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NiC Exclusive: VF’s Robert Risko

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Robert Risko, the world’s greatest celebrity illustrator, opens up as never before.

It’s no small feat that the mighty celebrity manifesto, Vanity Fair—first under its brilliant re-awakening by editor Tina Brown and later under Graydon Carter’s decidedly if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it stewardship—for the past three decades has had under contract the two absolute best graphic interpreters of the famous, Annie Liebovitz (photography) and Robert Risko (illustrator).

Though both artists couldn’t be more different in approach, medium or temperament, the end result VF publishes month in, month out does connect their work in undeniable ways: Familiar, yet surprising; colorful, though often dark; uncomplicated, but complex. And as an avid reader of VF since Brown’s re-launch in 1984—and an editor in chief fortunate enough to have worked with Risko for decades myself—I can safely say that there are no better graphic artists dissecting what it means to be a celebrity than Liebovitz and Risko. I’m just lucky enough to be able to call one of them a friend.

The first time I spoke with Robert Risko, I had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find him. In 1993, I was set to launch a magazine I was editing and I thought Risko’s sophisticated artistry was needed for a particular feature I was prepping. After a few rounds of phone tag—you do remember leaving messages “after the beep,” yes?—we connected and what was supposed to be a quick “are you free to do an illustration for so-and-so celeb?” ended up being a hilarious, spirited two-hour conversation that served as the initial indicator of how much Risko and I had in common, saw the world similarly and absolutely loved the intoxicating vocal stylings of powerhouse divas (Patti LaBelle and Donna Summer come to mind most prominently).

Over the years, I’ve commissioned Risko to create some of the most challenging celebrities and he consistently delivered instant classic depictions for a number of the design-forward magazines I’ve edited—Garth Brooks on a cover as King Kong atop the Empire State Building, Celine Dion for a less-than-flattering cover story, Joan Rivers as defiant AIDS activist, the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in his final days—striking visuals all and masterfully, seemingly effortlessly, executed.

When I announced that I was leaving Time Inc. and New York City to start a new chapter in my life producing television and films in Hollywood, my thoughtful team contacted Risko without my knowledge and commissioned an original work based on an actual photograph of mine. Risko’s signature genius is evident on that oversized framed illustration, punctuated with the iconic Hollywood sign serving as a backdrop complete with Klieg lights and a director’s chair. That artistic endeavor not only serves as my unofficial portrait, it proudly hangs in my home waiting for visitors to inquire how that came to be. It’s a story I never tire of telling.

I caught up with Risko in his Hamptons retreat on Long Island as we reminisced about what has transpired in the more than two decades since we became acquainted to the state of the world—both for celebrities and civilians—and asked him the questions I really wanted to know the answers to. As always, Risko delivered.

Finding Risko all those years ago became an important milestone in my career; what I didn’t realize then was it also served as a marker that I had made a genuine friend.


Robert, talk to me about your process—there’s an assignment, a blank canvas and then what happens?

Well, I do a lot of thinking and compose a visual image in my head based on everything I know about a subject through media images. I Google and YouTube the subject and flood myself with information and focus on their best and worst moments in the limelight. Then I draw away on blank paper and scan my sketch into the computer. Back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s I would airbrush the illustration by hand, but in 1998 I started airbrushing in Photoshop. I had inhaled enough paint after 30 years so it was time to start going blind from staring at the computer screen. Right? Ha! It’s always something isn’t it? [Laughs]


Do you remember a piece of art you came up with that you executed perfectly?

Only one? [Laughs] I’m a perfectionist. The question should really be “Do I remember a piece of art that was less than perfect?” and, yes, there are some where the deadline came and I had to turn in something that I didn’t feel was finished. There were more than one, but I won’t name names.


OK, the good stuff: Reveal some of your all-time favorite celebrities you’ve done.

Diana Ross, Jack Nicholson, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, J. Edgar Hoover and Gloria Swanson.


Have any celebrities reached out to you after they’ve seen an illustration of them published?

Oh, yeah. Julia Roberts bought several of my pieces. Others who reached out to own their drawings include Gloria Swanson, Meryl Streep, Fran Drescher, Dionne Warwick and all the Labelle members (Patti, Sarah, Nona), Tom Hanks, Andy Cohen, Giorgio Moroder, Dustin Hoffman and Howard Stern. Richard, that’s just off of the top of my head. I’d have to look in my books to remember everybody. [Laughs]


Do you have a fantasy celebrity encounter?

Seriously, I don’t have a fantasy celebrity that I would like to draw or meet. I did when was young, but I’ve discovered that celebrities can be so different in person that I just take it as it comes. I’ve met celebrities that I had admired and was disappointed when I met them in person and I’ve also met celebrities who weren’t on my radar that I absolutely loved.


Your style is so undeniably “Risko,” is there anyone left to do?

Oh my! [Laughs] It seems like there are more people to draw now than ever. There’s an endless stream of people who want to claim icon status today and that’s more difficult now because there are so many forums to be considered famous in.


What’s the best thing about being so identified with Vanity Fair?

I consider Vanity Fair my home because editorially we’re on the same page. We enjoy the world of glamour, but we don’t let anyone get away with B.S. There’s a lot of “uncovering” that goes on behind the facades of the famous in Vanity Fair and I like that. I try to show both sides of glamour in my work.


Tell me, if not celebrity art, what would you have loved to pursue as a full-time career endeavor?

I love to sing and perform and always thought I would’ve liked to have been on the other side of my drawing pen; however, as I see the toll it can take on the body physically with performers that I know I’ve concluded that I’m fine where I am and I will occasionally step out from behind the drawing board to take a bow and maybe even sing a song—if I wasn’t going to be an artist or singer, then I’d probably an anthropologist . [Laughs]


Here’s a question I’ve always to know the answer to. How important is humor and kindness in your work?

Unlike some of my contemporaries I don’t always give each subject the same treatment. If I want to be funny or kind it’s because I feel that way about the person. In the end I’m a seeker of truth and I think that’s the key to my success more than anything else. I try to draw people the way they’re perceived in the public eye. The public isn’t stupid. If I do flatter someone whom is less than worthy people will know. Ha! We can’t get away with anything in this world. Everyone is a [television music talent judge] Simon Cowell. [Laughs]


Robert, let’s end this on a whimisical note, shall we?
If you could do absolutely anything right now, what do you think that would be?

You know what, that’s a really interesting question. Maybe I would take a vacation, but I’m not sure. I’m enjoying my life so I never “vacate” from it. However, it might be nice to disconnect from all my responsibilities for a while… maybe. [Laughs]

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