Rebecca's original takes on the Three Graces sculpture in The Met collection
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Met Sketches: Our New Fall Line from Rebecca Clarke

Cheery designs for kitchen and home highlight the distinctive handwork of this noted American illustrator

In her vivid illustrations, artist Rebecca Clarke focuses on capturing expression and human experiences, heightened with color and attention to lines and texture. Her client list includes Google, Harvard Law Review, New York Times, New Yorker, Viacom, Vogue, Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, and many others. 

Rebecca’s charming interpretations of select artworks in The Met collection—from the ancient Roman sculpture of the Three Graces to a Louis C. Tiffany stained-glass lamp—star in The Met Store’s new Met Sketches line for fall 2019. Previously, she created a series of lighthearted illustrations of The Met’s galleries for the Museum’s Education Department. Following is an edited Q & A with the artist.

“Met Sketches” Mini Easel Ornaments based on the work of Claude Monet, Katsushika Hokusai, and Vincent van Gogh

You studied art for eight years in France and the Netherlands. What was it like to be an American artist abroad? I moved when I was 15—and it was my first time living anywhere besides North Carolina—so everything was different in France. I was taught to look to history and maintain tradition—use what came before, study form from life.

The Netherlands is a country that embraces modernization. When I moved to the Hague, I was faced with totally different expectations at school. I was to notice where the box of our conditioned thinking existed, and puzzle how to think outside of it. This was a huge challenge for me. I was trying to create something new and interesting with type, in a language I didn’t understand. I learned many useful things, however, about computer programs and what it means to be a designer.

Rebecca Clarke at work in her studio

Tell us how you got started as an illustrator. I went to school for graphic design, having no idea that illustration was a profession. After encouragement from teachers to change my direction of study, I noticed a whimsical image by Chris Silas Neal in a magazine, went to his website, and realized, with astonishment, that illustration was his full-time job! I felt giddy realizing this could be a viable path for me. For a few years I worked on low- or unpaid assignments while keeping a day job at a bakery in Brooklyn. Soon, I had a simple portfolio, which my then-partner brought to 2×4, a well-established graphic design firm he was working for.

Susan Sellers, one of the firm’s partners, has been a huge advocate for me and my work. She introduced my work to the design team at The Met. Around that time, I got a big break after painting a group of portraits of powerful older women for Riposte magazine, which was publicized on “It’s Nice That,” a blog geared toward designers and art directors. Since then I’ve stayed busy.

Do you prefer to work from life or from a photograph? I almost always work from photographs. I am constantly observing in real life, but generally my client work is based on photos or my imagination. I keep sketchbooks sporadically with drawings made from life observation.

Your work has so much life and personality. How do you capture the essence of your subjects with such economy? That is always the challenge! It’s a rush to puzzle it out. How can I get all the feeling with as few lines as possible? It can take many tries but I’m getting faster with experience. Now I make choices to simplify without too much thought, whereas in the beginning I was always going back and deleting erroneous details in Photoshop.

Is there a favorite brand of artist’s materials that you turn to? I use Prismacolor colored pencils, Acryla gouache, all kinds of pencils, and the occasional Pierre Noire to get a lot of texture in black lines. I like to buy art materials on trips. I can’t help myself; I bought a lot on a recent trip to Japan.

Clockwise from left: “Met Sketches” Three Graces Bud Vase; Covered Trinket Box; William Ornament; Oven Mitt and Pot Holder Set

What was it like turning objects in The Met into illustrations? Were some easier to depict than others? It was really fun. Some were absolutely easier than others. Some pieces have to be very accurate to depict the actual object and some objects are so iconic that there is no possibility that it would be misunderstood. There isn’t always a logic to what was easier. I think the more you draw something, the more comfortable you are with its form and the more playful and free you become with strokes, so, for example, the Three Graces statue’s bodies came together quite easily, while the copy of Monet’s Water Lilies was arduous.

Did you spend much time in the Museum when you were working on this project? Every time I come to the Museum I take loads of pictures so I have a massive archive now. For this project specifically, I studied The Met Store and The Met’s online archives.

“Met Sketches” Apron and L.C. Tiffany Tulip Lamp Ornament

Your bio says you enjoy traveling the world. Any favorite destinations? So many, although last year I spent three months traveling around Italy, and I could have stayed a lot longer. I’m hoping to find an artist residency there for a month (or more) to create and be surrounded by nature, history, and my favorite food, pasta!

You recently relocated from New York City to Key West. How is your new life in Florida going? This move has shifted my life in just about every way. It has removed most of the routine from my life; I’m making new habits, new friends, and my home is no longer an apartment in the city—but a boat on an island!! I would never have dreamed I would be here, so far from my normal, “safe” (landlubber) life. I’m being pushed out of my box again and it’s been eye opening. Life is slower and warmer, although never a dull moment. And luckily, New York is just a plane ride away.

Shop for aprons, cookie cutters, ornaments, tableware, and more featuring Rebecca’s lively work here.

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