Interview and portrait by Judith Carnaby
The leaves were falling around me like rainbow snow as I biked through Neukölln to meet Katrin Hagen. Going by the moniker of Mischief Champion, Katrin’s work is based on humour and observation, executed in a hand-drawn style using clean lines, texture and witty bubbles of speech.
Born in South Africa, Katrin moved to New Zealand when she was 14. Following her studies in intermedia at Auckland University, Katrin travelled to London and worked in web-design, making the move to Berlin almost 4 years ago. Now working as an illustrator, Katrin talks to me about the meditative nature of drawing and her tendency towards awkward humour.
Your illustrations are very funny, absurd and surreal. Where do you get your inspiration from?
There’s no place in particular; it’s really from random words or images – walking down the street or reading a book. And then I’ll go and do something mundane like washing the dishes or cleaning the house and that’s when the ideas form and solidify a bit more. It’s basically picking from different situations or something weird that I encountered.
I find that the humour has a real sense of awkwardness. Do you enjoy making someone feel mildly uncomfortable or embarrassed? Is that a reflection of your sense of humour?
My life tends to be a series of awkward events so I think it is just a natural reaction! So much of it is autobiographical… I think that in humour, somehow the message can be a lot stronger when it’s carried by awkwardness.
In creating your works you use really clear, simple lines and textures. Is that something you’ve developed over time, or is something that came naturally to you?
At art school I was drawing in a really surrealistic style. Then when I was in London and was bored at my job I started doing these little doodles. Now this is the style that came out of it. Having said that, the drawings right at the start were quite different, I was still trying to figure it out and what felt natural. Now I get drawn to this style automatically.
What about your process of illustration; do you work from pencil into pen, or do you do any digital work?
I work pretty analogue- it’s just paper, pencil, go over with pen, erase the pencil, scan it in and clean it in Photoshop and then convert to bitmap. If I used a tablet it would be quite a different experience. I quite like the process of drawing, it’s a tangible process.
Yes, one of things I like about your work is the delicate hand-worked texture, particularly in the details of the drawings: in the feathers, fur, jumpers and hair. There’s something meaningful about the time you can see that it takes, to do it all by hand.
I’m really glad you can appreciate it! For me it’s totally meditative. I get locked into this other space and when I come out of it I’m totally wrecked for an hour or so. It’s so transformative while you’re doing it, I find it hard to switch to line afterwards.
The white space in your illustrations really helps focus attention on particular aspects or on particular moments. The drawings seem well timed, in the way the joke or humour is read. Do you plan the drawings clearly first or is it a more organic process?
It used to be that I would just draw and then tweak the composition later. My drawings used to be a mess! Different animals would be on different pages and the text box was somewhere else… Now I am in the habit of focusing the composition right from the start, and focussing on the whole drawing, rather than figuring it out at the end. Somehow it brings me happiness to see it all together at once, as a whole.
And what about the use of animals? Do you have a library of animals, draw from memory, or do you choose from images or sources like Youtube videos?
It’s mostly animals off the internet. If I imagine an animal and I can’t find it then I combine other animals. For people, sometimes I have to take photos of myself, my hands for example, to get just the right angle. I also have a book called ‘Tiere’, which I like to use.
You create drawings of both animals and humans, a distinction which seems important with your use of text in communicating inner thoughts. Does the text come first or is it in combination with an image, and is using animals a conduit for recognizing or highlighting the fallibility of humans?
For me the initial reason for using animals was because I felt they were easy to carry a joke, whereas with people it’s harder. Animals are somehow less defined, so you can transpose anyone you know on an animal. Also, my method varies, it’s never one or the other, but think a lot of the time I have the text first and I try to find an appropriate character. I have a notebook that is completely messy but it has all the notes I make that I can refer back to; sometimes words, sometimes an image.
What are you looking forward to working on the future?
This year I have been really enjoying producing cards, prints and some booklets, so that will keep me busy until Christmas. Next year I’m going to focus on developing a selection of new products and continuing with greeting cards. And naturally I often get asked to do portraits of people’s pets!