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Interview: Karlotta Freier

From gorgeous blossoming flowers to couples in love to the horrors of climate change, New York-based illustrator-animator Karlotta Freier's drawings are tender yet impactful. I have adored Freier's comics, illustrations and zines on Instagram for years, and admired every stroke and color she makes.

In conversation with Karlotta, who was kind enough to take me deep into her creative process and world:

I've been a big fan of your work for years. I'd love to know how you got started with your art?

Thank you so much. I too have followed you work for years and I am excited to collaborate!

I think have always been drawing. Being the kid that drew gave me an identity throughout my childhood and also a way to relate to the world around me. It was really important to me in the way that it gave me a place to retreat to. I moved out when I was 17 and entered a somewhat turbulent time, but I was always drawing. I tried to transform that passion into a career by testing out professions like tattooing and costume design. I think I was 20 when I started to study graphic design and 21 when I switched to illustration. In many ways, that time really changed me. My life felt very unreliable and uncertain. University gave me some stability. It also gave me a context in which I could take my drawing practice seriously and grow it into a career.

I'm so glad you found your calling. You work with illustrations, comics and the occasional animation. How do you decide what format to visually explore an idea in?

Ah that’s tough! I always feel like I am missing out on the thing that I am not doing at the moment. But each practice recharges the energy for the other, and each field informs the other fields. I was doing these tiny oil paintings for example (above). As opposed to watercolor, oil painting as a medium allowed me to keep very clean colours. Then I tried to apply that flat colour to animation for a personal project and one for the website of a therapy practice (below) and I really liked how I could change a flat color into a darker hue by adding texture.

Now I apply this process daily in my editorial watercolor illustration. I find that the time I get to experiment without a goal in my mind is the most valuable to me. When I work on a commission, I sometimes have less than a day to figure out the right image for an article. In that time, I am not gonna reinvent my process but will rely on the things I have already figured out. That way, I get to concentrate on the idea and finding a nice composition and color scheme to convey it. But the time when I get to make stuff without a purpose- it fills up my toolkit. Like how that little oil painting practice helped me understand color in a new way and it translated into all of my work. It feels a bit like I am constantly trying to solve a very complicated Sudoku and I keep having to go to different areas to make progress. Solving something in animation will help me with my comic. Making a small oil-painting will help with my editorial work and so on.

How do you begin a new piece of work? Are there habits and rituals that keep you going?

I am a very emotional person, so I get enough variations just from showing up in a different mood each day. Over the years, I have figured out that I work best the closer I stick to a routine. The things that help me most are: taking breaks, even under a tight deadline, eating a real lunch and taking time for my own projects. If I stick to these, I don’t run out of energy. And having energy seems to be my best tool to finding creative solutions. Of course, I often end up abandoning these rules that I made for myself, but eventually, I hit a wall. Lately, I have started taking the weekends off and it has been a game changer for me. I actually feel like I am accomplishing more because I am not constantly working from a state of time depravation.

When I get a new commission, my starting point is often a fear that I won’t find a solution for the piece. But by now, I have gotten into a habit of getting to work anyway and not waiting for inspiration to strike. The first step with a commission is always a humble and patient sketch phase, where I wait for something to make an interesting connection to the article. Then I play around with composition and details. I send it off to the art director and they will get back to me with feedback. Sometimes that totally switches up my initial idea and what I liked about it and I have to start with step 1 again. If we have the main sketch down, I can add some final details and start finding a color combination. I often have a color scheme in mind when I submit the sketches but later, we might have changed so much that I have to look for something new. To me, all of this is so much easier if I don’t stop believing that I will be able to come up with something- so that's what I try to do by creating healthy circumstances.

You work with watercolor, sketch pens, colour pencils and digital tools too. What medium are you most comfortable with? What mediums have you not tried yet but would like to?

Yes, I like all of them! Watercolor and pen is my go-to tool for editorial illustrations. I would really like to explore woodcarving and ceramics next.

Lovely! What or whom do you look to for inspiration? Who are some artists whose work you admire?

Oh there are so many and my list of favorite artists is always changing and growing. Right now, I am looking at a lot at the work of Horace Pippin, Jokum Nordstrom, Mamma Andersson and Jules De Balincourt. There are paintings and drawings that feel so close to me, as if they have a connection to my past or something. Then there are some people whose work I Google sometimes to remind me what is possible. Tove Jansson is one of those people. It inspires me to remember how much is possible with an energetic line, interesting mark making and empty spaces.

Illustration for a German magazine

I also look at movies for inspiration. Yasujirō Ozu's work, for example, stayed in my mind for the layered scenes and I try to remember his work when I am building an environment (above). In Aki Kaurismäki's film Le Havre is a very blue wall and a light situation that hasn’t left my head since I watched it. I have tried to replicate it and haven’t managed yet. Sometimes, I see a red toaster or something in a movie and I fall in love with it. So in my next assignment, I will smuggle it in somewhere. But I also look at my surroundings a lot. I think it helps to find beauty in mundane things, because then you can use it in your work. Just recently, I was working on a piece where I felt that in order for the idea to work, the person had to walk through very tall grass, but the image felt so boring in my mind. (below) So I researched different plants that grow in meadows and played around with a variety of elements- trying to find a good mixture of straight lines, round forms, small elements, big elements and empty spaces. Going about my day I found myself looking at the small plants that grow at the side of the road and taking note in my head. All that stuff helps.

Illustration for The New Yorker

What is your process like in tackling briefs for commissions and editorial work? Do you prefer working on personal projects or do you enjoy creating based on someone's vision?

Doing editorial illustration was my dream for a long time. My favorite moments as a kid were scenes like sitting in a tent on a rainy camping trip with my parents, listening to audiobooks on my cassette player and asking my parents “What should I draw?”. It was never really about the content of drawing for me, but about the process. 'Draw an underwater world', they would answer and I would put the headphones back on. That is basically my job now and I love that.

I love 'giving in' into someone else’s vision. Because then you can concentrate on making the most interesting version of that theme through the choices you have left: content, color, composition, mark making…There is often a point in working on an editorial piece, where I think I have found the best possible solution for the article. When I feel I came up with an image that would give a magical little addition to the text. At this point I often already have an idea of a color scheme, or some other detail that excites me. I send over the sketch - usually together with a few others and a note of what I like best and why. After a while, the art director gets back to me and almost always want to go with another sketch. That’s a moment that I used to struggle a lot with and I used to argue and defend my idea.

My practice has made a huge transformation since I started to embrace that part. I now see this feedback as the prompts I used to asked for on rainy days in a tent in Denmark and I make the best with the choices that remain. This forces me to constantly explore things I am not yet comfortable with and therefore it really grows my toolkit. I use the things I learn along the way in my personal projects and vice versa. Right now, I am working on so many commissions that I always long for more time for my personal stuff. I wouldn’t want to miss either, but my own projects hold a special place in my heart for sure. I am working on a comic right now that i am super excited about. It’s a collaboration with my husband and it’ a magical experience to develop it together. (sketches above)

I'd love to see what your sketchbook looks like. What kind of relationship do you have with it?

My sketchbook has been my most important tool since I can remember. I always carry it with me and have only recently managed to leave it at home when i go to the grocery store. I used to try to make it a pretty object, but nowadays a pretty page is very rare. I use it to remember a color combination, make a quick note or to pass time in the subway or a waiting room. But I think I have built my whole approach in a sketchbook. Drawing there felt so much more free as opposed to drawing on loose paper. I remember doing my first commissions in my sketchbook. I didn’t even take out the pages for scanning, which resulted in blurry edges and everyone just had to live with that because I wasn’t going to sacrifice the integrity of my sketchbook.

What's the big picture for you as an artist? Are there dream projects/milestones you'd like to reach?

My next big milestone is my comic. It’s a lot of work...I am currently sketching out the pages after taking over a year to write the story. Also I have really been enjoying making these tiny oil paintings. I am going to exhibit them in Germany this winter and I would love to dedicate a bigger portion of my practice to that sort of personal work. Generally, I’d like to be able to buy myself more time to experiment and try some stuff that doesn’t have to be good in any way.

Finally, what’s the best piece of art-making advice you've ever received?

I don’t remember anyone explicitly saying this to me but “Let inspiration find you working” and “Trust that the thing that interests you will lead you somewhere” must be some of the best pieces of advice out there. For me, everything changed not when someone said something smart but when people believed that I could be good enough. I had some great teachers in university. I remember one of them looking into my sketchbook and saying “This is really really good”. I think that was the moment I started to carefully reach out for things - maybe the chance to be included in a small group show somewhere, asking an illustrator that I loved for advice, applying to a university on a different continent. Only a few of these things you can imagine for yourself have to work out for your life to be completely transformed, but you have to reach for them.

Thank you SO much, Karlotta. This was an absolute pleasure :)

You can check out Karlotta Freier's work on her website or Instagram @karllikesotto


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