Today’s sophisticated digital workflow can make traditional art materials seem outdated and quaint. For associate creative director AJ Riccio, slowing down and working by hand is the perfect counterpoint to her typical computer-driven processes. Her 2019 calendar features 12 illustrations of the neighborhood she has grown to adore, each rendered lovingly by hand.
With a demanding day job, AJ Riccio felt the need to make time to disconnect and return to her fine art roots. Her parents had encouraged her artistic pursuits since age four, but as she reached young adulthood reality set in. Life as a starving artist was not going to work, so she pursued a communication design major at Pratt with a concentration in advertising design. She’s currently an associate creative director at Rode designing brands for luxury New York real estate.
“At my day job, everything is on the computer,” she said. But when she’s in her home studio it’s a different story. “I want to completely disconnect and do everything by hand.” Working in India ink, the Brooklyn native began capturing vignettes of a neighborhood in Queens that her husband, Joaquim, had taught her to love: Astoria. “It’s so diverse,” she said. “I just started to slowly, subconsciously fall in love with Astoria and I ended up moving there.”
Riccio began selling prints of her Astoria vignettes after the founder of the Queens Craft Brigade invited her to join his group of artists and makers. “In Astoria, everybody is very supportive of small business, and artists, and creativity,” she said. “It’s become a yearly thing. This year I’m going to be doing the third calendar.”
Riccio composes each vignette based on a series of reference photos of the location and from simply exploring and experiencing her adopted neighborhood. “Most of the locations are places that I love,” she said. “I photograph from different angles and I kind of people watch and I wait.” Then, after she’s worked the piece up in India ink, she photographs it with her DSLR to bring it into layout.
A background in commercial design helps Riccio with the production aspects around her artwork. “Luckily, I know a lot about paper. I know a lot about the printing process and I actually shopped around for a good printer,” she said. “Thank God I know how to do all of this from my real job. Otherwise, I would’ve been lost.”
Budget realities kept her from turning to printers she typically uses. “This was coming out of my own pocket, so I wanted to find somebody affordable,” she said. “But I also wanted to find a place that’s really good.” Asked how she felt when she saw the first proof, Riccio has a simple answer. “I was actually ecstatic.”
Between selling at Queens craft fairs, at local stores, and on Etsy, Riccio has had ample opportunity to gather positive feedback for the calendar. “I do love to do the craft fair,” she said. “You get to hear what people like about it.”
Still, overcoming a degree of self-doubt proved to be Riccio’s biggest challenge on the project. “The first calendar that I did in 2018, I was filled with so much doubt,” she recalls. “Now, with two calendars under my belt, I feel more confident as an artist and as a designer.”