Meet Amrita Marino, a Bushwick based Illustrator and Graphic Designer who has switched careers from tech to creativity and made a name for herself working for some of the most high profile NYC publications and global renowned brands.
In this interview we’re going deep into everything that has contributed to her unique and eclectic body of work over the years, and find out a little bit about design history and what makes NYC special when it comes to being a magnet for creative talent. We also talk about design history and the importance of actually knowing your field.
Please see this article for a gallery of some of her impactful work.
You’re illustrations and animations are very impactful aesthetically — this is a type of expression that we rarely see executed with style in the public domain. It’s usually really subtle elegant illustrations that are well done, or banging colors and impactful style executed badly — you seem to be quite unique in this aspect which seems quite brave. Can you tell us a little about how you developed it?
When I first started illustrating, I was working professionally as a graphic designer for various magazines in New York city. Occasionally, I would be asked to design icons or info-graphics when the budget or timeline were limited . I sent some of those initial pieces to P.J Mattan who was then the creative director of Bezar to get a job as a designer on his team. He surprised me by asking me to create a small set of posters to sell on a Bezar.com online pop-up store and that was really what got me started in illustration. Most of my initial work was based on architectural spaces largely inspired by my love of pop art colors and post modernism, especially Memphis Milano.
When I started, these initial styles largely did not gain any traction. At that time, a lot of illustrators were drawing women and I was able to get more jobs when I tried that path. I have since tried to work on a wider range of subject matters — not to necessarily become a generalist because I do not want to do that, but mainly to not be limited by any trend of the moment.
Almost everything I have learnt has been done on the job. Hence the evolution of style is very apparent in my work as I have learned from each job, and I have approached this by constantly editing my work on my website. I did not have the luxury of going back to school to study illustration and work through my style in a safe environment. I was also not actively developing my style while working as a graphic designer, which in retrospect I should have done. The last few years of working have been my version of illustration/art school. As a graphic designer, I try to focus on conceptual problem solving, and having seen the work of Push Pin, and especially Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, I realized that there were quite a few ways to solve a problem. I am not sure this is considered a plus today, but I do consciously aim to have a few different styles that still relate to each other. I like simple mid-century modern illustrations, as I am also fond of that phase in design. I find that work has really stood the test of time, especially commercial artists like Tom Eckersley. My style has evolved out of my limited drawing ability and desire to keep things simple, a direct outgrowth from my interest in iconography. Its quite interesting to see that though my work has changed significantly from that initial work for Bezar.com, my color palette has not changed much.
You know a lot about design history and reference Milton Glaser and the Pushpin studio and various other illustrators and graphic artists when you talk about your work. Again that seems pretty rare these days — when most people seem to think that being a creative is to just create what their own genius minds tell them to — what would you say has spawned this interest and desire to really understand what has happened before you?
As a graphic designer, I studied design history and my eventual (stretch) goal is to be like Steven Heller — his knowledge is encyclopedic. I am naturally curious as a hybrid designer-illustrator, I enjoy curating the work of other artists as much as creating images myself. I grew up in India and though I always knew about western interior design thanks to my Mom’s obsessive love of it, I did not know as much about the graphic arts. Nothing is really that original if you have studied your past and I certainly am not a “genius mind”. I am not sure how illustration is taught in school, but I assumed it would be important for me to study those who came before me.
You have pivoted from working purely with Graphic Design to become more and more an illustration artist — what drove that desire to broaden yourself to Illustrations and animations?
My current path was shaped entirely because I experienced difficulty getting a full time graphic design job in New York. Having changed my career in my mid 30s, I was always an odd fit at most design jobs. At a certain point I realized I just did not fit in at these jobs and that full time employment was largely predicated by that congruence.
My choice was to either go back to work in IT, relocate to a city where there were fewer designers, or try something where I could work from my own studio. At the same time, I was hiring illustrators for magazines I worked at and saw that they were able to do their jobs remotely. I was intrigued that this might be a path for me logistically. While I was researching illustrators to hire for my editorial projects, I discovered that one could succeed in this profession without being a traditional painter or artist.
I studied animation at The School of Visual Arts in New York as part of my BFA program. At that time, I noticed that those who were most successful at motion design were employing an illustrative approach. However, in school, all I wanted to do was be a book designer and I was taking this class simply because my teachers said it was a marketable skill. In hindsight, it has been great to apply something I actually studied in school to my illustration career.
You have earlier stated that because you weren’t the best in a creativity-class you took, you immediately decided to become an engineer/technologist instead. Can you elaborate a little on why you think that was?
As a teenager in India, I had many creative interests but did not know how to incorporate them into a career. That has now changed in India due to globalization. My parents were both extremely creative people (writing, singing, designing clothes, painting, the list goes on) but they studied and worked in engineering and science. I always thought that creative interests were meant to be pursued as hobbies.
Growing up in a family of professional doctors, engineers and lawyers, there was this prevalent idea that creativity was something you were born with, not something cultivated through hard work. I was an impetuous and impatient child, easily discouraged and not as good as one of my talented friends in a watercolor class I took. I also took dancing lessons and quit because my feet hurt from all that pounding on the ground. I had no follow through and perseverance when it came to art.
However, I worked extremely hard in school and was always a good student. Somehow, I never made the connection that the initiative I had in my studies could also be applied to art. Perhaps I was not that passionate about learning Kathak dance or water color painting.
My career choices were guided by the desire to be financially independent from my parents post-graduation. As a practical matter in India, I also knew that a professional career like engineering would help me achieve that end. I was able to immigrate to America easily to work in Technology because of this very same degree in Engineering. Again, I learnt how to program on the job. It is not that hard for someone with a degree in Engineering to write code.
I learnt about the American work ethic, that anything is possible in this country through grit and hard work and that life was too short to not pursue one’s dreams. So while I went about this in an extremely circuitous way, in the end, everything eventually connected for me.
You worked for years in tech and became a graphic designer/illustrator later in your career, which seems quite brave, and you’ve done loads of graphic jobs (and many high impact ones) since switching. Can you tell us a little bit about how the transition was, did you ever feel and doubt for example?
I had 3–4 pieces in my portfolio when I reached out to Bezar and they asked me to make twelve prints for their online pop-up shop. Then, I got a great job freelancing as an art director at Martha Stewart and pretty much gave up illustrating for a year. When that job ended, I had no desire to find another design job right away. I had been posting illustrations occasionally to Instagram and had some money saved, so I decided to start reaching out to art directors. Some online publications like Lenny, Curbed and later, Buzzfeed were kind enough to hire me at that time and I am grateful to have worked with them to build my portfolio. I used the rejected sketches from those jobs to keep building my body of work instead of doing personal work. I wanted to learn how to solve problems visually, so personal work was not something hugely interesting to me at that time.
My biggest challenge was sketching. Since I was not a very good draftsman, I would spend hours finessing the images rather than focussing on conveying just the idea. I have found that having limited time, and focusing on intuition to be best rather than second guessing myself. Also, when I am given a longer period of time to sketch, I end up obsessing over whether the image is strong enough. Its better to work fast, get a sense for what the art director is looking for and incorporate that feedback into the work. I also had an experience working for a large magazine right out of the gate and realized I was woefully unprepared for that opportunity. So I gave myself a lot of time working with smaller publications so I could learn the process without having the added pressure of working for a prestigious client.
I think there comes a time when the frustration of not making the change you need to in your career exceeds the frustration of feeling stuck at a job or career you dislike. Thats what it took me. I was afraid of giving up my lifestyle, I was mid-career in IT , was financially successful and already owned my own home. It was hard to sell the house and move into a dingy rental in a college town. I didn’t invite my parents to visit me at home for years because I knew they would judge me for living in a rental apartment in New York and think I was a failure. Without knowing individual circumstances, it’s hard to offer advice. I think social media, especially Instagram has made it easier for people to share their work with a large global audience. So I would say just go for it part time, build a body of work while still keeping your day job, use social media smartly and take it one step at a time.
In my personal opinion I think the subtle animated colorful illustration is your most captivating work, what drove you to start animating your work?
My first goal as an illustrator was to learn how to solve problems conceptually. My graphic design education was focussed largely on developing systems to structure content, books, identities, websites etc, not on creating images to illustrate a concept. I like making simple animations, not super polished ones like those made by professional animators, because I really embrace imperfections in work, even if done by digital methods. Animation allowed me to apply my motion design experience from college for illustration while I was always aware that I was not trying to be a professional animator.
I accept this process as one of constant growth and evolution, trying one thing or the other and editing work that does not work for me. My next goal is to really bring my personal heritage into my work. I want to work more intuitively rather than conceptually. As an American of Indian-descent, I don’t think culturally people here have a good understanding of who we are as a people as well as say, African Americans whose history is inextricably linked to the West. In the near future, I want to do more personal work as well more brand and package based work professionally.
It seems like you switch up a lot, careers, sub-careers, style (to some extent) illustration vs animation — why do you think that is? The American way seems to often be to master something and then stick to it.
I am not an animator. Most of the animations I do are simple and naive, which I quite enjoy and feel they add to my odd style of illustration. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with fantastic professional animators on projects because they can bring a level of expertise that I do not have. My energy is focussed almost entirely on illustration. I understand the amount of time and finesse it takes to do an animation well, and you are right, it is best to do something well and stick to it.
How much illustration do you do just for yourself vs commissioned work? Is there time and energy for both?
I think there has to be time for both but of late, most of my time is spent on commissions. Whenever I feel like complaining that I am not getting a specific kind of work, I know I have an opportunity to make some personal work.
Have you had, or are you planning to have, a gallery exhibition?
I participated in a one day pop-up gallery show with some friends last year but have not any other shows. I would love to have one, it would be a perfect opportunity to create some personal work.
Art and Design are interlocked in many ways, but there are also often a clear divide between the two — you seem to stand firmly with one foot in each camp — how has your experience in both changed the way you think about your craft?
I approach illustration like a designer, making a graphic composition and focusing on shapes and colors rather than a realistic depiction of space. I think its better to embrace my lack of real life drawing skills and just use these limitations to shape my work. Certainly knowing how to work as a designer helps me appreciate the collaborative nature between artist and designer. Also, so many designers have illustrative skills and work on both. I don’t really care so much about labels, because they can be limiting. I really look up to people like Alexander Girard who had such a large creative output across various media and I think its best to focus on what can be done with my skill set in a more intuitive way rather than analysis-paralysis.
Has your earlier career as a technologist affected or influenced your work today?
Yes, I have a pathological fear of being pulled back into it and being asked to build a website for someone. I also am not a huge fan of modern technology, especially the smart phone. When I was a child, I was an avid reader, and would always complain to Mom that I was bored. People today don’t afford themselves the chance to get bored anymore; they whip out their smartphones to fill all the gaps in time, waiting in a line, standing in an elevator (hey, I do it too). There is something to be said for the lazy languid childhood I had sans technology, that I miss more than anything today.
Why do you think New York City spawns all these amazing creatives over the years?
I think being in close proximity to other talented, and hardworking creatives in various professions has to be a great source of encouragement. New York is a very inclusive, diverse and supportive environment for illustrators and tons of New Yorkers have helped me in immeasurable ways, especially my former coworkers like Jas Riyait, Cybele Grandjean, Jenn Mcmanus, teachers at SVA like Carin Goldberg, Joe Marianek, Claudia de Almeida, Michael Ian Kaye and fellow creatives whom I look up to like Jessica Walsh and Tim Goodman who have helped me spread my work around.
And lastly — what do you hope the current situation does for the city moving forward? Some people are starting to hope that NYC becomes the city of artists and writers again — is that something you think can happen?
I am honestly not sure. I hear a lot about people permanently working from home, and find the idea is encouraging from the perspective of keeping environmental emissions down. However, working from home can be challenging in order to keep a distinction between personal and professional lives. Constantly being on has not helped me creatively so I am a bit cautious on that front. Maybe co-working spaces can be a solution. But on the positive side, I am happy that if that does happen, commercial real estate that is decimating neighborhoods in New York takes a step back.
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