10 brilliant character artists for 2016

Discover the illustrators and animators that have inspired Lisa Hassell most at this year's Pictoplasma character art and animation festival.

Revived and rebooted thanks to an injection of fresh, emerging talent, the 12th Pictoplasma Conference championed a swathe of young creatives – showcasing the best character-led art, animation and illustration, with a strong focus on both traditional craft skills and mixed-media techniques.

Here we've picked out 10 artists and animators showcasing exceptional new work at Pictoplasma 2016 – starting with Merjin Hos – but first here's a flavour of what this year's festival was like.

The conference and festival year’s speakers were from varied backgrounds: including both traditional sculptor Wilfred Wood (best known for his work on Spitting Image) and GIF art wunderkind Julian Glander. There were the familiar faces Ben Newman and Mr Bingo, and up-&-coming talents Martina Paukova. and illustrator Cecile Dormeau.

Between them they introduced the audience to a vast parade of handsome and whimsical characters over three jam-packed days at the main conference venue Babylon Kino. The vast majority of the speakers were discovering Pictoplasma for the very first time, which added to the playful atmosphere backstage.

Inviting participants to get hands-on at the daily workshops and jam sessions, the schedule also offered regular art happenings and spontaneous networking. The revived Character Forum gave attendees the opportunity to rub shoulders with industry pros from advertising, gaming and publishing (and pitch them at speed).

Flag photo: Verena Nunn

Pictoplasma Character Walk returned in all its colourful glory for 2016, with 14 partnering galleries and project spaces exhibiting new character-led work by many of the festival speakers. Highlights included the darkly humorous and detailed line work of French artist Ugo Gattoni, whose close friend and past Pictoplasma speaker McBess is one of his longtime collaborators.

Berlin based comic artist Aisha Franz focused her exhibition on a collection of pencil drawings from her latest comic book Shit Is Real and the strange universe that surrounds it. Other highlights included the slightly surreal sculpted parade of celebrity heads by Wilfred Wood designed to extract ‘maximum character out of a lump of clay.’

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Technology, particularly mobiles, laptops and our obsession with social media were reoccurring themes throughout the festival, as several speakers touched on the relationship we have with these tools (for better or worse), and how their daily presence has influenced and inspired their creative practice.

From a playful social experiment, like that of visual artist and GIF animator Julian Glander – who invited Twitter followers to help him design a character – to inspiring and igniting support for a Kickstarter (Rex Crowle) to rallying support for women’s issues through Instagram (Cécile Dormeau), it was evident that social media is a tool that can both disrupt and distort our view of the world and each other.

Reinvention and visual experimentation were also discussed openly, with a handful of speakers making reference to significant turning points in their lives, often turning their back on otherwise successful careers out of boredom and frustration. Dutch illustrator and collage artist Niels Kalk shared his revelatory rediscovery of analogue work on moving to Berlin, whilst Utrecht-based visual artist Merijn Hos discussed personal projects which have helped to radically reinvent his creative aesthetic.

Merijn Hos (NL)

“Evolving one’s practice is a continuous process.”

Known for his quirky characters commissioned by the likes of Bose, Google and Red Bull, Utrecht-based visual artist Merjin Hos consciously moved into experimental art because he craved more of a challenge. “I feared only being known for one thing,” said Hos. “To me, evolving one’s practice is a continuous process.”

At a time in his life when his character-led illustration was hitting its stride, he made the decision to move away from commercial work, taking a year off to explore more experimental techniques. Designing a series of album covers for friends using his new abstract collage style, he found himself once again in demand, as he reflected with irony,“It’s funny, the work I create for myself is often the work that leads to clients and paid commissions.”

Conference photos: Martin Trost

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Eclectic and diverse though his commercial work might be, Merjin is arguably driven by ideas that are more often explored in his side projects. One his most popular is ‘Wood Sculptures’ which led Merjin to make around 400 brightly coloured art objects that have toured galleries worldwide.

Taking inspiration from Art Brut and folk art, each sculpture is crafted in wood and painted in a childlike, naïve way of characters and minimalist patterns. Freeing up his creative process in this way served as a springboard for further experimentation, and whilst a fine line between personal work and commercial projects still exists, Merjin will no doubt continue to reinvent himself in new ways.

merijnhos.com | woodsculptures.eu

Niels Kalk (NL)

“One of the nice things about working with collage is the element of surprise.”

Drawing on found paper and making hand-cut collages from vintage photo books, Berlin-based illustrator Niels Kalk creates surreal compositions of re-mixed body parts and animal anatomy, juxtaposed with everyday objects, urban environments or wild landscapes.

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Speaking on stage about his relatively young career as collage artist, Kalk talked about living in Rotterdam and early work as a digital designer and animator, having abandoned collage some ten years previously. Relocating to Berlin, coupled with the discovery of a vintage photo book sparked a change in direction, and early experiments in remixing imagery led to exhibitions, events and selling his artworks at markets throughout Berlin.

Through a series of studio photos showing collage pieces at various stages of development, the audience were also given a glimpse into the artist’s intuitive and immersive creative process – which often involves working on several collages at the same time before ‘pieces naturally connect’. This can often take several weeks – or in some cases years. Explaining how he makes an image, the artist spoke about how each of us are ‘drawn to particular colours, shapes and compositions,’ and for him, it is often less planning an simple intuition and play which guides his creative process.


Martina Paukova

“I really enjoy the playfulness and fun that comes with illustration, it’s a licence to draw literally anything you like.”

With her trademark sunny palette and Memphis–inspired patterns, Slovakian illustrator Martina Paukova explores the daily and everyday in her images. Colourful illustrations of mundane scenes, filled with furniture and lanky characters with perplexed expressions and outdated hairstyles populate her images, which often make reference to our modern obsession with technology.

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Celebrating all things "flat and banal", her Character Walk exhibition The Daily and the Everyday brought together a collection of digital editorial illustrations that played with perspective and flattened spatiality – featuring characters in their daily lives, interacting with their mobiles or laptops, sitting behind computers or sipping coffee.

At the conference, Paukova shared her fascination with the mundane, reflecting on her interest in exploring the "awkward and bendy" while often arriving at an idea with little planning.

“I am a borderline-neurotic observer and often the idea for the picture is triggered purely circumstantially,” she says.

Speaking at the conference also afforded the illustrator an opportunity to look back at her work and it’s trajectory, referencing the challenges ahead and her interest in exploring 3D illustration in future. “Maybe time has come to leave the comfortable indoors and try different environments?”


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Masanobu Hiraoka (JP)

"Colour is very important for animation. I think the colour is something with which a worldview is made.”

The mesmerising work of Japanese animator Masonobu Hirako made a lasting impression with a screening of L’Œil du Cyclone, an immersive conceptual music video for French music group EZ3kiel, shown as part of the Pictoplasma Conference Animation Screenings.

Showing dynamic interplay of a person within space with a delicate sensibility and subtle palette, the video touched on themes of escapism and metamorphosis with fluid like movement and a shape-shifting female protagonist. A self-taught artist, Masonobu lives and works in Tokyo making music videos and ads for clients such as Uniqlo. His creative process involves illustrating each frame in Photoshop before compositing the animations in After Effects – which make for an absorbing, timeless experience.


Réka Bucsi

“The goal was to make the viewer feel like they want to touch the things moving around in the film. It was a much more challenging process than I thought it would be.”

Similarly to Masonobu Hirako, Hungarian animator and filmmaker Réka Bucsi impressed with her short film Love.

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Described by Réka as a film “about how the black panthers finally saw each other and met” the film makes use of playful colour to create atmosphere and tension; a process that Réka describes as a very intuitive: “I never really work with a colour script, but in this film I had to settle with some rules in change of colour and light, to keep the world consistent and underline the mood.”

For Love, Réka began each animation on paper, making many drawings on post-its – and slowly evolving characters and environments through combining many little shapes and forms. Following a storyboard, she then moved on to making the animatic, which consisted of switching between drawing in Adobe Photoshop and timing in Premiere. Additional production happened through classic frame by frame animation, with the use of a digital tablet in TV Paint.

“After having more and more set colours for different landscapes or characters," she says. "It slowly starts to build up. It was a much more challenging process than I thought it would be.”

A narrative weaves throughout, with shapes, form and colour defining moments of feeling between the characters, as Réka adds, “If a specific shape is fitting the narrative, I will use it. There is so many different interesting forms in nature, that using only the form of a human would probably just feel a bit boring to me.”


Ugo Gattoni

“I tell myself stories whenever I draw, I imagine the drawing coming to life.”

By contrast, French artist Ugo Gattoni created a phantasmagoric world of architectural fragments, and labyrinths reminiscent of Escher for his latest collaboration with Hermès. Often working purely in black and white, his Hermès scarf makes use of a soft pastel palette to define strong lines and twisting elements.

A short animation of the final artwork was also released to celebrate the collaboration, which Ugo felt would help complete the story he wanted to tell. “For me, it's a medium that gives more elements to fully immerse into this illustrated world,” he says.

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As he delved into the creative process behind his design, Ugo told the audience that ‘first comes the atmosphere and then the décor’ as he shared various work in progress sketches. “I like more playing with the shapes, trying to twist realistic elements to see above its usual form. Deconstruction, cutting elements, like bodies or architecture to reveal something surprising is interesting to me.”

His intensive creative process requires incredible patience, as he works with an army of Rotring pens to create elaborate and detailed drawings, which often take several months to complete. The experience of investigating one of Ugo’s pieces up close is mind-blowingly immersive, with attention paid to the smallest of details.

Having collaborated with friend and artist McBess frequently over the last few years, there are also little in-jokes and references here and there in his drawings which add an extra layer of humour. Recent commissions include an installation for Ruinart, the oldest French house of Champagne, wallpaper for La Maison Pierre Frey, and further collaborations with Hermès to be released in 2017.


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Aisha Franz

“Start off with something and see where it takes you. Let loose – don’t be afraid.”

Drawing is also the favoured medium for Berliner, comic artist and illustrator Aisha Franz. She explores the full range of human emotion in her work, through poignant tales that touch on themes of relationships, love and surviving heartbreak.

As a commissioned artist, Aisha makes comics and illustrations for several international publications, but her true passion lies in self-publishing which she was attracted to as a way of her realiSing projects quickly.

“I’m quite impatient," she says. "I need to bring my characters into existence, self publishing allows this to happen.” Touring zinefests, and collaborating with her illustration collective also supports and inspires her practice, alongside her teaching role at the Kunsthochschule Kassel College of Fine Arts.

On stage at the conference, Aisha enchanted the audience with an alternative comic reading which culminated in a clever ‘sound comic’ reading: playing a piece of music that she had herself made to tell a story without words or dialogue, a method that she is beginning to develop. “I have all these tales in my head, it’s my way of understanding the world.” revealed the artist.

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For her exhibition on this year’s Pictoplasma Character Walk, the illustrator exhibited a collection of images and small installation related to her latest comic book Shit Is Real, and the strange universe that surrounds it. “Reality often seems as fragile as feeling. Especially in times when the worlds are shifting rapidly and you don’t know which you’re in or the role you’re playing within it.”


Cécile Dormeau (FR)

“Never forget that our illustrations always deliver a message, so always ask yourself which look on society you want to show, and how you can bring people to question themselves about certain themes.”

Laying her soul bare to the audience as she spoke of her personal battles with body image and self-acceptance, French illustrator Cécile Dormeau poked fun at the women’s magazines and social media for their conflicting, confusing and mixed messages.

Using simple bold lines and bright colours to create humorous illustrations and GIFs that make light of sensitive issues, her work was applauded for it’s searingly honest depictions of women. “I try to play with their flaws and emotions with humour in a colourful and fun style,” she says.


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Julian Glander

“I think if you can draw a circle or a square you can make pretty much anything.”

“Gumby, marshmellowy and goopy” are just three words used to describe Julian Glander’s work by his Twitter followers. Known for his oddball characters and infinitely loopable animated GIFs inspired by claymation, his work has appeared in all sorts of places from music videos to subway commercials and Starbucks ads.

More recently Julian was also one of this year’s Pick Me Up Selects artists, exhibiting work alongside several emerging talents working with GIFs, including British illustrator Jack Sachs.

Julian introduced his portfolio to the audience, including a comic series for Vice Magazine and a collaboration with Google Play and California Sunday Magazine, which saw him create a short animation for California Inspires Me, narrated by actor James Franco.

Working solely in Blender – the free, open source 3D modelling and animation software – his visual style is defined by super-cute, pastel characters and slightly strange backgrounds. Talking about his creative process, Julian admitted that he rarely used a script, relying instead on the Apple Notes app to scribble down words that inform his illustrations. “The idea often comes to me all at once. I have a writing background so it makes sense to record ideas with words.”

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Towards the end of his talk, Julian also shared his recent social media experiment, where he invited his followers to collaborate with him on the creation of a new character over the course of several weeks, with playful results.

“I think its interesting letting people online get involved in the creative process,” Julian told the audience. “It matters to me to share things with people and open up the dialogue.”

Julian has also designed and made ‘digital toys’, a term coined to describe the vibrantly coloured world of Lovely Weather We're Having, designed in collaboration with programmer Eugene Burdan. An open-ended video game about being outside, the environment changes to reflect local weather data.

Largely panned, the project was a commercial flop, yet despite this Glander doesn’t view the project as a failure. “I’m focused on making things that feel like children’s media but without the educational angle. I like to think of them as interactive art pieces, but accessible and immersive.”

An expanded version of the hotel room GIF while at Pictoplasma.


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Rex Crowle (UK)

“Focus on the characters and the world, and feel confident with it before you share it.”

Engaging with fans online was completely new for Cornish-born graphic designer, animation director and video game designer Rex Crowle when he launched a Kickstarter earlier this year. The crowdfunding platform played a pivotal role in funding Knights and Bikes, a co-op adventure about childhood inspired by The Goonies and Earthbound.

“There’s this knowledge that by running a Kickstarter you are extending a promise to the pledgers to deliver a product before it’s been made,” said Rex on the project, which is currently in development. “It comes with a certain pressure that I haven’t experienced before.”

Working at Media Molecule for several years as a lead designer, Rex was part of the development team on Little Big Planet, as well as PlayStation Vita game Tearaway, a video game inspired by papercraft released in 2013. Knights and Bikes is the first game to be produced by independent studio Foam Sword, which Rex set up with game developer Moo Yu. Interestingly, the characters in the game are both female, a conscious decision which Rex believed would engage a larger audience.

“We felt it was important, not only to stretch our abilities but also to create a game that encouraged this idea of adventure,” he said.

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Exceeding their funding goal in March was both and exciting and daunting prospect, but now that the intensity of running the campaign has passed, the pair can enjoy the production process. When asked about the challenges involved with Kickstarter, Crowle admitted that “it was scary to let people in and put it out there before the game was finished, but now we feel buoyed by the fact that we hit and exceeded the goal. We’re just itching to get back to work!”

foamswordgames.com | rexbox.co.uk