Pete Ryan’s Conceptual Vision


Pete Ryan is a problem solver. As a freelance editorial illustrator he stares down the same problem time and time again: How can I illustrate this broad concept quickly, accurately, and beautifully? Working for publications like Time, The New York Times, and The Economist means that the bar is set high… and Pete is more than up to the challenge. His drive and work ethic have led to a successful career and a portfolio of work that meets the highest of standards (his own).

Keep reading to learn more about his process in our full interview. We’ll be mailing a surprise art print by Pete Ryan to our subscribers in April so be sure to subscribe by March 31st!

Interview with Artist Pete Ryan

Illustration by Pete Ryan of a man pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair up the side of the peak of a rollercoaster.

Tell us about your creative process.

My creative process starts with reading. I’ll read an assignment brief and make notes in my sketchbook, and research any topics I’m not clear on. Then I draw anything and everything that comes to mind. I’m looking to make visual associations and help bridge gaps for the viewer. This part can be obsessive. It’s hard to feel like there’s always a better, more succinct idea right around the corner, so I spend a lot of time trying to be smarter. I try to think of unexpected ways to tell a familiar story. My compositions tend to be straight forward because clarity and concept are my first goals. When I finally feel like I have some options, I’ll edit. I try to get 100 ideas down to 20 – then 20 down to 10. After drawing them up I send them off. 

Approval of a concept is the only moment where I feel some relief. The next challenge is deciding how to paint the piece, what colours communicate best, and how much detail is necessary for the piece to look good, but also keep me interested. This part is the best area for experimenting with technique and drawing, and often involves listening to music, podcasts and movies. It can be really free spirited. 

Describe a typical day of creation.

I have a very set routine that I find works best for me. I’m up early, just after 6am, and usually at work around 6:30. I’ll go straight till lunch, then usually break and share a half hour with my partner, catch up on the internet, and dive back in. This time I work till 4pm, where my partner and I take a few hours off to be outside, or take care of tasks that need to be done to keep our home running smoothly. After dinner, around 7:30pm I dive back in for a few hours, usually fixated on resolving whatever I was working on in the afternoon. I work a lot of hours, but breaking it up really helps it feel fresh when I go back to it. New eyes also really help, so stepping away and coming back is crucial.

What do you do to get into the zone? What gets you going?

Whether I want to be in it or not, I put myself in a space to solve problems purely through process. Process helps me understand the steps needed to make art everyday, at a level I feel is acceptable.

Photo of the windowsill in artist Pete Ryan's studio with a stack of books.

What is your studio like?

My studio is new to me, as I just moved from my home in Toronto, across the country to a mountain town in British Columbia. I’m still getting to know the space, and I would say we haven’t found our final form just yet. Typically I like to surround myself with light, and art, and books and surfaces, but this room is a little smaller than my previous spot, so I’m forced to edit. I do love having a space that’s just mine – a room of one’s own – to make my work, but also to sit and contemplate my relationship with drawing, and how I want to transform as an artist.

What are your most important tools?

A sketchbook, and pencil are my most important tools. Where all the hard work happens. Paint, computers and a silkscreen help me visualize the pieces, but the hard work is already done by the time I put a brush down on illustration board.

Where do you find inspiration? Tell us about what drives, motivates, and inspires you to create.

I can’t help but feel like my best work is in front of me, and the simplest way to find it is by making. Sometimes that means making a lot. Not everything I make feels like me, or is something I’m proud of, but each piece is a step towards a goal of making authentic, satisfying work. I’m constantly facing creative blocks, or lack of motivation, but a desire to be my absolute best for no one other than me keeps me seated at my desk, trying to evolve. It’s rewarding, and deflating. Two steps forward, one step back.

Photo of a bookcase in artist Pete Ryan's studio, half full of novels and half full of sketchbooks

How did you learn your craft? Did you go to school?

I studied at Sheridan College’s famed illustration program, and was fortunate enough to have wonderful professors and engaged peers. I later went on to teach in that program, and have a deep love for it. I’ve also had numerous mentors throughout my career, other illustrators who are generous with their time and advice. My closest working friendship is with an illustrator named Chris Gash. Chris’s skill, ideas and technique have taught me more than anyone else.

How do you make a living?

I freelance full time making editorial illustration. I’m very very lucky to do well with it.

How do you promote your work?

I directly contact Art Directors I want to work with, and try to share updates on my work with contacts I’ve worked with previously. I share work on social media, and try to engage in the community as a whole.

Editorial illustration by Pete Ryan of a patient in a doctors office

Travel back in time ten years ago. What advice would you give to your younger self?

I’d maybe tell myself to have a little more fun. Life passes by pretty fast, and trying to control things too much can prevent you from enjoying it. It’s important to find balance, and to make sure you don’t only work.

What do you love and hate about the creative life?

I love that there is always room to improve; that your taste always outpaces your ability, and that there is always another mountain peak.

I hate that there is always room to improve; that your taste always outpaces your ability, and that there is always another mountain peak.

What are you currently most excited about?

My partner and I are getting married this summer, and promptly buying a dog. We just relocated to the most beautiful town I’ve ever been to, and I love being outside exploring the area. I’m learning to garden and am having some limited success.

Editorial illustration by Pete Ryan for Sports Monday for the New York Times

Favorite Artist?

Brian Cronin

Favorite Film?

The Lord of the Rings – Fellowship

Favorite Book?

A little life

Favorite Musician/Album?

Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”

Favorite City to Visit?


Favorite Meal to Cook?

Make-your-own pizza

Favorite Online Art Blog/Account?


List any upcoming events, publications, exhibitions, etc…

New work in Time, The Economist, Plansponsor, the NYTimes and more

Pete Ryan is our April 2020 artist. Sign up for a Papirmass Art Print Subscription today so you don’t miss his print!

Check out more of Pete’s artwork in our online gallery and follow us @papirmass for more news about our April issue.