Nigel Sussman Uses Art to Spread Joy and Happiness

Berkeley illustrator and muralist Nigel Sussman does accept commissions — as long as they are positive, universal, and appropriate.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Illustrator and muralist Nigel Sussman lives in Berkeley, but you’ve likely passed one of his large, whimsical works of art around the East Bay. His Leamington Planes Mural on the side of the Leamington Building at the corner of Franklin and 19th in downtown Oakland is just one example of his work.

Sussman grew up in rural western Maryland, close to the Pennsylvania border. He lived in a large farmhouse and was encouraged creatively at an early age, in particular by his father, a musician who ran a community music school. But both of his parents encouraged creativity in him and his two younger sisters, and a DIY mentality toward entertainment, play, and house projects prevailed and has stayed with him into adulthood.

“I remember protesting the lack of ‘packaged’ play like video games and television, but in retrospect, possessing the tools of creativity has been invaluable,” he said.

In 2003, he transferred from the fine arts program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to finish a BFA in illustration from California College of the Arts. Sussman moved from Oakland to San Francisco three years later and then finally settled in Berkeley in 2014.

As an illustrator, Sussman creates art for large brands like eBay, Google, and Adidas as well as traditional print projects for publications including Popular Science magazine. Working for advertising agencies early on helped him develop an effective approach completing projects. He observed the process from start to finish, which enabled him to see changes happen along the way. He could also observe the many pitfalls that can arise and saw how the finished art was ultimately used.

“It’s awesome to see things that have only existed as digital drawings printed into a final product,” Sussman said.

His signature style uses a simple color palette within a line-art design structure. The style also lent itself well to his project, Alphabet Compendium, a large-format alphabet book funded through a Kickstarter Campaign and completed in 2016. The book features full-page, hand drawn illustrations for each of the 26 letters of the English alphabet along with a companion coloring book.

Sussman’s mural works are a link to his community. “Working on a public street is always fun — getting to meet so many people and observing how locals interact with their communities,” Sussman said.

He enjoys the suggestions from passers-by, from things to include in the mural to how to get involved with the process. But there is a contrasting element when he is working on an indoor installation. Working alone after hours in huge indoor spaces can be both weirdly quiet and serene, an aspect that he said helps him stay in “the zone.” The artist likes to minimize setup and travel time and to be out of the space quickly so others can get back to work and start enjoying a beautified space. “This often means one to five full days of work and up to 16 hours of nonstop painting each day,” he said.

What’s a day in the studio of Nigel Sussman like? The artist does most of his illustration, mural planning, and sketching on a tablet computer in his home studio. “I can usually be found there with a cup of coffee and headphones on, unless I am on-site painting a mural or traveling,” Sussman said. His murals are all planned digitally to-scale and then hand painted using brushes and house paint.

Sussman’s main goal as an artist is to create fun images that make people happy. The subject matter can be varied, and he enjoys taking requests and commissions as long as the message is positive, universal, and appropriate. The artist believes what the world needs right now is more joy, color, and fun.

“The only message I try to convey in my work is that everybody deserves happiness,” he said.

Among his influences are Martin Hanford, the illustrator who created Where’s Waldo? and the original SimCity computer games on which Sussman has spent countless hours. He also admires artists M.C. Escher, R. Crumb, and illustrator Stephen Biesty.

“Most of what motivates me to create art is the hope that it might bring joy to someone and that I am doing my small part to make the world a happier and more inclusive place,” he said. This is why some of his favorite work to make is for public spaces that people of all ages, especially children, can enjoy.

Sussman is always juggling at least 10 projects at a time. Currently, he is working on a seek-and-find book, a coloring page, a concert poster for the UC Theatre, a magazine cover, illustrations for a marketing campaign, and seven murals around the Bay Area all in various stages of planning and production.

“I am also working on having an exhibit at SHOH Gallery in Berkeley,” he said.

Apart from that, Sussman said he likes to sleep, eat, drink, and hang out with his 2-year old son.

For more information on Nigel Sussman, visit his website at NigelSussman.com.

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