How LA Inspires The Look Of The New York Times' 'Modern Love' Column

New York Times illustrator Brian Rea said he fell in love with California because he could enjoy life and the city's natural landscape while continuing to grow both creatively and personally as an artist. (Tony Pinto)

When Brian Rea paints a love story, he's using L.A. as a palette.

Rea is the artist and illustrator of the New York Times' "Modern Love" column, and for about nine years his delicate, minimalist lines and monochromatic palettes have sealed a signature look for the explorations of love in the current age. This aesthetic, it turns out, is heavily influenced by the looks of Los Angeles — Rea moved to town around the same time he landed the gig.

Rea said he doesn't like to draw exactly what's described in the essays. For the essay "My Touchstone and a Heart of Gold", he chose to invent a Titanic-esque scene between the narrator and her tortoise. (Brian Rea)

His weekly process, logistically speaking, goes roughly like this: Every Saturday Rea gets the next essay from his editor. On Sunday he reads it. Monday and Tuesday, he starts sending sketches to be approved, each drawn by hand and washed with ink in his storefront studio in Chinatown's Mandarin Plaza. He scans the drawing and makes final edits digitally. By Wednesday, the finished piece is emailed out.

With the love stories that he depicts, no two are ever the same, so he's always creating something new. "Every person's experience with love is so incredibly different than the person sitting right next to them. Right?" he said. "So for every person out there in the world, that's how many different types of love stories exist."

Rea grew up down the road from a cranberry bog in a small New England town called Chelmsford or "Chumsford," if he still had the accent. His grandfather was a stonemason who used to show Rea drawings from his sketchbook. "That was probably my earliest experience with seeing someone draw or recreate something as a drawing," he said.


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Los Angeles presented a very different visual experience for Rea. Everything feels bigger here, he said — grander. When he drives down a California highway, for instance, he always sees the sky. The streets back home, on the other hand, tend to be covered by trees.

"There's a real kind of coziness; it's almost like the street gives you a big hug in New England," he said. "Here, there's a real openness and expansiveness to it. I think that also does something to you kind of emotionally, like you have a different kind of emotional or psychological response to it as well."

From the essay "Four Castaways Make A Family" (Brian Rea)

His inspiration comes from everywhere. The California sky, with its bright pinks and purples, is often reflected in Rea's choices. He said that since leaving his hometown on the East Coast he noticed a new vibrancy in his works. They were still monochromatic, but they became a lot brighter.

And it's not just the sky. It's the sun, too. Rea said he loves the city's strip malls and street signs - the way their colors fade so subtly under the strength of California's sunlight. "Everything out here gets like really kind of sun drenched," he said.

He takes pictures of the color combinations he sees out in the world. There's an entire archive of them on his computer that he digs through for reference. He particularly likes the colors of his sleepy little corner in Chinatown. Every Monday morning, a group of tai chi dancers move in graceful synchronization across the street from his studio. Rea admits he's always been a bit jealous of the dancers in their faded tracksuits, each a different color - Power Ranger style.

"I think that being exposed to those colors and the muted-ness of how colors fade and change underneath the weight of the sun has really trickled into my work for sure," he said. "Those warmer tones, those are directly related to that. I'm sure of it."

Rea's use of color isn't the only way he pays homage to L.A. He found that the city's wildlife sometimes make great models too.

A coyote comes to sit on his back patio furniture like clockwork every day around 5:30 p.m., he said. When he received an essay this month detailing the love between a man and his dog who passed away, Rea snapped a photo of his regular guest and used it for reference. The dog in his final drawing, he said, had very much of a coyote vibe to it.

Variation of an image from the essay "It Was In Giving That They Received" (Brian Rea)

For Rea, the city's impact extends beyond his work and into his personal life as well.

Although he lived only a town away from Walden Pond, he found his own Walden on the other side of the country. "We live in this kind of residential neighborhood at the base of this hill that doesn't have any houses on it at all, and it's just coyotes and crickets," he said. "In some respects, it's really a place where you can kind of disengage from the city, but amazingly, I'm 12 minutes away from downtown L.A."

When he moved here, he brought along his reverence for the natural world. The city, Rea discovered, was full of it. "It's a biodiversity hotspot," he said. "You have mountains; you have ocean; you have the desert. I grew up in a place like that, so I'm sure that was a huge influence in my mind, or you know, probably something that I probably gravitated to."

When it's time for Rea to disengage from work and clear his head, he takes long drives on long stretches of open road. And as one does in California, he surfs.

"I think for anyone who does anything creatively — or just any career, truly — you need hobbies," he said. "You need escapes, and whether it's church, gardening, playing Solitaire on your computer, surfing, whatever it might be — we all need that."

From the essay "This Is What Happens When Friends Fall In Love" (Brian Rea)

The idea of taking time off is actually what inspired his new book, Death Wins A Goldfish. His father once said to him, "work less." Succinct, but memorable. With those two words in mind, Rea created an illustrated journal chronicling the Grim Reaper's adventures on his one year sabbatical.

Death's year is eventful. The Grim Reaper doesn't waste a single moment. He travels through Europe. He puts together a dating profile and joins a CrossFit gym. The scenes are humorous, but many were actually taken directly from Rea's own life in California. In one chapter, for example, Death steps into a tree in the Redwood Forest and takes a quiet moment to reflect on nature.

"We all work way too hard. We all talk about finding balance between living and working, but we never really ever succeed at that," he said. "We do things like move to California for better waves and finding balance, and the truth is none of us ever do. We never take quite enough time to really appreciate these things."

While authoring the book, Rea ventured into a new domain - writing. He wanted to say just enough with his words without over-telling the story. Finding that sweet spot was a challenge. "I think great storytellers that tell stories verbally can tell such great stories that they feel visual," he said. "And I think that great visual storytellers can tell such clear stories that people can really connect with them. The magical place is if you can be both of those things, and I've only just begun to dive into that."

Variation of an image from the essay "A Romance That's Extra Zesty" (Brian Rea)

Over the years, he has expanded his range to digital art such as animation and film. According to Rea, there's digital revolution happening in L.A., one that demands illustrators to be more than simply illustrators. He has noticed an influx of tech companies and projects with more digital elements around the city.

"No city ever stays the same, you know, but it's still an exciting place to be for artists for sure," he said. "I think what's cool about L.A. is that the city throws a lot of curveballs at you creatively and asks these different things from you that require you to reevaluate your tools artistically, you know, and I think that's awesome."

He's helping local artists do just that. He's been teaching at Pasadena's ArtCenter College of Design, leading a class on illustration journalism and another that simulates what it's like to work for the New York Times' opinion section.

"My ArtCenter students, they humble you," he said. "They really help me clarify why I do what I do and what it is that I do, because they come in with really, really high level skills. And they're hungry. They keep you honest, you know."

In terms of his own modern loves, Rea has many in his life - his wife, his son, his art, his stories and Los Angeles, the city that pushes him to keep exploring and evolving. "I think initially as an artist, you learn to draw, then you learn to see, then you learn to choose," he said. "You get to a place where you start to choose. You say, 'OK, this is who I am. These are the types of things as an artist, I really, really love.' And I think when I moved to L.A., I got to that place."

When asked what the illustration for his own Modern Love story would look like, he said simply, "It'd be a really complicated drawing." Aren't they all.