Those of you who are longtime members of the Bas Bleu family are familiar with the delightful and droll catalog cover images created by graphic artist Nishan Akgulian. Nishan’s brightly colored paintings of readers—both human and animal, child and adult, at home, on the subway, even on the ball field—deftly capture the humor, whimsy, and (we like to think) style that infuses so much of the bluestocking life. Nishan’s most recent catalog cover, for our Holiday 2014 issue, is due to arrive in your mailbox around Thanksgiving. (You’ll recognize that handsome antlered reader to the right!) While you wait, we thought you’d like to learn a little bit more about the talented artist whose work has meant so much to Bas Bleu over the years. 

Bas Bleu: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Nishan Akgulian: I was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin. For as long as I can remember I liked to not only draw but was enchanted with graphics and product design. I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in graphic communications. After graduation I worked in Racine as a graphic designer for a few years then moved to New York City in 1986 to pursue a career in illustration, where I have lived ever since.

I love the music of the Middle East and enjoy playing the dumbek, a Middle Eastern hand drum. Over the years I have had the pleasure and honor to play with some very talented musicians of that genre.

BB: How do you describe your work?

NA: I try to pare down the image to as few elements as possible but also keep the energy that comes from the gesture of creating the art, whether that includes the lines or the shapes or the textures of the materials used. I’ve never lost my love of design so that always plays a major part of my final work.

BB: As you go about your daily life, both inside and outside of the studio, what inspires you?

NA: Since living in New York it’s certainly the people, the endless varieties of people, particularly on the subway, where all the riders interact with each other and the cast of characters changes with every subway stop. I also love architecture, and the vast variety of architecture in the city inspires me to draw it. And there is always something to be found in the many museums and galleries that New York has to offer, from the most ancient art to the most current.

BB: Who are some of the artists who have influenced your creative development over the years, either directly or indirectly?

NA: Most prominently is my father, who worked as a commercial artist his entire working life. I was very lucky to have exposure not only to his beautiful artwork and the lessons he taught me about art, but also both he and my mother’s love of taking our family to museums, starting when I was a very young age.

Of course our artistic tastes change over time, but one constant has been that I have always been drawn to artists who work minimally and whose work has a freshness to the brushstroke or line, whether it’s fine art or illustration. To list all the artists whose work inspires me would be a long list but in general I find the most inspiration from artists of the twentieth century, such as Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Arshile Gorky, and Franz Kline to name a few. In illustration, Robert Osborn, Robert Weber, and Saul Steinberg. Even as a child, when I would look at the Sunday comics I preferred the minimally drawn style of comics like “Peanuts” by Charles Schultz or “The Born Loser” by Art Sansom.

Story Hour at the North Pole, 2001 by Nishan AkgulianBB: How long have you worked with Bas Bleu?

NA: I did my first Bas Bleu cover in 1996. I’ve lost count of how many covers I’ve done since! I stopped counting at fifty, and that was several years ago.

BB: What’s your favorite image you’ve created for Bas Bleu? Which of your images inspired the strongest response from customers?

NA: That’s a tough one! I can’t say there is one favorite, but the one that probably still entertains me the most may be Santa reading to the reindeer, just because of all the different poses of the reindeer.

I am grateful that many customers over the years have shared with me their enthusiasm for my work. There have been a wide range of covers that people have written to me about and their reasons for liking them have varied from stylistic reasons to a specific subject matter. In that vein, I found the most interesting response was from either moms, teachers, or librarians who expressed how much they liked the covers of athletes reading, like the baseball player on the end of the bench or the football player sitting on his helmet, because they know of young people who feel conflicted between enjoying reading, which is often considered “nerdy,” and playing sports.

Bottom of the Ninth Chapter, 2002 by Nishan AkgulianBB: Your paintings for Bas Bleu are typically executed in watercolors. What other mediums do you enjoy working with?

NA: I used to work exclusively in watercolor and ink, with maybe a touch of color pencil. But during my entire career in illustration I have also done my fine art work as well, which involves a different creative process. With my fine art there is a freedom to experiment more and as that work has evolved it has more often than not led to the evolution of my illustration work as well. An example of this in recent years is the incorporation of more pastel and collage into my illustration. And I use much fewer lines in my illustrations than in years past. Also, every once in a while I use the computer to sometimes add a shape or make a slight change to an element of the illustration.

I also like to make small sculptures out of wood, but I think it will be a while before I incorporate that into my illustrations!

BB: Tell us about a few of your favorite books or the genres you most enjoy reading.

NA: Ironically, and I’m not proud of this, I’ve never been a big reader of books. (This caused some problems in school, but that’s another story!) When I have it has tended to be non-fiction, mostly history and biographies. But in recent years I decided to read some books important to our culture that I only know about but had never read, such as Moby-Dick and more recently The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aenied. It has been a very rewarding experience.

BB: Thanks to Nishan for taking the time to chat with us this week. And for those of you who just can’t get enough of his wonderful work, check out the note cards and other gifts available for purchase on our website. Or, visit his website to explore more of what this talented artist has to offer.