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Features / Illustration

The Best Illustrator You’ve Never Heard Of: An in-depth interview with Belgian illustrator Jan Van Der Veken

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2013

Words by

James Cartwright

The first time I had the pleasure of writing about Jan Van Der Veken’s work there was little information available about him online or in print. I’d come across a poster of his while browsing at Nobrow’s shop in east London – a screen print entitled City Lights that depicted a man gazing wistfully at an autumnal evening, the soft glow of neighbouring tower blocks illuminating a solitary tree in front of him – and I was immediately drawn to his agile lines, classically-styled characters and subtle use of colour.

Although Nobrow described Jan (now 38) as “one of the leading Belgian illustrators of today” and Drawn and Quarterly had long been utilising his trademark style to define their online presence, I was perplexed by how hard it was to find anything more about him. But hopefully that’s all about to change.

My own understanding of Jan has developed since those early days of ignorance and through a prolonged period of badgering him via email for continued updates on his progress, a couple of interviews and innumerable hours staring at his images, I’ve come to know him and his work much better; certainly enough to confirm Nobrow’s appraisal.

Like many of his contemporaries Jan’s first brushes with illustration came from the greats. “Being Belgian I grew up with comics like Tintin and Blake and Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs – the really traditional stuff,” he says. “_The Yellow Mark_ (one of Jacobs’ most celebrated works) in particular was a great influence. It’s like Tintin but more detailed and the atmosphere and the quality of the images are really great, the storylines too. I was really influenced by that kind of thing and eventually started to draw in that way.”

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In spite of having this rich source of imagery at his disposal during his formative years, it wasn’t until later on that Jan was inspired to put pen to paper, and the impetus came from a much less respectable place. “The first thing that really got me into drawing was Iron Maiden. I bought a small cassette in a local music shop even though I didn’t know the music – I just really liked the cover art. It was Powerslave with the Egyptian drawing on the front by Derek Riggs, and it just made me think ‘Wow!’ Then of course I listened to the music and really liked it, but it was the cover that made me want to buy the cassette. So I copied it with all the things I had at my disposal at the time. I just redrew it literally again and again and that was the first thing that started me off.”

In his mid-teens Jan was able to channel his interest in drawing within an educational environment, taking formal lessons in place of scribbling in his free time. “I studied arts at a technical school where we had lessons in printing techniques and silkscreen, learning how to make the artwork. Studying very early graphic art made my world a bit larger. Then we had lessons in aesthetics and I started to develop my own way of making work, but the main focus was always on technique. Later I went to St. Lucas in Ghent and the focus was on being an author – a creator of images rather than a reproducer – so I had both the technical qualities, the technical understanding of how to print a book, and the understanding of how to make a proper drawing.

“In that way I had an advantage because I knew both sides of image-making and it’s important to have those technical skills. We illustrators have to make illustrations to go into print or out onto the net, and once you know the rules you can work out how to bend them because you understand how things have to be done.”

This attitude can be traced back to Jan’s early education in graphic design. Before he’d purchased his first tube of gouache he was studying grid systems and typographic theory at St. Lucas, gaining an understanding of layout and space that’s prevalent throughout his work and differentiates him from most of his contemporaries. “I studied graphic design because I thought it wouldn’t be so easy to make a living from illustration. I wanted to make typography together with illustrations, so I thought it would be better to study graphic design and have a proper job, and in the evenings I could focus on drawing. In the end, instead of creating graphic design that included photographs I made everything with drawings.”

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It was through this developing interest in image-making that Jan came to meet his mentor, Ever Meulen, or “Eddie” as Jan refers to him. Eddie taught an illustration class at St. Lucas and although Jan was not enrolled, he would turn up weekly to show his drawings. Eddie was supportive of Jan’s work from the start and encouraged him to do more with his illustration. “After four years of graphic design I learned I was quite able to make drawings and I really enjoyed it – perhaps even more than graphics, though that was my first love. In the end I thought, what the hell, I’m going to be an independent artist and we’ll just see what happens.”

What happened was an immensely successful first show that enabled Jan to show his work to nearly all of his heroes in a single week. In 2001 he held an exhibition in Holland that comprised a series of silkscreens he’d created since leaving university. During that time he’d moved home to live with his parents and build his reputation as a commercial image-maker without having to worry about paying the rent.

One of the first visitors to the show was an as-yet unestablished Chris Ware. “At the time he wasn’t really known, he’d made his second or third Acme Novelty Library, but I knew who he was thanks to one of my teachers at art school. Anyway, he came to my exhibition and said he loved my work and all I had was this series of silkscreens, so I gave them to him. Two days later he came back to the exhibition and to say thanks he gave me an original.” That original still sits on Jan’s wall in his studio; half an inked spread from a decade-old Acme – framed, of course and still in mint condition.

“That was a crazy week actually because then I was invited for breakfast at Joost Swarte’s house and everyone was there, from Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes to Matotti and Robert Crumb. So there I am, a 20-year-old timidly eating my croissant and really wanting to present my prints to Joost Swarte.

“I couldn’t find him, but I’d met Robert Crumb at a market place in Holland earlier so I said to him: ‘I want to give these silkscreens to Joost but I have to go – my parents have come to collect me. And Robert Crumb – this long, thin, intimidating figure with thick round glasses – was waving at me like, ‘Yes, yes I will give them to him no problem.’

“I was a real nobody back then. Not that I’m somebody now, but I hadn’t published anything and I just had my originals, so being in that situation was quite intimidating – overwhelming even.”

Nowadays it seems strange to think of Jan nervously eating breakfast with a group of men that increasingly feel more like his peers than his heroes. All of them make work in a similar style that emphasises clarity, precision and good design within illustration (Robert Crumb, perhaps, is the exception to that rule), and Jan now has a body of work large enough to intimidate even the illustrative juggernaut that is Chris Ware.

Back then though, he was still finding his feet. “At first I was very clumsy in my approach, making normal drawings with curved lines, but more and more I was looking for structure. I’m very interested in architecture, and of course in architecture the walls have to be straight, so I applied that to my illustration and combined it with the organic feel of the trees and plants. That provided a great contrast and I enjoyed working in that way very much.”

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All this talk of structure and rigidity might come across as overly serious but look at his work and you’ll see that alongside his geometric precision is an undeniable humour. Jan’s images exude a playfulness that’s tangible and infectious. Everything from the seemingly impossible architecture that punctuates his images to the myriad facial expressions he’s capable of rendering upon his characters with a few simple lines expresses genuine fun and excitement.

Even when his subject matter is serious Jan manages to communicate it with a sense of optimism and wit. “I like to refer to Jaques Tati as one of my main influences as he’s a master in how he likes to frame things. Everything is well-timed and nothing is left to chance. He’s funny but not funny haha, like a stand-up comedian – it’s very introverted. I approve of that. I like that way of presenting life, with a quiet humour.”

Tati is one of many influences that links Jan to the past. Although his work is distinctly contemporary and deals almost exclusively with modern life, it maintains a stylistic quality that belongs to the 1950s, through the application of colour, the angular way in which Jan renders his characters and their retro sense of fashion. Like Eddie and Joost before him, Jan’s work comes under the broad definition of Atoomstijl, or Atomic Style, a name invented by Joost in the 1970s to describe a school of clear line illustration that specifically referenced the modernism of Belgium’s Expo ’58.

“The Expo of 1958 was a display of incredible technological advancements. Sputnik was there, the Citröen DS was presented there, without wheels – like a rocket – and all the unbridled enthusiasm for the future and space travel was embraced at this one event. I like the optimism of that era. People had just started to live again after the war and their optimism was like a bare necessity.

“But there was a certain happiness about everything back then. Things were made to look good in a naive kind of way, but people really meant it. In the 1950s everyone had big plans and then in the 1960s and 1970s we found out that atomic energy had a downside and the naivety, the childhood, was over and we had to be responsible.”

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Jan believes there are numerous parallels between the 1950s and the present day. “In the era we live in now I think we’re reaching another level with technology and there’s a new optimism in design and architecture. It’s all light and bright and playfulness is allowed again. In the 1990s everything was strict and you had interiors that couldn’t be lived in because it would upset the balance, but now everything is possible again.”

“People have embraced technology and now that we know its limitations we’re responsible in how we deal with it. In that way my optimism is relevant again, because now we have responsible optimism instead of naive optimism. We know that technology has its limitations but we believe we can do something good with it.”

This notion is particularly key to Jan’s image-making process, and although he’s no stranger to spending hours in front of Photoshop, it’s the time spent drawing that he finds most engaging.

“I make images with pen and ink, by hand, because I want to preserve their authentic feel. I don’t want to make [Adobe] Illustrator drawings. I don’t want them to be that technical. You have to know that the drawing was made by a human being who is faulty.

“A lot of people are going back to basics again and just like to draw things. That’s the pendulum; things swing one way and then the other.”

The thing that really distinguishes one illustrator from the other is the way they handle their image after they’ve drawn it. “You have many ways of handling your originals, how you proceed with them. For instance Chris Ware practically works the same way that I do; black and white inking and then colouring with Photoshop. Lots of young illustrators are doing it too, like Luke Pearson. It’s a natural way of working nowadays. Drawing is like being a monk that used to write bibles back in the middle ages; it’s the same slow process. But in order to be able to work in this modern world we have to embrace the computer.”

Photoshop means that Jan can handle several processes at his own desk, without the input of anyone else. “That way I can combine illustration, graphic design and typography in my own way and work on book covers and posters. Earlier in my career I’d go to meetings and be very timid and do as I was asked by art directors. So I ended up letting other people handle the typography. I’d make a beautiful illustration and then wouldn’t enjoy what someone else had done with the type. Nowadays I’m more confident to produce type as well, so I’m going to put my foot down and tell people that I’ll handle everything.

“The trouble is that people think in boxes. They think that you’re an illustrator so they’ll have you produce an illustration, or you’re a typographer so you can make some type. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do multiple things. It’s all related you know, a font is an image as well.” The only thing Jan’s really missing is a comic book of his own. For someone so inspired by the medium, it seems only logical to assume that he’ll one day want to branch out into telling his own stories in carefully-constructed ornate panels. But he really doesn’t seem at all interested in the idea. “I’m very much inspired by comics but I’ve always wanted to focus on making one image.

“When you’re a comics artist you have a storyline and you use the illustration as a tool to tell that story. I don’t have the patience for that. I’ve just never felt the urge to make my own comic. I haven’t got something to say – I don’t have a topic. I think in the single images that I create there’s a lot of things going on, but it’s not one big story and I’m happy with that. But perhaps I just need someone to give me a hint, the start of a storyline.”

But with his megalomaniacal approach to image-making and such widespread interests he might find it quite easy to find a story to tell.

“I’m like a small dictator in my own world, inhabited by people who have to obey my rules.” he says. “How they look and how they stand is dictated by me. I think that feeling comes from an underlying discontent with reality, with how everything looks.

“When you go into the city you see certain buildings that are beautiful but you look on the other side of the road and there’s trash. You want the city to be a perfect city but it isn’t like that.” But Jan enjoys the human element of the everyday, the signs of fallibility. “Things look perfectly nice on paper, but then it’s different when they’re real. Actually it’s probably a good thing that cities aren’t perfect. It would be awful.”

So while Jan’s plans for the future may not include the comic book some (and by that I mean, I) have been waiting for, we should expect to see great things from him in the years to come – though what they’ll be he’s not yet sure. “I don’t have a fixed direction but I have an eclectic mind and my influences are very diverse. I’m interested in many things because you have to draw what you know, you can’t draw what you don’t. You can take a picture with your eyes closed but to draw you have to really see things.”