Pictoplasma 2014 show report: What’s hot in character art from around the world

We pick out the best work from the 10th annual Pictoplasma festival in Berlin and speak to the artists behind it.

Pictoplasma, the world’s leading conference and festival of contemporary character design returned to Berlin in April to celebrate 10 years of character fuelled talks, groundbreaking exhibitions, legendary parties and eye-opening workshops on a fantastic scale.

Founded in 2004 by Lars Denicke and Peter Thaler, who were “motivated by the desire to meet the artists behind the characters that impressed us the most,” the conference is staged twice a year in Berlin and New York, with frequent exhibitions and projects curated in Europe and farther afield.

I’ve attended the festival several times over the last few years and witnessed first hand the colourful chaos of the character walk, playful and interactive installations by the likes of  Friends with You and DOMA – and the never ending buzz of meeting and networking with like-minded creatives. So my expectations were high for the 10th anniversary edition of the festival and what surprises might be in store.

Use the slideshow controls above and right to see what I discovered.

Photos by Kind Instants

Pictoplasma 2014: Andy Martin’s Planets

Kicking off day one of the conference was London-based animator, illustrator and ‘music-maker’ Andy Martin, who presented his self-initiated Planet animations, a fun-filled series forming part of a daily character design project called ‘Illustrated Aliens.’

Image: Andy Martin

Wildly mixing techniques such as hand drawing, computer pixels and stop-motion, Andy charmed the audience with stories of his Yorkshire upbringing, and experiments with music and audio, screening a number of entertaining animation clips for the audience to enjoy.

Image: Andy Martin

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Pictoplasma 2014: Lizz Lunney’s crackers animals

Comic book artist Lizz Lunney (right) introduced the audience to her merry band of characters 'Leaning Rabbit', 'Dullbog the Bulldog' and ‘Depressed Cat', a character who tweets out misery on a daily basis.

Photo: Lisa Hassell

Referencing Spike Milligan and his 'silly use of language' to convey ideas as a main influence, Lizz shared her love of visual puns, word play and storytelling, encouraging the audience to embrace a 'make work for yourself first' approach.

“Creating characters, story telling and developing concepts captured my imagination; discovering comics was a turning point for me.”

Photo: Lizz Lunney

Pictoplasma 2014: Jean Jullien

French-born, London based illustrator Jean Jullien spoke about his burgeoning interest in working in 3D, referencing his collaboration with Le Nid, a restaurant in Nantes, France for which he designed the concept – a 40m long bird with egg shaped tables and chairs.

“I would love to do more physical things and make interactive installations,” he says. “I had a lot of space to play with [at Les Nid] it was an exciting project.”

Photos and image: Jean Jullien

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In a continuation from his ‘Allo?’ exhibition at The Kemistry gallery in London earlier this year, Jean presented ‘Sylvie’ at the Neurotitan Gallery in Berlin as part of the Character Walk.

Partly inspired by a conversation with his mother, who lives in France (you guessed it, her name is Sylvie), the exhibition presented giant laptops, iPads and smart phones playing animated loops that poke fun at our relationship with technology – specifically mobile devices: “It’s a tongue in cheek take on devices; everyday observations that everyone can relate to.”

Image: Jean Jullien

For Jean, the pursuit of personal work is a passion that he likes to explore through regular exhibitions (two or three per year) and side project Jullien Brothers in collaboration with his brother.

Having recently completed work on a music video project, Statues by The Coward (above), Jean reflects: “I try to balance my time. It’s important for me to retain my own personal voice, not just use my work to sell [products] or communicate something for someone else.”

Photos by Kind Instants

Pictoplasma 2014: The Amazing World of Gumball’s animator Ben Bocquelet

Creator of critically acclaimed 'kids' TV show The Amazing World of Gumball, French animator Ben Bocquelet charmed the audience with light hearted tales of his first job at Studio AKA, recollecting his experience of pitching for commercials and the multiple failures he endured in his first three years as he tried ‘any style, just to see if it would land me a job.’

Encouraged to apply for a place at the newly opened development studio of Cartoon Network, Ben spent 12 months helping other animators with their pitches, before being invited to share his own ideas.

Photos by Kind Instants

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With a draw full of characters left over from rejected commercial pitches, Ben was struck by the challenge of making so many different styles work together, and the idea to place them on top of photographs.

“There’s something a bit magic about cartoon characters invading our environment” says Ben, “As kid I remember watching stuff like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and I wanted to do something like that.”

Image: Ben Bocquelet

The show went into development and has since garnered critical acclaim, and for Ben the opportunity to bring the concept into the world of video gaming is an attractive prospect.

“I’d like to expand the [Gumball] audience,” he says. “I think there is space to explore things that have been done in film that pushes comedy and narrative. I’d like to try and combine game play with a strong story line that the players can emotionally invest in.”

Image: Ben Bocquelet

Pictoplasma 2014’s Character Walk

After a long day of conference talks it was time to stretch our legs, and the Pictoplasma Character Walk provides the perfect opportunity hit the streets of Berlin and take in the various art spaces situated in and around Mitte and Kreuzberg.

Though smaller than previous years (15 exhibitions in 2014 compared with 22 in 2013), the work on offer was diverse, non more so than the ambitious group show The Pictoplasma Portrait Gallery, a sprawling exhibition spanning two floors of an abandoned warehouse building.

Photo: Lisa Hassell

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Featuring over 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures, animations and installations by international artists and illustrators who have most helped shape the conference over the last 10 years, this celebratory collection aimed to re-imagine the time honored genre of portraiture.

Walls adorned by the signature styles of Ben Newman Jon Burgerman, Geneviève Gauckler, Tado and Pete Fowler with more obscure emerging artists like Joshua Ben Longo and Dutch artist Raymond Lemstra, best known for his intricate pencil work fusing the traditional with the futuristic.

Photos by Kind Instants

Across the gallery Sue Doeksen’s hanging tapestry Mood Swings caught my eye – a hand sewn interactive piece that reflects a variety of emotions within its fabric, juxtaposed with a startling portrait of artist Nathan Jurevicius as his cult character Scary Girl, transformed with elaborate face paint and striking costume.

Photo: Lisa Hassell

Pictoplasma 2014: Character Selfies

Upstairs a vast wall of ‘Character Selfies’ hand picked from an online call for entries earlier in the year featured hundreds of Polaroid snapshots of characters in various poses, emitting frequent squeals of delight as attendees raced to find their characters hidden in the maze.

Photo: Dahahm Choi

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For first-time attendee and illustrator Yema Yema, having her work selected was a dream come true: “I’ve been a fan of Pictoplasma since I bought their first book. When I heard that my Character Selfie made the cut I was thrilled!”

Image: Yema Yema

Pictoplasma 2014: Giving you Hickies

Japanese artist Motomichi Nakamura, whose huge centrepiece painting Bird Man was also on display at The Pictoplasma Portrait Gallery, arrived in Berlin in support of a collaborative project he was involved with between Pictoplasma and Argentian-US shoe brand Hickies which launched on the Character Walk following a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year.

Inviting five Pictoplasma artists to ‘re-imagine the shoe’ by designing their own Pungas – a new limited edition 3D plastic shoe accessory for Hickies, the accompanying exhibition at Sur La Montagne showcased original artworks, prints and one-off trainer customisations by the Pungas artists, including Motomichi who created a mythical serpent creature in his signature colour palette of black, white and red.

Photo: Lisa Hassell

Questioned on the reason behind this obsession, Motomichi revealed that, through experimentation he discovered that this colour combination produced the most intense visual effect: “Black and white creates the highest contrast in imagery; everything is defined as much as possible. Then, when you have red, it creates a tension that is overwhelming. It’s a very raw, primitive feeling.”

Photo: Lisa Hassell

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Colour was also used to dramatic effect by German animation director and visual artist Kathi Kaeppel, whose joint exhibition with Jim Avignon featured a collection of kinetic installations, rotating heads and lively paintings, presented under the name ‘Binary Hula Hoop’.

For Kathi, the festival is much more than simply a platform to show her work, as she reflects: “It’s a coming home thing. As a young artist, Pictoplasma helped me find myself and understand my ideas, so it will always have special significance for me. Nowadays it’s much more about the network, and being part of a family that understand your work.”

Photo: Lisa Hassell

Hanging out at Pictoplasma 2014

Networking, particularly through social media continues to play a vital role in building awareness and engagement with their audience for many of the speakers I spoke to, particularly Instagram, the photo app which allows users to capture a moment and share it instantly.

Uploading #wip snapshots, sketchbook pages, daily activities and personal photos offers a rare glimpse into the lives of artists which captures the imagination of fans whom by liking and commenting on feeds become part of ‘the story’, a concept that finally persuaded Pictoplasma speaker Buff Monster to launch his first Kickstarter campaign – hitting his target of 10k within 24 hours.

Tout et Super by Genevieve Gauckler (FR) for The Portrait Gallery

Making use of her growing social network, Lizz Lunney’s Character Walk debut, ‘Lost Pets’ invited the public to participate in a hunt for six of her missing characters throughout the conference, using the hash tag #pictoplasmalostpets to document their findings on twitter and Instagram, capturing the imagination of the younger audience who took to the game with bubbling enthusiasm.

For this first-time Pictoplasma speaker, attending the festival was a personal highlight in what has so far been a hectic year: “It’s incredibly important for me as a professional to introduce a new audience to my work.” A trained animator, Lizz regularly collaborates with Bafta winning duo The Brothers McLeod, recently completing work on a comedy pilot, alongside self publishing comics and co-editing The Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humour Volume 2 with fellow comic artist Joe List last year.

Photo: Lizz Lunney

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Questioned on where she sees character design as a medium developing, Lizz referenced her animation work for The Royal Shakespeare Company project Midsummer Night's Dreaming.

“The concept was to create an interactive experience online,” says Lunney. “It’s an exciting area to work in. Making use of platforms like YouTube, and online media to encourage participation and commentary is a lot of fun - it’ll be interested to see how this area develops.”

Photo: Lizz Lunney

“I made the observation that while characters get more and more human, humans become more and more like cartoon characters, ” reflected Pictoplasma artist Jim Avignon, whose prolific career has embraced street art, character design, illustration and fine art painting. “I wonder if one day it’s going to be hard to tell if it’s a character or a character designer you are talking to.”

The Pictoplasma Portrait Gallery show will tour to Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MARCO) in Mexico in September 2014.