Zoé Byland: The Good, the Bad and the Batgirl

originally posted on January 22, 2012

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

Zoé Byland was the artist who first introduced me to the possibility of character design as a legitimate art form. We met when she moved to Vienna from her native Switzerland to join the “contextual painting” class I was attending at the time. Zoé still primarily lives in Vienna, teaching, studying and practicing art. Her paintings and sculptures are regular guests in galleries around Europe and abroad.

CW: I remember around a decade ago, when you first started working and exhibiting around Vienna, character design in its own context was not quite recognised as an art form yet. Despite the absence of sequential narratives curators tended to file your work under “Comics”, comic artists would then on occasion complain about this misrepresentation of their genre, and you didn’t quite seem to fit in with the more traditional painters at the academy either. Would you say a lot has changed since then?

ZB: I’ve not really been in that type of situation in a while. I’ve also been completely free of that pressure to constantly justify my work that academy students are usually under. I presume a lot has changed too, there are more graffiti artists attending art school now for example. A term that I encounter a lot these days is “street art”, which is ok with me because it is open to various types of styles.
It still feels weird when curators and others talk about my work using terminology and categorizations that I personally find unnecessary. I think that need to categorize and explain art will always be there though.
Character design, graphic design, comics, animation, illustration and traditional art techniques are equally inspiring to me. I love combinations and variety and I don’t want to restrict my own work using classifications of any kind.
Lately several people have written great texts about my work in which I managed to actually find myself, I was really pleased with that. When I’m communicating with the collectors who buy my work I also don’t feel forced to offer explanations, I usually leave it up to the viewer to find meaning or stories in my paintings.
I still don’t fit into a lot of concepts. But that’s ok, it means I am more autonomous from expectations in general.

In recent years you have started teaching character design at an art college. What are your students’ main interests these days – do they aspire to create toys, draw graphic novels, design games, become animators, graphic designers or even advertisers?

They come up with a lot of ideas for characters, they like doodling, they’re very playful in their approach and don’t yet work with any future professions in mind. Creating art at college is quite different from earning a living…
My students’ major influences are the Internet, games and TV. They have a much more relaxed attitude towards working with computers & the new media than my generation, digital design is a natural part of their work.

Who are the most important/inspiring artists that you use as examples in your classes?

Teaching character design to animation students, Pictoplasma are always a good reference/source of inspiration because of the variety of positions they represent.
We try to give our students space to develop their own style and the courage not to be perfect, to “fail” even. That’s where brilliant new ideas often come from. We don’t want them to just imitate a style because it’s popular at the moment – they bring in their own idols: mangas, Pokemon, Ugly Dolls, games, fantasy… we try to show them a wide variety of examples to draw inspiration from, or sometimes no examples at all – depending on the project they are working on.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

The first character of yours I ever saw was Paulinchen, a starey-eyed little girl whose favourite pastime seemed to be swinging a dead cat by the tail. You generally appeared to be quite fascinated with somewhat dark and threatening children. Was there any particular inspiration for this, and is this fascination still there?

Paulinchen is a kind of mean alter ego. She’s like, totally unimpressed.
What looks cute at first side has the potential to deal with much deeper themes at second sight. This and the fascination for inscrutable, mysterious characters, humans or animals, is still part of my work. These humans and animals wear masks and sometimes have super powers – their identities are secret.
I was always fascinated by the evil and dark characters in fairy tales which I loved as a child, they were much more interesting than the nice ones.
Today my inspirations are graphic novels, comics, literature, art history, tattoos, film noir, illustration, street art, mexican wrestlers, low brow, old sci-fi movies, super heroes, vintage pin-ups, art toys and graphic design.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

In recent years your style has changed quite a bit, from what used to be so frequently mislabeled as comics to iconic portraits of humans and animals sporting wrestling masks, tattoos, fishbowl helmets and other accessories – art remixes so to speak. How did this change come about?

I always wanted to improve my painting skills, so I started translating my “comic” style into a traditional painting technique.
I’m very interested in historical paintings, their drama and secrets, the fact that they still move people today. My characters often are masked or have super powers. They are the lead actors in a world between idealism and trash, populated by wrestlers, tattooed movie divas, animals and super heroines. I am interested in combining opposites – old and new, disguise and revelation, timeless forms of representation and attributes like dramaturgy and staging, identity and the dismantling and undermining of viewers’ expectations.
My work is of a narrative nature – I want the “story” to continue in the head of the viewer. I think this style of painting best serves this purpose.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

This technique you mentioned is a refined mixture combining painting and airbrushing. Could you describe how this works, or is it your trade secret?

Thank you! The whole secret is acrylic paint and then softening the transitions by airbrushing them at the end…

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I just painted “King of the woods“, a big tattooed deer. I would love to do a few smaller collaborations beside my painting work in the near future and show more work abroad.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

Top 5 artists at the moment?

Top 5 songs/records/artists to listen to while working?

  • Audiobooks! All sorts of vintage detective stories work good: Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Francis Durbridge, also Terry Pratchett.
  • Aesop rock
  • The Kills
  • Nick Cave
  • Josephine Baker

Another Top 5 of your choice!

  • Tapas & mexican boleros
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Trees
  • Papercraft design and art with paper books
  • Art toys
© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

Paint & Puns with Fieldey

originally posted on December 3, 2011

“Miss Minotaur 1977” © Fieldey 2011

“Miss Minotaur 1977” © Fieldey 2011

Since I first met Fieldey a few years back her art has taken a remarkable journey via design, illustration, painting, photography and bobbing about on surfboards, merging into a distinctive self-branded style that has recently seen its first appearance on a gigantic custom-made wave riding device – the motherboard, so to speak, of all that is to come.

CW: The reason that I wanted to interview you for this blog is that your recent work has been very character based. Your creations appear to have escaped from a particularly silly tattoo parlour. What brought about The Fish Wife, The Amazing Prawn Star and all the other characters that have appeared in your artwork this year?

Fieldey: Well, I have this thing where I’m slightly obsessed with naming inanimate objects and it was a natural progression upon taking up surfing to start naming my surfboards. The Fish Wife was my first ‘proper’ surfboard and the character was a way of turning the mermaid cliche on its head with a reverse mermaid and the name is a bad pun – because the type of board is known as a ‘fish’. The others are either puns (oh how I love a bad pun!) or they’re taking cliched icons and making them slightly weird in some way. It’s all about giving the surfboard a personality and life of its own… the character personifies the surfboard in a way.

“The Fish Wife” © Fieldey 2011

“The Fish Wife” © Fieldey 2011

The first illustrations of yours I ever saw were, if i am not mistaken, a series of amusing farm animal portraits – along with their names and short character descriptions as part of the artwork. You’ve obviously always had a thing for characters rather than abstract art and design. Is there a reason for this you could pin down?

I think it’s because I hate drawing landscapes? I mean… trees – so difficult! But seriously, I find it more enjoyable and interesting to  concentrate on a single figure and tell a story about that particular character than having a whole bunch of crap going on… Also it gives you more of a chance to make people laugh, and if people are surprised or find it funny I’m happy too.

Could you ever imagine having your characters appear in a narrative instead of these iconic depictions?

I thought I had to get out a bit more when I was starting to weave together complex narratives about them… one of the characters Mr Mussel, who is a sort of overweight tattooed circus merman, has a tattoo of the Fish Wife on his bicep and in my head I was imagining that she was his girlfriend… so I see connections between them but not as them all co-existing in a world together or anything.

“Mr Mussel” © Fieldey 2011

“Mr Mussel” © Fieldey 2011

At this point in your career, do you see yourself more in a design or an art context?

After so many years as a designer, design certainly has informed a lot of what I do now, especially in terms of composition and colour, but I see myself and the direction I’m going in as more of an art journey. Not least of all because it doesn’t involve clients or mining companies… arghh!

What are your favourite materials to work with at the moment and why?

Surfboards, spray paint and my Golden Acrylics. I’m totally down with the utilitarian aspect of surfboards and their iconic shape… I like the idea of art that is portable and useful, it doesn’t just hang on your wall, it can do gnarly stuff too, oh and they’re big. I love big. In fact they’re so big and I’m so lazy, I use the spray paint for insta-background and the acrylics because they’re bright and sassy and dry fast.

Captain Kook & The Amazing Prawn Star © Fieldey 2011

Captain Kook & The Amazing Prawn Star © Fieldey 2011

What can we expect to see emerging from the Fieldey universe in the near future?

Total world domination. And if providence smiles upon me, an art exhibition with a range of sexed-up Fieldey Custom Surfboards and a rad range of Tshirts. Ooh and I also want to buy a car and completely pimp (paint) it.

Top 5 artists at the moment?

 Top 5 songs to listen to while working?

Another top 5 (or more!) of your own choice! (Read on if you dare…)

Top 5 Wilbur Smith descriptive cliches:

  • “Every nerve in his body came up taut as a fishing line struck by a heavy marlin deep in the blue waters of the Pemba Channel”
  • “She could imagine him sitting at the centre of his web, gazing hungrily across the river at them, a fanatic with a quenchless thirst for human blood”
  • “…he gave the impression of being stockily built, but this was an illusion fostered by the breadth of his shoulders and the girth of his upper arms, muscled by heavy work.”
  • “She was almost as tall as him, but he could have easily encircled her waist with his hands. Her bust was boyish and her carriage imperious. Her eye was steely, and as penetrating rapier, and her features were hard and sharp as a whipsaw.”
  • “When Graf Otto placed one large freckled hand on Eva’s tiny waist and drew her closer to him, and she smiled up into his face, Leon hated him with a bitter relish that tasted like burned gunpowder in the back of his throat.”
  • “Badger, oh, Badger! I know that the road we must travel together will be long and hard. So many snares and pitfalls stand in our way. But I know with equal certainty that together we can win through to the summit of our mountain.”
  • “She was helpless in the circle of his arms… She pressed her firm round buttocks into him, felt him swelling and hardening… She stopped struggling, sank to her knees and lifted high the twin half-moons of her buttocks. She wriggled her thighs apart so that the nest of pink curls peeked out between them. ‘I hate you!’ she said.”
  • “…her waist was fluted, like the neck of a Grecian vase, curving into the swell of her hips. The skin of her belly was nacreous and unblemished. Her thighs were strong and shapely and between them nestled a womanly bush, dark and curling luxuriantly in its marvelous profusion.”
Lady Luck © Fieldey 2011

Lady Luck © Fieldey 2011