The Interview: Ferdinand van Alphen

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday April 23, 2020

Peggy Roalf: When did you know for sure that art and design would be your métier?

Fernand van Alphen: I have been drawing since I was very young, but it wasn’t until high school when I started to get the idea that this was a direction I should go in. I had a very passionate art teacher and by the time I had to do my exams I had the choice to concentrate in art techniques and art history. Which I did and that paved the way to art school. While in art school I was influenced by a neighbor who worked as a marketing director and who unlocked in me an interest in the creative aspects of advertising which was something my teachers in art school did not appreciate too much. So my art school career was cut short and I found the way to my first job as a junior paste-up artist at one of the best agencies at the time in Amsterdam. I stayed there for nine years before moving to Hong Kong to work as a senior AD at a big international agency

PR: After a 20+ year career as a creative director for brands including Tommy H, Tommy B and many more, you turned the tables to work as an illustrator. What do you most appreciate about what a great AD can bring to the conversation?

FvA: Having been an AD myself and worked with illustrators that are far better than I will ever be, I feel that it is important to bring a large visual library (in your head) to the table that allows you to interpret the rough sketches and help the process along without stifling it. And at some point you need to be able to let go and let the illustrator do his or her thing. That is why you hire them: to bring something to your concept that you could not have achieved on your own. If you can’t let that chemistry happen you are going to miss out. In Dutch we have an expression: 1+1=3. 

PR: Have you ever submitted a sketch so vague that your AD interpreted the meaning in a way that was hugely superior to what you had intended and resulted in something that still makes you proud?

FvA: As a junior AD many times my sketches had to be saved by my ADs (hahaha!). That is the beauty of working with great ADs and taking the time to learn the trade. Part of it is tapping into their brain and experience and developing that great visual library I was talking about earlier.

But to answer your question a bit more directly: When I was a junior AD, my copywriter and I were asked to develop a proposal for a beer commercial. The account team was desperate. We had 30 minutes! We turned in the vaguest story board and something of a storyline: It all started on the North Pole and ended in Miami Beach. Everything in between came after the client had approved the treatment during conversations with our AD’s and film directors. We shot for six weeks in the States—from Alaska all the way to Miami and garnered several award nominations in Amsterdam and NYC.

We did not leave room for interpretation on purpose but sometimes leaving it a bit vague can be a blessing, and allows members of your team to help you push the bar for excellence.

PR: Your long-running Instagram page, Ferdinand.Ink, is populated by an amazing cast of punning creatures of improbable variety. What do non-human subjects offer the artist in terms of communicating human ideas?

FvA: Animals are more pure and honest than human beings. There is no hidden agenda. Although—come to think of it, maybe cats do have a hidden agenda, hahaha!

I also think animals allow you to show some of the absurd behavior of humans in a much funnier and more palatable way than if you would picture it for real. We can be disgusting! It puts a magnifying glass on human behavior and allows you to go more over the top and be more playful with the words. Words are important too! I collect words.

I also like to anthropomorphize—call it childish—but I love it! My wife and I do it all the time with our cat Napoleon. He’s a Tuxedo and a character and clearly the emperor himself and we are his loyal and devoted subjects. Oh yes master…here’s a treat.

PR: What do you like best—and least—about staying home during the Covid-19 Pandemic? What do you like best—and least—about how it changes the way you work?
FvA: I am used to working from home and on my own as a freelancer so it does not change the world for me. When I need an opinion on an illustration I can get it pretty quickly through my Instagram network. 

PR: What is the first thing you and your family will do to celebrate going out again—whenever that happens?

FvA: Go to Lincoln Center and enjoy a great concert if that is allowed by then or rent an Airbnb upstate to ‘wash’ away the city for a bit.

PR: Please describe your workspace: how it is set up; how it supports your work habits; how it could be better, and the like. 

FvA: Really simple. I work in the living room at our round dinner table. We have amazing northern exposure. Especially in the morning the light is so great. View of the Empire State Building, although less and less because of all the building that is going on. And that is where I work. I have an ultra thin light table which is my most prized possession. I should probably have a better chair that supports my back better; starting to slump.

PR: Do you keep sketchbooks? If so, when did you pick up the habit?

FvA: I do keep sketchbooks. Started in art school. At first they were mostly written thoughts but now it is a mix of words and little sketches.

How has this changed over time?

It is always great to go back to these sketch books and see what I was thinking five years ago. I come across old ideas and I’m like “I should do something with that.” Also, your idea’s might dry up—God forbid—and then you have these sketchbooks to go back to and find something to elaborate on. 

PR: Do you like to sketch digitally or you a primarily direct drawer?

FvA: I am primarily a direct drawer. 

I have another day job as well that requires me to be more digital-centric so it is nice to put a pencil to paper and doodle your way to an idea.

Two years ago I got inspired by David Hockney’s iPhone paintings and sketches and tried my hand at that. They were not bad but soon enough I got bored with it. By the way, read the book A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney! It is a love letter to the art of drawing and painting.

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

FvA: Ahh, that is sometimes a painful process. It is that anxious moment of decision-making to add that one tiny little thing….or not. It’s like going off the cliff. Nail biting scenes. Sometimes I don’t know where a drawing is going to go. I had this one assignment and I was like “let’s keep this real simple and quick” and I kept adding and adding. In the end I worked a week on it. It turned out beautiful but not at all what I set out to do. Sometimes you gotta let your hand lead you.

PR: When working on an assignment, does the Creative Director in you ever bully the Illustrator in you?

FvA: Not so much in the execution but definitely in the process of creating the “idea”. And sometimes a year goes by because we cannot agree! I move on to another drawing and come back later to try again.

How do you make peace?

Guess that brings us back to the beginning of the interview where I mentioned that at some point you have to let go and let the illustrator do his or her work.

PR: Somewhere I got the idea that you love to cook. Could you tell the readers what is there about this “occupation” that appeals to you? 

FvA: You are right about cooking. Cooking corresponds with art direction. You come up with an idea (recipe) and gather all the components (ingredients) and execute it in a way that it will appeal to your guests or table companion. It is another creative process. It is also a good way to let my mind flow while I am cooking. Get rid of the excess of the day.

PR: I understand that you have a new book on the fire. Please tell the readers what you have made and when it will be ready to consume.

FvA: Yes, it’s been cooking for a while now—eight months. It’s an animal alphabet book. Each letter illustrated with an animal that corresponds with the letter and accompanied by a nonsensical rhyme. Suitable for both children and adults. At least that is what I have been told by early critics and I am happy to go with that description. I just finished the X which was the last letter I had to do. Now all that is left is the cover and I am happy to report that the idea is there and there is no discussion! Both creative director and illustrator have agreed. is the nom de plume of Ferdinand van Alphen—a Dutch illustrator and creative director, living in NYC with his wife Maggie and cat Napoleon. In his role as creative director he worked for internationally acclaimed ad-agencies and brands and earned accolades for his illustration work as well.

Next to illustrating he currently works as Head of Marketing for Rituals Cosmetics USA, because building brands is still a passion as well. Ferdinand’s drawings, nonsensical rhymes, limericks, verses and puns are both witty and whimsical. Mostly uplifting but he does not shy away from dark humor. His illustration technique is based around fine line drawings, alternating between very detailed and more clean, graphic executions. Tools of the trade are pen and India ink, watercolor, fine liners and color pencils. @thinnestmanonearth



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