The Interview : Albert Kiefer
(Rachna Singh, Editor, in conversation with Albert Kiefer, a digital artist who successfully turned to the traditional art of sketching)
The Wise Owl talks to Albert Kiefer, a professional visual designer who lives and works in Venlo in the Netherlands. He graduated in arts and art history from the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht and co-founded the visual design company StormHand in 1992. Albert rediscovered the joys of drawing with real markers in 2016, and posts daily sketches of buildings and street scenes on his Instagram account @housesketcher, where he has amassed more than 140,000 followers.
Hi Albert. Your sketches of buildings and street scenes are fabulous. Our team waits for your Instagram posts eagerly. Thank you so much for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. We are delighted to talk to you.
RS: For the benefit of the readers please tell us a little about your artistic journey. When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist? Was there anyone in your circle of family and friends that encouraged you and helped to hone your craft?
AK: Making pictures, I think, has been in my blood from a very early childhood. For me it was a way of grasping or trying to understand the world around me. And also, a way to create the world I could imagine. I was very much into superhero stuff. I loved how they would ‘save the world’ or save another person from bad people in their colored suits, and with their hidden superpowers. That spoke to me. Also TV series in the sixties like Batman, Star Trek, and certainly movies in the seventies and eighties, like Star Wars and Blade Runner were very influential on me. There were no direct people in my family who encouraged me, but I had a strong desire to create the worlds I imagined and translate them into pictures I could hold in my hand.
RS: You are a professional visual designer. Tell us a little about the kind of work you have been doing as a visual designer.
AK: In the final year of my study at the Academy of Arts in Maastricht I came in contact with computers. That was in 1988. I was immediately captivated by the possibilities, which were, at that point, endless, even though by current standards they were very, very primitive!! But I quickly got a job at a computer graphics firm and started doing business graphics, creating color slide presentations for corporate clients. That was the start. I bought myself a computer and taught myself all these new techniques in Illustrator, Photoshop did not even exist at that time! But after a couple of years the possibilities drastically improved, and I was able to do really nice 3D visualisations. I had an offer from Apple Computer in the Netherlands to give presentations of 3D on a Mac (I worked exclusively on the Mac at that point in time). These presentations were caught up by a producer who introduced me to a Dutch TV station who was looking for artists that could do digital effects work for a new series they were creating. I did that work together with a friend of mine, Frans Mensink. With him and an After Effects Specialist, Korné Baars, we created all the special effects for that series. Which for me entailed 3D modelling, texturing (together with Frans), and animation and for the look of the project, also the concept design.
On the graphics side of the field, I worked together with an incredible designer and friend, Boy Bastiaens. Together we founded ‘Stormhand’, creating cutting edge graphic designs, visualizations and branding campaigns. We still do that on a project basis. We did projects for the fashion industry, branding campaigns for Pepe Jeans, Atelier La Durance, Australian Homemade Icecream, K (a brand of Karl Lagerfeld) and lots of graphic design work for DGXIII (Telecoms) department of the European Commission.
RS: If I remember correctly, in 2016 you turned to traditional art and began sketching. What made you turn from the field of computer graphics and visual designing to traditional art?
AK: 2016 was a year that I finally made good on my yearlong intention to also ‘return a bit’ to traditional means of picture making. Not as a replacement, I love the digital field really a lot, but as something to return to my roots of just having fun making drawings. I had postponed that year after year, because I knew I would not be as good at it as I used to be in the seventies and eighties. I could not even write decently anymore since I did everything on a keyboard. I had become a ruthless perfectionist, did not allow myself to make mistakes and was very, very self-critical. But then, in 2016 I was in an art supplies store with my wife, who’s a painter, waiting for her to finish her shopping. I saw a simple black book with no lines. And I had the impulse: Let’s get me a simple sketchbook and I’ll grab some materials to draw and color. That started it, and on the 30th of June 2016 I made my first entry in that sketch, which was No 01. It was a very simple sketch of my bookcase, filled with books and a superhero figure.
RS: Like I said before, you make fabulous sketches of buildings and streets. What made you capture buildings and street scenes in your sketches?
AK: I had not drawn something traditionally in more than thirty years!! Like I said, perfection and working pixel perfect and to exact dimensions of points and pica sizes (for my print jobs) had become my standard. Rules, rules, rules… So, I also made a rule for myself that if I wanted this sketching to become something of a regular routine, I’d make one every day, at least one simple sketch! Another rule, since I had to do everything perfectly in my regular work, was that these sketches needed to be anything but perfect! They needed to be carefree and relaxed. So, I started but after having sketched that bookcase and my vacuum cleaner and the roofs of neighbouring houses I quickly ran out of ideas of what to sketch next.
Now I do a lot of walking! My computer job is sitting down for the most part of the day, so I do everything outside of my studio, as much as possible, on foot. I love architecture and luck had it that one of the sketches I made, which my wife said I should share on Facebook, happened to be the sketch of a building. I received a lot of positive responses on that sketch. So, then it struck me… I love architecture, there are lots of great buildings in my hometown of Venlo… I have my subject!! I can make lots of architectural sketches!
RS: You describe your work as ‘visual poetry.’ Could you elaborate on the term for the benefit of our readers and viewers.
AK: Well, I think I would describe it as ‘writing’ my lines. Just like the written language is a very fluent motor skill for most of us, I like to compare how I sketch with flowing, writing, my lines onto the page. I don’t want to construct because for me that feels like slowing down my flow. That stiffens the sketches. And since I do lots of construction and technical stuff on the computer, I don’t want it in my sketching work.
RS: Is there any artist/artists (traditional or contemporary) who inspire/s you. If so, why.
AK: The sketching basically started from having the materials I randomly bought at that art store, and me figuring out what to do with them (I had only once, in the early 80’s, used markers). But of course, you get interested in who else is sketching. One of the artists whose work really struck a chord with me was Tomas Pajdlhauser (http://captaintom.studio). I loved his immediacy, his very economic use of lines and colors to describe his stories.
I also really love concept artists, they shape the worlds we see in movies, TV series and games. One that really jumped out for me is Craig Mullins!! I think he redefined the way computers can be used in a very painterly way that is only possible in the digital realm. So not mimicking traditional media but making optimal use of what software (mostly Photoshop) can bring to the table.
Of course, there are countless others now whose work I love. Both on current social media outlets as well as in the museums. The joy of being active in the visual arts is that you learn to observe in a really rich way!
RS: For the benefit of upcoming artists, please share your creative process (from the time you decide on a subject for your sketch to the finished artwork). Our readers would also love to know what kind of paper and colours you use.
AK: I love architecture, especially architecture that has some kind of a special look. Imperfection is an extra incentive for me in picking my subjects. That’s why during lockdown I stumbled on a group of Tokyo photographers that documented lots of very old buildings in their town. That phase (COVID in 2020) really injected my sketches with the spirit of these houses. I have asked several photographers if it’s OK to use their houses as reference and inspiration for a sketch. Not a literal copy, I find that quite boring, but an interpretation. So, the process is going through either photos, or sitting down if I am in a nice spot, and deciding on a building, or sometimes a street. I plan in my mind what I want to achieve with that subject and immediately start. Another rule I made for myself was that in my sketchbooks, there’s no pencil pre-sketch stage. I directly go to my fineliner black linework. That brings a tension with it that I love. Things can, and will, go wrong. And that’s perfectly OK. All these things help me learn and gain new insights.
I have, ever since that first sketchbook, worked in Moleskine art sketchbooks of size A5 (they have a blue ribbon). It’s a thicker paper and not as deadly white. For my markers I use the same brands that I started with: Copic, and Winsor & Newton. I started with something like six colors six years ago, but now I have a larger collection ;-)
RS: I notice that you are sharing your expertise by offering several courses on sketching with markers. What tips would you give upcoming artists on how to hone their sketching?
AK: True! In the summer of 2021, I was approached by the international creative training platform ‘Domestika’ to develop a course together with them. I knew the very high professional grade work they deliver, so I was both honoured and very excited to do this with them. It’s here: https://www.domestika.org/en/courses/3675-expressive-architectural-sketching-with-colored-markers/housesketcher
What I advise to many of my students is: Don’t go for that perfect end result right from the start! You need to be willing to learn and spend time with it. Don’t punish yourself for making mistakes but embrace them. Don’t look at it as mistakes but as points of insight. If you do that, your work WILL get better and better. Every sketch you make will let you develop as an artist. Every sketch you don’t make, will be a missed opportunity.
Thanks Albert, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in your creative endeavours and eagerly await your beautiful and evocative posts on Instagram.