sketches of even the slightest artistic value. Attached you’ll find a sketch from a couple of months back. I have no idea what it is, but I know that it was the sketch to an idea that eventually got published.

Every once in a while I have an idea while walking or taking a shower. But usually it is a pretty grueling process (but great fun once its done!) When it comes to the execution of the idea I think more like an art director and not an illustrator.

Sketch that Nancy drew, a lot of lines and scribbles