Mr Pen

Emile Pen has the illustration world's most fortunate surname, accompanied by a signature style that has more to do with sheer talent.

First Published in

Proving that the pen is mightier than the word, Mr Pen makes written texts all the more pointed with his layered compositions of line drawings and collage that are harsh and humorous at the same time. This sense of harshness or contrast is driven home by his distinct, hand-drawn style in which black and white predominate and clash happily and strikingly with one another. Sashaying between Europe and Cape Town, and finding work on both continents, the 26-year-old Emile is certainly one to watch.

He graduated from the Willem de Kooning Academy for Visual Communication in Rotterdam in 2003. In just three brief years, he has managed to get his pen-name employed by a number of international fashion and art magazines, such as WAD and Dedicate (France), Konichiwah (Belgium), Stereo, Code and Dif (The Netherlands). He has also been featured in Dazed and Confused (for the 2005 semi-permanent convention at the Barbican Centre in London) and Influences: A Lexicon of Contemporary Graphic Design Practice compiled by Berlin-based publisher Shift. Then there's the exhibitions: one at the hip art venue Palais de Tokyo in Paris, another at the Hypegallery in Arles, France, and yet another at the Vips Gallery in Rotterdam.

With a lot starting to happening for you in Europe, why the stint in Cape Town?

Cape Town is interesting in the sense that it blends Europe and Africa. The most relaxed of the South African cities, it's a good place to live and work. I enjoy the pace of life here, far away from hectic career-driven Europe and its heart-attacks and snobby parties. I came here by invitation and decided to stay and freelance for local and international clients.

What is the place of illustration within the graphic design field?

It's hard to draw a clear division between the two. Essentially it's the same job: presenting ideas visually. I find that illustrators tend to have a more acute sense of images, whereas graphic designers think about legibility more, are more cerebral about what they do. Illustrators have to present a more focused image of their views, due to the limited space within which they generally have to work. That does not mean they are subordinate to graphic designers, it's just a different set of parameters. There's also more room for personal interpretation as an illustrator, bordering on fine art on one side and graphic design on the other.

What satisfaction can viewers derive from the use of illustrations?

For me, good illustration sums up the content of a text and adds something to it - a commentary, an afterthought, a nasty joke that leaves an uncomfortable smile. It's a reflection of the illustrator that was hired for the job. A way of showing character. Besides that, it looks yummy.

Why did you become an illustrator?

Getting paid for what you enjoy doing is something precious. It's not easy to establish yourself at first, both psychologically and financially, but at the end of the day it's not about why you do it, but about how you can keep doing it. It's hard to tell you exactly what it is that makes it enjoyable. Does a fish enjoy swimming? Getting lost in the act of drawing, pouring detail into pages, creating, really… Seeing your thoughts on glossy paper… I never saw it as a choice I had to make, just figuring out how to get there.

Whose work influences and/or inspires you?

Banksy, the British graffiti artist; Naesden Control Centre (a UK design agency); the comic book god, Frank Miller; and Dave Eggers, the writer, graphic designer, illustrator and publisher.

Please describe your process when you approach an illustration. What drives your execution?

I read up on my subject and try to form an opinion on the matter. Everything flows from that. It's a process. I hardly ever have a clear picture of the thing I'm trying to do. One thing leads to another. I shuffle, add and subtract, cut and paste. Save and send.

What are your materials?

Pens, camera, scissors, glue and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Any upcoming projects?

I'm working on a book that's analogue and fragmented. A collage of broken conversations and shards of photography blended into a publication without any plot. It will be about meaning and misunderstanding. Everyday existence with open eyes. Trying hard not to separate the quiet poetry of everyday life and the truly meaningless.