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Monday, January 17, 2011

Interview #4--meet Rick Tulka!

I asked our friend Rick to introduce himself, and tell us a little about where he came from and how he got started.  Grab a cuppa (or a nice glass of wine, like Rick!), sit back and enjoy!

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1955. Ever since I was a little kid I drew. When I was about 6 years old, I saw the album cover for the Broadway show, “My Fair Lady,” with a Hirschfeld caricature. That was when I knew exactly what I wanted to do, caricature. Hirschfeld was my idol from then on.

I was just an average student growing up, except for art classes. My parents and teachers always supported me. Since I knew, early on, that I wanted to be an artist, many of my teachers (for useless subjects like science) passed me. Most of my term papers were short on text, heavy in illustration.

I went to Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and majored in illustration. It was a great school and I really enjoyed it. At that time they had a wonderful program called University Without Walls. This was a program where the student created their own projects and worked on their own. At the end of the semester a mentor evaluated their work. This was good for me. I always wanted to do humorous illustration and caricature. In the regular illustration classes it just wasn’t working. We’d get a project to do something for Scientific American Magazine, and I’d come in with something for MAD Magazine. This program let me do exactly what I wanted.


Rick tells me he loves learning from the Old Masters, visiting museums and sketching the images there.  Obviously he has made wonderful use of his time! - Kate

Here are two from his Flickr set, "The Met."  You'll love it--I used at least one image from this set in the book!

Portrait of a Venetian Senator

Catena (Vincenzo di Biagio) (Italian, Venetian, active by 1506, died 1531)
When I was an art student at Pratt Institute, one of my mentors, for a year and a half, was caricaturist, David Levine. He told me a way to improve was to copy the masters. He told me not to copy them from books, but from the original paintings. That is how I ended up at The Met drawing the paintings, and I never stopped while I lived in New York.
You can see the real painting here.

Self-portrait with Two Pupils, Mademoiselle Marie Gabrielle Capet and Mademoiselle Carreaux de Rosemond (detail)

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (French, 1749-1803)
I guess, one the best things about drawing from paintings, at The Met, was that these people don't move.
You can see the real painting here.


I started illustrating, professionally, in 1976. As any illustrator knows, it is a roller coaster life. I always think my last job is going to actually be my last job! It has never been easy. But, I have been lucky to have had some really great jobs and work for some wonderful clients. I really can’t do anything else.

I never thought I would end up living in Paris. My first introduction to this beautiful city was in 1975. Pratt had a summer semester in the South of France and I would come to Paris on the weekends. That was when I fell in love with this city. And if you fall in love with Paris, it is for life! Brenda, now my wife, came over at the end of that semester and she fell in love with Paris too. Eighteen years later, in October, we found ourselves back in Paris for a weekend. It was cold, gray and wet. But, it was still Paris. When we got back to Brooklyn, one night at dinner, and we can’t remember who said it, but it was said, “What the hell are we doing here? Let’s move to Paris!” We sold our apartment, got all the necessary paperwork from the French government, etc. Everything worked out just perfect. A year and a half later, in March 1995, we arrived in Paris and have been here ever since. Not one regret!!

Now, sit back and enjoy the interview--

Q. Have you always journaled?  (When did you start?)

A. I started keeping sketchbooks when I went to Pratt Institute in 1973. I have always used hardbound sketchbooks, 8 ¼  X 11 ½ inches, with 192 pages. As I write, I am on book # 259. From 1977 to today, they have always been Strathmore hardbound sketchbooks.

The first page is always dated with the day I started the book, the day I finished it and the year. The second page is left empty for phone numbers, notes, stuff. The drawings start on page three.

Over the years, not every page is reportage. Some pages are filled with drawings I did from books and magazines; caricatures of celebrities and paintings. Just doodling to pass the time and keep my hand working, exercise.

However, since living in Paris over 15 years, and as I have gotten older, I would say most sketchbooks are filled with reportage drawings.

I do have to throw in here that I have used some smaller hardbound (or handmade) sketchbooks over the years, basically, because someone had given them to me. However, I can count them on one hand. My size of choice is 8 ¼ X 11 ½ inches.

Q. Do you ever add text, and if not why not?

A. The only time I added text to my sketchbooks was during a summer semester, for Pratt Institute, in the South of France. But the text had nothing to do with my drawings. It was just a daily journal of my experiences.

I never really add text with a drawing. I just never felt it was necessary and I really have nothing to say. The drawings should speak for themselves. Not that there is anything wrong with adding text.

When signing a drawing, I may write where it was with my name, but that is about it.

Q. How did your focus on Café le Select come about?

A. As I wrote, when I went to Pratt Institute, in 1975, there was a summer semester in the South of France, in a little village outside of Nimes. It was for Van Gogh painters and photographers. Coming from Brooklyn, I needed a city. Almost every weekend I took a night train to Paris. Ah, a city, people, cars, noise, pollution, perfect. On one of those weekends, with a fellow student, we met a Parisian. One night, he took us all around the city, and around 1am, we ended up in a noisy, smoky and crowded café, I drew it. In the fall of 1993, my wife and I came to Paris for a weekend, with another new Parisian friend, we were taken around the city, and she ended up her driving tour at a café, that she said, “was the best café in Paris,” and a place where “people go to be seen.” That night, back at the hotel, I felt I hadn’t done enough drawing during our trip. So, around 2am, I left my wife sleeping and walked down a deserted boulevard du Montparnasse and found that same café and the only one open, I drew it again. Both times, it was Le Sélect. I didn’t discover this until a number of years, after living here, when I was looking at some of my old sketchbooks. Fate?

Rick wrote "I really like this drawing because I got exactly what I was seeing. When that couple sat down, I just had to draw them. With her just peeking over his shoulder looking, oh, so French."
In the spring of 1995 we moved to Paris. We were taking French lessons, not that it did me any good, at the Alliance Française. The school was around the corner from Le Sélect, and for a couple of hours before or after class, I would find myself drawing there. It has been said that when you move to Paris, you must find a café and make it your own. It should be your home, office, a place where you can receive messages and mail. I found that place at Le Sélect.

At first, I am sure, the waiters thought I was just another tourist. But, this tourist never went away. After a couple of months, one of the waiters came over and asked to see my sketchbook. I gladly handed it over to him and with his co-workers, they went through the drawings, laughing at the images of their familiar clientele. That was the day I felt accepted.

After over 15 years of drawing there, I have never gotten tired of it. There are always new faces to draw and I love drawing the French face. Of course there are other cafés, but I found my “home” there.

And on a technical point, the area where I usually sit is along the back of the terrace. The tables in front of me are for two people. At Le Sélect the chairs face each other so that when people are sitting together, or even alone, reading, I get a good view of them for drawing. There are many cafés, here in Paris, where that seating faces the street, and I would only be able to see the backs of the heads, instead of the faces.

I always say that I was drawn to Le Sélect.

Q. Graphite seems to be your favorite medium, can you tell me why?  What pencil(s) do you use?

A. I have always used Stanford Design Ebony pencils. (Originally Faber Castell – until Sanford bought them out).

"For this drawing, it was his arm. I was attracted to the strong position. He kept that pose while reading and it was really nice. I also enjoyed doing the black lines of his pushed up sleeve."

Ebony pencils are my favorite because they can give me a variety of textures and I like that I can get from a nice light gray to a good strong black. They are soft, but not waxy. I also like how they work on paper with a tooth.

Of course, when I went to Pratt, I tried other mediums, but I remember a friend of mine, at that time, was working at one of the local art stores and told me I should try the Ebony pencil. I did and never stopped.

Obviously, Rick can and does occasionally use other mediums...this Einstein caricature is perfect!

Q. Does your journal keeping impact or enhance your work, or the other way around?

A. I feel the drawings (reportage) I do in my sketchbooks are the most personal work I do. I am the most content with them. It is probably because the drawings are just for me. They aren’t illustration work, where you have art directors and editors putting in their comments and changes. Which is what illustration is. However, I have been able to use my reportage for work. I have been hired a number of times, instead of a photographer, to draw. For example, here in Paris, I was sent to a demonstration to record it. Another time, I was sent to a school and spent the day drawing the teachers and students. A number of years ago, I was hired by the Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, to be their courtroom artist for a big trial held in Brussels. And two years ago I was sent to Tennessee to draw at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Even though these were paying jobs, I was still set free to just do what I do, draw and report what I see.

I have also taken series of drawings I have done for myself and was able to sell them to magazines. One was in 1998, when the World Cup was in Paris. I went around the city and drew the fans from different countries watching the games. Also, a magazine published some of my series of people at the Metropolitan Museum looking at paintings.

The dream for me, with my Sélect drawings, was getting a book published, about the café and my drawings. That was all my idea. I proposed the concept to my co-author, Noël Riley Fitch, she loved it and we worked together for a number of years. It was a joy to do.

I also have to include that just daily drawing in sketchbooks is like an athlete doing their daily exercises. I personally get rusty if I hadn’t drawn in a couple of days. I can feel it when the pencil touches the paper. Drawing in my sketchbooks keeps me ready for an illustration job, and visa versa.

Q. How do you decide to design a page?

A. I do not think about designing a page when I start a drawing in my sketchbook. When I draw people, I usually always start with an eye and go from there. I suppose as the drawing develops, I may see things that I want to leave out, or keep as line and not completely fill in, etc. But, overall, when I draw in my sketchbook, it is just throwing everything out on a page and seeing what happens. I don’t plan ahead. I never do a light sketch, I just go for it. I never erase in my sketchbooks. If a drawing isn’t working – and I can usually tell from the first line I put down – I just turn the page and start again. No time for erasing.

However, when I do my illustration work in the studio, not in my sketchbook, those images are definitely designed. I have to work with a definite size and space for an illustration for a magazine, etc., and maybe text (from an article) needs to be included in the space too. That work is sketched first and finished later, after approved from an art director. It is a different process than my reportage.

Q. Other thoughts? Whatever else you feel is more important, personally, to YOU...

A. In regards to my drawings that I do at Le Sélect, my goal during my, on average, 1 ½ hour drawing time, is to do, at least, one good drawing. That is all I ask from myself. Sometimes I can get two good drawings and sometimes I may work on one drawing over a couple of days. But, the final thing is to walk out of the café satisfied with a drawing. And believe me, it doesn’t always happen. Some days can feel like I had been drawing with my feet!

"I like when I keep the drawings as line. With this one, once I did the profile, and the line of her back, I knew it was going to be a successful drawing. For me the line of her back sets the tone for the whole drawing and her. There was no struggle or thought here. It just came out on the paper."  I love it when drawings do that, too!-Kate

As for sketchbooks, I feel every artist should always be drawing in them. The drawings should, basically, be from life with no erasing. I stress this with young artists that I meet and ask me for advice. I know my work has improved by drawing in a sketchbook. And it is just so much fun!!

Having 37 years of my history in my sketchbooks, I feel they are my autobiography in images.

I love this quick sketch on a subway in New York! - Kate


I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did!  Rick, thank you SO much for being so generous with your time, your art, and your words.

I love browsing Rick's Flickr album: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leselect/

Don't miss his official website: http://ricktulka.com/

Or this delightful YouTube interview from CBS Sunday Morning : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pV4CoVMH048


  1. Great interview. He does you proud and he does the same for you.

    Obviously a labor of love that took much time and editing. Thanks so much.

  2. What I meant was . . . you know what I meant.

  3. You made perfect sense to me...which in itself is a bit scary. :-)

  4. I am on book # 259.
    ! ! ! ! !
    Thank you

  5. Wow! Thank you very much, wonderful interview and great inspiration.

  6. "As for sketchbooks, I feel every artist should always be drawing in them"

    Yay! Rick, thank you for saying this and helping to dispel the myth that somehow, sketchbooks are only for weekends and the occasional vacation.

    Great interview and hats off to both of you!

    259 sketchbooks, 192 pages = 49,728 PAGES!!!!!!!!!!! (Give or take a few hundred for the drawings that didn't work out!)

  7. That is an astounding number of sketchbooks, isn't it! And I agree, Laure, just DRAW!

  8. Wonderful, Kate and Rick. Two of my favorite people. Rick, I still often see "NINA's" in your work. Love it!!

  9. A very refreshing and insightful interview. Thanks for sharing you experiences with us.

  10. Loved this interview and thought I'd already commented to say so. Rick is, in addition to being a great talent, a kind, funny, warm, and modest person in real life! I was lucky enough to meet him last spring and can't wait for our next meeting when I go back to Paris this year.


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