Chaz Hutton on Drawing His Way to Berlin

Photo by Josephine Roloff

Chaz Hutton started taking German lessons a few months ago. “I mean, I figured after living in Berlin for over two years, it was the least I could do,” he says wryly—but his eyes are laughing. “My class gets hung up on words though,” he explains. “Last week, we spent an hour going over what the word doch could possibly mean in English. Probably the best comparison is when we Aussies say yeah, nah.”

Hutton, dressed all in black and with a thick beard, is an Aussie full of self-deprecating humor. And yet, he’s a successful comic artist with an approachable, contagious banter. His Instagram account @instachaaz, which lists him as a “professional idiot,” has a following of over 220k. And despite the simplicity of his drawings, pared-down stick figures and graphs with witty side notes, he’s drawn for the New Yorker, and published a book of comics, A Sticky Note Guide to Life, with HarperCollins in 2016—which has been translated to five other languages.

Something about Hutton’s humor really speaks to people. Just watch him botch a drawing of a bicycle when he tries to show you how to draw one—his article for Medium is the stuff of soda-shooting-out-of-nose laughter. His commentary is honest, observant, and wise, while lighthearted. His stick figures often have slight curves to their backs, or down-cast glances. And in that downplay of self-confidence, Hutton’s comics are as relatable as he is. 

Communication is actually where drawing started for Hutton; after a move to London from Melbourne, a group chat with friends was his first platform for drawing comics. He didn’t have much down time at the architecture firm where he worked: “I never had much chance to weigh in with my friends during the day,” he explains. Instead, he started drawing pictures to post in the chat. His friends eventually convinced him to make an Instagram account—if they were laughing this hard, maybe others would, too.

With the development of his comic voice, Hutton’s commitment to architecture dwindled. But when he devoted more time to his drawings, he started to receive a positive response. “Jessica Seinfeld shared one of my comics,” he says. Within a week, his following grew from 6,000 to 60,000, and he started getting offers for book deals.

Was writing the book stressful?—“The publisher wanted the material by Christmas, so I had three months to draw a hundred twenty comics. We agreed that I would submit the best eighty along with some of my older work. But the pressure forced me to make a routine, and I really loved that.” Hutton made a spread sheet with the columns titled where I should be and actually done, and a third column with ‘+’ and ‘-’ symbols—“a bit like that moving world record line they put into the pool during the Olympics,” he describes. His goal was to draw three comics a day, but he allowed room for error. “Not all of my drawings were brilliant,” he says. “I might make two or three shitty ones before coming up with something I thought was really good.” 

Photo by Josephine Roloff

Since his book’s release, Hutton has bounced from London, to New York, to Berlin. Why Berlin?—“I’m pretty sure I left New York with a couple hundred dollars left in my bank account,” he admits. At first, he was afraid of experiencing FOMO from not living in a more major city. “But actually, Berlin’s slightly smaller scale suits me better,” he says. “Maybe I need to go even smaller. Clients really don’t mind where I’m based, anyway.”

One thing Hutton misses about New York? Performing standup. “I loved trying something new,” he says. “But, to be really good, you need to do it day in and day out.”—Getting up and cracking jokes in front of people did improve his writing, though.

Hutton’s comedic voice and fan base might have grown, but he maintains that he doesn’t want to cater to a crowd. Though he’s increased work with advertisers, he likes working with brands that give him free reign. “A brand name in your face can turn people off,” he says. “I try to find the fine line between getting paid for a service but not making it an obvious ad.”

After two years in Berlin and a consistent stream of commissions, the start to 2020 has seen a shift in Hutton’s perspective. He describes a passage from the last page of Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook, a Moveable Feast by the anarchist group CrimeInc Worker’s Collective: “You must always have a secret plan…plan for adventure, plan for pleasure, plan for pandemonium, as you wish; but plan.” The sentiment has driven Hutton lately. “It makes me seek out work that really interests me, and that I think will lead somewhere.”

So his plans?—They’re secret. But in the meantime, he’s pursuing @drawyoumaybe, a separate Instagram account where he draws stick figures of followers based on their interests: First up is @alicefranzoi, who loiters in some really nice places and is here hanging out with some pizza and a stack of (probably) Harry Potter books.—And, lucky for us, he’s always on the hunt for new ideas.

How does he come up with ideas, anyway? “I think of things when I’m walking to the shop, or at the bar, or in the shower—or even in the middle of a conversation,” he says. (He’s got a comic about that: Step 1. Wake up at 4am with a brilliant idea; Step 2. Email yourself so you don’t forget it; Step 3. Check email next day for brilliant idea…“What the fuck does ‘microwaves, but not’ mean?”)

One thing that Hutton has come to rely on is a creative process that works. From sketch to full drawing, he focuses on the little steps. “It can be daunting if I think about all the small parts in the beginning,” he admits. But when he’s filling in color—the last phase—he knows he’s on the home stretch. “It’s almost feels like second nature if I take a drawing one step at a time,” he describes.

Hutton maintains a list of half-cooked ideas for future drawings and tries to not jump too fast on them. “I’ve learned that I want instant gratification. There have been so many times where I realized later that it would have been better to sit on something for awhile.”

For now, he’ll keep drawing, and going to German class. “I have a copy of my book in German,” he says. “It’s pretty wild to learn a language from my own material.” And he’ll keep secret-planning, and experimenting with the possible ways to—doch—get a point across.

Photo by Josephine Roloff

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