blog - "Ilustrators are the new rockstars!" - Henk Willems
by Gigi van Erven Dorens
Henk Willems is brimming with energy. He balances his work as a brand designer at studio WillemsPeeters with various art projects and his work as a teacher in graphic design at the Arteveldehogeschool in Ghent. In his career, he has worked on diverse projects and does not shy away from new opportunities. For instance, he designed a national skating suit with his colleague Jelena Peeters, created various logos and drew illustrations for children's books. Henk Willems says he does not have his own style, but bends along with the world around him.
Henk, out of all the creative expressions you could choose, why design?
Working with clients gives me a clear framework within which to express my creativity. Those frameworks and the stories of my clients give me the input I need to create an artistic visual. I don’t think I could ever be an autonomous artist, I like working within a functional framework too much. For the new children's book I'm making, for example, I first started with loose drawings. Very soon I figured out that the drawings had to be placed in a book so that they would have an appropriate function. The work I make should always serve for something.
Is that the difference between design and art in your opinion?
Everyone is always talking about whether applied art is also art. A design teacher once said to me: 'Make sure you find a good hobby, because you're never going to be able to express yourself in your work.' I hated to hear that then but I know better now. I get satisfaction from my work and can put all my creativity in it. So my answer to the question whether applied art is real art I would say YES. Both are expressions of creativity, only one is fuelled by clients and the other is not. And if I had to choose between describing myself as a designer or an artist? Neither, just call me a creator of images, which is what I am.
Which artist do you personally admire?
Lorenzo Mattotti is an Italian illustrator whom I greatly admire. His drawings are published in, among others, The New Yorker. I think his work is a good example of applied art that transcends its functional purpose. His work is one of the most beautiful works I have ever seen. There is a tuscan glow about his work, giving off a warmth that you can almost feel on your face when you look at it.
Where do you get inspiration from?
By constantly being amazed about the world around me. This can occur by reading books, flicking through magazines, walking down the street, watching my students work, having a drink at a cafe, going to exhibitions, and so on. Throughout the day, I store all these impressions in my mind, to turn them into images later. I see this amazement about the world in my daughter who is now studying biology. She can sometimes stare at a mushroom for an hour to study it. Exactly that research, with an eye for detail and room for wonder, is also the research I strive for when I start a project. It is precisely that wonder and amazement that keeps us awake and interested in the world around us. That is why I also try to convey to my students: be amazed!
However, it can also be quite difficult, such a busy mind that is never quiet. Even before my current project is finished, I am already thinking about what to do next. The urge to make images gives me satisfaction but is accompanied by an indomitable restlessness to taste everything in life. I sometimes call this my 'controlled adhd'. Well, it is a challenge. Probably a challenge that will never end.
What is Henk's style?
To be honest, I am scared of having a signature style because I am afraid of being pushed into a certain box. In terms of style, I would say I adapt to my surroundings. The world changes so fast, I want to change with it as an image-maker and not be excluded from anything. So therefore my first book is completely different from my second book. Maybe my experimentation with different styles is also due to the fact that I haven't been illustrating for 20 years. Besides working as a brand designer, I am a teacher. In class, I saw my students illustrating and I became jealous of them! Then, after 20 years, I started illustrating again. Maybe that is why I am experimenting so much with style now. I try everything I didn't do in those past twenty years. The discovery of styles can be a vulnerable process, at this moment I don't consider myself a good illustrator, I still have a lot to learn. But maybe I will never be completely content with myself, I must admit.
How does it feel to be illustrating again now after 20 years?
Just by not having done it for a long time, I have a tremendous spontaneity in drawing now. I have found more simplicity, essence and confidence in the images I create. I used to think that images should be complex. Now I know that a good image contains a clear, straightforward message that many people can understand. Another reaction to start drawing again after so many years is that I started working with a lot of colour. Before, I hardly dared to combine colours. There was a fear there, which I am now trying to overcome.
You are now creating a book. Can you tell a bit more about that?
I have always had a tremendous love for children's books. When I go into a bookshop,I always go immediately to the children's books. The genre fascinates me, the imagination of children is such a magical world. Ever since I was 18, I knew I wanted to create a children's book. I like it best when I get reactions from children that they liked the illustrations I made. The new book doesn't have to be a bestseller to be successful. If some children appreciate it, the adults' reactions don't matter to me anymore. By the way, all the drawings in the book can also be seen as separate works, each having its own power.
Each drawing could be a book cover in my opinion. That is also why I use bright colours, the drawing must stand out, catch the eye. Henk's new book Wips weet wat Wips wil is now available at tuimelkruid.be.
Soon one of your drawings will be featured on the bottles of Yugen's new flavour. How did your design for Yugen come about?
I was immediately given a framework, the image had to be a circle, that got me really excited right away! I also learnt more about Yugen's message: the feeling that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and the experience of natural beauty. These two inspirations reminded me of the cycle of life. The cycle that man, animal, sea and nature are part of, is reflected in a surreal way in my image for Yugen. The drawing on the bottles of the new Yugen flavour 'Blood Orange Juniper' is about a respectful relationship between man and nature.
A real Yugen moment for me was the wonder I had last summer on our family holiday. We hiked in a gorge (Watkins Glen State Park in the Finger Lakes District) after we left NYC. I thought NYC would really be the most impressionable experience of the trip, but it soon became apparent that this hike in nature really far surpassed everything else. The rough shapes, the river shaping the hollowed-out rocks, the light in between the leaves, the sound of the wind in the gorge, the rainbow you step through,... everything was so perfectly in place in that moment that I felt like I had never been so close to nature as I was then. Writing it down now gives me goosebumps again.
For the future, what would you still like to do?
I once told my wife that when I retire, I will become a sculptor. Why? I have always drawn everything in 2D, I think it would be great to create 3D sculptures. But yeah, that retirement is probably not in the cards any time soon. Until then, I will continue balancing all of my current projects!
Thank you, Henk. Let's toast to that inexhaustible source of wonder: cheers!