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The Unpredictable Illustrations of Francesco Bongiorni

By Scott Kirkwood

Francesco Bongiorni was preparing to leave his home in Milan to vacation on the Italian island of Elba, where he’d be joining his friends for an annual basketball tournament. He was already packed, and he had a little time to kill, so he sent off a few quick emails. One was addressed to art directors at the New York Times, and included a link to a portfolio of his student work and a handful of editorial commissions for smaller Italian magazines

“The art director replied two hours later and asked if I could create an illustration for an article on a new Cold War between Russia and China, by 7:00 p.m. New York time—midnight in Italy,” he says. “I had to decide if I wanted to go on vacation with my friends or stay at home working for the New York Times. I called my friends and said, ‘I’m really sorry guys....’”   

He seems to have made the right decision. The Times ran the illustration and gave him another assignment a few days later. And those published pieces gave Bongiorni the confidence to contact dozens of other big-name magazines and newspapers, launching his career.

Bongiorni recently created this illustration, about the return of Twin Peaks, for the Washington Post.  

A CREATIVE LEGACY

Creative talent runs in Bongiorni’s family. His older brother is a fine artist who teaches painting at a university, his father is an architect, and his grandfather returned from World War II to carve colorful figurines sold throughout North America. So it’s no surprise that when it came time to select a university, the younger Bongiorni attended the New Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.

“In the beginning I studied painting, but it felt too ‘free,’” he says. “I needed some boundaries, some limitations. I do my best work when I have a certain size, a deadline, and a topic to represent. When I’m given too much liberty, it’s uncomfortable.”

Illustrations done for Variety (for an article about political spending on ads), for the Australian magazine Project Manager (for an article about finding prosperity), and for New Scientist (for an article about ideas).

For all those reasons, Bongiorni eventually landed on editorial illustration, enrolling in a short course at IED (Istituto Europeo di Design) in Milan, where he made a connection with one of the instructors, Alessandro Gottardo (also known as SHOUT), who helped nurture Bongiorni’s ability to tell an entire story in one image. Over the years, he’s refined that process, which starts in an unexpected place.

THE PERFECT MOMENT

“I noticed that when I wake up in the morning, while my mind is half-asleep and half-awake, it’s a really creative moment,” he says. “So I’ll stay in bed for five or ten minutes just thinking about a project and see if I can find some ideas to represent [the story I’m trying to illustrate.]” Then I’ll go to my studio and start to collect some illustrations or photos that help me to get into that particular world.”

This is a detail from an illustration Bongiorni created as an advertisement for the Parrot Bebop 2 drone.

One glance at his portfolio reveals Bongiorni’s love of mountains, lakes, and other outdoor landscapes as a basis for his editorial metaphors. Much of that inspiration comes courtesy of Google Street View, which he uses to explore remote locales, capturing screenshots along the way. Once he’s landed on a few concepts, he’ll send very rough sketches to art directors; then he continues to refine the image at every step, rather than investing too much time in an initial concept that might go nowhere.   

“Early on, when I’m sketching, I’m thinking too much, and I’m very stressed out, worried that my solution may not be the right one,” he says. “That final part of the process is my favorite moment, because I can relax, listen to music, and explore the image as much as I want.”

WORK WITHOUT BORDERS

Earlier this year, Doctors Without Borders commissioned Bongiorni and several other artists to create illustrations for a traveling exhibit focused on the global refugee crisis. The project hit home: In Italy, thousands of people fleeing conflicts and dire conditions in Africa and the Middle East arrive on the country’s shores each month.

“The idea was to represent a refugee who had been on a very long journey, but I didn’t want to show the effort of one person alone, because people in Italy and Europe also require an enormous effort, understanding their new countrymen and how their arrival will affect the future of Europe,” says Bongiorni. “So I chose to represent two people—a Middle Eastern man and a European walking into the sea, bringing their own highlands and cities and cultures with them, and meeting halfway.”

Bongiorni created this illustration, which addresses the refugee crisis in Europe, for Doctors Without Borders. Below are two early sketches.

The concept of a journey also plays a central role in a recent illustration accompanying a Washington Post essay celebrating the return of Twin Peaks. Bongiorni, who had enjoyed the original show, turned a TV remote into a bridge that immerses the viewer in the show’s iconic Pacific Northwest landscape.

FINDING SOMETHING INTERESTING

But not all topics are so interesting and multilayered: Art directors often call on editorial illustrators when a dry subject doesn’t lend itself to a stock photograph, which means plenty of articles about health insurance, finance, and business. That challenge often means Bongiorni is left to seek out an unexpected metaphor.

These illustrations are from a series Bongiorni worked on for a Vatican tourism campaign.  

“The most difficult part of our job is to find something interesting in every topic we represent—when I’m bored, my image will be boring, too,” he says. “In that case, I’m just looking for something to excite me, and that can come from anywhere—even an art exhibit that inspires me. I’m always looking to find new solutions, because I want to attempt something that I’m not sure I’ll be able to do.”

An illustration for an article about the economic relationship between China and the United States, for a London Business School publication, along with an initial sketch.  

One project that fell squarely into that category? A tourism campaign for the Vatican, which was designed to entice visitors to see its well-known works of art, while reminding them of their fragile nature. Given the serious nature of the client and the topic, Bongiorni admits his early work was stiff, self-important, and joyless. But when he remembered that the Vatican had hired him for his unique creative vision, he felt free to introduce his own sense of humor, which made the final illustrations more accessible, and more eye-catching.

And when it’s finally time to turn those sketches into a digital image for an art director, that degree in painting still comes in handy. Bongiorni relies on a scanner and rather simple techniques in Adobe Photoshop, digitizing textures that he’s created with paint and a brush—including the glowing orange sunset and the cracked surface that represents an ice-covered ocean on the cover of Australia’s Project Manager magazine.

“I hate the flat colors produced in purely digital work, because they feel so cold,” he says. “I always like to explore, and try to avoid a ‘normal’ process. I prefer to do something unpredictable.”

See more work by Bongiorni on his Behance page.