From business to art school: how I discovered illustration

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...

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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. 

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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. 

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!

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. 

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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. 

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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 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. 

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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. 

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Pictures by the wonderful Rosita Pompili, while working on my first graphic novel in my Berlin studio. 

Woven drawings

Among the many things I draw for, the one that always sparks the most questions is rug design. People get so curious, and after the customary Big Lebowsky reference (yes, they really do tie the room together, sigh) I usually get a flood of questions: what are the best materials, techniques, manufacturers… So I thought I’d start this blog with a little article sharing some of the things I know about the subject, and how I got into this fascinating branch of design.

I have a long standing love affair with ornaments and patterns, and rugs hadn’t escaped my interest, from the warm tones and geometric lines of Persian rugs in our living room to the blue and white Chinese florals of my grandparents bedroom… but I’d never really thought that I could apply my drawing skills to them. 

 

How it all started

That was until I started working at the French interior design agency Gilles & Boissier over a year and half ago. Since the success of their Baccarat hotel in New York in 2015, Gilles & Boissier have been working on multiple high end hospitality projects. Hospitality standards often require carpets for all sorts of sexy reasons (comfort, sound proofing, ease of maintenance, cost…), hence they usually become a big part of an interior designer’s already hefty workload on a hotel project. 

Although I joined their agency to illustrate the catalogue of their first furniture collection, I am naturally nosy and couldn’t help but chip in during creative discussions! I soon started sketching ideas for a corridor pattern here or a ballroom there… Before I knew it I was working on four simultaneous hotel projects all over the world, proposing drawings for every space imaginable, and in dramatically different styles.

For some spaces there was a clear brief, for others I had carte blanche. But of course many things determined my drawing, from the history of the building, to the function of the room, the lighting and of course the furniture and furnishings designed by the interior and furniture designers.  

One thing led to another and soon I was not only drawing patterns and designs but also overseeing the production of samples with the manufacturers and discussing specifications with the hotel operators and clients. It was fascinating to be able to follow my designs from the first sketch to the final install and I feel so grateful that the team at Gilles & Boissier trusted me with so many beautiful projects. 

Rugs and carpets offer a fantastic opportunity for making a strong graphic statement in a space. And Patrick and Dorothée, the founders and creative directors of Gilles & Boissier really liked the idea of using floors to express a gesture, to really feel “le trait”: the line work, the hand of the artist through the weaving of the rug. I loved that concept and worked hard to translate it as best as possible throughout different aesthetics and with various techniques. 

 

Weaving techniques

These can go from the extremely time taking and expensive hand knotted rugs, to the slightly faster and cheaper hand tufted rugs where the wool is pushed through a jute backing with a really cool looking tufting gun. Then come Axminster or Winston, mechanical looms that can produce larger quantities of carpet, ideal for public spaces or circulations. They are faster and cheaper but create a slightly pixellated design and the number of colours that one can use in the designs is limited. Finally the cheapest and fastest option is printing, where a white carpet is coated with pigments, just like a giant desk printer! To add to the complexity, there are as many techniques as there are manufacturers, as each factory has specific machines and processes.

Ultimately, choosing a technique or the other depends on four main factors: the budget, the surface needed, the quality or feel desired and the complexity of the design. 

 

Choosing the right materials

After the initial sketch or concept for a rug, you quickly want to make some choices of technique and materials, as these will influence how you develop your drawing and design. Just like with weaving techniques, there are as many fibres and names for them as there are manufacturers. Wool is the most durable and easy to maintain, it has a relatively soft feel and very matte look. Axminster is traditionally produced using threads mixing 80% wool with 20% nylon, but the density of threads pushed through the backing (the thread count) has a huge feel and visual impact on the result. The crème de la crème is of course silk - obtained from mulberry silk worms - it is the softest of all and the most beautiful with its delicate sheen. 

Many synthetic fibres have been invented to try and replicate silk at a lower cost, like nylon, viscose or rayon (my pet peeve!), with mixed results. Their sheen is often a bit tacky in my opinion and can also feel slightly rough to the touch. Some manufacturers have started to offer "vegetal silks", made from eucalyptus or bamboo fibres for example. These can be extremely soft and have a lovely sheen, but they are more expensive than petroleum based fibres, can only be dry cleaned and might not always meet fire regulations. 

A good manufacturer should be able to help you chose the right fibre for your project, but there is always the pitfall of them pushing for higher quality and pricier products, so do your research first! 

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Once you've chosen your technique and fibre, you can start playing with structure, varying pile height and finish to accentuate your drawing. I love raising the line of my designs a few millimetres above the "field", the background. You can also carve along a shape (an extra step in the production process, the strands are shaved by hand) to make it stand out. You could for example have a matte wool field, and a raised pile silk line drawing catching the light, now that's exciting! 

Some manufacturers offer insane add ons, like crystal inserts or even fibre optics! (Seriously?!) With all of these options it's easy to get carried away. But in my opinion, technique should always serve concept, not the other way round. Sometimes it's fun to go all out, but often the solution that serves the concept more elegantly and efficiently is the more restrained one. 

 

Bringing it all together

Designing rugs is a marathon that leaves very little space for improvisation. I personally thrive on this kind of challenge, but it takes treasures of patience! The visual research and idea sketching is usually the fastest. Once the client has approved my sketch, I draw a high resolution pattern and insert it in the space's rendering. I then develop the design with the manufacturer, defining the specs in accordance with the hotel operator's guidelines and with the client's budget. 

The first sample is a hit or miss, usually a miss. So try not to get your hopes up! The trickiest part is the choice of the colours with the wool pompoms of the manufacturer. I like to bring out all of the space's samples, from upholstery fabrics, to paint finishes and floor boards to really get a feel of the colour values of the future space. Beware of the lighting too! A carpet will not look the same in a bright room as in a blind corridor. Artificial light tends to warm the colours while day light cools them, and remember that the light is also different in Europe to in Africa or Asia. 

Happy accidents do happen but they are unfortunately not the norm. It takes usually between 2 and 3 samples to launch the final production. And with some samples taking up to 6 weeks to produce, time management is essential. This is why it is crucial to start developing the rugs early on in the project, it can take up to a year between the first sketch and the instal. 

It’s a lot of work, and sometimes it can be discouraging, like when you wait 6 weeks for a sample and that the factory has mixed up the poms, but nothing compares to rolling around your fluffy drawings! 

Pictures by Saulo Jamariqueli, 2017.