Colors, papers, computers and never fearing a blank canvas. A DM conversation with Wouter Tjeenk Willink, the man behind Mr. Nelson
TWS –Who is Wouter and who’s Mister Nelson?
MN –Well, to start off, I’ll talk about Wouter. I’m a self taught designer/illustrator from Blaricum, a little village near Amsterdam, where I live with my girlfriend and our three children. I started my creative career in the field of radio as an audio designer, making jingles for radiostations. Since 2009 I’ve been working for myself as a graphic designer/illustrator. I love sports and music and I would love to someday make the poster for the Roland Garros tennis tournament (every year they commission an artist to make the artwork which results in a very different art poster every year).
TWS –Yes, I’ve seen some of your Tennis inspired posters!
MN –Yeah, I really like sports and would love to do some work in that direction. These Roland Garros posters are more like collectible artworks than just promotional posters. So that would be an awesome job to do.
TWS –And who’s Mr.Nelson? Is your Mr. Hyde or something like that?
MN –Well, it’s actually just practical. When I started working for myself I thought my real name would be a bit difficult for international use. So I thought it was a better idea to think of some nickname. Unfortunately no juicy story here about me hiding behind a fake name to do things I don’t dare to do under my own name. Come to think about it, maybe I will fit on another name not openly connected to me to really create freely without any constraints and thoughts about what people will think of me.
TWS –And what did you associate with Nelson?
MN –I couldn’t really think of something at first, but I knew I wanted it to feel like some kind of a (fictional) person. Just when I wanted to give up I saw a portrait illustration on my wall of Nelson Mandela I made as a free work, which I lettered Mr.Nelson over. That’s when it clicked and I had my new name.
TWS –Mandela seems a really positive reference point! Glad that I have asked, since it gives a new meaning to your moniker. And how was that shift from audio to visual arts?
MN –I was making jingles and promos for radio stations at the time. It was a very fast moving market and also changing all the time. The station I worked for was sold two times and I moved along with it. After the second time the station was sold I felt the new station wasn’t a good fit for me. Also I had been having this feeling for a longer time that I wanted to create things that were somewhat less volatile. I wanted to make things people could experience a little longer. So I decided to change course and to have a go at my other creative love, graphic design. Something I was doing more as a hobby back then. When I was a kid I was always drawing and crafting but when I was an audio designer my graphic activities were a bit on hold since I had this other outlet for my creativity. But at a certain moment I rediscovered it again. So it felt that that time was a great moment to go in a different creative direction and I started my one man design studio.
TWS –And when did collage enter to your life?
MN –The first time, besides maybe sometime in primary school, I made a collage was for the background of the birth card of my second son. But it was only until seeing the work of people like Mike McQuade I realized that collage was not just a nice little craft/hobby thing, but a real serious artform. So then I started to experiment with collage more often.
TWS: And what is that look find in collage that you don’t have in design? Why do you need this alternative creative outlet?
MN –I don’t think it’s really a complete alternative creative outlet, I think it’s just another technique. I really like to use different materials and techniques and have some kind of a set of ‘weapons’ to choose from. But I realised I’ve been doing more and more collage lately, so I think I’m naturally attracted to it. I don’t know exactly what it really is that attracts me to collage. But one thing I like about it is that you don’t have to start with a completely blank canvas. You already have ‘something’ to work with, a starting point. You have something that already exists and use it to make something new. I think my creative brain needs to have at least something first to start working. I really suffer from the infamous fear of the blank canvas. But when I have something, this can be only one little piece of paper, my creative juices start flowing.
TWS –That’s really interesting. I never thought of collage from that perspective. Your work mixes analog and digital. Can you tell us something about your work process?
MN –I work both analogously and digitally, mostly digital I must admit. But always with some analog elements. Analog handmade parts reflect that there was a human involved in making the piece. Since everything is becoming more and more slick and perfect in the digital age I like the roughness and imperfections from analog. Sometimes I work fully analog, but most of the times I also like to use the flexibility of working digitally.
I’m not really collecting pieces all the time, although sometimes when I see a small bit of paper or some other material on the floor (with three kids in your house you have a lot of stuff lying around on the floor) I pick it up to save it for later. Also when I see something in a magazine or newspaper that attracts my attention in form of a nice texture or something I keep it. But most of the time when making a paper collage I just take a nice pile of magazines and grab some imagery from them. This could be photographs, but also textures and nice shapes. After ripping or cutting out the images that speak to me I just start by looking for nice combinations and push the pieces around until the composition feels right and then glue them to the paper. Quite often I then take a picture of them and play around a little in Photoshop.
Other times when I work digitally from the start I look around for images on Google and some public domain image collections. When I’m working with a specific theme I mostly work digitally, since the supply of images online is endless and more diverse then sourcing just from magazines. Also I work somewhat quicker digitally.
Working analoguely and digitally both have their pro’s and cons. With analog it’s more a definitive process. Once you’ve cut a piece of paper a certain way, or glued everything to paper you can’t go back really. Also I love to work with my hands and get them dirty. Working digitally you can move back and forth, try out different things quickly. You’re much more flexible. But also you miss out on the real tactile feel and appearance. Although there’s a lot you can do digitally these days to make things look quite analog I then still miss the feeling of actually holding something in your hands. That you can touch the work. But I think the difference is mainly in de process of creating. Different speed, different flexibility.
I think when working purely analog that’s when that moment of flow comes by more often than when working digitally. Maybe it’s because when using your hands you add an extra sense, thus an extra stream of feedback to your brain. The more your brain has to work, the less it tends to get distracted. And boy is my brain a champion in looking for distractions.
TWS –There’s something very primal in your work. If seems a very visceral way of approaching collage. You have a very precise way to be imprecise 🙂 How your visual approach is related with the physical way in which you work are connected?
MN –Haha! Yeah, I guess that’s true! I work very intuitively, not thinking too much about what I do, let it happen and act on instinct. I work quite fast. I just collect shapes and parts of images and really roughly cut them out. Maybe I work fast because I don’t want my rational mind to step in. I first just want to see where it goes naturally and think about it later.
TWS –You mentioned earlier Mike McQuade’s work. Which other influences can you find in your work?
MN –Some of my inspirations are people like Aaron Beebe, Ricardo Santos, Jimmy Turrell and many many more. I also really like the work of Katrien de Blauwer. I love the simplicity and minimalism of here collages. I could go on forever, there is so much inspiration to be found online these days. But I have to be cautious in looking for inspiration online and in books too much, since I tend to get overwhelmed quickly. David Carson was a big inspiration when I started graphic design. I think it all started with his books Trek and the End of Print. I remember when I saw his designs I was a bit confused. This was so different from what I thought graphic design was actually. After that I came across the work of Thomas Schostok (THS). He made those great Beast Magazines those days. I love the roughness in his work too. I loved drawing as a kid, but I never was very good at it. People like David Carson and THS made me realize that things don’t need to beautiful to be beautiful so to say. Beauty isn’t always a perfectly drawn image. Beauty is in the imperfections which give a design character. This was a big eye opener for me. I realized I still could pursue a career in the graphic design/illustration direction. When I went back to graphic design after my ‘audio break’ I discovered James Victore. I really like his free and a bit clumsy style. He doesn’t really care what it looks like as long as it conveys an emotion and a message. In fact he has been a great help for me in freeing my mind. I’m a real perfectionist and that has been in my way for a long time. I had all these beautiful sketchbooks, but I didn’t dare to use them since I was afraid of ruining them with ugly drawings. Then one day I saw an online course of him where he gave me the insight that it’s just about making stuff and to completely let go your creativity. From that moment something changed in me, and I just shifted into a ‘ruin-as-much-sketchbooks-as-possible-mode’.
TWS –I see in your work traces of dutch visual culture. Maybe the bold approach or your use of color. Do you feel somehow connected with the Dutch visual tradition?
MN –First I have to say I’m not a schooled creative, so I don’t really have a great knowledge of art history. Also when going to museums I’m not really interested in the bigger picture, for me it’s just a matter of ‘I like this’ and I don’t like this’. That being said I think the Dutch visual tradition is very diverse, varying from the real classic painters to more expressive artists like Karel Appel and Herman Brood and everything in between, so I don’t know if there is something like the Dutch visual tradition.
TWS –I was thinking of graphic designers such as Karel Martens, that are very representative of a particular way of approaching visual communication (yes, my Q was quite vague in that sense!)
MN –Well, I am really attracted to bold and colorful work, so I do feel connected to people like him. But actually that’s something that came to me in the last couple of years. Before that I must say my work was quite dull and ordinary, not really outspoken. Since that moment with the James Victore course I’ve been making more bold and expressive work. Although I really liked the work of bold artists before that, it’s just like I didn’t make that kind of work myself.
TWS –I always thought of Karel Marten’s work as colourful and bold 🙂 Maybe less organic like yours, but very expressive in a different way.
MN –Yeah I think his work is more graphic.
TWS –To finish, tell us your own definition of collage.
MN –I think collage is all about collecting, selecting and arranging (and re-arranging and re-arranging etc etc). Finding nice parts and recycle them. Is that a definition?
TWS –yes! of course! Is anything else that you’d like to say or talk about? Is there anything that I missed asking and you feel that might be important for people to understand your work?
MN –Well, I have a little trick I use often when my fear of the blank canvas kicks in, that could be helpful for others
TWS –Sounds great! Please share.
MN –I recycle a lot of my own works. So when I’m stuck, staring at my blank screen for hours on end, I just open an older work and pick one or two layers (or flatten the image and just cutout some parts) and place them in my blank canvas. This really helps me to just get started and break my creative block. Also, I think that when reusing parts of your work again and again it adds to your style. This can be only small details, but it works. For example I have some brush scratches I use over and over again, most of the time just to finish off a piece. It’s like a kind of a little visual signature.
TWS –Do you create your own brushes in Photoshop from your analog experiments?
MN –No I never do that actually.. Too much of a hassle for me when there are already so many brushes available. Sometimes I steal some scratches my kids made on a paper I find lying around in the house. (don’t tell them, or they’ll ask for royalties). But I just like the idea of putting something made by them in my work somewhere. Just for the idea.