It’s the second time I meet CARLL CNEUT, for LECHAPERON. The first time we met over a good glass of La Boutine in Apéro d’Oc, but today Carll invited me to Moor&Moor over a cup of coffee (or two), in Ghent. The city where Carll lives and works when he’s not traveling abroad for his work as an illustrator. A very honored and rewarded illustrator who is known for his nostalgic images, the tiny details and his unique time-consuming ‘layer’-painting technique. It is still early morning and a warm summer breeze is already present. It’s was going to be a good day.
No one knows, but years ago, there was a little knight, named Carll, who lived in Geluwe, an outlying village in West-Flanders, Belgium. He had two sisters who weren’t interested in the adventures of knight Carll that much, so he made up his own fantasy world. Growing up, knight Carll slowly disappeared, however the fantasy world he lived in is still subsisting nowadays in Carll Cneut’s head. Today Carll shares his imaginary world with us through his many beautiful book illustrations. Even though his work is generally defined as nostalgic & melancholic, Carll isn’t engrossed with the past in daily life. On the contrary, he is a happy person who embraces life at 200%.
Maybe I put all of the sadness that I have in me in my drawings?
Willy the elephant
Throughout his childhood, it was clear that Carll wanted to use his creativity. He had decided to become a baker ‘to make the most beautiful pies ever’. I’m sure that his pies would have been the most beautiful ones in the world, but oh boy, are we glad it turned out differently! Cook, lawyer, architect, circus artist, … were also on his list of potential jobs. Eventually he started his career as a graphic designer and enrolled into the job of an illustrator rather by accident. A colleague fell ill, and Carll was asked to take over the illustration tasks. Since then he combined graphic design with some illustration assignments. At first, illustrating was just a job to him. For years Carll has been struggling with how he wanted to fulfill the definition of the illustrator he wanted to be. At age of 30, ‘being an illustrator’ became real when ‘Willy’ was created. ‘Willy’ is a story about an elephant celebrating elements that make each person unique. This was Carll’s turning point. “My first three books were illustrations in poetry books. Willy was the first book with a storyflow. This was the first time I really understood the work. As from that moment I also understood the illustrator I wanted to be. It is hard to explain, but everything fell together. I liked what I was doing and I felt I could really mean something as an illustrator.” In 2000, the book Willy was awarded for ‘best illustration’ by Boekenpauw and many national and international awards followed over the next 15 years.
- Image book cover Willy, 1999 (De Eenhoorn) -
- Brad Holland -
Try. Do. Do again. And again. Keep doing. Success.
Not many illustrators paint their work, but Carll is one of them. His early admiration for the American artist / illustrator Brad Holland was his motive to use paint for his drawings. Yes, Carll was talented. No, he wasn’t extremely good at painting nor did he have a lot of experience. But his ambitious nature and drive to succeed were determinative. It sounds very simple, but it wasn’t. Carll taught himself, with success, how to paint and it took years to master certain techniques.
Even today he’s still learning. With each new assignment Carll tries to improve his previous work. “That’s who I am”, he explains. “In everything I do, I try to improve and to challenge myself to do better. It overtakes me. And it never stops. I always want to achieve something, I set myself goals. Even when riding my bike in the city! (he laughs) I can’t explain why I’m being silly in that way, but that’s how it is. My biggest fear is the feeling of marking time. I think that deep inside, I am lazy. That’s why I disciplined myself to get up every morning and work until evening. If I don’t do it this way, I easily slip into doing nothing. And doing nothing feels uncomfortable to me.”
Carll uses different layers when painting, most of the time with Acryl, to make his new high-textured world come alive. With every new assignment, Carll tries to capture the story in 15 or 16 essential images and defines an atmosphere. Then he begins to sketch, cut and paste the texts and pictures until the book is ‘finished’. That’s where the painting begins. At that moment he already exactly imagined how the picture will look like in the end. Every color, every detail, every space is pre-defined. The combination of subtle and saturated colors and his strong compositions make his drawings original and unique. He also literally invites and challenges the readers to create their own world by drawing incomplete pictures. This whole process is very time-consuming. One book image can sometimes easily take one week to more than a month! If he could, Carll would change his working method, but he simply can’t. He tried it once, but he had to start all over again because he wasn’t satisfied with the result.
Be happy with what you have while working for what you want
It suddenly strikes me that many things in Carll’s life are the result of going along with his gut feeling: when starting a new collaboration for a book or a project, when selecting a story, when meeting people or discovering a new location. If it FEELS right, he’s very loyal to people, things and places. “I don’t need much to be happy. I don’t need to travel far. I like being where I am. Having my friends and family around, and being able to do what I like is perfect”.
If something is good, why should I look any further?
In my head
From December 2014 till May 2015 an inspiring exhibition from Carll took place in Ghent. People could wander around in his head. Literally. The exhibition offered people an insight in his fantasy world, his rich oeuvre as an illustrator, but also his daily life from childhood up to today. He also insisted on moving his atelier for almost 6 months to the exhibition in the St. Peter’s Abbey (it was a copy of his own atelier to give insight in how he works). It was overwhelming: 50.000 people visited the exposition and dropped by in his atelier to have a chat, to get their books signed or to see how Carll works. We (husband, son and I) were also there. I have never ever seen so many smiling faces together during an exposition. Not one single negative comment was given. Carll recognizes that the success of this event was only made possible with the help and the support of many other people. “I can only explain how it was, but I can’t put into words how I experienced this. It was an intense period and I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to do this”, he says.
During the exposition, I noticed that many people called me Carll Cneut instead of Carll. It’s just Carll, you know. People from outside make the distinction between Carll the illustrator and Carll the person, but there is only one.
To Carll it was also striking to see how things grew organically. One day in his atelier a man took some paper, drew a bird and attached the drawing to the wall. Many others followed. His atelier became his own ‘golden cage’ surrounded by the many birds, drawn by people who admire his work.
Golden Cage image (2014, De Eenhoorn)
Carll Cneut in his own ‘Golden cage’ during the ‘In my head’ exhibition (picture Flanders Today, Sept. 2015)
There is one moment in his whole career where the younger Carll Cneut – flattered by the attention from outside – compromised on one of his works by giving in to other’s instructions. He still regrets this. It became his biggest lesson in work life, but also in life in general. He knows that he performs best when he feels that people trust him 100% and when he is allowed to be whom he is. Since then he always strives to stay true to himself.
Biggest achievement in life
When asking Carll about his biggest achievement in life until now, he answers the exposition IN MY HEAD in Ghent. Later on, when the recorder has stopped and we’re chitchatting in the sun, Carll comes back to this question and says “Maybe my biggest achievement in life is just ‘staying true to myself’ because I think I succeeded well in that part”.
Carll Cneut. There he goes. Always with a vivid pace. A great artist and a great person in one, who stands out because of his humility and humanity. “You sound very happy”, the husband says after spending my day in the presence of Carll Cneut. I smile. Apparently, that’s what Carll does to people…