New York City has been through many iterations of the coronavirus pandemic. From the quieted streets in April to the slow resurgence of people in July to making the best of the winter conditions. Each time its most loyal residents mourning the loss of small businesses and defending its city to others.
Among those is Chris Greer, art director, and illustrator, living in Brooklyn. Greer had only been living in New York for a year and a half when the pandemic hit. He was spending more time in his apartment than he had anticipated and naturally, he found himself missing much of the city he had come to love. His solution: to recreate those everyday scenes by drawing them. The result became known as New York Picture Book.
In the following Q&A, Greer shares his process, his love for New York City, and his hopes for nypicturebook.
What inspired you to start this account?
I had been in New York a little over a year when quarantine started. Everything felt so new and fun when I moved here and then it felt like it got snatched away really quickly and I was in my apartment all the time. I initially started this account as an art project depicting scenes of normal life. But then I look back and I notice that the things I was depicting are sort of isolated. So, I was probably feeling lonely and that was informing those early pictures. The more I did it, the more I was worried that some of the places I went to weren’t going to be there anymore and the city wasn’t going to look the same. So, I put out an ask to commission pieces for New York City small businesses.
What started as a tribute to New York gave me a chance to give back to these places and help celebrate them. And that’s still a major part of the work that I’m doing. The account is a mix of that, of advocating for causes that I believe in, and showcasing different people and different creatives in the city. The whole thing is a tribute to a place that I love living in.
The whole thing is a tribute to a place that I love living in.
How long do these sketches take you?
Oh boy. So, each illustration takes a long time because the scenes are very detailed. I try to get the details in the building and I work off of my computer, not an iPad. It’s a range, depending how slow or fast I want to go. It could be two hours to make a simple one or six.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on? Maybe it’s nypicturebook, maybe it’s not.
So my day job takes up a lot of my life, but the stuff that I enjoy doing in advertising is very different from nypicturebook. I really like writing comedy spots and making people laugh and that’s what I’m usually trying to work into my advertising work. I feel that fulfills that side of me, but nypicturebook has gone back to my roots as a creative person. I thought I wanted to be an artist growing up, so it’s gotten me back in touch with a part of myself that I usually don’t get to express. I’m usually making people laugh, but with this I enjoy using my imagination.
So, the scenes that you’re creating are all in your head? You’re not sketching it off of something else?
I’ll use references. I’ll look at an apartment that I really like and I can use that wall or the real building, but really I see the scene in my head and I bring it to life in Illustrator. The people are usually inspired by someone I’ve seen. One thing that’s weird about nypicturebook is that I start with something and then I totally want to change it. It sort of has a life of its own.
I noticed that. I also noticed that you don’t post consistently, but maybe that’s not your intention.
I know some people are really focusing on growing their art accounts and making sure their following gets big, but I do it when I can because I don’t want to not enjoy it. I’m taking forever to do the commissions, but I’m totally fine doing that because I do this because I think it’s a good thing to do. And also, I’m not going to be making my best work for it if I’m not enjoying it.
Between living in New York City and all of the content floating around on Instagram, it can feel like everyone’s a creative or an artist of some sort and I’m wondering if you ever felt like you shouldn’t put out your work because it’s either already being done or it’s potentially better than yours.
That’s an interesting question. I know I’ve felt that emotion in the past. Sometimes I’ve done side projects that haven’t taken off and I’m like, why hasn’t that resonated with people? Why isn’t my stuff landing with people and this person’s is? But I’ve decided I’m going to make this whatever I want it to be and I’m not going to worry about it. The style of the artwork that I’m doing isn’t the most unique. I know that it comes from picture books that I was obsessed with as a kid. Trina Schart Hyman was really popular in the 1970s and when I first started drawing, I wanted to draw scenes the way she did. I’m trying to make the art I want to make that comes from me. So, I’m not too focused on what people are doing or comparing it to.
The funny thing is sometimes there’s a formula for things that get very popular. There’s a specific theme or specific cultural shift that they’re pivoting off of and I think whenever you’re doing whatever you want, you’re not leveraging that stuff. I just want to enjoy doing it.
I’m trying to make the art I want to make that comes from me.
I noticed a few people acknowledged the diversity in your characters and scenes. Was that intentional?
Yes, this has always been a conscious choice on my end simply because New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. I wanted to be true to the spirit of the city. To portray a whitewashed version of the subject of my account would be erasure. It seemed like an obvious choice from the get-go.
What’s your favorite thing about New York?
You feel like when you’re here you can be kind of whoever you want to be. There’s endless possibilities. Different types of lives you can live, different types of people you can meet, whoever you want to be/whatever you want to do. This sounds so corny, but the sky is the limit. There’s so much variation. And the food’s great, too.