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Diary of a very human artist
The first time I really discovered Stan Manoukian’s work was when I found a small thick book, “Diary of Inhuman Species”, in a bookshop in Paris. In this incredible book, a crazy artist had decided to draw a monster per day, every day. A trip in a universe mixing science fiction, humor, pop references and a line that I loved at first sight. Stan Manoukian, or Stan for short, is today an essential artist of the modern contemporary scene. A complete artist, precise, sharp, who takes us in phantasmagorical and poetic universes, without ever forgetting this small touch of humor that we like so much. To discover Stan’s work is to take the risk of getting lost in each of his works (and they are numerous!!!) as the details are infinite. Small masterpieces filled with fantastic creatures and an ode to nature and imagination. As part of his current events this summer in Aix en Provence (an exhibition not to be missed, which Stan tells us about at the end of this ITW), he kindly took some precious minutes of his time to answer our questions. A huge thank you to him!
1/ Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and what made you choose art as a career?
Since childhood I have been immersed in the artistic field with my father being a painter and my mother being an illustrator. Like all children I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil, I just never let it go! My parents also had an antiques business with mainly books and prints. All these books, paintings or drawings rocked my daily life. And then I was also a big fan of comics, reading the magazines of the time, Metal Hurlant among others, and I started to make my first pages of comics with small stories. As a teenager, when I had to choose a direction for my studies, I naturally wanted to go to an art school… I entered the Estienne school in 1985 in the F12 section with the idea of becoming a comic book artist. This idea never left me, even though at the time it was considered a bad idea to tell the teachers that you wanted to be a comic artist. When I left school with my B.A. in my pocket (which I never used) I started to create comic book projects and to present them to publishers while having my first jobs as a freelance for advertising. After a few unsuccessful attempts at comic book projects I got the first one signed and that was the start of my career as a cartoonist. I have done illustrations, comics, design for movies, advertising etc…
2/ How would you describe yourself as an artist ? What is your philosophy about art?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, hahaha! I think I’m like most artists, I put on a support things that I sucked and that inspire me: images, meetings, events, emotions, ideas and many other things… I started this work on this universe populated with creatures about 14 years ago, next to my work, by drawing a monster per day in an instinctive way, trying to experiment without having a particular message to deliver. This exercise pushed me further and further to explore new techniques, forms, environments or atmospheres. Now I structure more and prepare my exhibitions by choosing a theme and trying to extract my vision. I want to offer an emotional experience to the person who comes to the gallery to see my work, to transport them into my world through the windows I put on the walls. I like to leave some mystery and let everyone the freedom to make their own interpretation in order to make their story their own by leaving them some clues in my drawings… I believe that art is made to give people emotions and make them travel.
3/ We can feel a lot of different inspirations in your work : engraving, fantastic literature, nature… Can you tell us more about your influences and inspirations ?
Yes, it’s actually a big mix of various influences drawn from everywhere, it’s very difficult to say which elements remain but each one had a more or less direct impact. As a kid, I was a Disney fan and I loved cartoons, especially those with “fantastic” parts were my favorites, obviously when there were monsters, fairies or giants I was in heaven. And then the monster and SF movies of the 50s, the novels of Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe or Jules Verne. In comics, to mention only a few, it was Franquin and his “Idées Noires”, E.P Jacobs, Moebius, Yves Chaland, Richard Corben, Dave Stevens and Bernie Wrightson who literally blew me away with his interpretation of Frankenstein. Later I also became interested in those who had influenced the authors I loved, the American illustrators of the beginning of the 19th century, Virgil Finlay, Joseph Clement Coll or Franklin Booth… or the European illustrators of tales and fables from which Walt Disney drew to create his cartoons: Granville, Beatrix Potter, Henrich Kley, Gustaf Tenggren or Benjamin Rabier to name a few… But there are dozens of others that I could cite to make this interview boring.
For my inspiration it is my research on the internet, nature pictures, atmospheric pictures of rain, mist, macro pictures of insects or plants. The biological plates of the old encyclos, of Haeckel among others… And then there is also my own observation of nature, animals and all the details that I can find interesting. I take pictures when I’m on the road or on vacation.
4/ When did your fascination for animals and monsters start?
When I was a kid I used to watch a lot of animal documentaries and Captain Cousteau’s films, I loved them… And then if I really go back to my younger years, I think it was Jim Henson and his “Muppet Show” that gave me this love of monsters and weird creatures with all the humor in it. It is still very present in my work, I think, I owe him a lot! After that, it was the Hammer films and the Universal monsters that were shown in the film club.
5/ Your illustrations are rich in symbols. How does nature influence your work and what does it symbolize?
But nature symbolizes life ! It’s a subject that is taking a bigger and bigger place in our society, the importance of preserving and respecting it, we have gone too far! My “fantastic” universe is not really different from what exists, I don’t invent much if you look around you. I think I have a big need to escape through what I draw, to reconnect with it and to connect people too, to get back to the source of who we are and where we come from and to give love to nature. I feel guilty and am a frustrated city dweller actually!
6/ Your work technique is incredible in its precision and patience. Can you explain us a little more your way of working ?
My way of working differs a little bit depending on what I have to do and especially on the size and ambition of the drawing. The common point is that I almost always do research sketches before starting. I start with an idea, an animal or a theme and I let my mind wander on the paper, that’s when some of my documentation can intervene. When I am satisfied with one of the researches I scan my sketch and I enlarge it on computer to the size of my final drawing, then I print it. Sometimes for large drawings, since my printer is small, I cut and paste my multitude of pages. In the end I have my giant sketch that I transfer to my medium in transparency using my light table.
At this point, I begin to go into detail, to refine the expressions and attitudes of my characters, to add elements that were too small for the sketch. I use a red pencil, a habit that comes from the time I was doing research for the cartoon. The placements/constructions were done with red or blue and I would “clean up” with pencil. When I photocopied the drawing, with the less powerful photocopiers of the time, the red pencil disappeared. I realized while working on my universe with my bugs that the presence of this underlying red color appealed to people and was part of my identity, it seemed important to me not to erase it. I only transfer the contours of the forms without the shadows to have a construction of the drawing all the same rather light all in “pure line”.
Once this step is done, it’s the moment I get into the main part of the work. When I use pencil on a large drawing I start the drawing from the top, taking care to place a protective sheet under my hand so as not to smear everything! When it is smaller the risk is less and I can start it anywhere. I have my sketch next to me at this stage, it’s the one I use as a reference to render the atmosphere and respect the light direction I had set. I use again my documentation or even new images that I search on the net. Very often I finish the drawing with a certain level of contrast and then I go back to it once I have finished the whole. I darken some areas and blur others to get the result I was looking for. The difficulty for my work is to have a clear image despite the multitude of details.
For the ink drawings it requires even more concentration because I can’t go back because I don’t do any retouching with white ink. I must not darken certain areas too much so that the contrast dosages with my “etching” method work.
7/ Have you made any artistic encounters that have marked you?
Yes, many in the past when I was making comics, all those who advised me when I was young. Régis Loisel was one of the first when I was barely 18 years old, his advice on the construction of an image still helps me today. Geoff Darrow who awakened me through his work to the love of detail. Mike Kaluta, or Dave Stevens with whom we worked a little with Vince, who was incredibly kind. And of course many other designers that I’ve talked to that have had an impact on my way of seeing things.
And then when I started to work on my universe with my bugs, about ten years ago while I was posting regularly on the networks (Myspace!), I became friends with Brandt Peters and Kathie Olivas, two American artists that I met later on. They were the first to show my work in their gallery in Albuquerque and gave me very good advice on how to build a working method and reach an audience. I owe them a lot for giving me all these opportunities.
8/Which artist inspires you the most?
None in particular, but lots of little bits of artists I’ve already mentioned. And also Gustave Doré and Jim Henson, Edward Gorey, Norman Lindsay, Ingres, William Bouguereau, more recently Dave Cooper, Joâo Ruas, Femke Hiemstra and James Jean, but there are so many others… Otherwise the exhibitions I go to see of past or contemporary artists.
9/ What is your favorite piece in your portfolio and why does it resonate so much with you?
I hope my favorite piece is my next drawing! This is part of my goal from show to show, I have the desire to improve and grow. I want my work to evolve over time and explore new techniques. I still have so much to do and learn!
Despite this I still love one of my large drawings called “The King”, it is an ink work that is 180 x 90 cm. I still like the strength and calmness of the main character. It was a very hard work to do, the challenge in this kind of drawing is to use a lot of technique without it being to the detriment of the sensitivity and the energy that must come out of the work in the end. You have to stay delicate and not drown it in a mess of lines. I feel like I was in a state of mind when I drew it, and after a short time I felt unable to do the same thing again, as if it was someone else who had done it. Fortunately I have done others since then but this one remains very memorable for me.
10/ What is your relationship with pop culture, between yesterday and today?
I don’t have the same relationship as before. When I was younger it fed me and made me what I am today, my work is a continuation of all this pop culture that I absorbed in the past. I regurgitate all the books, comics, posters, toys or genre movies in my medium, arranging them in my own way and trying to put my personality in it.
I have much less time to read now and we consume images differently than before where it is a constant flow. We seemed to be UFOs back then being fans of Heroic Fantasy and genre/horror movies with zombies. I’m glad that pop culture paradoxically became popular, because thanks to it, the production of programs, toys or books increased considerably by offering us new things. Without that we would never have had series like Game Of Thrones or Stranger Things!
11/ In 1 year you have had a rather busy schedule. From the publication of your book Zoologia to your multiple exhibitions between Paris, New York and Los Angeles, can you tell us a little more about your daily life, what it means to work on editorial projects as well as on exhibitions?
I don’t have the same way of approaching my editorial work as an exhibition.
When you make a book, you put yourself at the service of the story you want to tell, to produce a series of images that will serve a narrative, you have to see the book as a whole, each drawing will not necessarily be the most beautiful drawing in the world, but it will have to serve the story in the best possible way. Moreover, all the drawings are gathered in a book which constrains the size of the drawings to a determined size. The originals can be altered or retouched on the computer. The most important thing is that the printed book is successful.
I consider my exhibitions to be immersive experiences that I offer to the viewer, the creation of each drawing is decided according to a theme, a technique and a format in front of which you will be able to immerse yourself, a larger or smaller window on the world in which I want to transport you. I work on each drawing as a unique work that fits into the overall staging of the gallery space, they must respond to each other. I really try to have a real physical relationship with the drawing you are standing in front of, to try to produce emotions like the ones I can feel when I go to exhibitions… And then of course they are for sale so I am very happy when my creatures are adopted, they are loved and looked at with tenderness and have a much better life than in my boxes
12/ What are your typical days at the studio like? Do you have any habits or little quirks that you can’t live without?
It depends on the period, if I’m in rush (all the time) or in mega rush (often). I usually arrive in the morning around 8:15am and start working straight away, then a short coffee break around 9am with my friends in the workshop. Meal from noon sharp, we are too hungry because we got up early! After this short pose, return to work until 7:30 pm, all that with omnipresent music. I can stay later at the studio during the mega-rush period and work 16 or 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for example before the exhibitions or books. I often work on weekends, at home or in the evenings as well, or answer emails and interviews like this one. I work on the smallest drawings, sketches or graphics.
I don’t have any particular habits, I like to work long periods of time where I don’t lose my concentration, I try to avoid appointments that could cut me off in my momentum by placing them at times when I feel my mind is free.
13/ What subject would you like to tackle in an official way (manga, comics, movie etc)?
I would love to tackle a classic of literature by delivering my own interpretation of the subject, for example “The Jungle Book” by Ruyard Kipling by “monstrating” all the characters.
And then I’d like to tackle the Yokai too, because there are some very nice stories to do based on Japanese beliefs.
14/ What are your current projects… And future projects?
For the time being, mostly exhibitions, the first one will take place in Aix en Provence in July and August. The scenography is almost finished to welcome the visitors from July 2nd. There will be a lot of events around this exhibition and my work: a hunt for playing cards in about thirty shopkeepers of the city, a “big coloring” open to the public on one of my drawings made especially for the occasion and reproduced on a 12 meters support, a free newspaper with my drawings in it, a signing session etc… It promises to be a nice and happy event!
Around July 15th we will repeat the event a few kilometers away, in Forcalquier, without the exhibition but with “Monsters” workshops for children, coloring and cards during the Cooksound festival.
In November 2021, another beautiful exhibition is planned in Blois during the BD Boum festival.
In December 2021 an exhibition at the Haven Gallery in New York where all the works will be unpublished.
And to finish with one of the biggest projects to come in 2022, a big exhibition at the Glenat Gallery in Paris which has been representing and supporting me for several years now.
On the book side, there are no immediate projects that I can talk about except my next self-published book “Rock Monsters” which should be out by the end of the year. This will be my 7th self-produced book, I do absolutely everything in it even the graphics, it’s a lot of work but I have total freedom, I love it!
16 / Finally, would you have any advice for young artists wishing to follow your path?
Draw, draw… draw constantly and don’t get discouraged. Take all opportunities because they can lead us to places we don’t suspect. And then value your activity by getting paid because often being an artist is not considered as a real job.
Your favorite movie?
But there are so many!!! In this case I prefer to give the name of a recent movie that I loved: Interstellar by Christopher Nolan.
Your favorite book ?
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, illustrated by Berni Wrightson of course !
Your favorite comic book/manga ?
“Les idées noires ” by Franquin.
Your favorite video game ?
I usually don’t have time to play video games. I did get stuck on GTA 5 a few years ago.
But now it’s more about little games on the phone – The Room series because I love puzzles! But I quickly pick up because I feel guilty about spending time playing while my work is not going well.
A huge thank you to Stan for taking the time to answer all our questions despite his super busy schedule!