“Drawing is like walking on a cliff edge”: Illustrator Luis Mendo on the illusion of a care-free style
His illustrations may be full of quick and playful line work, but his creative process is as painstaking as any other.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 26 August 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Luis Mendo’s illustrative work is characterised by a fluidity and a lightness of touch that suggests a life-long mastering of the medium. So it comes as a surprise to learn that the Spanish artist in fact studied graphic design at university, and actually spent the first 20 years of his career in editorial design and art direction – “mainly developing and redesigning magazine titles”. This path took him from Barcelona to Amsterdam, where he led an incredibly busy life working from a light-filled studio near the iconic canals. After his father passed away, “mainly due to being overworked”, Luis realised that his own strong work ethic was becoming problematic, leaving little time for much else, and he resolved to change his career. He took a short sabbatical in Tokyo and mulled it all over. During his trip, he quickly fell in love with the city and decided that this change of scenery might be exactly what he needed. It took another four years, but in 2013 he finally moved to Tokyo with his teenage son.
“Since I couldn’t speak Japanese, making magazines and doing art direction was going to be incredibly difficult,” he recalls. “But I had some savings, so I didn’t worry too much about work and just occupied myself with my old, original love of drawing, as a way of getting to know the city and its people.” Drawing on the move and navigating the busy streets of Tokyo necessitated a care-free, adaptable approach and light equipment, and Luis began working with a B5-sized sketchbook, a Pilot Parallel Pen, and a small watercolour box containing ten simple pads. Together, they allowed him to draw whilst “standing on full trains, in crowded whisky bars, or sitting on stones in front of temples”. Alongside his simple collection of tools that he carried with him everywhere, he also adopted a “very loose style” of drawing that suited his on-the-go artistic practice and his personality. “ I learned to appreciate the quality of an imperfect line and the poor control I had over the results,” he says. “Many happy lines were made by the train suddenly speeding up or someone bumping into my arm.”
Before long, fellow illustrator Grace Lee suggested to Luis that he organise a meeting with her Japanese agent Building, to see if they would be interested in representing him. He thought it a long shot but was soon amazed after they agreed to take him on and quickly began connecting him with Japanese clients. “This was about seven years ago, and I have been almost exclusively an illustrator since,” he explains. “Now I draw from a tiny desk in my bedroom which, compared to the big, light studio I had in Amsterdam, you might think is a step backwards, but in fact I have never been happier. While I was an art director, my time mainly went into emails, meetings and discussions, whereas illustration is a much more concentrated, zen way to spend my life.”
Since joining illustration agency Handsome Frank, his career truly took off. Luis has gone on to work for publications and brands such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired, New York Magazine, Monocle, Apple, Uniqlo among others. His warm, delicate aesthetic lends itself well to an editorial context and his portfolio of quotidian scenes, cosy interiors and intimate portraits are reminiscent of the kinds of illustrations found on the covers of magazines like The New Yorker. Recently, Luis took advantage of this similarity in a series of drawings for an imaginary publication titled The Home Stayer, inspired by a life lived in lockdown. Within the illustrations, we see familiar domestic settings and activities such as zoom meetings being taken on the floor, work breaks on the balcony, and feeding the cat in a plant-filled apartment.
Though Luis’ style feels enviably natural and casual, he says the process of making these illustrations is anything but relaxing. “Honestly, while working, I suffer a lot. It’s like going into a minefield every time, trying to avoid a bad step,” he says. “Drawing is like walking on a cliff edge, where taking the line in the wrong direction can make you fall into an abyss of nothingness, and you have to start all over again.” Unsurprisingly, his favourite part of the process is finishing the job and “breathing a sigh of relief when you put your foot down and realise that the world didn’t explode underneath you”. As a result, his wife often asks him if he would have preferred not to have had the job in the first place. “I see it differently,” he explains. “It’s like athletes always seem to suffer a lot when they are competing, but they do it to achieve something. That struggle is what truly forms the act of drawing, and I love it – but I love it even more once it’s done.”
Luis Mendo: Homestayer Issue 7: ZOOM. (Copyright © Luis Mendo 2020)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.