ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A couple years ago, Christoph Niemann felt like he needed to shake things up.
CHRISTOPH NIEMANN: When you do any kind of creative job for a while you become better, you become more routine. But I think you always become a little bit more predictable.
SHAPIRO: Neimann was already very good at his creative job. He is an artist and illustrator whose work appears in places like The New Yorker. He had a regular Sunday column in The New York Times magazine. To get out of his routine, he decided to start a project called Sunday Sketching.
Each week he took a random object - a paper clip, some bananas. He set that physical object on a sheet of paper and incorporated it into a sketch. So he drew around a pair of socks to make them a dinosaur's head and neck. Half an avocado became a baseball glove at the end of an outstretched arm. The pit lands in the center as the ball. These drawings are whimsical and surprising. And Christoph Niemann has collected them, along with more of his work in a new book called "Sunday Sketching."
NIEMANN: The first one where I really sat down and say, OK, let's see if I can make this work was when I took the crumpled up headphones of, like, the regular iPod. And they're nothing. They're just like weird, random white wires. And they mean nothing, they looked like nothing. And then eventually I saw a mosquito in there.
SHAPIRO: I'm looking at the sketch right now and there's a photograph of this crumpled up set of earbuds. And the two earphones are eyes. And then the jack is the nose. You've drawn on six legs and two wings in black. And then at the tip of the nose there are a few red drips, like blood.
NIEMANN: And it kind of worked. And usually when I draw, I know exactly what's happening. So by default I cannot ever laugh at my own jokes or be entertained or emotionally touched. In this case, it was like, oh, wow, this actually looks like a mosquito. And that moment was fun.
SHAPIRO: One of the images that I just love - partly because it is so recognizable and so unexpected - is you've taken the idea of the famous "Jaws" movie poster, where somebody is swimming at the top of the water and the shark is coming up from underneath. But instead of the shark, it is a white woman's shoe. And the opening where the foot goes is sort of that perfect semicircular mouth of the shark coming up towards the swimmer at the top.
NIEMANN: Yeah. Well, this is actually the wedding shoe of my wife. The way I've been doing these is I always started with an object with absolutely no idea of what the outcome would be. And so in retrospect, I hope the drawing makes sense and might even look somewhat inevitable. But the actual genesis of an image like that is I stare at a shoe and hope that something happens.
SHAPIRO: So what I get from you is that this kind of work - to do it well - requires a combination of training, practice, craft and also the bolt of inspiration from out of the blue.
NIEMANN: The bolt of inspiration is what the reader is supposed to feel when they look at the drawing. What creates that moment is a hundred very boring, unsexy steps. You know, move the line a little further to the left, draw a dog instead of a cat, you know, like, draw a chair instead of a table. I sometimes get from clients, oh, can we just see sketches? We just want to follow your process. This implies you start at zero. And let's say an idea is a hundred. This implies that halfway through you would be at 50. In reality, you go from zero to -250, and then you go to 17,000, and then you go to R and then you end at a hundred.
NIEMANN: If you would share that with people, they would be utterly confused. I think it's very important to accept that this is not a linear process.
SHAPIRO: You describe the discomforts that you have to go through to get to a great sketch, even after you've been doing these illustrations for years. Is that just an essential quality of the field that you've chosen, that you will always have that moment of ugh before you get to the moment of oh?
NIEMANN: Often I find to get to an interesting point with the work, you need friction. You need this moment of unease, of, like, emotional dissatisfaction. By default this is a moment of discomfort.
SHAPIRO: And so this job you've chosen will inevitably just make you feel bad pretty much every day? Is that the takeaway?
NIEMANN: Well, you know, I guess once you accept certain facts it becomes a little easier. When you run, you know that you'll be sweating and you'll be exhausted. And once you accept that, there's other parts that you can enjoy. And what I found with these drawings is when you accept them, when you give up control and you really throw yourself into the uncertainty, there's actually another level of work that can be very satisfying.
SHAPIRO: You're very popular on social media. Your Instagram account and your Facebook page have lots of followers. And you talk in the book about the difference between getting likes on social media and actually doing work that is of value.
SHAPIRO: Well, the whole algorithm is really geared to a certain kind of quick (laughter). It's like an endless two-second joke. It's kind of like the default taste, like a bag of Pringles which taste great and then after...
SHAPIRO: Salty, crunchy. Yeah.
NIEMANN: ...You've eaten two packs, you just feel terrible.
NIEMANN: And then, of course, you have the vanity. You want people to like something. And I think it's so important to fight that impulse and to not let the number of likes and followers dictate where you're going.
SHAPIRO: Does it bother you that somebody looks at a witty visual pun and they laugh and they turn the page and they don't see the hours and hours and hours that went into coming up with that little bit of wit?
NIEMANN: You can't have people like the work that you create and also be in awe of how hard it is to do it. The one thing that I sometimes take somewhat offense to - and I know it's a figure of speech - but this idea of talent. That when people say, oh, you're so talented, I could never do that. I always feel like, no, like when you listen to a pianist playing a Beethoven sonata wonderful you would never say, oh, I couldn't do that because, well, you didn't sit down for 10,000 hours and practice.
NIEMANN: It's all about sitting down and the time you spend on your desk.
SHAPIRO: Well, Christoph Niemann, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
NIEMANN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Christoph Neimann's new book is called "Sunday Sketching." And he has another book out this month as well called "Words," a visual dictionary for kids.
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