There’s a particular storefront in Berlin where you’ll spot locals with their noses pressed up against the glass. It’s not selling the hottest new trainers or freshly baked pastries; in fact, it’s not selling anything at all.
Behind the glass you’ll spy an ink-based doodle. Or a screen print. Or an illustrated book open to a random page. Simple lines and clever pairings reveal the unmistakable hand of Christoph Niemann.
If you peer in a little more, you’ll probably spot the world-renowned German illustrator sketching on his tablet, sitting at a large desk occupied by two assistants. You’ll see a number of prints and paintings hung meticulously on the wall. The studio is clean and considered, tidy and organized. Everything is grey or white, like a blank canvas waiting to be drawn on.
Niemann’s illustrations have a certain breeziness to them—they’re joyful to look at because of their sense of spontaneity; how they speedily and effortlessly convey a funny or poignant idea to the viewer. The illustrator’s ability to communicate in this way comes, in part, from his very particular relationship to his tools, and how he implements them—or follows their lead—to quickly articulate and sculpt a thought. Ultimately, it’s through having such an organized work space, and knowing exactly how to use material to its full potential, that Neimann is able to consistently deliver exciting work to tight deadlines.
“I’m, of course, obsessed with art supplies,” he says on a recent afternoon when I visit his studio. “They are an extension of your head, so you have a very emotional relationship to them.” I asked Niemann to take me on a tour of his current studio essentials.
The Blank Page
“With every creative endeavor, you’re simultaneously creating and judging. When you’re drawing on a blank piece of paper, the illustration grows in front of you. You can judge it right away.
“This doesn’t happen with something like coding, when you’re in an extremely abstract field. When I started doing apps, I’d have to email someone and say ‘Can you make it green?’ Two days later, it’s green and I’m like, ‘Why did I make it green?’ I’m in a totally different headspace.
“For a flow to happen I need a tiny distance between the moment of creation and judging. With everything I do, whether it’s digital work or hand work, it’s all about this moment being tight.”
“I absolutely love these sketchbooks, a brand from Boesner called Aquarelle—I can only find them in Germany. It’s a pretty heavy stock, I usually use between 170g/m2 to 250g/m2, but it fits in a suitcase. These are my travel sketchbooks for all my National Geographic drawings. If I would work on a regular sketchpad, I’d have to rip off the drawings and put them in a portfolio. When I create 30 or 40 drawings on a trip, they’re all very compact and protected in here.”
“I find these inks from Rohrer & Klingner incredible, but they, unfortunately, also don’t exist in the States. I take them with me wherever I go. One color has so much pigment and depth. You basically have multiple colors in one.
“If I was drawing a face with these, I could create several layers and colors using just one ink. Deep blue can turn into a violet, or even more of a cyan. Brown can turn to bright yellow.
“It’s always a surprise, and you can’t get that with digital.”
“What I especially love is how you can layer two colors and see them come together. It’s almost like two different instruments chiming. What I like about this system is that I can control it in a way, but I also can’t control the exact density of the pigment and how the colors will combine. It’s always a surprise, and you can’t get that with digital.”
“To dry ink, I use this hairdryer. I mostly take it with me, but often in hotel rooms there is one, so I’ll dry my works that way.”
The Screen-printing Press
“Experimenting with overlapping inks has made me think more about overlapping in screen printing. Then from experimenting with screen printing, I’ve discovered something that I bring into more binary work. For example, when I do VR illustrations, I use the silk-screen effects of overlapping and color combinations.”
“My favorite brand of pencil is a kind that I can’t find anymore, the Rexel Cumberland, Derwent Graphic pencil. If a reader finds them, please let me know. The top part is black matte; the bottom part is shiny black; then there is a simple orange stripe. I probably couldn’t tell the difference to other pencils in terms of the drawing quality, but they’re the sexiest pencils ever. Now I use an inferior new version with a messed up tilted design.
“For me, 2H is the perfect sketching pencil. You can’t go all the way black. It restrains you. You have to wait before you go in for the kill and actually use a black line. You want to hold that back as long as possible.
“I often like to explore different grains. There was a series I did for ZEIT this past week and I only used six different pencils. Once you work in such a limited space, there’s a huge difference between 5B and 3B or an F and a B. I also used the smudging tool—something I would never have dared to use while I was studying, it was completely forbidden!
“That’s Matrix level when you can heat-detect your pencils.”
“I have a very close relationship with these tools. When I was drawing with a 2H and a B one day during art school, at some point I realized that I could find them on the table by sensing their heat. I didn’t even have to look at them any more because I knew the last one I used was warmer and the other one was the cold one. That’s kind of Matrix level when you can heat-detect your pencils.”
The Memory Cards
“I take so many photographs and I store them on memory cards. I don’t know what to do because eventually they’re going to take away these cards, which will be terrible because I live by these things. I love taking huge photographs—giant ones—and then I can then take a small crop from them and draw on top of it.”