Textural, beautifully composed and with a near-perfect use of colour, Uli Knörzer’s pencil illustrations are a thing to behold. His adept use of the medium sees him depicting his subjects with a lifelike finesse, which makes sense when you hear it’s a craft he’s been honing since a very young age.
“One of my early memories of me drawing, and this will sound awfully precocious, is me drawing my kindergarten teachers like a ‘portraitist’ – I know!” Uli jokes. Inspired by the books of Tomi Ungerer lying around his family home, he was just one of those children that always loved to draw. So, finding his way into the illustration world – via a graphic design and typography degree at HfG Offenbach – “was kind of a natural decision,” he adds. Based in Berlin, having grown up in Stuttgart, the thing that keeps Uli so invested in his chosen medium is simple: the ability to bring people to life on paper.
And that’s exactly what he does, operating an almost exclusively figurative practice. Because of this, his process always starts with finding the right mood, attitude and look of his subject. “No matter if it's for a fashion story or an article for a newspaper, individuality comes first,” he says. “As soon as that is sorted out via sketching, my coloured pencils come into play most of the times.”
In terms of how he applies those coloured pencils, if it’s a commissioned project there are criteria which pique his interest. In the past, that’s led him to work for Airbnb Magazine, Condé Nast, Vice, Wallpaper*, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone – we could go on. For a newspaper article, it’s where there’s a compelling and important story to be told. For fashion illustrations, it’s when the work itself is interesting and for portraits, it’s when he’s drawn to the person and when he’s given creative freedom to depict them how he sees fit. For his own projects, “it’s all about capturing the fleeting moments of everyday life and bringing them to paper one pencil stroke at a time,” Uli tells us.
A quick look at Uli’s work lets you know one piece takes a long time to make. So it’s no surprise to hear that one of his favourite projects is also one of the biggest he’s undertaken to date. It saw him illustrating the annual report of ADC Germany, documenting a year at the company, as well as all 550 members. In addition to this, he created 50 portraits of cultural icons including Andy Warhol, Simone de Beauvoir, Marlene Dietrich and Jimi Hendrix which were peppered throughout the book. “In contrast to the documentary drawings which were rather precise, they were drawn a lot lighter and more silhouette-like in order to set them apart but also to show them as these sources of inspiration that constantly play into the creative decisions of today without always pinpointing them as such,” he explains. In total, Uli produced around 700 drawings over four months. “It was a lot,” he adds.
A more recent commission is titled The Future of Black Hair according to Jawara, which was for Highsnobiety. Hairstylist Jawara provided Uli with six different hairstyles and Highsnobiety’s fashion director Corey Stokes sent him six different runways looks, “and the rest was up to me,” Uli says. “I had the freedom to draw people the way I saw them in those clothes and with that hair. And that’s how I like it the most.” The images, in turn, clearly express Uli’s personality as an illustrator, conveying his immense talent and love for capturing someone’s character on paper.
On another piece of work he’s particularly proud of, Uli points to a portrait of Maurice Gordon Jr, a chemistry student and essential worker who was shot six times by a New Jersey State Trooper during a traffic stop. “The portrait was part of the campaign Immigrants Are Essential by Resilience Force and the National Immigration Law Center,” he explains.
With the ability to pen his way throughout the illustration world, be it in an editorial, fashion or journalistic context, it’s exciting to hear that Uli has recently been approached to be part of a book project. He finishes by telling us, “it’s in very early stages so I don’t know where it’s all heading but let’s just say it’s right up my alley and I’m intrigued.”
Uli Knörzer: The Future of Black Hair for Highsnobiety 01 (Copyright © Uli Knörzer, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.