It’s after 2 a.m., I’m in the studio, overworking a drawing, when I’m startled by the screech of my fax machine. That sound at that hour means the slow reveal of a pencil sketch from a studio in Brooklyn, a drawing its composer doesn’t like.
Each sketch has its own quiz: What about it isn’t working, or is just a little bit off? Did my eye travel where it’s supposed to? Does it read? Does it read too easily, or too slowly? Is it obvious? Have I ever seen the idea before? Does it have “juice”?
The artist is a perfectionist and settling for less feels like a little bit of a death to him, so I scan the drawing for clues, playing “Find the Flaw” before the ringing phone says my time is up. When it does ring, the only thing dominating my thoughts is that this is one of the deftest drawings I’ve ever seen. Just like the last one he sent. And the dozens before that.
This was a regular late-night ritual; it was when I knew—without yet knowing— I was witnessing the early days of Peter de Sève’s Hall of Fame career.
“My work stinks! I wish I were dead!”
— muffled variations of which could frequently be heard from within young Peter’s studio.
Once upon time, a bit over a half-century ago, Honore Daumier, Arthur Rackham, A.B. Frost, Heinrich Kley, Frank Frazetta, Ronald Searle, Ed Sorel, Chuck Jones and Buster Keaton all got together, raised a glass and toasted the arrival of a child named Peter.
Born on Long Island, the boy grew and cultivated his unusual gifts amid a supportive family. He then honed them, with passion, at the Art Students League and Parsons School of Design, and went out into the world as an illustrator. Illustrator, and observer. And craftsman. And comedian. Qualities that, along with his famous draftsmanship, harmonized within the young artist to create a master visual storyteller. In a crowded profession of narrative artists, Peter’s stories stand out because of the rich weave of talents he brings to his craft.
“Stop! Wait! Let me come up with something first!”
— The phrase that often interrupted any art director who began a sentence with “I’d like you to draw a …”
The marriage of “funny with gravitas,” a rarely successful coupling, comes naturally to Peter. His decisive yet lively pencil work underpins the woven layers of ink and watercolor, filling his figures with great weight and volume. His technique, having evolved through years of editorial work, supports his humorous and imaginative scenes, rather than dwarfing them.
His storytelling prowess took center stage when he was called to create New Yorker covers. Peter’s smart sense of humor drives concepts out of the territory of the mundane and into his own world. It’s a place where an idea is frozen at the precise moment when ridiculous and cerebral meet, be it the Statue of Liberty converting the Brooklyn Bridge into a sunbathing hammock, or a vegetarian lion contemplating zebras and gazelles from inside a Park Slope cafe, or a pot-bellied French chef pretentiously dusting the icy sidewalk with a pinch of salt.
The way he designs the picture plane guides the eye over every person, animal, twisted tree, ornate facade, cracked sidewalk and shadow cast by an unseen cloud, to form a setup, conflict and satisfying reveal. His illustrations have great timing. And like a good movie, they’re richer with each revisit.
-“Hold on–I’m drawing a woolly mammoth poorly and I need a moment to do that.”
For Peter, character is story, so in the late ’90s, when the top animation studios first hired him for character design, his imagination and descriptive line unleashed hundreds of energy- filled sketches. These ended up as final art, something that quite appealed to an artist that believes “a good drawing happens in the first few minutes and anything beyond that is CPR.”
His line not only expresses a character’s shape, size, walk, stoop and laugh, but also the interior world that imparts those physical qualities: their personalities, attitudes and emotions, how they relate to each other, their pasts, where they’re headed, what they want and need, and why. There’s the silverback gorilla, jealously glaring over his massive shoulder at the future threat he senses in the infant Tarzan, or the distinctly individual psyches and figural attitudes within a menacing gang of grasshoppers. And of, course, Peter’s beloved creation, the saber-toothed Scrat, the ultimate survivor, every line of him greedy, desperate, obsessed and hilarious.
“It’s not the amount of details you choose to include, but which ones.”
The truest arrow in Peter’s storytelling quiver is his sensitivity for insightful facial expressions and body language. These expressions are the way we as a species connect, and Peter’s skill at capturing them connects us to his work. A richly painted New Yorker Easter cover features three anthropomorphized rabbits, a doctor administering a sonogram to an expectant mother, husband at her side. The sonogram reveals a painted Easter egg. Boom. Funny. And yet we linger, we don’t immediately turn the page. Something deeper resonates. We can feel the competent doctor, a gentle old hand who has delivered thousands of babies, yet is still humbled by the miracle each time. The expectant mother, vulnerable and brave, is overwhelmed with love. And the father, a tour de force rendering of fear, joyful anticipation and relief, all at once.
Peter connects us to their stories through the language of delicate expressions, thus revealing specific histories. He elevates the picture beyond illustrated gag into a moment of life that not only puts us, as viewer, in the room with them, but also nudges us to consider the larger story, that which came before and what might come after.
This is rarified air in the world of illustration. Drawing and painting in a way that makes the image cohere is part of the story. Designing the picture in a way that establishes priorities and leads your eye in the proper sequence is also part of the story. Facial expressions that communicate feeling and thought are part of the story. And humor that animates everything is part of the story.
Can you have a convincing story without all of these ingredients? Sure.
But you can’t have a Peter de Sève story without them, which is why, when you put his image next to five other images telling the same story, his is the one that levitates off the table.
-“What about your personal work…?
“This IS my personal work!”
To meet Peter is to have a “Oh—now I get it” moment. You can’t fail to notice his wide-eyed sense of wonder, the easy coexistence of Peter the man with the enduring spirit of Peter the child. That paradoxical combination is how he can look at human nature and apply a humorous spin, without degrading its humanity or reducing it to schmaltz. And it’s why he’s still just a kid having fun with simple pencil and paper, while possessing a seriousness of purpose: first comparing himself to his peers, then to his heroes, then to history, and finally to himself.
The combination of talent and passion have earned Peter many accolades across a variety of media, both in the U.S. and internationally, including the Society of Illustrators Hamilton King award. And perhaps the most impressive honor, though dubious for those who bestow it, is the legion of imitators he has inspired.
In reaching these heights, Peter owes much to his wife, Randall. A picture book author, she is also his artistic confidant. Early in his career she had an even more hands-on role when he was learning to use color. Peter’s colorblindness (yes, it’s true) meant that Randall had to become a connoisseur of every shade of red and green in the cosmos. Their daughters, Paulina and Fia, continually refresh their “old-fashioned illustrator” father’s creativity, thereby giving the rest of us much to look forward to.
It is quite a thing to be so exceptional in your life’s work that the Society of Illustrators insists on including you in its Hall of Fame, even though you are only at mid-stride in your career.
Peter de Sève has achieved just that—a towering presence on an unfailingly human scale.
Cartoonist, The Washington Post