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Illustrator Profile - Lehel Kovacs: "Keep your eyes open to the world"

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 10, 2015

Lehel Kovacs is an illustrator based in Budapest, Hungary whose work has appeared in a wide range of newspapers and magazines. He creates smart, artful drawings that at times resemble silkscreen prints, with supple lines and rich, flat colors. Kovacs’s work is simple and direct, but he utilizes a very sophisticated approach to visual storytelling. In addition to editorial illustration, Kovacs has illustrated an ongoing series of booklet covers for the Hungarian Liszt Academy. He says that one of the joys of working as an illustrator is that he has “regained that creative freedom I had when I was a child.”

MY LIFE:
I’ve lived in Budapest since I was 16 years old. I am originally from Transylvania, where I was born in the early 1980s. I don’t come from an artistic family, but I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil, and my parents were always supportive. When I was 16 my mom and dad broke up, so I moved with my mom to Budapest.

I was still in high school when I started to work at a contemporary gallery after school hours. This was an experience which had a big influence on my way of thinking about art. I remember seeing a Ben Patterson performance once, where he drew some music notes with a chalk on a blackboard, and then washed it off with a giant toothbrush. I was really fascinated and I thought “Wow, I want to think like this guy.”  So I was really into conceptual art back then.

This was also the period when I got to know a little bit more about illustration, learning about Saul Steinberg’s or Istvan Banyai’s work, which also had a big impact on me.

I have a degree in window dressing, although I’ve never worked as a window dresser. The school had very good typography and graphic design teachers, so the years spent there helped me a lot in developing my visual language. After school I worked as a graphic designer for a couple of years before starting an illustration career. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for eight years now. I work from my home studio in downtown Budapest.

MY WORKSPACE:
My workspace basically is just a big table with the computer on one side and some room on the other side for drawing. I used to share a studio with some friends, but a few months ago I moved my working space back to my home in downtown Budapest. This is actually a transitional period, since in the near future I’m planning to rent another studio—this time probably alone. I like working alone, although it is always helpful if you can get some feedback during the work process from people around you.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I usually draw the lines with pencil on paper, than scan it and add the colors and textures in Photoshop. I also do screen prints, but not for commissioned work.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
Probably when I did my first illustration for The New York Times. It was in 2007 when Nicholas Blechman contacted me. I was super excited since I was just starting out as an illustrator and working for The New York Times was like a dream. It was a book review about a Hungarian author’s book, which I read in two days. The funny thing was that the book was about a boy growing up in Transylvania, so it was like reading about my own childhood.

MY INFLUENCES:
As I mentioned before, Saul Steinberg’s works and his way of thinking had a big influence on me, and also the work of Istvan Banyai, Maira Kalman, Robert Weaver and Ilonka Karasz.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
Tibor Kalman. I think he is one of the most creative people of the 20th Century. His approach to design completely changed the way this industry works.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Since at the moment I work at home, it’s difficult to separate private life from work, especially because lately I’ve been working on lots of my own projects and I’ve became a bit of a workaholic. So the biggest challenge is to know when to stop and enjoy the sunshine outside a bit.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
Recently I started collecting old New Yorker magazines from the 30s and 40s (those from the 20s are too expensive!). It’s a great inspiration flipping through those old pages.

I also like taking long walks in parks, just looking around, listening to the sounds of the city and smelling the good old stinky Danube.

WHY I BECAME AN ILLUSTRATOR:
Like many in this industry I started drawing when I was a baby—as soon as I could hold a pencil. I made drawings on almost every surface I encountered. I loved telling stories in pictures and drawing comics, but I never planned to become an illustrator. I couldn’t imagine that somebody would give money for my drawings. The turning point was when I started working as a graphic designer. I had a few illustration-related assignments, which I enjoyed a lot. So I started building myself an illustration portfolio, then quit my graphic design job and became a freelance illustrator. The best part in all of this is that I regained that creative freedom I had when I was a child.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
For more than a year now I’ve been working for the Hungarian Liszt Academy (Music Academy) creating over 60 booklet covers for them. This project won a lot of international awards in the past months.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
For the last year I was working on my first book, which I just finished, and now I’m looking for a good publisher. So at the moment it would be awesome to find a publisher that is interested.

ILLUSTRATORS I ADMIRE:
Istvan Banyai—not just because he is a fellow Hungarian, but his whole life path is very inspiring.

WORKING WITH ART DIRECTORS OUTSIDE OF HUNGARY:
To be honest, I don’t see a big difference between working with an art director from the U.S. or with one from England or Germany. Fifteen or 20 years ago it probably would have been nearly impossible to have international clients while living in Hungary. Most of the famous illustrators and artists became well known after they left, but I think this changed a lot in recent years. Of course it’s still a big plus to live in big illustration hubs like New York or London, to meet art directors in person, to be part of the flow.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
It’s not something that I do on purpose, but since everything in this world is in constant change, I guess I’m changing too. The whole industry is changing, especially in Hungary. A few years ago magazines and newspapers rarely used illustrations; they mostly went with photos or cartoons. In the past few years that changed a lot and you can see young illustrators consciously building a career.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
I have an agent in Berlin (2agenten), which is pretty helpful. I occasionally enter competitions, and send out postcards. Recently I started using social media more often. So instead of pictures of my meals I post more work on Instagram. This interview with you is a great promotion as well!

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Keep your eyes open to the world. Find the medium that you feel the most comfortable with. And don’t be shy in approaching potential clients.

See more Lehel Kovacs illustrations, new work, and updates:
Website
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