SCROLL THROUGH CHI BIRMINGHAM'S PORTFOLIO, and you may be reminded of Wallace and Gromit—the claymation figures from Aardman Animation—or the many residents of Springfield, home to Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. In Birmingham’s world, the colors and shapes of friendly hikers, cyclists, and joggers mingle with surprising pop-culture mash-ups inspired by Alien, Back to the Future, and Ghost Rider.
That playful approach was something that Birmingham resisted early on, when he decided to pursue fine art in college. But gouache and canvas didn’t pay the rent and, more importantly, didn’t suit his personality. So he went back to school, enrolling in the graduate program at the School of Visual Arts.
“I’d really painted myself into a corner with rules about what ‘fine art’ meant to me,” he says. “I had all these preconceived ideas about what would sell paintings, and a lot of them centered around how not to make the work look like an illustration. As early as high school, I was constantly fighting these impulses to come up with funny characters or tell stories, but at some point I finally decided I was done, and I gave myself the green light to just do all the stuff that came to me easily, which I had undervalued all along.”
Birmingham loved returning to school as an adult, and quickly embraced skills that he’d once shunned. As he learned to draw the human figure again, he looked to illustrators who had distilled anatomy into a simple system, like George Remi’s Tintin and Christoph Niemann’s cast of characters.
“Illustrators like Niemann really show the impact you can achieve with the simplest lines,” he says. “When I try to show off, and focus closely on detailed anatomy or proportions, I often lose sight of what was interesting about the concept in the first place—a simple expression on a character’s face or a surprising setting—so the more I can make things automatic, the better.”
With credits in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Mental Floss, there’s plenty of reason to keep things simple. Birmingham’s first assignment came during a student portfolio review at SVA: Nicholas Blehman, editor of The New York Times Book Review at the time, asked him to create an illustration for a review of the Sebastian Faulks novel, “A Week in December,” which conferred instant credibility and opened doors to other editors.
Years later, Birmingham finds his work lends itself particularly well to editorial illustration.
“When I’m reading an article for assignment, I’ll often try to figure out what’s exciting about it or interesting about it for me as a reader, then think about how I might explain it to someone at a dinner party,” he says. “In some ways, it’s like doing a book report. I’ll try to get the article down to one sentence for myself and that process will usually force me to focus on the most dramatic piece of the article, and reveal some type of visual metaphor that I can use.”
Even when he’s working on self-assigned work, Birmingham is drawn to the ready-made metaphors packed inside the films of his youth.
“In a way, it’s like a cheat code—using icons that people already have relationships with,” he says. “If I weren’t using Alien or Tintin, I’d probably be using another archetype like a nerd, a muscleman or Santa Claus. Because everyone agrees on what these icons mean, it’s easy to use them as a starting point, then surprise people with what comes next. It’s the same thing Gary Larson did so brilliantly—taking cows, cavemen, and aliens and then turning them on their head.”
Since Birmingham’s characters seem to have leapt out of the world of animation, it makes perfect sense that he would bring those characters to life in GIFs, most recently for the New York Times. His illustrations for the publication’s Well Blog are so warm and inviting, they might tempt you to sign up for a marathon, even if you’re the kind of person who pulls a hamstring when getting off the couch too quickly.
This GIF of a runner triumphantly crossing the finish line (above right) is made up of 24 separate images that Birmingham rendered in Flash. He starts by creating a “vector paper doll,” essentially attaching the limbs at hinges, then makes slight changes to each image to create a handful of poses. Finally, he uses Flash to sew them all together and fill in the gaps. By adding scrolling backgrounds and small details like a bouncing hoodie or a ponytail bobbing up and down, he turns a few simple movements into a colorful three-dimensional landscape.
“I’m generally cobbling together three or four animation tricks and applying them to each illustration—creating a walking cycle or adding a moving background to create a parallax effect,” he says. “I’m trying to learn a new trick every month or two, but for now, I’m shaping every pitch that I make to the editors, knowing my limitations up front. Honestly, I’m just trying to take whatever I’m capable of doing, and turn it into some sort of marketable skill.”
So far, it seems to be working out just fine.