Other artists often ask me how I became an illustrator. When I was still questioning my career orientation, reading about other designers’ journeys really helped, so I thought I’d do a few blog posts about it. Let me know if you like this and want to read more...
I’m afraid this story starts like every illustrator’s story: “growing up I was always drawing…” nothing special here, sorry! I was very fortunate to have an art historian mother who took me to museums and even set up a little atelier for me in our garage. There I would draw, paint, build things out of wine crates and plastic bottles, it was a mess...
I also took drawing, painting and sculpting lessons, in the local cultural center and then at the Ateliers du Carousel in Paris. I had some wonderful teachers, my favorite was Arnauld Rouèche, who taught life and perspective drawing. I took his class every week for 3 years, over the course of which I think I probably made only 3 drawings worth keeping. He was very patient but also ruthless. He made us draw on A2 or even A1 paper, with charcoal or large tools to force us to “draw from the shoulder, not the wrist”. Using a stick to measure proportions, I trained my eyes to see properly and my hand to translate what my eyes saw.
I was drawing on anything I could find, often with two pens at the same time: I was ambidextrous until a teacher forced me to choose when I learnt how to write - I chose left. I remember getting told off countless times for scribbling on my books and assignments. I’d draw comics about my classmates and teachers and pass them around in class.
I was always pretty good at school and cruised through easily. When I made it to the final year of high school, I was definitely not ready to choose a study path, let alone a job! Because I had good grades, I followed my teachers and parents’ advise and went to one of the most competitive business prep schools in France at Henri IV, a two year program to prepare the gruesome business school exams. It meant intense studying, even on weekends and a curriculum filled with mathematics and economy.
That’s when I realised that just because I was good at something, it did not mean I had to do it. I needed to focus on what made me happy. It was not easy leaving my economics studies. Even if my friends and family were supportive, I still felt like I was letting them down, like I was a quitter. I had been studying so hard, that it felt anticlimactic to just… stop.
I took some time off from school and applied to prep art schools. I got into all of them, including the competitive Intermedia class of Atelier de Sèvres, but chose to go to Parsons for a year instead, to prepare my portfolio. I didn’t know many people in creative professions and didn’t really know what my options for creative careers were, looking back I have no idea how I even made my school choices.
I had been very lucky to meet the Austrian artist collective Gelitin at a party in my last year of high school and to assist them while building their show "La Louvre" at the Museum of Modern art in Paris. Playing and performing with them inspired me, and our conversations opened my mind to different ways of thinking about life. And so I naturally gravitated towards Fine Arts, performance and video installations.
I applied to art schools in Paris, Berlin and London. I was already in love with Berlin but didn’t make it past the interview, my German was not glorious at the time… I clearly remember the day I got the admission response email from Central Saint Martins. I was in a life drawing class and shrieked with joy. For the first time I really felt like I was on the right track.
I joined a bachelor of Fine Arts in the 4D / video section. I was so happy to move to London and start art school, but quickly I once again I felt out of place. Central Saint Martins was too conceptual for me, I could produce video work and write about it, but I didn’t feel like I had anything to express. Feeling a bit lost, I held on to my drawing practice.
I did an Eramus at the Universität der Künste in Berlin and spent the entire time in the lithography workshop, creating my first animal compositions. Back in London, I remember feeling so jealous of the design students, of friends telling me of their type setting classes and clearly defined assignments. I craved a more structured and technical training.
I met Saulo Jamariqueli and Jaime Kiss, the founders of design studio Nearly Normal in my second year at CSM and quickly decided to take a year out to intern with them. They worked out of the legendary Panther House offices in Clerkenwell, a damp brick building that had resisted the Blitz and hosted a flurry of graphic designers, music producers, motion designers, animators and illustrators. It was such an inspiring environment and I finally felt like I was learning something.
In my video course, drawing was slightly frowned upon, but at Panther House it was a useful asset. I started with image research and running errands, but quickly progressed to storyboarding, assisting on animation shoots and illustrating for my first jobs. Nearly Normal was producing a stop motion animation for Google, I loved the fast pace of the advertising and design world.
We shared the studio with the illustrator Clayton Junior and sometimes he would let me “assist him” which basically meant he tolerated me sitting next to his desk while incessantly peppering him with questions about softwares, colours, editors, pens… I don’t know how he put up with me! But I was just fascinated, it looked like my dream job. I taught myself how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign and After Effects, with lynda.com and started working on my own illustrations.
After a year I reluctantly went back to CSM to finish my bachelor, while still working for advertising agencies and co-directing an animation short with Saulo. At that point I think I was convinced I wanted to be an illustrator, but to be honest I was far from good at it and had no portfolio to speak of. There was not doubt I was done with school, but I still had lots of learning to do…
Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll write about my first jobs out of college and how I became a full time illustrator.
Pictures by the wonderful Rosita Pompili, while working on my first graphic novel in my Berlin studio.