Drawing Breath: Interview with Jörn Kaspuhl

Jörn Kaspuhl says that he’s a pragmatic decision maker, and not really an artist at all. He doesn’t feel an urge to make art, like needing oxygen to breathe. He says that he could even imagine a future without drawing. “It would be nice to produce something that I could hold in my hands,” he says. “I tried a pottery class last month, and it was amazing to physically hold a finished product. The last step to illustrating is always sending off a computer file. I never get to hold anything in my hands.”

When I look at Jörn, I see somebody with such an intuitive understanding of his subject that he can create life on a blank page. He doesn’t need air to draw because he is the oxygen. Granted, I’m not that objective – Jörn is a good friend of mine. But anyone can see that his work is extraordinary. We sit at a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, and he tells me what it’s like to draw for a living.

In Bloom © Jörn Kaspuhl Illustration

Jörn says that the ability to draw was always inside of him. “As a kid, I drew what was going on inside of my head. I started with my favorite comic figures, like the Ninja Turtles,” he says. The reminder spreads a smile across his face. A mixture of excitement for the projects, and positive reactions from people, encouraged him to keep drawing. And he’s still drawing, producing multiple graphics every month for magazines, exhibitions, movies, books, and the list goes on.

He has the process of executing an illustration down to a science, usually finished within a matter of days. When an offer comes, the client has typically seen his work before, so already knows his general style. Jörn asks for references to his other pictures to get a more specific idea of what the client wants.

The first sketch is a digital drawing, made on a tablet. At this stage, the client can request changes. Jörn usually draws the final picture with pen by hand, then scans it into the computer. Finally he adds color, often only splashes, collected from a previously scanned handmade catalog: his own color palette.

Kate © Jörn Kaspuhl Illustration

I think that Jörn’s individual style becomes instantly recognizable. His careful attention to detail allows for every strand of hair, fold of material, or glimmer of moisture, to be perfectly positioned. He gives credit to the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg for teaching him how to draw accurate proportions. But his subjects show so much more than accuracy. A hand dips into lapping water; crossed elbows cover an embarrassed face. These people are moving. They have feelings and thoughts. Jörn captures a moment in his images, but it is never static.

Here the conversation veers from proportions in art, to statues in Rome, to traveling to distant places. Instead of trying to get back on target, I watch Jörn’s excitement as he discusses themes that inspire him. I realize that the most remarkable thing about his work is not that the images are beautiful, but that they are a highly observant mind’s expression of the spirit inside of the subject – a spirit discovered through an inquisitive outlook on every aspect of his life. And then it’s Jörn who brings us back on target. “You can also purposely alter the proportions to convey a different state of mind,” he explains, “or to produce a different sort of impact.”

Jörn admits that his work develops the most when he takes a break from assignments to work on his own projects. Most recently he has done a series of animals called Spiritual Warriors including an owl, a wolf, and a buffalo. I ask him about the element of fantasy that I notice in these images.

“I’m not so much trying to create fantasy as I am trying to illustrate the elements that define each specific creature. I use symbols from the non-human world to identify these characteristics. I’m fascinated with animals’ strength and inner calm – the owl’s wisdom, for example. They all have this amazing purity and unfaltering instinct. There’s no room for human pretenses like arrogance; animals cannot play a character. Sure, they have their own sort of characters. But they are very honest – they are what they are. And, from a practical standpoint, I love drawing the shapes that I find in nature – feathers, fur, scales – they are all sources of limitless possibility.”

Spiritual Warriors, Owl © Jörn Kaspuhl Illustration

I wonder if this means he doesn’t see a development in his commercial work. “I do, but it’s more gradual,” he says. “I try to deliver what the client expects from me, so there’s less room for creative exploration. But over time I do see some changes. I’ve been drawing for GQ for six years now – that’s over sixty illustrations. When I look at all of them together, I see that the work has become more detailed, more refined somehow. And I’m really happy about that.

Jörn has spent the past few months away from his native Hamburg. I wonder how Berlin’s change of pace is affecting his work. “So far, it’s been harder to concentrate,” he admits. “I want to experience the city, and make time for things besides work. I think Berlin is inspiring in a different way, which right now seems less productive. But I’m looking for an office space in Prenzlauer Berg so that I don’t have to work from home.”

He goes on to describe his biggest problem with the business. “Sometimes I find myself in a horrible routine where I have to be an idea machine. I feel the expectation to constantly produce and be creative, and I become blocked. That’s the problem: I’ve been so lucky to make a career from my hobby, but now I don’t have a hobby anymore. I need time and space to formulate truly creative ideas. I hope Berlin can give me that space.”

© Jörn Kaspuhl Illustration

It’s exciting to consider what the result could be. Jörn mentions a few recent projects that stand out as the most fun to have worked on, and both are collaborations with friends. “I created images for singer Johannes Held’s WinterreiseStaged set design, and made a poster for director Patrick Siegfried Zimmer’s film Anhedonia. The excitement that my friends bring to the process really inspires me, and reminds me why we do these creative things. But in the end, those ideas belong to them, and not to me. I’m waiting for my next big idea.”

Jörn describes a project that he made during his time at university. “I came up with this idea of turning small drawings of animals into a mural of one big animal. Every day I went to school and worked on this project. It must have been two or three months of work every day, and it gave me so much energy! I wanted to make the time for it. When it was finished I got to present it in an exhibition. I was so proud to show this thing that had come from inside of me.”

From the production Winterreise STAGED, © Jörn Kaspuhl Illustration

One afternoon last summer, I watched Jörn draw. I don’t know if it bothered him to have someone sitting next to him. He didn’t say much. I’m pretty sure he went somewhere else in his mind. He held the pen with such care and grace, as if it was an extension of his own hand. I watched the hand move across the paper, and forgot about the pen altogether. The hand guided each nuanced mark onto the page, never second-guessing its path.

Eventually I looked down and saw a creature there, divined with glittering eyes and a wet nose. I could feel its warm breath, and wanted to plunge my face in its thick fur. I couldn’t hold the wolf in my hands, but it was probably the closest I would ever come. This image has stayed with me ever since. I watched someone create something from nothing, and it took my breath away.

Spiritual Warriors, Wolf © Jörn Kaspuhl Illustration

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