Kadir Nelson uses fine art to tell stories. From New Yorker covers to Drake and Michael Jackson cover art, from stamps to best-selling children’s books, the LA-based painter has already produced some of the most iconic images of our time. But to jump straight to those highlights is to overlook a lifetime of disciplined art-making and self-improvement. Nelson’s talent was prodigious from his childhood in Atlantic City and thrived on encouragement from a few heroic relatives. This belief in his artistry sustained him through a moment of doubt and ill-fated architecture studies. It made him an all-star art student at Pratt and got him working on Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. He has since illustrated and written over 30 children’s books, most recently the best-selling “Blue Sky, White Stars” (recently proclaimed the 2nd best YA picture book of 2017 by Time Magazine). His New Yorker covers, including “Eustace Negro,” are some of the most compelling in recent memory. The covers he painted for Drake’s “Nothing Was the Same” and Michael Jackson’s posthumous “Michael” are perfectly unforgettable. Last week, Nelson sat down with us in his vast Los Angeles studio to discuss early inspirations, drawing historical figures, illustrating for the New Yorker, the surrealness of working with Drake and Jackson, and how his process has evolved along the way.
We like to start at the beginning: when did you start making art?
As soon as I became conscious, you know. My mother says I was about three-years-old when I started. I got my artistic genes from her and my father, who could both draw but didn’t choose it as a career path. Then there was my uncle Mike, who’s a phenomenal artist and an art teacher. He was crucial to my becoming an artist. One day, he was babysitting me and my siblings, and he could tell how focused I was, how intently I was holding the pencil. He told my mom to keep an eye on me because I might be an artist. And so, when I was 11, I went to stay with him in Maryland for a summer, and I became his apprentice. He gave me a strong foundation. He taught me to use different materials; he taught me lighting, shading, color theory, perspective. And he also imparted upon me that it was very important that I take care of my gift, not to do anything dangerous or dumb that would endanger me. This made me very serious about being an artist. From that moment on, I really thought of myself that way. At the end of summer, he gave me a big box of art supplies. That was inspiration enough. I suddenly had everything I needed. I just wanted to fill everything up. I visited him for another summer when I was 16. He had just rediscovered oil-painting for himself and wanted to teach me how to do it. I was drawing a lot by then, so he didn’t have to look over my shoulder when I was working. But if I had any questions, like, how do I paint smoke, he’d give me a lesson. We were two working artists. I would paint in his dining room because his studio was too packed. I am very much indebted to him for taking all that time. I’ve been working with oil ever since.
What kind of motifs did you paint as a teenager?
I painted a lot of basketball scenes. Paintings based on Egyptology. That was a new thing I was learning about. I started painting Pharaohs, myself as a pharaoh. Musicians. Whatever it is that I really liked.
When did you start drawing historical figures?
Around that same time. There’s a painting called “My Heroes.” Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. My mother took me to Los Angeles to see him speak at the coliseum, when I was 15 years old. The crowd was so excited, so jubilant. When he came out, they kept cheering for 10 minutes. It made a huge impression on me. I started painting images of people that inspired me — Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela. I didn’t necessarily like history in school, because it seemed to be all about memorization. It took me a while to realize that history is a string of stories, and I love stories. I realized then that I could tell them through my work. That was my uncle’s influence, too. He said if my work didn’t mean anything to me, it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. I started looking at artwork by Ernie Barnes. He’s an artist whose painting was on the opening credits for Good Times in the 70s. Very expressive artwork, elongated figures. The characters in his work all emoted. They had a special energy. I started copying what he was doing, elongating my figures, learning how to visually communicate emotion, energy, movement. Ernie’s paintings were very fluid. That’s how I learned to make my work emote, how to make my subjects fluid. I learned to move energy through lines, light and colors.
I have noticed that you draw historical figures in a different way than I’ve seen elsewhere. The American history industry likes to turn revolutionaries into saints, draining them of their radical potential. Your paintings restore that revolutionary tension. When I see your Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Abraham Lincoln, they’re strong, they’re determined, and they’re human. Is that an intentional part of your process?
I want my subjects to breathe. I want to show their inner strength. I want them to have integrity. These are things that I strive for myself. Before you learn to talk, you learn to communicate through body language, so it can have this incredible impact. I always want to depict my subjects in their best light. Sometimes it works as a counterpoint. Like my painting of the LA riots: that’s a tense, ugly time, but the counterpoint in my paintings is that there’s a very ugly thing happening in a very beautiful place. That gives it a special dynamic. I strive for that.
Interestingly, at Pratt, you first studied architecture. How did it come to that?
I guess that would be the only real break I took [from art]. I had always received compliments for my artwork, but I had also heard a lot about starving artists. Several of the artists I met were struggling. One artist I met discouraged me from going to art school, because he said professors would try to make me a version of themselves. They wouldn’t let me have my own style. And I had a very strong style at that point. Between those two arguments, I decided to become an architect. That would be a real job, I thought. But a semester in, I just didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t want to create buildings! I loved drawing and painting! One of my friends on the basketball team brought in his art after practice. It was incredible work, and very much his own style. I asked him if they let him do that kind of work for his assignments. And he said “yes, they don’t try to change you. They’re trying to help you do what you do better.” That was it. The next day I changed my major. I almost lost my scholarship in the process. If I’d known that, I might not have switched. I never looked back.
Were you doing artwork on the side during that architecture spell?
I wasn’t painting — except when I went home on vacation, I made two paintings — but I was always sketching on the side.
I guess you couldn’t repress the urge entirely.
Well, I could have. I know a lot of artists who were discouraged, or hit a roadblock, and went and did something else. And I can see in their eyes now that they’re really regretting that choice. Because when you go the other way, you lose focus, or your focus changes. I really wanted to draw and paint. Even if it meant that I had to starve, I would have done it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to starve.
Yeah, you started getting jobs while you were still in school.
I did commissions, sold a couple paintings, did some t-shirts for Nike. I got an agent. It didn’t really work out with him, but he did get some of my paintings on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Jamie Foxx Show. My paintings also showed up in a couple of films. In Friday, there’s a painting of a basketball player hanging over Ice Cube’s bed. It’s so dark, though, and all you could see was his sneakers. That was very exciting for me.
And then when you graduated, you got right to work on Spielberg’s Amistad.
That’s right. Two weeks after graduating, I got a call from DreamWorks, which was brand new back then. I did what’s called visual development for the film — concept artwork. Debbie Allen had been trying to make the film since the ‘70s. And then she saw Schindler’s List and decided she had found the right director. She sold Steven [Spielberg] on the idea, but he was not sure he wanted to direct it, as it was very sensitive subject matter. She and production designer Rick Carter had the idea to hire artists to basically paint the whole film — not storyboards, but basically telling the story scene by scene — so Steven could look at it, and see how to potentially direct it. What we did was basically feed his vision for the film. It was a high-pressure situation. Our contract went two weeks at a time. Every two weeks, they would hire you again if you were doing well. I did all I could to stay on, producing what I thought was my best work. I studied Steven’s films to see how he composed scenes. I pretty much mimicked his visual style, so that it would be very familiar to him. I ended up seeing some of my paintings make it all the way into the final cut. It was a dream. I was a 22-year-old kid.
What did that early success mean to you?
It felt like the project was tailor-made for me. It was great for my confidence: I’d worked on a Steven Spielberg film right out of college. It also turned out to be good for my humility because, after I was done, my phone didn’t ring for six months. I hadn’t made it, by any means. I still had a lot of work to do.
You started drawing and then writing children’s books. How did you adapt your paintings to this form?
It came naturally to me, because I always told stories with my work. That’s what I was trained to do. I studied illustration for four years. I always tried to straddle the line between illustration and fine art. Early in my career, I worked with other authors. I illustrated children’s books for a few celebrities [like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee] even if I didn’t really meet them until later. That certainly helped me get visibility. I think it was satisfying until I realized that I could do it myself. If someone else is going to do the writing, the manuscript has to be really outstanding and something I connect with. Such as Martin Luther King Jr. [the subject and hero of Nelson’s book, “I have a Dream”]. He’s a great writer.
You’ve had an extraordinarily successful career illustrating and writing children’s books. Do you write them with your kids in mind or what’s your process?
I didn’t start writing until they were much older. And the books I illustrated, they weren’t really into. [Laughs.] My strategy has always been to approach a narrative as though it were a silent film, so you can tell the story without having to read the words. That’s always in the back of my mind — maybe at the forefront of my mind — when I’m creating artwork for books. The marriage between the words and the pictures creates something new but the artwork has to be able to stand on its own. I want people to spiritually connect with my work. I want people to say, ‘I love how this painting makes me feel.’
I think that’s one of the qualities that make your images so iconic. It’s that resonance. This comes across particularly in your New Yorker covers. The best known of them is probably “Eustace Negro.” What’s the story behind that image?
Francoise Mouly [the New Yorker’s Art Director] invited me to submit an idea for the 90th anniversary issue. I initially wanted to paint an African-American aristocrat from the 1800s in a similar pose as Eustace Tilley. Francoise suggested making him more contemporary. A light went off. I thought it would be cool if he’d be using his smart phone instead of a spectacle. I couldn’t believe this hadn’t been done yet. I looked around but couldn’t find anything. It all came together for that cover. I love the palette. It’s both very funny and very serious. It’s a conversation piece.
Your cover for Drake’s “Nothing was the Same” is another unforgettable image. How did you think of it?
There was a lot of back and forth with him. He didn’t give me any direction, didn’t tell me what he wanted me to paint. He wanted me to make it my own. I flew out to Canada to meet him and a lot of people around him. We flew to different places [in his private plane]. I think he wanted me to see what his life was like. It was all very surreal, constantly being in the middle of all these fans. We went to Target to buy a bunch of CDs, and people were like, “he’s here!” and they’re all running after him. We dashed towards the big cars, and I got locked out, trying to get past all these fans reaching for his autograph. “Sorry about that,” he said. I travelled with them for three days. He played some of the music from his new album for me. I came up with the idea after that. I wanted it to be iconic, classic, something that would live forever, which was a really tall order. So, I was doing a lot of sketching. We kind of went back and forth with ideas. He sent me a bunch of baby pictures. And then he got his haircut, and sent me a picture of himself from the side. I sent him a bunch of sketches and among them were those two images, one of him after the haircut and one of him as a kid with an afro. “What if they’re staring at each other?” he suggested. And that was it.
That’s such a surreal way of making art. Speaking of surreal, your Michael Jackson cover is easily one of the best covers I’ve seen, but also has a fan’s love in it. How was it working for him?
A friend that manages a recording studio in Hollywood called me, and said, “Michael Jackson is recording here and he’s going to be calling you a few minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” Of course, I didn’t go anywhere. He called 15 minutes later. He told me that he really liked the paintings of mine that were hanging in that studio, two paintings of Marvin Gaye. Long after, I found out that he had been trying to reach me for a while. Michael would often go to that studio and stare at that painting. They had tried to call me, and I wasn’t home. Michael Jackson doesn’t leave messages on random people’s phones. Anyway, he was really nice. He said how much he loved the painting. Then he got really quiet and said, “well, I want one of my life story — but I want it to be bigger.” I asked him what to read. He suggested Moonwalker and gave me his phone number. I had Michael Jackson’s phone number! Shortly after, he got busy with a court case, so I had to put it on the very far back burner. Then, in 2009, I got word that he had passed away. I called the guy who owned the studio, who ended up being a co-executor of his estate. And he said, “now’s the time to do the painting Michael wanted you to do.” I pushed everything back six months and focused on that painting. I sketched out all the major beats I wanted to hit, all these events in his life divided into several sections. There are 250 portraits in there, and 50 of Michael, because he was 50 when he passed away. I worked on that over the course of a year. Six months of continuous painting — six months of tinkering with it. Unfortunately, there was a lot of art direction at the end, and there was a lot of legal stuff to wade through. A lot of clearances had to happen. Logos. Photos. And some things couldn’t be cleared, so I had to paint over some things, digitally remove people. It was a lot of work. I was working on it until 2 weeks before the release.
You and your work have come such a long way since then. Your book Blue Sky, White Stars was just voted Time Magazine’s 2nd best adult YA picture book of the year. How has your process evolved over the years?
I’ve found that the most important thing is to be relaxed. If my nerves are a bit shaky, it’s not a good idea to start working on something serious. I pretty much know how to get there now. I’ll just sit in front of the canvas for a little while until I’m calm enough to start. As for my process, I worked on a drafting table for a long time, hunched over. That was ergonomically problematic. I needed to save my neck. Now, I stand. [Laughs]
Interview edited for length. Images courtesy and copyright of the artist.
To see more of Kadir Nelson’s work, visit www.kadirnelson.com.