Yann Legendre’s Modern-Day Woodcuts
Yann Legendre’s illustrations for Forbes, GQ, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal appear to be woodcuts fashioned from pixels. Thick, repeated lines create the illusion of motion with every strand of hair, every fold of cloth, and every shadow or reflection.
In Legendre’s work, even contemporary subjects have a timeless quality, whether it’s a portrait of a modern celebrity, a New York taxi, or a bearded hipster. And his illustrations surprise viewers with unexpected elements—for instance, a Star Wars stormtrooper wears a British Beefeater’s hat, or Little Red Riding Hood appears even more devilish than her nemesis.
Legendre now splits his time between Bordeaux, in the south of France, and Chicago, where he’s closer to most of his editorial clients, and where he finds inspiration in American illustration. “If you’re looking to learn about art between the 14th and 18th century, you go to France, but if you’re looking to learn about contemporary illustration, you go to the States,” he says. “In the 1950s and 1960s, everything exploded in the U.S., and I still find inspiration in book covers by Chip Kidd, in graphic novels, and American artwork—all of it.”
Legendre considers his biggest influences to be Pablo Picasso, M.C. Escher, and Jack Kirby, who teamed up with Stan Lee in the 1960s to create the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk, before leaving for rival DC Comics. “Kirby’s work is so bold, almost like a nuclear attack exploding in your face,” says Legendre. “My style is a combination of that old-fashioned line work with a more contemporary tool.”
The signature style is clear in his work with Rockport Publishers, which released a new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 2014.
“The Grimm stories were designed to be told, not read,” says Legendre. “The way they’re written is the way we talk, and because there’s so little detail, I can create the detail and interpret the story through the illustration.”
Case in point: Little Red Riding Hood.
“In the story, there is nothing saying that the girl is fragile or afraid of the wolf, so I didn’t want to illustrate her as a delicate little flower,” he says. Legendre drew her as a determined young woman in a hoodie—a character who appears to have just walked off the streets of New York, ready to face the evil hiding beneath her grandmother’s bedsheets.
ALL ABOUT THE PROCESS
Many modern illustrators start their creations with traditional tools—pencil or ink on paper—and then scan what they have drawn, using digital tools to refine and polish the work. Legendre prefers an all-digital process.
THE SEARCH FOR SURPRISE
Much of Legendre’s work is editorial, and he appreciates art directors who give him license to explore the subject rather than essentially asking for a photographic representation of something in the article. “When an art director says, ‘We need some bright colors and something fun,’ that’s a brief I can handle.”
And because of that, Legendre rarely shows clients more than a simple collection of circles and squares indicating the composition; sometimes he prefers to completely surprise the art director.
“When Metropolitan magazine asked for a cover illustration about Star Wars in London, it was easy—I immediately thought of the stormtrooper with the guard’s hat and it was done,” Legendre says. “I showed the art director the final piece, and it was such a surprise!” he says, getting excited at the very memory of it. “But if I had created a sketch, it’s nothing—it’s just an idea that every illustrator could execute in a completely different way.”
Legendre knows that completing a piece without a firm commitment from the client is a risky proposition, but to him, taking the risk is just part of the job—and his client list reads like an airport newsstand, so it seems to be working out.
Given the heavy focus on editorial commissions, you might wonder if Legendre ever worries about the future of print.
“When I started working on illustrations for the New York Times in 2008, people were already saying the computer was going to be the end of print,” he says. “But really, the computer has just made my job easier—now I can work from anywhere I like.”
He adds, “They also say nobody buys DVDs anymore, right? I work with Criterion Collection in New York, which is making a fortune selling DVDs because they create amazing objects—it’s an experience to open the box and look at the artwork before you watch the movie. Why? Because people are ready to spend money on a beautiful piece of craft.”