Parisian illustrator Ugo Gattoni spends months crafting fantastical environments for his giant hand-drawn artworks, which fully immerse the viewer in his imagination...
UGO GATTONI_ Ugo Gattoni is a Parisian artist and art director, whose surreal and exquisitely detailed portraits, depictions of cityscapes, and strange, otherworldly objects and artefacts are renowned worldwide for their unparalleled level of skill. Working predominantly with graphite and ink, Ugo creates pieces that are a whirlwind of minute details, ethereal characters and typography. www.ugogattoni.fr
S pending months and months honing a piece to perfection by hand may sound more akin to the life of a fine artist than a commercial illustrator, where tight briefs and deadline pressures may sometimes risk putting a straitjacket on creativity and craft.
Not so for renowned French illustrator Ugo Gattoni, who uses a unique blend of patience and skill to fill large canvases with incredibly intricate detail, populating whole worlds with the many creatures of his imagination.
Arguably his breakthrough project, a 2011 mural in Paris – some 33 feet wide – helped pave the way for Gattoni’s large-scale work, which has been applied across everything from wallpaper for Pierre Frey to silk scarves for Hermès; projection mapped onto the walls of London’s Saatchi Gallery; graced the covers of books for Nobrow and album artwork for Caravan Palace; and also made the transition into animated form for the latter’s music video.
In our third and final interview conducted at OFFF By Night festival in Antwerp back in September, we caught up with Gattoni to discuss his passion for fine detail, his love of handcrafted techniques, and his rare skill for bringing these things together on a large scale...
Talk us through your interest in surrealism and fantasy worlds. Who are your main influences?
It’s hard to give someone as an influence. Of course, I’m certainly influenced by great masters of surrealism like Dalí, but I don’t know his entire body of work that well.
Mostly, my phantasmagoric worlds come from my dreams, which I write down when I wake up. From that, I complete the stories by writing a lot – that step is really important, before creating this universe by drawing.
But also, since I was a child I’ve been crazy about legends, mythology and other stories of gods, temples and so on. I’m also crazy about architecture, and I like to play with it, transform it and deconstruct it.
Do all your characters inhabit the same fantasy world, or does each new piece exist in a new universe?
I want all my artwork to be different from the others. It’s really important for me, firstly, because I get tired quickly of what I’m drawing, and also to experiment with new things.
How much time do you spend on things like backstories when developing a new environment?
Backstories are the basis of each universe I draw, but they can be really open. When I’m working on a big piece, I enjoy having the freedom of improvising, on little scenes for example. I don’t want to have the whole thing planned in advance.
How important are storytelling skills for large-scale, complex, character-driven work like yours? Do you plan little scenes and then find ways to integrate them, or does the whole thing evolve as a whole?
It’s a big work of composition at the beginning – to construct a whole world, while providing the place for the smallest stories.
I work on big-scale drawings to immerse people into worlds by presenting something bigger than them in front of them. It’s a game of scale between people and the artwork, with several levels of reading, which is a way of making them enter into the piece.
Firstly, when we are far from the drawing, we see a big city, for example – big architecture in a general mood. Then we get closer and we can see things that we couldn’t before. We have our own walk through it, taking the way we want to explore that world.
And then, we come even closer, to see the really little details and hidden scenes. It’s like a intimate relationship. We can’t see
the frame anymore – we are surrounded by the drawing, as if we’re inside it.
Does it help to have sense of humour with your style of work?
Yes, I guess humour is a nice breath of fresh air amongst this huge amount of detail and information. A laugh is the best thing in the world, it’s so important to me.
Year after year the dose of humour that I put in my drawings is different, maybe more subtle, I hope. Sometimes it’s not a joke as such, but just the design of an object – adding rounded curves, for example – that can make me smile.
Do you ever introduce personal references and in-jokes into scenes?
Yes, in most of my drawings there are a few little private jokes for my close friends. I used to do it a lot, adding a particular little bicycle or something, but now it’s a bit different. I’m less into simple jokes, but the work of writing stories is quite important now. I’d like that part of my work to take a bigger part; having some text to have with the drawing. Less jokes; not serious, but maybe more fantastical.
Do you prefer to sketch the entire piece out first to determine the composition, and then add detail, or work a section at a time?
My process is actually really basic. I start by roughing out the main composition with pencil, focusing of the construction and perspective. I climb on my perch several times to gain height, and check progress.
Once this important step is okay, I use my Rotring pens for outlines. This is a pleasant step, in which I add all the elements and details like rocks, cracks on buildings, and so on. At the end of this stage, it looks like a complex architectural plan.
Then comes the most enjoyable step: the shading or colour, when everything comes to life.
Working by hand on such complex, large-scale pieces must require a huge investment of time...
Yes, it does take a lot of time to create these pieces, but to create by hand is really important for me, because of how it looks with the materials I’m using, and the errors I can make with my hands. That makes it totally different from digital. An original is something more poetic; there is only one.
How do you keep focus working on the same piece for so long?
I can spend six months on one drawing, and my mind does go a bit weird, working on something every day for several months. I might get a bit tired of that drawing, but I always find new stories and new ways to continue it. Maybe we could compare it with a [theatrical] performance.
What do you do if you make a mistake? It must happen...
Yes. But due to the amount of detail, I can work around it. That’s why I like to do it by hand. There’s a charm to having little errors and mistakes, and I’m happy with that. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I missed my line,’ but when you see it as the charm of the original… that’s important to me.
You made your first move into animation with a music video for Caravan Palace – did you find it difficult stripping back the detail in your work to be animated?
No, I was happy to do less detail. I learned a lot about composition because it’s totally different. What I do currently with illustration is
the main mood of a world – one point of view – but the animation shows what’s it like to walk into that street, not see it from the sky.
It’s going deeper into the story, immersing people into my world through animation. We show the full mood. I spend a lot of time writing about how things should move, how characters should feel. I like working in that way; there’s a lot of discussion with animators.
How does the collaboration work between you and your animators?
I just do the landscape, background, decor and the direction. Once I’ve written the storyboard, I hand over to the animators – firstly it was just some friends in London, but now I’ve signed to a production company.
What’s the most challenging project you’ve ever worked on, and why?
I would say Hippopolis, my first Hermès scarf. Maybe because I had no real brief, and some pressure because it was my first artwork in colour. I’d never tried it before.
It definitely changed my work. Now, I love working in colour. I’m experimenting with painting, so let’s see where that’ll take me.
How do you select your colour palettes, having worked exclusively in black and white for so long?
That’s a big question. I’m still at the beginning with colour, I do the outlines by hand all the time, and then I scan the piece and do the colours digitally, just to be able to switch and find the right colours.
I know where the shadows are going to be, so I add colour and then switch in other colours to change the mood. I would like to be able to do so by hand one day, maybe with paint.
The colour palettes you’ve chosen so far are very distinctive and surreal, almost psychedelic in places…
That’s a good word. I’m currently doing a really psychedelic project with crazy colours, as it happens.
I love surrealistic things, but I know that I’m drawing realistic portraits – all of my sketches are realistic, but with a twist. I guess with the colours it’s about bringing something event more crazy or different to the brief. Next month: Mural specialist Florence Blanchard discusses how a background in graffiti and training as a scientist influenced her style.
This album cover, Albert, was created with pencil on paper in 2015.
Right: Walking Stick is a series of drawings of hybrid objects made with walking sticks and other objects.
Above: This wallpaper for Pierre Frey is named Rise, and depicts a king and queen who are rebuilt as giants after a period of misfortune.