Illustrator Justin Richburg updates Vermeer for the 21st century

See Vermeer’s subjects collide with some of today’s biggest superstars

By Google Arts & Culture

Icons (2018-12-01) by Justin Richburg

Born in north Philadelphia, USA, drawing became a daily ritual for illustrator Justin Richburg when he was around 18 years old. At 22, his passion became a career and now, Richburg’s portfolio is chock full of rich, colorful, and provocative illustrations. With a loyal online following, the illustrator’s work has been in the spotlight in recent years. Most recently you’ll have spotted Richburg’s piece Dice Game in Donald Glover’s TV show Atlanta. This led to Richburg creating the character designs for Childish Gambino’s (Glover’s stage name) music video Feels Like Summer, which has been viewed over 82 million times.

Richburg’s graphic style is bold, transcends culture, and is loosely inspired by the anime and comics he used to consume in his youth. These days his illustrations often depict large scale, everyday scenes littered with pop culture references and contemporary icons.

With Richburg’s modern approach to the traditional style of genre painting, parallels with Johanne Vermeer’s work can be easily made. Vermeer also preferred to focus on the daily activities of people, capturing them in detailed settings. For both artists, the story and the relationship between their subjects are a key part of the overall work. Richburg has taken this idea a step further by combining well-known figures like Barack Obama, Oprah, and Denzel Washington in the same scene, creating even more questions for the viewer.

So how would Vermeer’s 17th-century subjects stand up against Richburg’s depictions of the biggest a-list names? Google Arts & Culture asked the illustrator to make this a reality and sees the artist blending well-known figures from Vermeer’s world and his own in his unique style to create a tableau fit for the 21st century. “I wanted to depict a scene where everyone is just carefree and having fun. What better scene than a party?” Richburg says of the piece.

The illustration, titled Icons, was inspired by Ernie Barnes' iconic painting Sugar Shack. In the buzzing crowd, you can spot several characters from Vermeer’s works including The Geographer listening to a deep conversation between Lebron James and Collin Kaepenick, The Milk Maid pouring Ed Sheeran a drink, The Painter and his subject taking pictures with Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, and The Girl with a Pearl Earring being disturbed by a ranting Kanye West.

Other ways the illustrator has played tribute to Vermeer is through his use of light and shadow. Generally many of Vermeer's painting have light illuminating his pieces from the left side. In Richburg's piece we see Kanye West standing up in the middle casting a shadow on the right side of the image. This illumination shines over Vermeer's characters. The illustrator's use of shadow is meant to show the details and accentuate the strengths of Vermeer's art.

“The interesting part about this piece is that it unites cultures,” adds Richburg. “It brings people from all different backgrounds together in one space.” This is typical of Richburg’s work where he interweaves the stories from subjects of different backgrounds to create one rich narrative, and it’s something Vermeer also conveyed through his work.

Peeking out from the back is Vermeer’s most famous subject, Girl with a Pearl Earring and she’s one of Richburg’s favourites. “I like her because she is a beautiful woman, that's drawn simple and straightforward,” he says. “She doesn't really give off an expression but if you look at her long enough you get lost in her eyes.”

In this piece, Richburg highlights how Vermeer’s paintings have become characters themselves and despite the fact they were painted over 300 years ago, proves they still hold their own in a crowd of superstars. “Vermeer's iconic paintings are standing in a room with iconic people. Icons all fit together no matter what era you're in,” says Richburg.

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