Cindy Press on a life in illustration, Andy Warhol, design and having no choice but to be an artist

As part of the ongoing series of conversations on artists and designers, noted Sunshine Coast designer Adrian Ramsay spoke with acclaimed artist Cindy Press on his podcast Talk Design. An artist whose work is heavily influenced by contemporary fashion photography – from the 60s to the present – Cindy’s signature style is in how she transforms black and white oil paint on canvas.

Her origins stem from her being among a family of first-generation Russian Jewish immigrants; she was born when her parents were older; they had no higher education. Growing up, Cindy said she was going to ‘art college, or nothing’. Her parents relented, but only if her major was in ‘professional’ art.

“All I remember is coming home from school, and just running upstairs and just spending hours drawing,” she said

Cindy is an illustrator, rather than a graphic artist – her education erred her towards developing so-called useful skills that could be used in professional fields like medical, or fashion illustration. This flew in the face of her real interests – fashion design.

“What I didn’t know is that fashion illustration isn’t a full-time job.

“It’s a freelance job and only a handful of people are really successful at it.

“It dates back to Andy Warhol days, it was really a profession that came about before photography; illustrators were hired to fill out fashion catalogues.”

Photography had taken over the industry by the time Cindy was in university; so her studies went broader than just illustrations. Hired out of college to work on Disney-licensed clothing lines, she worked on developing the artwork so it could be printed on clothing for little kids. It was short lived, but after being set up with a head-hunter, Cindy worked with high profile artists including Peter Max, who created the cover art for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine EP.

Moving into the clothing business, she found something of a niche, although it wasn’t as creatively satisfying as she’d like.

“It’s very easy to learn hands-on, I didn’t have to sew,” she said.

“There’s no better experience than on-the-job training.”

“I was living in New York City; I was in my 20s and I was having fun. Was I loving what I was doing in my job? No.”

“People used to ask if I ever thought of selling my work, and I used to say no. That’s what fine artists do. I don’t do that; I’m not paid to do that. Fast forward many years later and because of the internet and the world we live in today with technology, for artists, that’s just been a game changer.”

Much of Cindy’s work – the works for which she has formed a successful career, found on her website – stark, black and white sketches, are predominantly in black and white. As far as that monochrome approach is concerned, she told Adrian it’s where she is most comfortable.

“People know me for my black & white work. It always feels right to me. I don’t even have a good reason for doing it, it’s just a feeling I get when I work in black & white.”

“When I paint in colour, I get so overwhelmed by the choices that I can’t control it as much. Maybe that’s why I paint in black & white. It feels like home. It feels like where I should be.”

The conversation covers a lot of ground; including the emotional crossover that stems in art from how the mind sees it, to the end product; as well as the disconnect between ‘fashion illustrator’ and ‘fashion artist’.

“I did work in fashion for 15 years, but then stopped, I had two daughters.

“I always did something or related, just to feed my soul. I was painting furniture, t-shirts. I did portraits. People knew me and hired me to do portraits.

“People would ask me if I ever considered selling my own art. And I didn’t know how I would do that.”

The emergence of online art dealerships and a broader marketplace for art allowed Cindy to start working on her art at home. Her daughters, now in college, were grown and she had the chance to tap into her muse at home – and make a tidy profit in the process.

Now enjoying success in her online trade, Cindy told Adrian that post-COVID, she’s looking forward to exhibiting more of her work after a long period without public exposure.

“I’m still kind of easing myself into these big art fairs. I’m also starting to teach a little. I’ve never done that before.”

Talk Design with Adrian Ramsay is the show where creatives have conversations. Hear this conversation in full here.

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