If you’re older than 30 and have creative aspirations, you may not want to hear that Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens, who has produced three surpassingly lovely books and is at work on a fourth (due 2017), just reached that age this year. Go ahead and curse his name and his talent, but give thanks for it at the same time. His pages shine bright with color, almost floral in its abundance, and they rarely use panels. But they’re not just beautiful. The mind at work here thinks about less obvious ways of achieving truths. Nothing is straightforward. No omniscient narrator sets the reader at ease.
Panther, his latest, is the story of an imaginary friend who may not be all that friendly. That simple description, though, fails to convey the creeping dread that accompanies the reading experience, which stretches graphic art tension as far as it can go, driven by a child’s desperate need for love and attention. Evens is busy touring to celebrate Panther’s English-language release from publisher Drawn & Quarterly, but exchanged several emails with us to discuss his fine-art influences, development as an artist and longtime love of creating imaginary worlds.
Paste: You can almost see a process of growing up over the course of your three books, in terms of their narrative subtlety and the ideas they address. How do you think you’ve changed since you began drawing/painting The Wrong Place?
Brecht Evens: I’m glad to hear you see progress, I suppose that is what every artist wants to hear. Basically I’m gathering more skills, while trying to hold on to old stuff that still works. I think my characters are getting more complex, too. I know my books are still instantly recognizable to someone who read The Wrong Place, and I think this is mainly because I haven’t dramatically changed my way of drawing the characters. The trick with a character having a signal color to his body and his speech still works for me. I’m not out to make dramatic changes just for the hell of it; it has to have a purpose. My next book (The City of Belgium) has a setup very similar to The Wrong Place: three characters running around in a city at night. So I’m playing with giving those books a shared universe, with “extras” from The Wrong Place showing up in the new book. Even the protagonists from The Making Of and Panther have a discreet cameo appearance.
Paste: I liked seeing you mention David Hockney as an influence. Could you talk a little more about that?
Evens: There’s something almost didactic about his work. It’s like he’s building a catalog of methods for other painters to use, saying, for example: “let’s try two hundred ways of drawing water” or “I notice you’ve been having trouble with rural landscapes, let me see if I can rustle up five hundred good ones.”
Paste: What other fine art influences do you have?
Evens: I feel like I shop around a lot. I’m going to list Elvis Studio (for the massive cityscapes), Ever Meulen (for the optical games), Georg Grosz (for the messy spaces), Giotto (for the decors), Charles Burchfield (for the watercolors alive with light, sound, vibration and movement), a touch of Bruegel, Persian miniatures and other medieval drawings, Picasso, Miro, Kuniyoshi, Saul Steinberg, outsider artists like Wölfli and Henry Darger, my former student Nina Van Denbempt and my fellow alumni Lotte Van de Walle and Brecht Vandenbroucke. There’s also a lot of artists I like that I can’t emulate yet, whose work has no useful elements I can chip off.
Panther Interior Art by Brecht Evens
Paste: I love seeing you mention Charles Burchfield. In my actual day job, I work at a museum, and we have one that goes out on display somewhat regularly: one of the crazy nature ones, not one of the sedate gray ones. Also: we do not have any of Hockney’s landscapes, but they’re just the best. He makes me care about landscapes in a way I never thought I could.
Evens: What does a Burchfield look like, physically? Is it much different from images in a catalogue?
Paste: It’s kind of bigger than you’d expect, and messier. You know he went back and added extra paper around the edges because he wanted to make the works bigger (which is also why they have these large date ranges; he was repurposing old work). So you can see some of that, as well as the underlying pencil sketches.
Evens: I think my drawings are also bigger and messier than you’d expect. So there are pencil sketches beneath? That’s a surprise… Do you know about the medication he took?
Paste: I hadn’t heard that about Burchfield, but it’s not surprising. I do know about the nutty weather diaries. Tell me more!
Evens: Alright. So, I’m not into Burchfield’s realistic work. The periods I like are a summer he seems to have had as a 17-year-old, and his late period, from his 50s on I think (I’m making an effort not to Google this). He then even picked up some of his adolescent watercolors and expanded on them, adding pieces of paper as you’ve seen. Some of these early watercolors, and all of the late ones, have something psychotic about them. Sound, touch, all the other senses come into play, heightened, translated into inventive marks with a brush. He makes mosquitos and electric wires buzz, birds fly by too fast to see, the sunlight causes mirages, and the sun itself becomes a black dot, as would appear when you look at it for too long. This psychotic vision, or just a clear and more complete vision if you like, has been linked to effects caused by his heart medicine. I don’t know how that explains the adolescent watercolors…maybe teenagers tend to get a bit manic-psychotic in summer. Now I’m thinking of Newton… Anyway, the idea of this very rural, doughy-looking quiet type, standing in a marsh with his rubber boots, doing magnificent and visionary watercolors because of his heart pills, makes me happy.
Paste: I can see all those influences you mentioned in your work (of the ones I know), mostly insofar as you are not afraid to use color. Is that something that’s always been natural for you? What do your drawings from when you were a child look like?
Evens: Mostly black and white, never very painterly. I sucked at using color for a long time, until I hit my stride in The Wrong Place.
Panther Interior Art by Brecht Evens
Paste: So how did you learn how to use color? You went to illustration school, right? Any of that there? Or was it independently?
Evens: I got on the right track when I started doing a small color sketch before doing the actual drawing. If you do this, unavoidably you’ll apply proportionally big swaths of dominant color. The sketches looked good, so I just did the same thing on the large sheet of paper, working the details out afterward. Later on, I didn’t need the color sketches anymore, just went straight for that big brush. And after that I just got better and braver at it, through habit, without really needing the big brush.
Paste: Are you particular about what kinds of watercolor you use? Brushes? What’s your set-up for working?
Evens: Actually I hardly use real watercolor, but a “liquid watercolor” called Ecoline. It’s more like a color ink. Then there’s a lot of gouache, color markers, black ink and some crayons. Real watercolor comes in little blocks, placed close together in a box, that you have to rub with water to make it…it seems like too much hassle. But watercolor’s perfect when I feel like really bungling a drawing.
Paste: How do you get into the mindset of a child who’s lost a parent, whether through death or other means?
Evens: Did you feel I got into the mindset?
Paste: Hmm. I don’t know. I’m not a child who’s lost a parent. But it feels like you did. This book is a little bit funny, but also it is terrifying. I read it right before bed and then I couldn’t get to sleep because it unsettled me. Did you set out to do that? Why? What made you want to write a horror story? Am I on the wrong track that her dad is the bad guy here?
Evens: I think me answering those questions won’t make the book any better. But it interests me that people go Cluedo with this book, looking for—and finding—clues in the backgrounds. Which might make them look harder at the drawings. The game I tried to play in Panther is swinging a pendulum between desirable fun and absolute horror, tic, toc.
Panther Interior Art by Brecht Evens
Paste: There’s something of a fairytale about Panther. What reading did you do to prepare for it? I feel like Stephen King’s It might be relevant here, but I could be on the wrong track.
Evens: I didn’t need to do research for this book, but it is influenced by, and a reaction to, all kinds of children’s stories. Mostly the modern ones, where monsters are funny. And yes, if Stephen King’s It and Bill Watterson’s Hobbes had a lovechild you might get Panther.
Paste: What scares you?
Evens: Venereal disease and lung cancer. Just keeping the answers sexy here.
Paste: Let’s talk about dreams. They seem to be another important thematic thread in your work. A lot of it takes place in an expanded reality, a space that’s dreamlike as far as the possibilities of what could happen. What makes you interested in them? Do you have particularly vivid dreams yourself?
Evens: I like when you say “expanded reality.” That’s what I aim for. I do think I use visuals that might be dreamlike, or psychedelic, but I don’t think I use dream logic. I have vivid dreams but I hardly ever write them down or draw them, even though people like Fellini made magnificent sport out of doing that. Felllini’s notes and drawings have been collected in an awesome book, but it’s not so much his dreams themselves that interest me. It’s the gritty, random page layouts and the speedy, practical use of lines and color—someone getting something very complex on the page in a hurry. My own dreams are interesting to me, but haven’t you ever gotten bored or distracted listening to someone else telling you the details of some long dream? I recently wrote a piece of dialogue where someone does that.
Paste: Did you have any imaginary friends when you were a child?
Evens: No. Only imaginary worlds.
Panther Interior Art by Brecht Evens
Paste: Tell me about these imaginary worlds.
Evens: Practically all I did was try to make imaginary worlds come to life, which meant: visible to other people, in comics, designs for buildings, fantasy world maps, board and card games, cassette tapes. So not much time to lose on say, sports. I only specialized in comics when I got to high school. But the goal stays the same, as you said: expanded reality (...man!). No teaching, no explaining, no argument, just a portable world, bound together, with maybe a dust jacket around it or even some leather.
Paste: Do you ever worry your books are too beautiful?
Evens: Not that they’re too beautiful, since beauty contains all kinds of drawing, from rough cave drawings to dazzling van Eyck. Sometimes I do worry that by now I master my drawing materials too much, especially the color inks, and that this might make the drawings too affected. It means I often have to provoke surprises and accidents, where before I would stumble into them and have to creatively crawl my way out. I know this answer sounds like the “I’m too much of a perfectionist” answer in a job interview, but then again it was a softball question…
Paste: I think that was a good answer as far as beauty and such is concerned. Maybe what I was getting at more is: how do you marry horrifying or anguished content and the way it’s presented visually. Do you think it’s possible that your readers get distracted by how darn pretty the pages are and miss some of the darkness they contain?
Evens: They might. But then maybe the darkness catches up with them later.