For those who aren’t familiar with Iwan Smit yet, shame on you. This multi disciplinary illustrator has been ruling the graphic design game for quite a while now. He’s known for his bold graphics, vivid colors and always keeping a close relation to mythological creatures. We’ve teamed up with this guy some time ago; he helped us with the creative campaign over at 5 Days Off last year, and he recently created some awesome art for our latest exhibition. We sat down with Iwan in his studio in downtown Rotterdam, to talk about Piet Parra, his collaboration with The Hundreds and drawing carnivals.
Tell us something about yourself please. Like who are you and what do you do for a living?
I’m Iwan Smit, 24 years old, and I live in Rotterdam. I build sculptures, I draw a lot and I’ve been doing that for quite a while now. The last couple of years people are picking it up, seems like they appreciate what I do. I get clients who like what I do and therefore want to work with me; they sell my stuff or use my designs for other purposes like t-shirts, branding or whatever. That’s what I do in my professional life.
Next to that, I went to the Willem de Kooning Academy to study Fine Arts for 2 years, but I stopped doing that because I didn’t really liked the direction this course was going. For the past two years I’ve done a lot of free work for myself, and really enjoyed it. However, this year I decided to head back to art school to study Illustration. I just want to finish school, and Illustration feels more goal-driven than Fine Arts. Within Fine Arts, you tend to go into a lot of different directions, while illustration is more focussed towards my goal.
Can you tell us something about how your passion for illustrating began to grow?
In my first memory I was about 3 years old. I came home with my parents, I’m not sure where we went but we had a few bags with us. My mother and father put the bags down on the table, I grabbed a pen and I headed out to the stairs to draw a carnival underneath the banisters. That’s basically the first memory I can remember, so maybe it all started from there. I really liked what I was doing: ‘Wow, this is beautiful! People are having fun with the big tents, there even is a Zoo with animals walking around’. My parents looked at it and they weren’t that amused, so that’s where the memory stops. I don’t know if I was punished or if they liked it; in my memory it just was always there, they didn’t paint over it or something, they just left it there. I just kept on drawing, from primary school until middle school. When I was about 10 years old, I knew I wanted to do something with drawings, just creating things. I was also into building huts all the time, so my passion already was about visualizing and creating things that popped up in my head.
Where do you catch your daily inspiration?
From a lot of different places! For example, lyrics in music. Sometimes, when you hear certain words in a song, an image immediately pops up in your brain. You put it on paper or it just stays in your head for a while. You keep on listening, and the image just develops into something. Though it’s not only music that inspires me, sometimes you just get random thoughts, or you see something that’s just in the street. A trigger that pushes you into making something. Of course, you can also be inspired by other artists who do cool stuff. But I never try to look at their work that much, because you can easily get the feeling like someone already did it before you did. I go my own way by just doing it, afterwards I’ll check if someone else did anything similar. In that way, I’m keeping it pure for myself.
Do you have any role models you look up to?
Hmm… There are some people that are doing pretty awesome stuff. People like Piet Parra, a Dutch illustrator; he’s just doing great. He might not be the best illustrator around, but his style is very strong and recognizable. That’s also something I try to incorporate in my own work; a solid, strong style that’s easy to recognize. You don’t have a to see my name to know it’s my work. Also, Piet Parra teams up with everybody, you could actually say I’m a bit jealous haha!
I like what he has accomplished in the world of illustration and art, it’s very cool. Also, don’t forget about guys like Damien Hirst and David Hockney; their work is amazing as well! In Rotterdam, we have our own Joep van Lieshout. He has a different kind of skill-set, but he runs a very big studio with a bunch of people working just for him. He’s not just an artist, he’s a complete factory. I really would like to achieve something like that, going big!
Your work is filled with mythological symbols and animals. Where does this interest come from?
It’s a fascination. For me, it’s a way to communicate my story and my thoughts, the things I want to get across. I play Magic, it’s a card game, pretty nerdy but I like it a lot. I’ve been playing this game since the age of 10 and actually just liked the cards for the images. But after a while in school, I saw some people who were actually playing the game, it sparked my interest and so I started playing Magic more and more. I basically grew up with that game, so maybe in a way, my work is also inspired by Magic. I’ve always liked storytelling. I’m not a writer, I’m more on the visual side, my mind just works like that.
So I guess it’s true, usually there is a mythological or mystical thing about it.
What do you consider you own personal masterpiece?
Well, I don’t think I created my big masterpiece yet, it’s more like the piece I’m the most proud of. Last year I did a collaboration with The Hundreds from Los Angeles, we did an exhibition in Rotterdam to celebrate our collaboration. I decided to do an exhibition around the release; I made two really big stained glasses, and I created my own interpretation on the concept. Two big boxes of wood with Plexiglas, which forms the image. I also put some lights behind the glass, so you can turn it on and off. Those two were prototypes actually, because I want to make a few more of those. I was very pleased with the result, it just worked out great.
A lot of artists nowadays seem to struggle with staying authentic as an artist, or going commercial and sell out. What’s your opinion on this subject?
I like to not have a job next to this. Sure, you can make art and immediately sell it to be successful. It’s very hard, but it’s possible. I sold these windows not that long ago, so surely it can happen. But, especially in the beginning, you have to be flexible. Sometimes you’ll have to do things that are somewhat commercial, or not exactly what you really want to do, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t have a problem with working for a company, but it has to be a good balance. I’m doing what I want to do right now, but when you work for a company like RedBull, you’re going to do what they want you to do. They obviously want you for your specific style, but they want you to do it in their own way. That’s actually the hardest thing for an artist to do. But hey, doing commercial work also pays the bills and enables me to do what I really want to do; my own free work. In the end it’s all about having fun and if the balance is right, I don’t mind! Also, doing commercial things enables you to expand the reach of your audience.
Describe a perfect day in the life of Iwan Smit.
My perfect day starts out by not being in the winter or autumn, I’m a summery kind of guy, so it has to be warm and sunny. My perfect day is either doing completely nothing, or just working really, really hard and being proud of myself because of it. You know, when I really surprise myself by seeing what I can create, then it’s have a very good day. Or just doing something fun with friends, like being in the park. I’m a simple guy, I don’t need a limousine to have the best day of my life.
What’s coming up in the future?
Well, I made these very big windows we previously talked about, I would like to do like 10 of these, but then a bit smaller and with new images. I really enjoyed making them, I think they are beautiful. I know if I do it again, I can do it better, because for me they were prototypes. I’m actually working on a sweatshirt with Tegendraads, that’s going to be very cool. We had the idea to do a sweater with patches everywhere. So that’s definitely coming up!
Now a bit more personal – Next to illustrating, what are your other hobbies?
Playing the card game Magic is one of my biggest hobbies, it’s the best game in the world! No video game can compete with it. I don’t have that much time to practice, but I can easily spend a whole day playing it. I can also play it online, but I stopped doing that because I would spend way too much time with it.
What are some of your favorite spots in (and around) Rotterdam?
What’s your own personal cure against a early morning hangover?
Well, I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t do drugs either! But it’s still hard though, going to sleep at 6 in the morning kind of feels the same as being wasted the next day. But at parties, I’m always sharp. I’m not disapproving it, people should have fun! When I was younger, I drank a bit, but I didn’t like it and I just did it to be part of the group. At the end I realized I didn’t really needed that. Maybe it comes from the fact that I don’t like losing control of myself. But sometimes you just get high from the atmosphere; when everybody has a really great time, then I’m the craziest one around. In the end, a good hot shower is the best way to feel better!
' I’m a simple guy, I don’t need a limousine to have the best day of my life.'
What kind of music do you like working to?
It depends. ‘The National’ is one of my favorite bands, it’s kind of indie rock; very melodic and a bit melancholic too. I also like Drake. You’re not going to find me listening to hardcore or house; I like it in a club, but not at home. I also like Bon Iver a lot, that kind of music.
Imagine yourself on a deserted island, what are the 3 items you would like to have with you?
I would like to have a friend. Or a sharp knife and something I can make fire with. Maybe a blanket or something? I would be very practical! I would make a house, I would be good at surviving there! Just provide me the tools and I’ll be okay!
Who should we interview next?
I would say Nazif Lopulissa. He’s a funny guy, we met in our illustration courses over at art school. We became friends in a short time, he has a lot of energy and he’s also a very good illustrator. He’s just very fresh and I like that! He’s not that famous yet, but I think he will be, sooner or later!