December 16, 2020
By Karen Sandstrom
COVID or no COVID, this year has delivered some nice surprises for illustrator Chloe Niclas ’16.
In spring, two of her drawings were named winners in a prestigious competition by American Illustration, a juried annual publication. Soon afterward came a two-page spread in The New Republic. Niclas was also commissioned by Rice Magazine, published quarterly by Rice University, to illustrate an essay about COVID-19.
All of this happened just as Niclas left Cleveland and a job at American Greetings to head to Baltimore, her hometown. She had already decided she wanted to be closer to East Coast networking opportunities. The global pandemic made that decision seem all the better.
“Interestingly,” Niclas said, “that’s when I started to get more traction in my career.”
Born to a social worker mom and photographer dad, Niclas grew up steeped in art classes and attended the Baltimore School for the Arts. As an Illustration major at CIA, Niclas learned from veteran faculty member John Chuldenko (retired) her now tried-and-true approach to the pencil sketch stage of a drawing. Some artists make loose pencils—just enough to convey an idea to an art director—but Chuldenko taught Niclas to use the pencil phase to work the composition until it’s as strong as possible.
“It takes longer that way, but it really does help,” she said.
CIA is also where Niclas started to hone her style. As a kid, she was inspired by artist Brett Helquist, illustrator of Lemony Snicket’s series of children’s novels, A Series of Unfortunate Events. More recently, she fell in love with the work of author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express) and award-winning artist Armando Veve. Their influences are evident in Niclas’s sensitively rendered graphite drawings, notable for sweeping gestural lines, Escheresque perspectives, and objects that meld into one another.
Niclas snagged her first assignment for the periodical Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2018 for a story about research involving octopuses on the drug Ecstasy. Drawn to the serious undertones of Niclas’s work, the art director instructed her not to make the scene look like a wild party. The subject matter needed to be treated with a certain seriousness and respect. Niclas’s ethereal octopuses emerge in bubbles from a brass spigot.
Niclas has learned that she loves editorial work, even if it brings anxiety. Will she have good ideas? Meet her deadline? Will her hand-drawn, digitally colored drawing look good in print? Confidence “is like Swiss cheese,” Niclas said. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t.
“You’re up against all these really incredible illustrators and your work is starting to be next to theirs in certain contexts,” she said. “You might find yourself being compared with someone whose work you admire, which could be very intimidating.”
The cure for that, she believes, is time and experience. It’s all a little daunting, she said, but she doesn’t believe in acting out of fear.
“I think you have to do these things out of passion,” she said. “It’ll help you.”
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