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Illustrator Profile - Olivier Kugler: "Draw what is around you"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 8, 2017

Olivier Kugler is a London-based editorial illustrator and visual journalist. In addition to portraits, maps, and food illustrations, Kugler has done extensive reporting and graphic illustration covering Syrian refugees in Europe (he’s currently working on a book project about Syrian refugees that is partially funded by the Arts Council England). As a visual reporter he has traveled to Laos, Iraqi Kurdistan, Cairo, Ghana, and much more. He is a highly skilled and passionate storyteller with a gift for both words and images. The August issue of Harper's Magazine will feature a portfolio of Kugler's drawings of Syrian refugees, the third that the magazine has published. This latest series will include illustrated reportage on Syrian refugees in England and Germany.

MY LIFE:
I am a German reportage illustrator based in East London. I got a graphic design degree from the School of Applied Arts in Pforzheim, Germany. During my studies I focused on drawing and illustration. Unfortunately I didn't get any illustration assignments after graduation so I worked as a designer in a design agency in Karlsruhe, Germany, for three years. Then in 2000, I got a scholarship to do a masters at the School of Visual Arts Illustration as Visual Essay program. In 2003 I moved from NYC to London. Since then I have been working as an editorial illustrator for clients all over the world. My work’s focus is to draw people I meet and places I visit. I also like to interview the people I draw and to add handwritten quotes to my drawings.

My father is an artist. He used to be an arts teacher, too. He was definitely my first inspiration when it came to drawing and the creation of images. He taught me the foundations of drawings. He criticized (in a constructive way) and encouraged me. When he saw that I was serious about becoming a draughtsman he also gave me the occasional "kick in the bum" (not literally) when I was a bit lazy in my teenage years.

My mother is French. When she was a kid she grew up with reading Tintin and other comic books. I was about seven or eight years old when she gave me my first Tintin book (Prisoners of the Sun) as a Christmas present. The experience of reading the Tintin adventures is certainly one of the main inspirations for why I am doing the work I am doing now.

MY WORKSPACE:
I rent a desk in a large open studio space in Hackney, East London. The space is on the top floor of the building… good natural lights and good view! There are lots of interesting people (designers, architects, journalists, writers, film makers, accountants, illustrators, campaigners…) working there. We also have a fantastic roof terrace where I enjoy having my breakfast during the summer.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
First steps on location:
- Taking reference photos and interviewing people.

In the studio:
- Making rough sketches using photo reference material I took on location.
- Transcribing and editing interviews.
- Sending this material to art director/client.
- Creating large pencil drawings using photo reference.
- Scanning, touching up drawings, placing them in layout.
- Digital coloring of drawings.
- Handwriting texts, scanning them, placing them into layout.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
Receiving a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service to go and to do a masters at SVA's MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program. During my two years at SVA I drew day and night on location in bars, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, junkyards, etc… The two years of focused drawing and the inspiring environment were exactly what I needed to develop my style and to broaden my horizons in order to become a professional.

MY INFLUENCES:
Klaus Kugler (my father), Hergé, Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Francois Bourgeon, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Alan Cober

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
It is probably Joe Sacco. He is a fantastic draughtsman, a meticulous researcher/journalist and a great storyteller.


MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:

Walking… meeting people… experiencing landscapes… Non fiction books, such as The Days and Nights of London Now by Craig Taylor and illustrated sequential non fiction narratives like The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier or Les Ignorants by Étienne Davodeau.

The French magazine XXI which publishes a 30-page “graphic novel style” reportage piece in each of its editions has also been very influential to my work. I wish a similar publication would exist in the US or the UK.

Listening to radio programs like “From Our Own Correspondent” or “From Our Home Correspondent” on BBC's Radio 4 is quite inspiring. In addition I enjoy listening to recordings I find on YouTube of non-fiction writers, like for example Wendell Steavenson or Edmund de Waal, talking about their work.

Other huge inspirations have been looking at the sketchbooks of artists/illustrators like Adolf Menzel and Alan E. Cober.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Trying to get everything right: the interviews, the gathering of reference material, the artistic work, the writing and editing of texts, the placing of the texts, the layout of the pages. Getting the journalistic, artistic and design work right requires a lot of work and a lot of time! For all these efforts you usually don't get paid accordingly. So the challenge is finding the time to do this work and working on better-paid, more commercial work or more recently, applying for grants (what is also an extremely time-consuming affair) in order to make a living.


A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:

It was an assignment commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders. The NGO asked me to create a series of drawings with texts to document the circumstances of Syrian refugees arriving on the Greek holiday island of Kos in overcrowded dinghies from the Turkish mainland. I spent two weeks on the island (August 2015) meeting, interviewing and photographing the migrants. Back in my studio I created a series of drawings using the reference material I collected. The finished illustrations were published in Harper's magazine (USA), Annabelle (Switzerland) and Internazionale (Italy). The work also got exhibited in Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

HOW I STARTED CREATING REPORTAGE ILLUSTRATION:
During my second year at SVA I spent some time drawing abandoned cars at a parking lot in Spanish Harlem. I was about 20 minutes into drawing one of the car wrecks when all of a sudden a door of the car opened and a man got out of the vehicle. He stretched himself and sat on an old chair. He allowed me to draw his portrait for a fee of $10. While I was drawing him he told me that he lived in the car and that he used to work as a chef but lost his job and his apartment after his drug habit got out of control. I found this really interesting and wrote quotes into the drawing. This was the first time I really added text to my drawings. I showed the drawing and the text to my tutors and fellow students. Their reaction was very positive. So I went back to the location over the next days and did more drawings documenting the place and portraying Alberto, the homeless man. This was my first-ever visual essay. Until this time I was content with just drawing people from a distance, often secretly, in order to become a better draughtsman. This encounter of meeting Alberto showed me that just by adding a bit of text to an illustration/drawing I could engage the person, the reader, looking at my drawings on an additional level. I have been developing this practice since then. What I like about this approach in particular is that it allows me to me to explore the world. It gives me the opportunity and challenges me to meet people from different backgrounds and to learn about their circumstances.


MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:

Stacey Clarkson at Harper’s magazine. She gave me one of my most favorite assignments. I was still studying at SVA and it was only my second-ever illustration commission. It was for an article about a guy obsessed with the New York subway system. Stacey asked me to create a series of small drawings in the subway. I spent a long day and night drawing on location “underground” and another day coloring the pencil drawings on a computer in the SVA studio. Over the coming years Stacey has continued to give me assignments.

When I was on an assignment for MSF in Iraqi Kurdistan documenting Syrian refugess in December 2013, I contacted Stacey to see if Harper’s might be interested in publishing some of the drawings. She was interested, the drawings were published in Harper’s in April 2014 and were later awarded the Association of Illustrators World Illustration Award 2015. Before I went to Greece in August 2015 to work on a similar series about Syrians arriving on the island of Kos I contacted Stacey again. These drawings were published at the beginning of this year.

I love to work with Stacey because she is a super nice and a tremendously inspiring person. She has been supporting my work since the beginning of my career and has given me the opportunity to publish work that means a lot to me in a great magazine.

Jana Meier-Roberts is the art director of the German edition of GQ. Over the last years I have been doing a food illustration for a chef's column. Each month Jana sends me a new recipe... I buy the ingredients, cook the meal and take photos of either cooking in progress or the finished meal... I then use the reference to create a quarter page illustration... not exactly reportage illustration but not far from it. I love doing these drawings!


SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:

Guy Delisle. He is a fantastic observer of details and a great, (very humorous), narrator. I really, really like the drawings, the minimal coloring and the sequential storytelling in his Jerusalem book.

Sara Varon. I studied with Sara at SVA. She is a friend. I love to look at her books with my son Jack, a toddler of three years. Sara’s drawings and stories are full of beautiful observations and funny details which make me feel good. In German there is a saying that translates: “you are feeling a warmth around your heart”… this is what I feel when I look at Sara's work.

Peter Arkle. I love his drawings and witty observations.

OTHER WORK:
I am currently working on a book project—a sequential narrative—documenting the circumstances of  Syrian refugees I have met over the last years. I am using the material I have collected in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Greece as a basis for the project. Over the last months I have met Syrians in the “Jungle” camp of Calais and Syrians who found refuge in the UK. Am also planning to meet Syrians I have met previously in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Greece who are now living in Germany and in Switzerland. The project is getting partially supported by the Arts Council England and Doctors without Borders and will get published in Germany in the autumn of 2017 by Edition Moderne.


HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:

At the moment, when I have finished a project I am very happy with, I sent out mails with a description of the project and a link to the work to people I previously worked for or would like to work with. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten around yet to using social media. Got a Twitter and a Linkedin account but haven’t made any use of them. Guess this is something I should look into…

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Work hard. Draw every day… draw what is around you… people, places, objects… everything.

Don’t give up. I faced a lot of rejections during my career… there were setbacks… I almost gave up when I couldn’t get any illustration work after I graduated… in fact I gave up and got a job as a graphic designer in a design agency. I didn’t draw for almost two years until I got inspired again and applied for a scholarship to do a masters at SVA. I think if you are determined, if you are willing to put in the work— and with a bit of luck—you can make it work.

Try to find people with a good eye and a good judgment. Consider their advice in how you can improve your work. Constructive critique is SO important.

See more Olivier Kugler illustrations, new work and updates:
Olivier Kugler website



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