Thoka Maer’s Subconscious Desire

It’s Illustration Month at the ADC and we’re featuring some glowing work from our ADC Members. Not a member yet? Resolve to become an ADC Member in 2016 while you sip green juices and join the community. Illustration Month is our chance to highlight ADC Members who consider themselves illustrators, whether professionals, students or just really keen amateurs. The common thread is that they have a passion for drawing that can’t be contained Thoka Maer is a New York based illustrator who makes the most charming animations we’ve seen in a while. Growing up where art was considered a “useless skill” and being told by your Illustration professor to “drop the class” Thoka didn’t let the odds stack up against her. And we are so glad she did not become a professional florist. (Nothing personal against flowers).  If you love what you see (like we do), you can also purchase some printed objects featuring Thoka’s art on Society6. 



New York, NY


How long have you been an illustrator?

In 2012 people started sharing my work on various blogs and websites and calling me an illustrator. So that might have been the moment.

Self taught? School?

I went to the University of the Arts in Berlin and studied Visual Communication, with the intention of making my way into the illustration department. After my first semester, the professor pretty much kicked me out, letting me know that I lack talent and should leave his class, or better even, the school entirely. Big downer. I left his class and kept studying in other departments like experimental film, advertisement and visual systems. The latter was the one I eventually graduated from. The professor was very open to my constant illustrative approach and on top of that I also really enjoyed studying in a class that required an analytical and in-depth examination and creative processing of complex contents.

Was a career in the arts encouraged from a young age?

I was born in a very rural area in the former GDR, a communistic country that doesn’t exist anymore. Art wasn’t a part of life there. I was good at drawing since I was a child though this was considered a nice but useless skill only. In tenth grade we had to go to a job recommendation center, checking boxes on a questionnaire to help us figure out what we should do with our life. As result I was recommended to become a gardener* or florist*, probably because these were the most creative jobs they had on their list. However, I had a constant subconscious desire for something I didn’t know about. Today I’d say that this was probably a desire to express myself and also consume art in some form. Illustration eventually seemed to me like a good choice between art production and still fulfilling a deeply seeded purpose in life of doing something ‘useful’ and ensuring survival**.

*I’ve sadly killed almost every plant I’ve been been in charge off for ever since.
**Not sure where I got this idea from.

Take us through your creative process.

My creative process for a commission is very universal I think. Client approaches me with an idea or a concept. If necessary we discuss it further to outline everything. After that I make rough idea sketches, followed by style sketches and than the final artwork. For personal projects I easily skip over the sketching part racing right through to producing the final artwork. My last bigger ‘personal project’ which was also my graduation project was very different though. It’s an illustrated book about paradoxes and took a huge amount of research, concept making and sketching to get to the final product.

In illustrating, what are the tools you can’t live without?

Pencil, paper, scanner, laptop, tablet. Pencil and paper are my basic analogue tools. After making their way through the scanner in to my computer, I give them their equally essential digital treatment.

What is one of the most exciting projects or a favorite one you’ve worked on or are working on?

Working with Tumblr is great! They have an awesome team to work with and they’re very encouraging and appreciative of their ‘Creatrs’ contributing their own ideas. Last summer I worked on an illustrated series with called ‘The Moment’  I illustrated twelve stories of celebrities writing about life changing experiences. The art direction was straight forward and professional which made it a very balanced process. I was also able to contribute a lot of my own ideas in the process, too. And last but not least, I love working for The New York Times. The art direction is very clever and constructive. Also the fast turn over is challenging and fun. I’ve just finished three original pieces for Electric Objects. This was a great project because I was allowed to make whatever I wished and I knew that eventually lots of people would have it hanging and looping on their walls.

How do you describe your aesthetic?

I think my work is described best as hand drawn, sometimes with a touch of surreal and humor. Telling a story using subtlety, precision and detail. It is great when my illustrations make people hold and think for a moment, when they discover and enjoy some small detail or get inspired to derive their own stories from them.

What is the biggest challenge about being an illustrator?

Before being an illustrator becomes a challenge it is pretty awesome job to have. It becomes annoying when having to juggle the business side of being a freelancer. What you want to do is illustrate and not to be an accountant or agent or PR manager. Being able to pay for food and shelter is also kind of an accomplishment.

What do you love most about it?

My technique requires a lot of very basic shading with an actual pencil on paper, which can turn into an almost meditative process. So sometimes after a hard day of work I’m utterly centered and relaxed. Mentally only though.

Any dream collaborations or brands you’d like to work with?

A dream client to work with is IDEO and Google Doodle. Editorial is great. Currently I’m frequently mailing art directors at The New Yorker and MIT Technology Review to commission me. But I’d love to explore the full scope of illustration from commercial advertisement to institutional research, book illustration, the whole digital media world… Personally I have a plan of making an animated short right now.

Where is your favorite place to go or thing to do to get inspired?

I really get inspired by exposing myself to recorded life. If it comes in a form of a book or a history museum, a movie, a theater show, a film festival, objects, etc. Nature is great, too. Animals, plants and rocks! The geology departments in museums are my favorite.

Any contemporary artists on your radar? (illustrators or other)

During my first year in university I saw the animated short “Between Bears” from Eran Hilleli which was a great inspiration whilst experimenting with animation for the first time. I love the humor and wit of Christoph Niemann’s work and I’m gripped by Chris Ware’s style and story telling.

For anyone considering illustration as a career or just something to try for curiosities sake, do you have any advice?

You should be really confident on your decision that this is what you want to do. It takes a lot of passion, sweat, time and disappointment to get anywhere near “Ok, I think it might probably work out now…maybe..we’ll see.”.