The Unpredictable Illustrations of Francesco Bongiorni
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”