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Illustrating the News: Artist Lincoln Agnew

By Charles Purdy

The collages of Canadian artist Lincoln Agnew are reminiscent of both Russian constructivism and the punk aesthetic of the 1970s and 1980s—but they have a style all their own.

Both constructivism and punk resonate with Agnew and have influenced his work, which one might describe as “Gustav Klutsis meets the Ramones.” The photo collage style he often works in is popular with some magazine art directors, both for practical reasons and aesthetic ones. Basing an illustration on a photo gives the art director some control over a final image’s look and feel. It also allows an artist to work relatively quickly—for a time-sensitive piece, he or she might have mere days or even hours to create an illustration (and make requested revisions). At the same time, a skilled artist like Agnew can work within this style to create unique, profound images.

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All three of these images were commissioned for stories in Le Monde. Agnew enjoys collaborating with his clients. “If they’re inviting you to participate, I want to play with them,” he says. “We don’t always play the same games, but we still have fun together. I enjoy it. Well, 99 percent of them...and you always learn something. Even if you fall flat on your face, you learn something.”

Agnew’s favorite recent work is an image of John F. Kennedy that he created for the French newspaper Le Monde. He loves its simplicity: “It’s based on the idea of how America creates its heroes, which is what the article was about,” he says. “The idea that this human in history becomes almost like a superhero—I just really liked that simple, basic idea. This piece really sticks out as being bold and graphic to me, and that’s why I like it. If I could bring every piece down to two elements, I’d be ecstatic. But that doesn’t usually happen.”

He continues, “For the most part, publications want a lot of chaos, and they want a lot of detail—which is fine. But it’s the simplicity and boldness that I’m after…that doesn’t always work out, but in that piece it did.”

DISCOVERING A STYLE

Agnew has lived in Vancouver, Canada, for about a year, having moved there with his wife after spending some time living in Berlin. The pair had always dreamed of living on the West Coast, so, he says, they “finally made the jump,” and his home studio now has a view of the Pacific Ocean.

“We have an apartment about three blocks off the ocean and three blocks from Stanley Park—so we can go in either direction to get any form of inspiration,” he says. “The city is ridiculously beautiful. There’s a rain forest about three minutes away. And I can’t get enough of it.”

Agnew grew up in Calgary, Canada, earned a design degree from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and then went to work at a web design studio. After realizing that he wasn’t necessarily suited to the nine-to-five life, he quit and set off traveling through Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. While on this adventure, he fell in love with taking photos—so he came back to Canada, re-enrolled in the Alberta College of Art and Design, and earned a second degree—this one in photography.

This was the beginning of his work with collage. He explains, “That’s when I started mixing design and photography in some abstract ways—I didn’t know what I was doing; I was just doing it.”

These first collages were not at all similar to the work he’s doing now, although the techniques were the same: “I was photographing what I was working on and then cutting the photos up and making something with them.”

An image of MItt Romney by Lincoln Agnew
An image of John F. Kennedy by Lincoln Agnew
An image of Bernie Sanders by Lincoln Agnew

The John F. Kennedy illustration (right) is one of Agnew’s recent favorites. “It just really sticks out as being bold and graphic to me, and that’s why I like it,” he says. “I showed my wife and she’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever’—and I’m saying ‘Look how simple it is! So simple!’”

KID STUFF

In the 2000s, Agnew was working as a freelance designer, photographer, and illustrator, when a friend introduced him to Katie Van Camp, a writer who was looking for an illustrator to collaborate with on a children’s book. That led to his illustrating Harry and Horsie, which was published in 2009 and was followed by a second collaboration with Van Camp, Cookiebot. An image from Cookiebot was chosen for a Society of Illustrators gallery show, where an art director for Time magazine saw it. That art director contacted Agnew about doing a piece for the magazine.  

Agnew remembers, “Cookiebot was in a different, cartoony style, but she wanted me to illustrate the Empire State Building. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’d be awesome; I’d love to be in Time magazine.’ But then on the day that the piece was due, Gaddafi died—or I don’t even know what happened—and the whole story got killed. But I had my little pinky toe in the door, and I started working on various editorial concepts to send to her.”

Cover of Cookiebot, by Lincoln Agnew

Although the Time art director was enthusiastic about these initial concepts, she said that they would take far too long to create, considering the pace of news. “So she asked me if I did anything with photos,” Agnew says, “and I sent her the pieces I’d done in school, six years prior. She said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.’ Then she passed me on to Marlena, and basically the rest is history.”

The aforementioned Marlena is Marlena Torzecka, of Marlena Agency, which represents dozens of top illustrators and artists, including, since 2012, Agnew. “Marlena is half machine, half shark,” he says. “I don’t know if she sleeps at all. So she makes my job much easier—doing a lot of the work in terms of networking and business management.”

 

Because 2012 was an election year in the United States, the first series Agnew created for Marlena Agency depicted presidential candidates. “For years I’d been studying Alexander Rodchenko and Russian constructivism,” he says. “It was an easy transition to kind of project those similar ideas onto the situation in the States.”

 

His style is continuing to evolve. “I look back on some of the older stuff and cringe,” he says. “And I look at some of the new stuff and cringe! But at the same time, I do see these little glimmers of hope that I am getting better…. There are a few hits but a lot of misses. As much as I love Rodchenko and those artists, any time that I can kind of stretch a bit and do something different, I derive enjoyment from that.”

An image of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, by Lincoln Agnew
Image of a house of cards made of national flags, by Lincoln Agnew
An image of American flags by Lincoln Agnew

All of these images appeared in Harper’s magazine. Agnew says that he’s heavily influenced by Russian constructivism. “I really admire the way they took what they had in front of them and created new ideas and new visions,” he says. “As inspired as I am by them, I fail over and over again in trying to emulate them. At the same time, you don’t want to rip them off completely, so, you know, I do try to find my own way in that genre.”

CONTINUING EVOLUTION

He has continued working on children’s books, but his style has changed with each. “The Harry and Horsie style is for Harry and Horsie,” he says. “I’ve done other books in different styles, and the one I’m working on right now is in a completely different, more hand-drawn, softer style. I definitely like jumping back and forth between books and editorial, and I enjoy those different worlds. The books take six months to a year or two years to produce, sometimes longer. Then the editorial work is these two- and three-day projects, so there’s a back and forth that inspires both.”

Agnew creates collages by hand when time permits—he says he enjoys going back to cutting and pasting, but even those collages get scanned and tweaked digitally, as evidenced by the elegantly cohesive color palettes in his work. He describes his work as a combination of handmade and digital. “Everything ends as an Adobe Photoshop file,” he says. “Overall, it depends on the time frame and the topic. Sometimes art directors send me the images, and whether I print them out and cut them up depends on the project. When they don’t send me the photos and I’m left to my own devices, then I do scour old magazines, and that’s when it gets more analog…. When I get to that point of conceptualizing something, then I want to take the time of cutting it up and putting it all together, and I just enjoy the process of all that.”

Because his work is most often based on photographs, Agnew primarily uses Adobe Photoshop, but he also uses Adobe Illustrator to create patterns and shapes for his pieces. He calls Photoshop and Illustrator his “bread and butter”—but adds that he does enjoy stepping away from the screen when he can: “It can give you a different kind of process and inspiration. And it’s always good to work in the park.”

He adds, “For a geeky artistic person like myself, I don’t know what I would do without the modern tools. I really don’t know how people sent off files and did everything 30 years ago—it seems like a nightmare of using the mail with such quick turnovers, and how did you get people roughs? I’m very happy to live in a time with email, when I don’t have to get out of my pajamas to do my work.”

Image by Lincoln Agnew
Photo collage of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Jeb Bush, by Lincoln Agnew

Agnew cites film directors like Chris Cunningham and Jonathan Glazer as influences, as well as “all the guys in the Criterion Collection of DVDs and vinyl toys and Kid Robot, and I love Calvin & Hobbes, ParaNorman, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs—I love all those things, and everything is just an eclectic mix and mashup of this random stuff that you kind of pick apart and use to inspire for whatever you’re doing.”

NATURAL BEAUTY

Although Agnew and his wife loved living in Berlin and exploring European culture from their German home base, he says they’re finding that there is just as much if not more inspiration in the pure natural beauty of their new home. And when he spoke to Adobe Create, he was very excited about an upcoming project for Vanity Fair—a dream commission, he says: “I’ve loved the magazine for such a long time, especially when I was going through the photography program. Vanity Fair always has the best, highest-quality images, so to be connected to that in any way shape or form is a dream come true.”

His advice for young designers? “There’s a big difference between thinking that you can and thinking that you can’t,” he says. “And I spent a lot of my time thinking that I couldn’t. But I decided one day that this thought doesn’t serve me well. So I started to think that I can, and those thoughts added up…. Instead of constantly questioning my own abilities and not giving myself a chance, I decided to believe in myself and to work toward something I could be proud of. And I didn’t know what that would amount to, and I’m not saying that it’s amounted to anything yet…but I feel like I’m on the right track.”

See more of Agnew’s work on his portfolio site.

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Collage of Donald Trump, by Lincoln Agnew
Image of muscle man using steroids, by Lincoln Agnew