The DART Interview: Luis Mendo

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday March 12, 2020

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the pencil?

Luis Mendo: Definitely the pen. Ink has always been my preferred tool. Nowadays I draw a lot on the iPad Pro, but before that I was mostly using a Pilot Parallel Pen to draw. It’s meant to be a calligraphy pen but the immediacy and speed with which you can change from thin to thick lines got me hooked. I can’t be bothered to change brushes when I am drawing so a fast tool that allows me organic lines quickly is very important. I also like brushes of similar characteristics when drawing digitally.

PR: When did you get the idea that art and design would be your metier?

LM: As I student I was terrible. I didn’t even finished high school and was heading to work as a mechanic repairing cars with my dad. Then a friend of his saw me in the garage and convinced me to try attending art school since he knew I liked drawing and books. That guy saved my life—and I was one of the best students there. 

Then it took me years, all the time balancing between illustration and graphic design. Even today I think I am somewhere between both.

PR: You have lived in a number of mega- metropolises—in what ways has moving from place to place informed your approach to art and design?

LM: Every time I’ve changed environments I have been deeply affected, so I can’t imagine it would be different for other people. Context makes content. Even if you don’t leave the house, it will affect your work. Being in Tokyo has taught me a lot about color use, the reach (and use) of illustration and about alternative ways of “reading” images. There’s a big difference in what the Japanese sees in a drawing and what the westerner might see. Mainly the Japanese will be concentrating more on what is not depicted, or the feeling of the image, while the occidental will tend to get only what is actually on the page. Also, since I have lived in Tokyo, I use much softer colors. It’s hard to see basic hues on the street; it’s more pastels and nuanced tones overall.

PR: What caused you to re-jigger you practice, making illustration the major focus of your work?

LM: Actually it was language. Or the lack thereof. When I moved to Tokyo, I couldn’t work as an art director without speaking Japanese. I was burnt out anyway from my intense design career in Holland so I just started drawing all the time. I went to cafes armed with my sketchbook and quickly made friends with the localsstrangers easily approach you when they see you drawing. Then an art director saw my drawings and asked me to do illustrations for him. Haven’t stopped since.

PR: Where do you live now and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

LM: I live in Taito-ku which is an area in Tokyo with a strong making tradition. Craftsmanship, leather artisans and other makers have been here for centuries. There’s a strong “do” attitude that influences what I do. The predisposition to make things well and durable, using honest processes is important here and I learn a lot every day. Also, I run a creative residence with my wife called Almost Perfect, where we host foreign creatives to come stay, make art and show their work in the first floor gallery.

This means I am doing the creative direction for all this amazing talent that refreshes every few weeks, and hopefully helping them flourish and get further in their careers. This makes of course an indent on my work, since I learn from them too. It’s a wonderful place to be.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to/or alters the artist’s basic condition of working alone.

LM: I don’t really use just one space to work. I keep hopping between Almost Perfect, where I have a nice table; my living room where I can sit at a small desk; or the family table surrounded my wife and our daughter and the cat. Or sometimes I work on the couch. I even draw in bed! I might also go to a cafe and work from there. It’s all very flexible and adaptable to the moment, my mood and the job at hand.

PR: While your work is highly conceptual, there is always a narrative thread. When did you realize that storytelling was an important part of your toolbox?

LM: Since I have been a magazine and editorial designer for so long, I cannot see art being separated from the story. Love telling things through my drawings. Still I need to pull myself together and make a long comic book one day.

PR: Along those lines, do you differentiate between reading a text and reading an illustration?

LM: They influence and reinforce each other. In The Netherlands you have a Protestant North, which believes only in the word of God;  their churches are minimal and without ornaments. In the South, they are Catholic and their culture is much more visual and colorful. When I was working on magazines there, it was my task to marry the Word and the Image continuously. I can tell you, it wasn’t easy as often the two sides (editors and image makers) would disagree (and even hate each other.) I was there marrying both worlds and I still hope to be doing it through my illustration work.

PR: I noticed a lot of animals in your IG feed—from domestic to zoo inhabitants to birds and wild things—and imaginary species as well. What is there about non-humans that makes them such a great subject?

LM: No idea to be honest. I just think all things living are so much more fun to draw than dead things like buildings or objects. The fact that they are alive means they are continuously shapeshifting and it brings me joy to draw life. Animals, and birds especially, are a great paradigm of life and they are easier to draw than the human body, which is often more challenging.

PR: Looking at your IG posts, I get the idea that you are almost never not drawing—“While in the queue waiting to see Michelangelo, there was a whole human show on display.” How do these drawings you make on the fly feed into your projects—and is this how your Tokyo Handbook got its start?

LM: I just get bored of the world easily. Waiting for food or on a queue must be horrible if you don’t have a sketchbook! I always carry mine (or the iPad) so I just pull it out and fill the space the world creates where I can do nothing. The train in Tokyo is a good example of that, so you will find me often drawing when I go somewhere.

And yes, my upcoming book Tokyo Handbook, comes from that. Observing and drawing the people in the city helped me gain some insights that most visitors to the city won’t immediately see so I thought making a book with them would be a good idea. When a Spanish publisher invited me to do a book, Tokyo Handbook became a proper project. It’s an incredible task because of course I want to do everything myself: the writing, the illustrations and all the design involved. It goes without saying it’s taking me more time than firstly anticipated.

PR: Does the art director in you help you in being a good self-editor?

LM: Mostly it does, but at times it kills ideas before they are born. Being so long on the other side of the table makes me really critical and often I end up thinking my ideas are too mediocre.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

LM: As with everything I do, I just follow my feeling. Which is often wrong and I end up doing too much detailing. My favorite artists would finish only some parts of a painting and leave the rest just roughly sketched. I like that and try to implement it on my drawings but I don’t always succeed. 

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw upon during your working hours?

LM: I run old movies and TV shows instead of having the radio on. Ancient stuff like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Blake Edwards. Also Columbo is one of my favorites. These are things I’ve seen so many times that I know everything by heart so it becomes like wallpaper.

Also, I love to read easy, simple stories like those of Simenon from back when the world was more simple and analogue rather than this digital mess we are in. Living in Japan brings you back in time, to offices where they still use carbon paper and faxes. I enjoy this so-called retro very much. There’s a quality in using artifacts with a soul, as opposed to the very uniform, all-the-same design visuals on screens. I still like the easiness of digital processes and even draw mostly digital, but I do so sitting in an old fashion kissaten and paying for my coffee with tactile, sound-making coins. This inspires my organic lines, my slightly-off coloring and the look of my characters.

PR: What is your favorite activity when you take a break from the studio?

LM: Probably walking through Tokyo is my very most preferred thing to do. There’s something to see on every corner. The cars, the sidewalks, the way people arrange plants outside their buildings, everything feels inspiring and when I have time off I want to see it and make it mine on a sketch or a photo—which I then want to draw later.

PR: What advice would you give to a young illustrator struggling to find the way into a difficult assignment?

LM: I don’t consider myself someone successful enough to say much about this, but wasn’t it Dolly Parton who said “If you want the rainbow, you have to put up with the rain”?

This sounds dorky but it's so true. It seems people now expect to have a shortcut for everything: “learn to draw in a week”, “become a movie director in a few classes”. That’s all a fat big lie. Making a movie doesn’t make you a movie director. And drawing takes an incredible amount of hours of practice. They say 10,000 at least. I think, like Hokusai, that it takes several lifetimes to master the art. Just keep making, do not stop or despair. Sit down and do. The rest comes by itself.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

LM: Something with an interesting subject, given to me by an intelligent, tasteful client from which I can learn new things. Make it also a recurring job, so I can keep doing it, learning more every time. 

Luis Mendo was born in Spain a long time ago. Worked in The Netherlands as a graphic designer and creative director for 20 years before moving to Tokyo, Japan, where he spends his time drawing for brands and publications globally and running creative residence Almost Perfect together with his wife Yuka. They had a baby girl recently and have a lovely cat called Señor.


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