What if you had to communicate just for one day without using your words?
While most of us would find this a difficult task, this is the daily task of illustrators, who laboriously design their visuals to communicate what words could not. Marc Majewski is a children’s book illustrator and also an artist of “queer” portraits, two seemingly divergent paths that have inspired each other. We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Marc to learn more about artists that inspire his work and how he came to create his initial queer portraits, which culminated into his exhibition ‘MASKS’ at the P7 gallery in Berlin last year.
P: Pendulum Magazine
P: Briefly tell us about your background and your decision to move to Berlin.
M: I grew up in the Alps in France, near by Grenoble. Most of my family live there. My parents had an old house in the mountains, and I spent my childhood between the woods around and the kitchen table where I was drawing and reading. At 18 I decided to move to Nantes where I studied illustration, painting and graphic design. After I graduated, I stayed there for a couple of years and started to work as an illustrator. I wasn’t very stimulated though. I also wasn’t very satisfied with my work. I’ve always wanted to live in a big city, and I felt that Nantes wasn’t enough. So I decided to move to Berlin, which gave me a new lease of life, and excited and inspired me in many ways.
P: Why did you decide to become an illustrator for children's books?
M: I believe I first decided to become a children’s books illustrator because I was a picture books lover myself. I’ve always been surrounded by books: Gustave Doré, Edmond Dulac, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Lisbeth Zwerger, Květa Pacovská... The list is long ! I loved to collect them (I still do), and it certainly rooted my will to become an illustrator. It is not such a common job though, and many people don’t understand that it is serious to make illustrations and children’s books for a living. I’m grateful that my parents never asked me to get a “real” job and always supported me. I was also very lucky to have an aunt who was a publisher; she showed me that is was possible to work as an illustrator.
Children’s books are a vast and various form of literature. Some of them are pure poetic and artistic masterpieces, whether you are 5, 20, or 80 years old. I am very interested in the apparent simplicity that can hide many layers of interpretation and the interactions between the text and the pictures. When I work on a storyboard, I don’t think of an illustration as an explanation of the text, nor as a decoration, but as another tool of storytelling. The pictures don’t have to be a simple representation of the text, and can bring new information, activate the reader’s imagination and reinforce the mystery. Sometimes the pictures come before the words, and sometimes there are no words at all. I actually would love to work on a wordless book. I like to think of illustration as a voice itself, with its own language that can tell us more than words are sometimes able to.
P: How would you describe your illustration style? How has it evolved over the years?
M: It’s always a bit hard to define. My illustrations are hand drawn and painted, with acrylic paints, gouache or ink. They usually have simple compositions, where colours and lights have a central role. I like to recreate peaceful, melancholic atmospheres: a lonely wolf walking through a field in a summer afternoon light, a tiny couple contemplating twilight’s red clouds from a rooftop...
While in school, I’ve fallen in love with Edward Hopper’s paintings, that grew my curiosity for shapes, atmosphere, and tones... I was fascinated by the silent landscapes, the still characters, the colourful lights and shadows, and it clearly gave a direction to my work.
For sure my illustration style has evolved a lot over the years, and still does, as it is deeply connected to my personal life, my surroundings, the people I meet... I paint a lot from my daily life, my memories, or pictures I took with my phone. Although I keep a great interest for colours and lights, my illustrations tend to become more minimalist, more personal, and maybe more thoughtful.
Since I graduated, I gained experience, and it allowed me to really question myself as an illustrator, as a person, and to focus on what I really wanted to say. What are my stories, where do they come from and why do I feel compelled to tell them ?
P: Can you briefly describe the process in creating your illustrations? Is there a part within the creative process that excites you the most?
M: It always starts with little doodles in my sketchbook. I have it with me most of the time and whenever an idea crosses my mind, I draw a little sketch to remember it. This is maybe the most exciting part within the creative process, when I develop the storyboards and imagine all the possibilities, make the preliminary researches of decors, of characters... I generally spend this time out of the studio, in bookshops, cafés, nature, wherever I can find new ideas, and get inspired. This is the moment where I feel the most creative and stimulated, while the painting part tends to make me more solitary and insightful.
When I complete the pencil sketch, and find a satisfying composition, I trace the black and white drawing on a thick watercolour paper, where I add the colours. I sometimes also paint on canvas or wood panels.
I am very attached to these traditional materials, and I often feel uncomfortable working on a computer. Although I recently tried out some combinations of ink and digital colours on the iPad, I would much rather sit in front of my desk, squeeze out the colours from the tubes on my palette, and take out my brushes. Of course, it also has some inconveniences, and whenever I’m not satisfied with the colours or make a mistake and can’t fix it, I have to start everything again from zero.
P: What compelled you to become involved in painting queer portraits?
M: The queer portraits series started about two years ago. I’ve always had a big interest for gender studies, but as a children’s books illustrator, I never really had the opportunity to question it. In my free time, I started to paint over magazine’s pages, adding make-up and lipstick on men portraits, modifying the shape of their nose or eyes, colouring their faces with different tones, turning them into some sort of drag-queens or colourful creatures. I wanted to develop new characters who could fit into picture books.
These portraits were a first step. I realized soon enough that there is still quite a conservative fence around children’s literature that queer representations hardly pass through.
As a (gay) kid, I would have loved to read “queer” children’s books, showing more diversity and freedom. I’m not talking here about LGBTQ+ militant children’s books, but more about developing stories where the roles (gender roles especially) are not so defined and deep-rooted, where there is still room for imagination and possibilities. I recently worked with a children’s magazine called Scoop and I was very excited to illustrate a story of Chitra Soundar that discreetly deconstructed the gender stereotypes.
The portraits were maybe a way for me to ask questions that I’ve had for a long time. I don’t like to present myself as a queer artist - as I don’t like to put labels or categorize in general - but I maybe tried, while I was painting these portraits, to come out of a (artistic?) closet, with certain curiosity and fascination.
P: Tell us about your exhibition MASKS. What was the message you hoped to convey through this exhibition? Why was it significant to you?
M: As I said, this exhibition was the result of two years of queer portraits paintings. When I moved to Berlin, I showed these portraits to the P7 gallery who loved them and decided to set up an exhibition. I didn’t want to convey a specific message through this show. Although I was playing with gender codes, and questioning masculinity, I didn’t want to impose it as a militant message. This was more about creating characters, drag-queens, masks, people. About painting difference.
It was my very first exhibition, and I liked that it was quite far from what I usually do. It made me want to connect these portraits to my work as a picture books illustrator.
P: What’s your favourite or most memorable project you’ve ever worked on?
M: I don’t actually think that I have a favourite or most memorable project yet. I see every project I’ve worked on as an experience, as they all taught me something about what it is to be an illustrator, and hopefully made me becoming a better one.
P: Where do you find inspiration for your work nowadays? Are there any artists that inspire you?
M: I try to find my inspiration everywhere, from an old engraving in a book to a photo on Instagram. I spend a lot of time in bookshops, I sometimes visit galleries, watch ballets, movies, and I try to travel as often as I can, though Berlin is a very inspiring city to live in. I think that inspiration is more about living your life and paying attention than anything else.
Among my favourite artists and main inspirations, I would name higgledy-piggledy Edward Hopper, Wes Anderson, Félix Vallotton, the Impressionists, Hayao Miyazaki, George Ault, Shaun Tan, Lisbeth Zwerger, Sasha Velour, Quint Buchholz, Maurice Sendak, Carson Ellis, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Jean Jullien, Edward Gorey, ...
P: What do you do in your spare time when you are not illustrating?
M: As I spend most of my time sitting down on a chair and drawing, I do a lot of sports in my spare time. I like to go training in the morning, and then start my day. Inspiration and creativity are intimately connected to the body wellness and health, and whenever I block on an idea or feel unable to create, I solve the problem while training.
P: Are there any upcoming projects you would like to share with us?
M: I have two new books projects that are currently looking for a publishing house. These books are very interesting for me because they are quite abstract, in the sense that they don’t give a lot of detail about the characters or the decors. Both texts are very simple and poetic, though strong and meaningful, and there are many possibilities to illustrate them, which make the work very puzzling and challenging. I just started to develop the storyboards, and I cross my fingers so they find a publisher soon.
Every innovative idea starts with a curious “what if?” and Marc’s casual alterations of magazine photos led to his discovery of his queer portraits. We thank Marc for sharing his story with us, and thereby encouraging us to keep an open and curious mind, as those may turn out to be the greatest leaps forward. We look forward to seeing Marc’s future works to observe how his style will evolve and change over time.