Like an Indian summer: Ellen Van Engelen

With her glorious style that gets inspiration from 60’s and 70’s iconic aesthetics, Ellen Van Engelen delivers “feelgood” art on stuff like polyamory, spornosexuel men or writing early in the morning…

Interview by Ekin Sanaç 

Were you born and raised in Antwerp? What was your childhood like? Were your parents into art and music?

Yes, I was born In Antwerp and have always lived in Deurne, about a 20-minute bike ride from Antwerp center.

I had a very normal, boring childhood. My dad’s a doctor and my mom was a kindergarten teacher before I was born and a housewife after.

My dad is really into classical music (he bored the crap out of us with it) and both my parents thought studying music was really important, so I studied the violin for 9 or 10 years. But for the rest my childhood wasn’t very artistic. I did love to draw and always thought I wanted to do something with it, but I don’t have the feeling it was encouraged a lot. My mom’s idea of doing something with drawing was becoming an architect.

What were your favourite comics, who were your favourite characters as you were growing up? What are your earliest influences you can remember?

When we were little my dad had a patient who gave us bags of his old Spirou magazines and we devoured those. One of my favourite comics was Isabel from Will, there was also this one-shot in a Christmas issue that really fascinated me, called Laiyna by René Hausman and Pierre Dubois.

How did you originally get into drawing and illustration?

I always loved to draw, but as I studied Latin in high school, I was completely clueless about the direction I wanted it to take. So after high school I studied fashion for 2 years, after that painting for 2 years. Then I quit school and started working while doing evening classes of graphic design. Only after that I really started drawing again for myself and as I got better I realized I might be able to do something with it.

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Your style brings together the best of late 60s and 70s psychedelic artwork that we see on iconic LP covers, with influences from comic-style illustrations and creates a unique language. And the term nostalgia usually comes up regarding the visible 70s influence. Do you agree that the term nostalgia fits in your work? And how is your relationship with nostalgia in general?

I actually try to avoid nostalgia, but it’s possible it’s a bit in my nature. I definitely don’t try to emulate a retro style, but I do enjoy the silly 70s sense of humour, and think their images are often cozy and cheerful. I do try to put some of that in my work but hope it’s in a more timeless way.

We are drawn to the stories and characters seen in the details your work. How does the creation process usually work for you? How do you elaborate on the characters and stories that you draw? Are there any specific ways for conjuring ideas in your head?

That’s a difficult question, I’m not really sure about it.
I’m afraid I think my main incentive for doing things this or that way is because I hope it will look good like that.

It does often end up different to how I imagined.

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What kind of stories do you find appealing and influential?

I like it when writers have a good sense of humour, and when stories are a bit absurd. I like good science fiction, I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick, although his books date from the sixties, he doesn’t feel outdated contrary to some other SF writers of his time.

I also like noir books (can’t remember which ones I read/liked), Houellebecq, Tardi, Beyond Sleep from Willem Frederik Hermans. We also have a big pile of salvation army books, some are crappy, but sometimes you can find a nice surprise there, like ‘De wereld gaat aan vlijt ten onder’ from Max Dendermonde. I can’t find the title in English, but it’s something like

‘The world is perishing from zeal’.

When you illustrate an everyday scene, it comes out in glorious stylish ways with a sense of humour. It makes one feel good to look at your work. How conscious are you when doing that? And how important is this to you?

I’m happy you feel that way about them. I try to be a bit funny, it’s just not always easy to see for yourself if you succeeded or not. And like I said, I like it to be cozy. I also think composition is important. I’m far from being a master at elaborate compositions, but I try to make it fit.

What criteria do you use to critique your own work?

I’m not sure. The composition and colours should fit and the execution should be good.

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What happens when you are working on a commissioned piece and the subject/theme is something you are not really into?

It’s actually sometimes kind of fun to illustrate a theme your not interested in. Then I learn something and eventually you always find an angle where you can apply your own aesthetics.

Would you ever consider producing a book of more narrative work of your illustrations?

I would love to do that, but writing scares the hell out of me and I haven’t found anyone yet that can do it for me.

What are you working on at the moment? How does 2016 seem to you from today?

I also have a small illustration agency called Pazuzu, right now I’m working with my boyfriend on the new site. And I haven’t got a clue about what 2016 will bring for me, hopefully some great opportunities!