• Lead

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

Illustration

Catching up with the good folks at Pictoplasma to investigate The Character Compendium

Posted by James Cartwright,

Inhabiting the digital age is sometimes a bit perplexing. We’ve long since moved away from a time when verbal communication was king and instead we have become accustomed to less direct ways of staying in touch with each other. As a result we frequently use :-) ;-) and :-( to express how we feel to others, which is a peculiar phenomenon. Nevertheless there’s something pretty universal about those few figurative dots that allow us to easily communicate an emotion that would require a far greater number of words. There’s just something about a tiny little face that does the job better.

This universality is something Pictoplasma have long been aware of, having made the cataloguing of figurative creations their business; holding annual conferences and publishing beautiful books on the subject. Six years ago they produced a comprehensive selection of their favourite character designs in The Character Encyclopaedia and now they’re back with a second volume The Character Compendium, a vast collection of anthropomorphic individuals that beg to be engaged with. We caught up with Pictoplasma’s Peter Thaler to find out more about the project.

  • Img_0312

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

  • Img_0315

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

What first drew you to figurative art?

I started Pictoplasma back in 1999 to serve as the first ever platform for an extensive contemporary collection and archive of reduced and abstract character design. It was in the air. As a reaction to a sudden, overwhelming flood of iconographic figures on websites, billboards and food packaging at the turn of the century, I wanted to set a considered, high quality collection of character representations against the daily glut of random mascots and pathetic sympathy seekers. 

Pictoplasma is now a full-time job, as we organise annual festivals in Europe and the US, tour with the conference, curate exhibitions, occasionally consult for companies with all their character needs, and closely accompany the scene as it moves towards a completely new understanding of character.

What do you look for in a character designer?

What interests us the most is that characters have a quality of presence that seems to work independently of narrative and refuses clear contextualisation; which is why characters function equally well as brand logos in the field of global marketing strategies, as pop-cultural obsessions and as protagonists of subversive interventions in the system that created them. We think character design has a timeless quality, and we’re not expecting a decline somewhere on the horizon. As long as communication is key, characters will most likely continue to dominate contemporary visual culture, simply because that’s what they are best at; they communicate globally.

How has character design progressed since you published The Character Encyclopaedia back in 2006?

Since the beginning we’ve been collecting, examining and making comparable an endless, global stream of figurative character designs. By doing so, more often than not, even the slightest shifts in recurring motifs become readable, leading to surprising conclusions to underlaying topics and current zeitgeist trends. Starting off pre-2000 and at the heights of the techno-craze, we were surrounded by little icons of ecstatic boys and girls, reduced depictions of super-friendly robots or pixel-based happy DJs.  At the turn of the century the same characters had begun to get twisted, tortured, dissected, full of zits, with their eyes replaced by lifeless x’s. This was the time of a huge world economy collapse and it was interesting to see how it had found its way into a global visual vocabulary. Shortly after that urban and street art had a huge boost and turned completely from typographic, secretive tag-coding to in-your-face character driven recognition value.

By the time of the last Encyclopaedia, shortly after the Iraq war and the commercial upcoming of facebook, the imagery was surprisingly often grouped around tribal, semi-religious topics, with dying characters exhaling their souls, following strange spiritual codeces or performing archaic rituals. Still, what almost all of these characters had in common was that they were true children of the digital age, with their technical creation, copy/paste philosophy and remix euphoria written all over them. They were locked in their own universe; created on a computer, distributed by computer, and also mainly consumed via computer. 

“Characters will most likely continue to dominate contemporary visual culture, simply because that’s what they are best at; they communicate globally.”

Peter Thaler

How do you go about curating the content for The Character Compendium?

The entire Pictoplasma project has always been about a mix between us researching on our own and being introduced to new work and trends by other artists and designers. All of this is always an ongoing curatorial process that takes up to a year before a book is printed. The artists we feature in our publications, and also invite to present their work within our conferences, are chosen for very subjective reasons; it’s an ominous balance between great, outstanding artistic work, an echo of an overlaying topic or trend that we are momentarily interested in, always trying to find a good melange between the various disciplines and media, and of course, trying to find a good mix between established and upcoming talent. 

Have you got any favourite animators/illustrators amongst the hundreds you’ve featured?

That question always gets asked, but I would never single out one character or one artist’s work and proclaim it to be a good example. It’s absolutely an honour to be  able to work with so many astonishing artists. Having said that, personally, at the moment, I have a total crush on Raymond Lemstra, Julia Pott and Jordan Metcalf

What’s next for Pictoplasma?

Publishing-wise, within the 12 years of our existence we have printed only about 12 publications, mostly compilations. These compilations have really hit a nerve. Even though one book per year is a remarkably limited output for a publishing company, for us it makes sense to stay true to our topic, be in total control of all steps and make sure that final product is of high quality. The Character Compendium is just now hitting the international shelves, so its reception will inevitably influence any next plans for publications. But we have plenty of ideas.

Apart from that our Pictoplasma Festivals in Berlin and New York continue to be our most ambitious challenges and have established themselves as the world’s most important annual meeting points for a diverse, global scene in a very interdisciplinary field. Besides working on our upcoming Pictoplasma NYC edition this November, we are already planning the ingredients of the next 2013 Berlin Festival, and also preparing upcoming exhibitions and group shows in Madrid and Beijing.

  • Img_0306

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

  • Img_0308

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

  • Img_0307

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

  • Img_0313

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

  • Img_0310

    Pictoplasma: The Character Compendium

Jc

Posted by James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and is now one of our two editors. He oversees Printed Pages magazine and content wise has a special interest in graphic design and illustration. He also runs our online shop Company of Parrots and is a regular on our Studio Audience podcast.

Most Recent: Illustration View Archive

  1. Marion-fayolle-coquins-int-list

    When I sat down to write this article I was planning to discuss Ardéchoise illustrator Marion Fayolle’s impressive career to date; her numerous books for the likes of Nobrow and Magnani Editions; her editorial work for The New York Times, her textile designs for Cotélac and Kiblind and of course her very own illustration publication Nyctalope which she co-runs with Simon Roussin. And then I remembered she did a brilliant book of saucy drawings, Les Coquins, and decided to focus on that instead.

  2. Nick-gazin-run-the-jewelslist

    Vice’s New York art editor and illustrator Nick Gazin tells us his ideal clients at the moment are “adult film actresses.” He’s worked up some logo designs recently for Andy San Dimas, the US porn star, and he reckons he’d “be really into doing more art for adult film actresses. I just want to draw naked ladies.”

  3. Karansingh-mop-int-list

    The glorious coming together of pattern, shape and colour makes for a joyous experience and that’s why print designers are held in such high regard. Last week we commissioned Animade to turn three eye-poppingly good Pucci x Orlebar Brown patterns into trippy GIFs, this week we’re turning our attention to profiling creatives we believe are among the best around when it comes to working in this area. We are proud to present these #mastersofprint.

  4. Jg-street-demon-int-list

    Got the mid-week hump-day gloom, friend? Allow me to do away with it for you with a bumper-pack of animated GIFs by the talented hand of illustrator and animator Julian Glander. He once came up with a clever app which transformed colour data into sound for an eight-note synth and made us all into synaesthetes for a day, which was intricate and complicated enough to warrant a dose of fun to follow. A gang of tiny blob men whirling their arms over their heads at impossible speeds? Yes, please. A tiny man on a bicycle riding in tiny circles forevermore? Go on then. Great things are in the pipeline for this master of 3D shapes, bulgy eyeballs and jumping hamburgers. You mark our words.

  5. Tim-brown-int-list

    As a one-time news journalist (albeit at a very low level) I have a real affinity for reportage illustrators. George Butler is one of the best around and this new film by Tim Brown which follows him on a three-week trip to Afghanistan provides a great insight into his finely-honed talents. On his first trip to the war-torn country George was embedded with British troops, but he hungered to draw the locals whose lives had been so irrevocably changed over recent years. “I was always aware that over the walls there were millions of people getting on with their lives,” he says.

  6. Angiewang-int-main

    Angie Wang is FANTASTIC, she’s hands-down my absolute favourite new illustrator. Her work is an explosive, jelly bean-coloured tangle of cool girls, comic books, hair, nature and clouds: dreamy waves of cuteness and attitude floating along on the backs of ghosts. Some of her drawings may appear silly and adorable, but underneath the fuzziness is a melancholy wisdom of the world around her. She has an ability to capture what only the best kinds of comics do: aspects of life that are loving, scary, otherworldly and magnificent.

  7. Zeloot-int-list-2

    Look at the giant bulbous characters! The boy clamping his hand between his own giant gnashers! The tiny hairy willy floating in mid-air with a bunch of other body parts! This collection could be the work of one woman only and that woman is Eline Van Dam, aka Zeloot, a Dutch illustrator with a taste for the funny, the weird and the generally brilliant. She’s been hard at work of late with a stack of commissions for the likes of Vrij Nederland and The New York Times among others, all of whom are thoroughly enamoured with her unique style. As are we.

  8. Barzilai-int-list

    If you’re currently experiencing some love-related dramas allow me to gently suggest you don’t take them to Pauline Barzilaï for sorting. The French illustrator’s new project Les Peines de l’Amour, a sweet illustrated series on rose pink paper, takes a great sledgehammer to tender affairs of the heart, and smashes them all to pieces with a brutally funny satirical edge.

  9. Die-katze-int-list-2

    You don’t really see them in the UK anymore but there was once a time when fag machines populated bars, clubs, railway stations, street corners and children’s swimming pools so that everyone could readily get their hands on a dose of sweet lady nicotine at a moment’s notice. There’s still a few lingering in Switzerland though, so Daniel Peter and Alice Kolb have found a more family-friendly and creative use for them.

  10. Marta-monteiro-int-list

    Remember Marta Monteiro, whose series of Lilliputian heroines effectively encaptured all of our best Borrower-themed dreams last summer? The illustrator based in Penafiel, Portugal been busy at work since we last checked in, creating all manner of editorial illustrations for the likes of The New York Times and the Washington Post, not to mention some self-initiated projects which have materialised into beautiful books, like Sombras. Her work gives the impression of an illustrator still refining her style, which in her instance is immeasurably exciting, lending her a versatility and an authenticity few manage to successfully pull off. We’re especially enjoying the piece for The Man Who Knew It All, a giant-headed polka-dot dress-wearing lady borrowing the brain of another.

  11. Moonhead-book22-list

    It’s so reassuring to hear that a job at a top ad agency can be secured from an interview on no sleep, feeling “a bit spaced out.” While it’s possibly not the best career advice, that’s exactly how Andrew Rae landed a role at BBH, he told us in his talk at Offset festival. We’re huge fans of Andrew’s work, which over the years has included creating characters for the Mighty Book of Boosh, beautiful botanical illustrations and the wonderful, heartwarming and psychedelic graphic novel Moonhead and the Music Machine.

  12. Jasongalea-int-main

    I came across Jason when I was ogling at this poster for the Panache Spring Fling featuring White Fence, yet another ear-watering gig that I won’t be able to make it to because it’s across the Atlantic. Panache is a boutique booking agency in LA which represent bands like Ty Segall, Chris Cohen, Jacco Gardner, Fuzz, Juliana Barwick, U.S Girls…I could go on. In keeping with its roster it commissions the likes of Melbourne-based visual artist Jason Galea to make the posters and sleeves look as cool and apt as possible. Jason clearly knows what he’s doing with these posters, record sleeves and animations. This is the work of someone who has studied the music visuals of the past, sat around a Ouija board, reincarnated them, and smoked the spirits up in an acid-green infinity bong before splurging them out as art. It’s okay to rip stylistic qualities from eras gone by, but only if you, like Jason, genuinely love the music, and know exactly what you are doing.

  13. Andyrementer-sanmarinostamps-int-list

    Here’s some things you probably didn’t know about the tiny Republic of San Marino. It has no railway. Its 33,00 citizens enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world. It is famous for its stamps, which are widely collected by philatelists, or stamp collectors. This last revelation is the one that concerns us here, because we found out yesterday that illustrator, artist and long-time friend of the site Andy Rementer has just designed a set of stamps for The Philatelic and Numismatic Bureau of San Marino, themed around fantastical interpretations of 3D printing.