Illustrators at work – interview with Gianmarco Magnani

June 15th, 2013

Strikingly beautiful compositions of simple lines and complex structures highlighted by limited color palettes and bold typography. Welcome to the world of Gianmarco Magnani (or M for short). In this interview he talks about his early influences, finding his own style and working on two large-scale projects, “100 Prints” and “Sixty Watts”.

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

M: I studied graphic design but I focused my attention as an illustrator. I love books but I’m not one of people who read a lot. I love everything about design and I love to be involved in projects and art direction. I have always been drawing since I was a child, so I think that in some way I’ve always been in the field.

Kirill: Why did you decide to move from animation and video to illustration?

M: When I was in college I was completely focused on animation and everything related to the screen. Then I started working as an animator for different clients, as well as on some personal projects. At the very beginning everything looks great but then I started to see that developing a great product took a lot of my time, and required to have a team to work with. Then you add up all those things about screen resolution, plugins, or any other technical issue that changes under you every six months. So I decided to think about something more simple technically, something that it won’t change so quickly and also something something that I really would want to do.

I always loved everything about drawing, so I made some explorations being an illustrator and the things went really great.

Kirill: What informs and shapes your taste and style?

M: It was the 80’s. I was around eight years old, and we didn’t have Internet, computers, phones or even 150 channels on the TV. Communication was very limited, but I had an opportunity to be involved with things that came from Japan. It was really hard to come by things like that in those days, and for me they were the first design references. A good friend of mine who traveled from time to time to Japan gave me some VHS tapes with TV shows from Tokyo, a lot of Japanese magazines and some action figures as well. I couldn’t understand anything of what I was seeing, but all those images, icons, packagings, booklets and texts were very attractive to my eye.

I’m really sure I’m going to keep those references always in my work and in my mind. I’m also very influenced and very interested in books about graphic design and identity. And there is a recurrent interest about designs made in Germany in every field, and also some interest on the Scandinavian style.

Kirill: The human figures in your illustrations have deceptively simple yet skillfully accurate outlines. How do you distill the multiple facets of the body language into a single silhouette?

M: I realize that my work is composed with just lines with no shades or depths, so I tried to keep working in that style.

At the beginning I tried to do my work in different styles using shades or grayscale palette, but it didn’t look natural, so I came up with my own simple line style and tried to learn a lot of things. For example, I looked at the composition of vintage comics and manga, how they were composed just with black ink and how they didn’t need anything else besides that. I understood that I have to use just the things the work needs and nothing else. Right now I always try to have that in mind when I start every single project.

Kirill: It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and yet you go to great lengths to hide them or crop them altogether. Why?

M: One of the things I always keep in mind is the hint / insinuation in my work. When I studied photography I learned about the difference between showing a complete scene and just a part of it. I understood that if I have just a part of an idea, the viewer begins to imagine and complete the idea in his mind. On the other hand, if I show a complete idea and totally describe it, the imagination of the viewer simply disappears. So in my work I prefer to have at least one window closed.

Kirill: Your latest works has moved away from using multiple colors, employing pure black with one or two accent colors. Is this a self-imposed constraint to push yourself into exploring and refining your style?

M: When I started my first project called “100 Prints” I decided to start all over again. So I worked for a year trying to have a good balance between my style and all my interests.

I chose the same square format for all my pieces, defined the line style, worked on the technique and kept the color scheme very simple.

I think that in my work the black ink always defines the main structure of the composition. On the other hand, color, in some cases, just says where do you have to see, and in other cases it provides a good balance.

I also think that greatest designs have always been composed just by the simplicity, so I would like to work – or try – to make the things that way.

Kirill: And then, on the other hand, you have these intricately layered complexity of musical instruments and motor vehicles. Is the goal to provide a counter-balance to that perceived simplicity?

M: Yes, maybe is a good contrast and balance between both elements.

Kirill: How do you work with type? Do you design your own fonts, or adopt and adapt existing ones?

M: I love to work with type. Right now I can’t imagine my work without headers or texts around other elements.

Sometimes I create my own, or adapt existing ones. For example, when I have to create a logotype or something next to an icon, almost every Print I use existing typefaces. I also keep in mind that in my work words do not necessary need to be read. For me words also need to be seen. For example, the header on the Print Nº019 doesn’t mean anything, it just looks good.

Kirill: On average, how much time do you spend on a single illustration, and where does that time go?

M: When I make an illustration it depends on the complexity or how much detail it has. It just takes time.

Things change a lot when I have to make a Print because it’s an entire composition between headers, icons, logotypes, color schemes, texts and all the those things around the main character.

In general it can take around a week or two working all day, but in some cases it can take more than a month. There are a lot of unreleased Prints and also an entire Series that I have worked on for months, and for some reason they are still incomplete, and from time to time I try to look at them and identify what they need.

Kirill: How much different the final illustration is from the initial concepts that you’re imagining in your head?

M: They change a lot, but I think it’s a positive feedback because it surprises me and sometimes gives me new ideas.

The problem is (and it happens a lot) when you have a great idea in your mind and you think about all the details for a while and then, when it’s on paper, it loses all that magic that is still in your head and you don’t know what happened. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have anyone of my Prints complete at the first try, and if I think differently, I’m sure I wouldn’t have any of them.

Kirill: How do you preserve color fidelity for the printed media?

M: I try to use them in the simplest way. I try work using just one or two flat colors with no textures, complex gradients or any other effects.

Kirill: How does it feel to hold a physical print of one of your illustrations?

M: When I have the first copy of a Print, I always spend time to look at it and hang it on the wall. That moment really feels great, but after a few minutes of looking at it I start to think: let’s move this, and this, and this, and also this … but that part of the work and the process is also fantastic.

Kirill: You number all your prints, starting from Nº001. What’s the final goal?

M: I have always been interested in working on huge and long projects.

This project is about creating 100 Prints, divided in 25 Series composed of 4 Prints each. They are all created in the same square format with the same style and are numbered from Nº001 to Nº100, and at the end of the project I would like to publish a book.

I started with this project in 2010, and since then I don’t think about the upcoming Prints or Series. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons this project always keep my mind busy and every new Series is a surprise for me. I think I’m going to finish the last Print around 2016, but sometimes I think that it would be better to call it “200 Prints”.

Kirill: “Sixty Watts” has a prominent place in this series, and a few months ago you’ve launched the companion site. And yet, there is no actual band. What is this experiment about?

M: “100 Prints” is divided into 25 Series. When I started the project I decided to create a theme for each Series. When I thought about creating a Series about music, I started thinking about a rock band, but I didn’t want to make designs for any existing band. So I created a band called “Sixty Watts”. At that moment it was just a Series composed of 4 Prints and nothing more. I needed a band and I needed a name, so I came up with something that had a good phonetic sound and also had a very symmetric number of letters for each word.

I published that Series called “Sixty Watts” and a few weeks later I read a post on some French blog about my work and that specific Print. The post said something like: “it’s a Series about a rock band called Sixty Watts, but don’t try to search for the music because it doesn’t exist”.

So at that moment it made sense for that Series to start a new project. It sounded like an interesting idea, with a great opportunity to design everything about a rock band – the discography, the posters, the album covers, the instruments and all those kinds of things.

I started researching some great rock bands. I also bought a lot of things just to know how to design the packaging, how to compose the tour posters, all the logotypes or icons included in each piece, how to create an album, a single, the Japanese versions, an LP and things like that. It was very exciting and I had a lot of ideas in my head.

I always wanted to be in charge of art direction for a rock band campaign, album or tour, and I never thought that if the opportunity never comes I can invent it. So I decided to create my own rock band.

When I started the process I thought several times how ridiculous such an idea might sound like, but then I started thinking about it as being “different”. That’s why I continued with the project and published it, and I am still working on new illustrations and also on an upcoming new album.

This project makes a lot of sense for me when I think about the moment when someone looks at an album cover for the very first, and without listening to the music what kinds of ideas come to your mind. Your imagination start creating a complete story, and if you want it, it can be endless.

Kirill: What do you do when you run out of ideas and get stuck?

M: I talk to my wife.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

M: That I love what I do.

And here I’d like to thank Gianmarco Magnani for this interview. You can find more of his work at his main portfolio, as well as the companion “Sixty Watts” site. All the Prints are available for sale, and you can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.