Alta Journal’s illustrators are tasked with challenging assignments: rendering fictional characters, re-creating historical events, or capturing the abstract in the pages of the magazine. To mark the end of 2021, Alta asked several of our illustrators to explain their inspirations and artistic process in creating these captivating images.


threshold choir
ANITA KUNZ

ANITA KUNZ, “SONGS FOR THE DYING

anita kunz
ANITA KUNZ

“Having just turned 65, I actually think about mortality a lot. I have just lost a wonderful friend to cancer. I think about what would I like when I’m in the transition. I won’t know, of course, until the time comes, but certainly having been an artist my whole life, the arts would have to play a big role. And I love the idea of beautiful song carrying me on in my journey.”


crater lake, murders
Mark Smith

MARK SMITH, “THE SEARCH OF A LIFETIME” FOUR-ILLUSTRATION SERIES

mark smith
Mark Smith

“For these images, I made a slight change in my creative process; I started off with a more narrative mindset and started thinking more conceptually, or abstractly, later on. The blood-splatter element in these images came after the initial compositions were already worked out, but I really liked the impact it gave them, and it seemed to make the essence of the story instantly readable. Hopefully, bringing the blood to the fore was also a reminder that, as fascinating as historical crime can be from an outsider’s point of view, this was a story about the kind of evil that can’t be reasoned with.”


the last lady of california illustration, victor juhasz
Victor Juhasz

VICTOR JUHASZ, “THE LAST LADY OF CALIFORNIA” THREE-ILLUSTRATION SERIES

victor juhasz
Victor Juhasz

“I came away from the story feeling like the main character was someone to whom life simply ‘happened.’ She was a ghost in a sense, blending in with whatever background or into whatever circumstance she found herself. It seemed most appropriate to create images that expressed that sense of disappearance—culminating in her transforming into the coastline landscape itself.”


cover, spring 2021
CHRIS SICKELS/RED NOSE STUDIO

CHRIS SICKELS/RED NOSE STUDIO, “THE NEXT WEST” FOUR-ILLUSTRATION SERIES

chris sickels, red nose studio
Brian Steege

“We really struggled with the cover as far as how to encapsulate the scope that this issue has. It’s not just a single theme; it’s got such a range of content as far as authors and innovators. It really stemmed from the idea of the Xerces blue butterfly, which is extinct, and the program to try to bring it back. That felt like a pretty magical moment in what I read of the issue.”


bear cover
Michael Schwab

MICHAEL SCHWAB, “IN SEARCH OF THE SECRET WEST” COVER ILLUSTRATION

michael schwab
Michael Schwab

“The idea for this cover illustration actually came from Alta Journal’s creative director, John Goecke. My animal portraits are typically very heroic and dramatic—like the California Book Club logo design). It was fun to create a more playful portrait of the California bear. John and I work well together.”


california guide map
MATT TWOMBLY

MATT TWOMBLY, “A GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA” ROAD MAP

matt twombly
MATT TWOMBLY

“For the maps, we drew inspiration from the WPA guidebooks from the 1930s, merging modern cartographic practices with classic styling.”


larry mcmurtry
Steve Carroll

STEVE CARROLL, “THE PASTURES OF THE EMPTY PAGE” TWO-ILLUSTRATION SERIES

steve carroll
Steve Carroll

“What is going through my mind just before I start drawing portraits is, Get the likeness; whatever you do, get the likeness! However, the trick is not to try too hard—just relax a little and look, look, and look. Then, as if by magic, it’s captured. I tend to exaggerate the features to emphasize the likeness and, hopefully, bring out his or her personality. The creative process can be a bumpy journey, filled with countless wee decisions, but it’s always an exciting and rewarding one.”


ambrose bierce
John Mattos

JOHN MATTOS, “AN OCCURRENCE AT SIERRA MOJADA” THREE-ILLUSTRATION SERIES

john mattos
John Mattos

“Step one is to read the text and get a sense of tone for the work. Then I get out my sketchbook and sort of go for a random walk. (Incidentally, I have every sketchbook going back to age 18; I’ve never lost one.) There is a long tradition for memento mori” in western art, and Bierce’s obsession with death made this an obvious choice. I have a friend who has a human skull. I made small, loose sketches with no regard for line quality or expression. I enjoy drawing maps. My high school intern job was drawing maps for the Stanislaus County Planning Department. A great experience in two ways, one being that it showed me in my early teen years I should gravitate toward the world of art and away from bureaucracies.”


matt mahurin, denis johnson, john freeman
Matt Mahurin

MATT MAHURIN, “FALLING” TWO-ILLUSTRATION SERIES

matt mahurin
Matt Mahurin

“The assignments for Alta Journal always offer a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with deeply poetic and daring writers. John Goecke chooses articles that both inspire and challenge me to explore new creative possibilities.”


dave hickey illustration
THOMAS EHRETSMANN

THOMAS EHRETSMANN, “NOT EVERYONE SHOULD BE A CRITIC

thomas ehretsmann
THOMAS EHRETSMANN

“For me, creating an illustration means assembling scattered information and filtering it through my mind in order to create a meaningful image. For Dave Hickey’s portrait, I started working on a series of pencil sketches based on a few words Alta Journal gave me—“art critic,” “full-page color portrait,” “Hickey wearing a picture frame”—and a set of reference photos. This can remain a dry process until you find the one visual detail that will give life to your image—here, the shadow of the frame on Hickey’s forehead. Once the final sketch was approved, painting this portrait was sheer fun.”


jim harrison
Joe Ciardiello

JOE CIARDIELLO, “THE LAST POEMS OF JIM HARRISON” ACCOMPANYING ILLUSTRATIONS

joe ciardiello
Joe Ciardiello

Alta creative director John Goecke asked me to draw a portrait of Jim Harrison and to select three of the seven poems to illustrate. I hadn’t read Harrison but was very familiar with his fantastic face, having drawn it before. His writing is quite visual, and as I read the poems, the images came to me almost immediately.”


fort benson
James Ransome

JAMES RANSOME, “BIDDY MASON AND HANNAH EMBERS WERE HERE

james ransome
David P. Broda

“The ‘Biddy Mason and Hannah Were Here’ article required me to think about how I could visually show the layers of time in a two-dimensional single illustration. My first sketches consisted of traditional montages, with one large head and smaller elements surrounding it. But the writer often referred to the fact that periods of history are layered on top of other historical moments. With the idea of building an illustration like a layer cake, I knew then I had the direction in which to take this piece, with each section building chronologically on the next.”•