Ask Dutch illustrator Mark Verhaagen what inspires him and he'll throw a bucket load of influences at you. Retro design, toys, pop culture, sci-fi, childhood memories, nature, comics, and old cartoons by Disney and Fleischer. These influences have defined and shaped a distinctive look that adds a hint of alien to all he creates, from a bug-eyed monkey to flying robots and white extraterrestrials praising Vodafone's Mobile Broadband and email.
Verhaagen describes his style as a "smooth, digital gradient extravaganza with organic elements." He regularly pulls in visual influences from retro science fiction and fantasy. "I have always liked the work of Jim Henson. Unlike the hyper-realistic special effects of today, Henson's puppets were recognisable as puppets, but were so cool and human and beautifully made, that you fully accepted them as characters telling a story," he explains.
"Director Michel Gondry [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] often works in the same way," he continues. "He makes his special effects in a clumsy and childlike way. Most of the things I find visually attractive, such as old toys and old animation, have that same feel of imperfection."
Based in Berlin, Mark Verhaagen graduated from the Willem de Kooning Academy in 2001, where he had experimented with silkscreen printing, 3D animation, painting and graphic design. "When I graduated I could do a bit of everything but didn't really have my own personal style," he remembers. "I found it hard in the first two years after my graduation to get jobs, so in my free time - which I had a lot of - I focused on making personal work instead. I tried to make an illustration a day, and would then upload it to my Fotolog account so that the community there could comment on it.
"After a while I started to develop an illustration style of my own, and began to feel more confident. I built a website to showcase my work on, and uploaded work to sites like Fotolog and Flickr, as well as sending it to online galleries and design portals. Gradually, all this online activity started to be noticed by the offline world. One of my first big clients was MTV Networks London - they contacted me and asked me to do an animation for them. After this, it all went really fast, and soon I could call myself a full-time illustrator."
Verhaagen's eye-catching 'digital organic' style suits a wide range of commissions. He's recently completed a One Strip project for French company Domestic, which called for illustrations that could be printed on a thin strip of wallpaper. "Because of the size of the wallpapers, I really had to pull off my vector skills," he says.
Other projects show off Verhaagen's other art skills. For example, the T-shirt designs he produced for Sixfeet Argentina use flat-coloured work instead of his trademark gradients, while his animation skills were tested by the Projector Spectre project, which displayed short animations on buildings during the Graphic Design Festival in the Dutch city of Breda.
"One of my favourite projects was a series of animations that I did for Nickelodeon," says Verhaagen. "They contacted me and asked me to animate a bumper, promo and leader for their Winternick show [featuring all kinds of winter games, winter fashion, winter food recipes, and so on]. I had only one-and-ahalf weeks to come up with a story, make the designs and then do the animations. Because I didn't have a lot of animation experience at the time, and it was such a huge amount of work, I realised I couldn't do it on my own. But I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn new things, so I asked some friends to help me out, and we were able to do the project together," he explains.
"We were working from my living room, making illustrations while a friend was doing the animation. Another friend even cooked lovely dinners for us every night. So for a week or so, we were like a little animation family. It felt great to work with my friends on a project, and to have their input and ideas added to my own. I don't have much studio experience, as I like to work on my own, but that week felt really nice for a change. At the end of the project the animator didn't have time to do the promo animation, so I did that myself. The animation was quite simple, but I was still proud of it. I learned most of the techniques by watching my friend animate during the days before."
You can see some of the visual elements that define Verhaagen's style in the Winternick project. Note the smooth gradient colours, 3D-like vectors, surrealistic characterisation and organic detail such as hair and fur. While his work has a lot of detail, the characters and props he uses are often simple. Verhaagen doesn't so much 'draw' his illustrations (although he might brainstorm with a sketch or two). For the most part he 'builds' them, combining graphic shapes to form objects, characters and backgrounds. Playing with anchor points and gradients can be "time consuming," he admits. "But on the other hand it sometimes feels like playing with Lego , which I loved doing as a kid."
These days most of Verhaagen's work is digital. "I use Adobe Illustrator to make my drawings," he explains, "and sometimes Photoshop for colour correction and last-minute adjustments. As illustration dimensions are getting bigger - with wallpapers, for example - I sometimes need to rely on Illustrator vector work alone. My animation is done in After Effects. I like the control you can have when working on the computer: you can tweak your work until things are exactly how you want them to be. On the other hand, the computer allows for experimenting as well. You can just press a couple of buttons and sliders and your composition or colour scheme will look completely different."
One of the things that Verhaagen likes most about being a full-time illustrator is working on a variety of projects for a diverse range of clients. Each project also gives him different levels of creative freedom. "When working for clients," he says, "I try to discuss ideas with them first, to get to know exactly what they want. During this part of the process I often do a lot of sketching, making lots of small drawings and scribbles of my ideas, rather than a big, detailed drawing. Sometimes clients expect me to work in the same style as something they've seen in my portfolio, which limits me when it comes to trying new things. But I think it's nice when people just ask me to make anything I can come up with."
Case in point: Verhaagen was asked to come up with an illustration for the program booklet for the Picnic multimedia festival in Amsterdam. The only restriction? It somehow had to incorporate elements of The Simpsons cartoon, because the director of The Simpsons Movie was one of the festival's key speakers.
"I came up with this multimedia scene featuring Simpsons-style hairdos in the landscape," he explains. "I like that this was really a free work in which I could totally do my own thing, while it still applied to the assignment. It took me two days to make in total, including sketching and acquiring client feedback."
Another of Verhaagen's favourite commissions was creating billboard illustrations for Vodafone in the UK. "They asked lots of illustrators worldwide to make illustrations with quotes that they came up with," he says. "It resulted in a campaign that was very creative with diverse and funny images, and it was different because they used illustration instead of photography to communicate their message."
"I like the diverse ways in which illustration can occur nowadays," he adds, and you can see this diversity in two of his most recent jobs. "I've just finished painting a book cover for a Dutch writer. I was hired based on paintings I've done in the past. It's totally different from my computer work, and you probably wouldn't recognise the painting as my work, because it's painted in a completely different style. Although it was a tough job - I haven't painted for years - it was good to be away from the computer. And in contrast, I am also working on a design for a mascot suit for the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals."
So what does the future hold for Mark Verhaagen? When he first started out as an illustrator, he remembers that he often had to take every bit of work he could get, even when it was a job he didn't like doing. Today, he's fortunate enough to be able to cherry-pick the projects he wants to do and to explore new creative territories. "When I'd just started out, I still had to find my own ways of working, and develop my own illustration style. Having worked for a couple of years now, I pretty much know what's possible for me and what's not. Also, I have a better understanding of what I want and don't want. With more work coming in these days, new problems present themselves. Managing my time can be hard, but in general I'm just enjoying the ride," he says.
"I keep finding new ways to colour, experiment and work in general. In the future I would like to develop my style a bit further, or make it more diverse. I have noticed that some subjects are hard, or very time-consuming to make in my over-the-top smooth gradient style. For example, when I want to do a T-shirt design, I have to work with solid colours, which I find hard because I'm not used to thinking in flat shapes."
"I would also like to explore moving images, both film and animation. Type and pattern design are interesting too, because they would give me the opportunity to explore new ways of working, with other types of clients and audiences. Last but not least, I'd love to make music again. I recorded songs with an old Atari during my late teens, but then I stopped because I wanted to focus on my illustration career. Right now I would love to compose music again. My big dream is to make everything come together in a film: my own story, designs, animation and music."