Pictoplasma: A festival of character

Dedicated to character-based art and illustration, Berlin’s Pictoplasma festival has a community feel like no other, says Lisa Hassell

Now in its 12th year, the Pictoplasma conference and festival has undergone something of a revival. This year’s Show Character! theme asked an eclectic mix of 18 international speakers to explore posture, personality and attitude in their character-based art and illustration. Five were from the UK – more than any other year in the festival’s history.

The traditional craft skills of British sculptor Wilfrid Wood were wonderfully juxtaposed with the schoolboy humour of Mr Bingo and the absurdist experimental films of Becky & Joe, who spoke at length about the trials and tribulations of their immensely popular short film series, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared [featured in CR April 13].

illustration festival Pictoplasma in Berlin
Australian artist and illustrator Rilla Alexander’s character design workshop at the Pictoplasma Academy in full swing. Photo: Verena Nunn. See byrilla.com

As an underlying theme for the Pictoplasma conference, many of the speakers sought to offer a wider look at the state of character design today and its social context. Using simple bold lines and bright colours to create humorous illustrations and gifs that make light of sensitive issues, French illustrator Cécile Dormeau spoke of her personal battles with body image and self-acceptance, which led her to turn to drawing as a form of catharsis. “I try to play with their flaws and emotions with humour in a colourful and fun style,” she said. Calling out women’s magazines and social media for their conflicting and confusing messages, Dormeau explained that illustrators had a responsibility to cut through the noise.

“Never forget that our illustrations always deliver a message, so always ask yourself which [point of view] on society you want to show, and how you can ask people to question themselves about certain themes,” she said.

Cécile Dormeau speaking at Pictoplasma
Cécile Dormeau speaking at Pictoplasma (cecile-dormeau.tumblr.com)

A sense of revelry

An unexpected highlight was seeing the playful camaraderie between festival organisers Lars Denicke and Peter Thaler on stage, reprising their roles as hosts for the first time in six years – a role previously handed to another member of the team with mixed results. For me, seeing the pair laughing and engaging with the speakers gave the festival an added layer of warmth, as their enthusiasm bubbled over into the audience.

Also making a celebrated return to the festival schedule after a two-year hiatus, the Character Walk, whereby attendees are encouraged to roam between 19 shows across several venues throughout the Mitte and Neukölln districts, injected a much-needed sense of revelry into proceedings. For those like myself who have remained loyal to the festival over the last ten years, the absence of the Walk had been heartfelt, and we welcomed it back with open arms and high expectations.

the pictoplasma character forum in berlin
Networking at the Pictoplasma Character Forum where young creatives got to pitch ideas to the likes of LEGO and Sony

A short walk away from the main conference venue of Babylon KINO, French artist Ugo Gattoni gave a glimpse into his fertile imagination with an exhibition of large scale, exquisitely detailed drawings of cityscapes and strange, otherworldly objects and artefacts. A monochromatic whirlwind of minute detail, dreamlike characters and typography, the evolution of his visual style was the subject of his conference talk, in which he shared the creative process behind his latest collaboration with fashion brand Hermès – a silk scarf inspired by a kind of phantasmagorical architecture inhabited by horses.

Further along at Retramp gallery, Berlin-based visual artist and illustrator Jim Avignon presented Black Market, a colourful and odd mashup of cartoonish figuration, expressionist composition, bold titles and circus style games described as “blinky tapes gone bonkers”.

At the centre of the Character Walk, Urban Spree once again presented the Pictoplasma Academy All-Stars group exhibition unleashing new character worlds in the form of installations, paintings, drawings and sculpture by 36 international and upcoming talents from Pictoplasma’s annual ten-day masterclass. Now in its third year, the Pictoplasma Academy is going from strength to strength, attracting students from as far afield as Mexico, Argentina, India and Lebanon for the character-led masterclass which runs in Berlin every autumn.

Ugo Gattoni’s work for Hermés (ugogattoni.fr)
Ugo Gattoni’s work for Hermés (ugogattoni.fr)

Changing perspective

London-based Brazilian illustrator Beatriz Sanches explained to me how her experience at the Academy last year helped her work: “It has really helped me understand more about my work and ideas,” she revealed. Sanches enrolled at the Academy after relocating to London to pursue a freelance career. “The different facets to what a character can bring to a story, and how to develop different worlds around a character – it changed my perspective.”

Niel Kalk at Pictoplasma workshop in Berlin
Collaging at Niels Kalk’s Pictoplasma workshop

Sanches was also one of a number of festival attendees who took advantage of the Character Forum, first introduced to the festival programme last year. With a new fast-paced, ‘speed pitching’ format designed to heighten the playful atmosphere and dispel nerves, this evening event gave ticket holders an unrivalled opportunity to pitch their character-based projects to a panel of more than 20 pros, including reps from LEGO, Passion Pictures, Sony, Disney and B-Reel.

With just a limited number of slots up for grabs, competition was fierce and the atmosphere lively and energetic with queues forming in the stairwell of the Villa Elisabeth early on. Freelance illustrator Andre Zhion joined the queue at the Forum in the hope of presenting his personal portfolio to prospective art buyers and illustration agents, though expressed frustration with the way the event had been structured. Keen to make the most of the networking opportunities on offer, he felt that the time spent in the queue could have been put to better use. “It would have been more productive in an environment with so many people sharing common interests had the attendees also had the opportunity to meet in a similar way,” he said. “Fortunately, interaction happened spontaneously and in a very casual way, but I think the format could have been better explored.”

street art in Berlin
Berlin street art by Alex Godwin (billyandalex.com)

Invited to participate in the panel as director of our newly formed illustration agency WE ARE GOODNESS, I found the experience of meeting the attendees at the Forum thoroughly enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, the standard of work shown was mixed, with pitch preparation varying from quick-fire Keynotes to a desktop display of unrelated, poorly rendered jpegs. However, those that impressed did so with their drive, passion and professionalism – they’d done their research and knew exactly what they wanted to get out of the pitch. “It was so refreshing and interesting to meet people from film, animation, product design, advertising as well as illustration,” Emily Ford, senior commissioning editor of Macmillan Children’s Books told me. “There’s a natural overlap and creatively it’s a very immersive place to be.”

Also on the panel, Claire Cook of London-based Nexus Productions spoke fondly about Pictoplasma and its decidedly non-corporate approach. “The festival still feels intimate enough to randomly meet people, which makes it unique,” she said. Focused on developing original content for Nexus and its sister company Nexus Interactive Arts, Cook found the Forum and the festival experience as a whole curiously inspiring. “I love the crossover between film and interactive storytelling. [At Nexus] we are learning about new ways to tell stories all the time,” she said.

Martina Paukova on stage (see martinapaukova.com).
Martina Paukova on stage (see martinapaukova.com).

The setting of the Forum was ripe for striking up conversations, and the absence of hierarchy amongst industry and attendees naturally led to opportunities and connections that would otherwise pass by. This aspect to Pictoplasma is significant: from its early beginnings the festival has prided itself on building lasting relationships with industry and remaining largely self-sufficient, with little in the way of investment or funding support from outside sponsors. Yet, whilst the organisers’ low maintenance approach may surprise some, it has given attendees a sense of kinship, creating a fun atmosphere and a sense of familiarity that I have yet to experience at any other festival. For those seeking an immersive festival experience, Pictoplasma certainly delivers.

Shoboshobo at the Villa Elisabeth Art Happening Photograph by: Verena Nunn.
Shoboshobo at the Villa Elisabeth Art Happening Photograph by: Verena Nunn.

Talent of tomorrow

Reflecting on how the festival has grown to meet the needs of the next generation of creatives is also reaffirming. Not only have they identified a need to connect ‘talent of tomorrow with the industry leaders of today’ but they are systematically building the tools to make it a reality. Launched earlier this year, Pictofolio.com is Pictoplasma’s new Portfolio Community site for attendees of the Academy and conference. It provides an opportunity to share and explore the work of like-minded artists and designers and a way to stay in touch with new friends made at the festival itself. In time the site may well become an invaluable resource for industry to discover new talent.

As the festival closes for another year, witnessing this exciting and promising new direction fills me with pride, having seen first-hand how the festival has shaped and shifted over the last decade. As it refocuses its energy on supporting young emerging talent, I’m curious to see what happens next.

See pictoplasma.com. For more on the Pictoplasma Academy and how to apply, go to academy.pictoplasma.com/masterclass

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