Elise van Iterson | Illustrator
’s work may be hanging in your bathroom. Or perhaps you
know it from Vrij Nederland, hard // hoofd or the recent exhibition in Felix Meritis,
. The Makers spoke to the illustrator, cook and Red Light Radio DJ about her work process and upcoming projects. -
Text and photos by Hannah Fuellenkemper
How did you become an illustrator?
At 18, when I joined the Rietveld, I had a vision of me being a painter doing very large, abstract things. But when I started - as a girl from a small town with no space of my own - I became very modest. I don’t know if this is necessarily what led me to making small things… but that’s what happened. And in the second year when I started specialising, I continued to draw very small. I remember going to a Michaël Borremans exhibition in Ghent and liking it very much, which led to talks with my teachers… but then again, my final exam work was on a very big scale. It didn’t work and I realised I should stick to narrative. My father’s a writer, maybe that’s why.
Has your own narrative changed?
I used to choose a theme to work around every year but I never considered what I did to be ‘illustration’ because it was my own story I was telling. To the point where when a friend of mine started an Internet magazine and asked me to do an illustration for it, I said I couldn’t - that I didn’t do illustrations. But then I read the piece and really liked having the ingredients in front of me. I realised I could still make it very much my own, even though the ingredients were coming from somewhere else. Then I started working making illustrations for hard//hoofd. When I look back at those drawings I see a lot has changed. My style has become looser.
Do you have a particular process with which you approach a project?
No, not really. I think the ideas that pop up are just how my brain works. I also think it’s good I didn’t go to illustration school because I have an abstract way of thinking and that may have changed.
I can imagine some of your drawings might scare off some magazines…
They do. But of course when I work for a magazine, I follow certain instructions.
Did they scare the restaurant owners in your calendar? Tell me about that.
No, but perhaps it helped that some of them knew me. I knew I wanted to make a calendar so I approached the restaurants I wanted to work with and asked if they’d like to pick a month and share a recipe for that month. I never wanted to illustrate recipes so it was always going to be more about the place itself. That’s why there’s quite a lot of alive animals if the recipe has meat in it. For each month, there’s also a series of drawings on what’s in season - this took quite a bit of research speaking to the fishermen and fromagerie etc. And it’s a birthday calendar, which, in Dutch custom, is something you hang in the toilet - maybe a bit strange considering the subject matter.
Mine’s hanging in the kitchen.
Yes, that’s a better idea. It should inspire you to think about what you can cook at any given month.
Was this just an idea or more driven by an interest in food?
I love food! I also work as a cook – I’ve recently left Wine Cafe Worst and before that I worked at Foyer. Now I’m working at Choux during the lunch shift. But this is the first time I’ve combined my work with food. The calendar came out 7 December 2014 and I’ve received a lot of attention even if mostly from my own scene… which I was hoping to break out of a bit. But it has led to more food assignments now that people think I’m a culinary illustrator. But the idea, the food thing, was also just what worked at the time. My most recent project is a card game so it’s not all about food.
How do you choose your subjects then?
I never work from a subject - I just start working and then a subject develops. Like for the card game: I knew I wanted to make a card game and the subject appeared. For the calendar, I knew I wanted to make a product and it went from there.
Can you tell me about the card game?
For the calendar, I really enjoyed thinking of something to make, what it could be, and how it could be done money-wise. So I thought I’d do the same for my next project: a card game. Just like calendars, there are lots in stores but they’re never very interesting or personal. So I thought I could make an illustrated card game, sell all the drawings and use the money to print it.
I liked the idea of working within a framework, the fact there are four kings, four queens, a certain size…. It’s nice to have some restrictions – you always come to something new because of restrictions and whereas there was a lot to say for each of the restaurants, for the card game, you could only say one thing.
So I started reading about the history of the card game and learned that the game as we know it has existed since medieval times. It’s called the French card game and the four houses represent different parts of society. Spades represent aristocracy; hearts, the church; cloves, the farming class and diamonds: the salesman. I thought this was interesting because nowadays we can’t really divide people into these classes, but I thought that certain things, scenes and associations could be. So for example, anything to do with hedonism I put as a spade, anything to do with love, spirituality and religion in hearts, family thingsand normal life like work and making money goes under clubs and anything about sales or representation goes as a diamond. And then I just started thinking of nice things and where to place them. And started drawing. For an exhibition I had in Felix in de Steigers in May, I had to make 12 in 3 weeks so I had to start somewhere…
What’s your work process like?
I try to be in my studio three days a week, work in the restaurant another three and take one day off. The good thing about having a studio is that you shake off life from outside. It’s also nice to work underground (in a remodelled fietstal ling ). As for the rest, I make collages of things I see and just composing. Things fall into place, but I hardly use the things I see or experience in my drawings. I also like to stretch stories into something a bit more. Larger than life, a bit humorous. I also like working within someone else’s boundaries because it forces you to do something you normally wouldn’t.
For instance, a while ago I illustrated an article about how the Netherlands was selling plofkippen to Africa for Vrij Nederland. What happened is, at first they were very happy with the chickens but then they found out that they couldn’t afford the cages they lived in, their antibiotics, the chicks; everything they needed to support the plofkip industry we’d sold them they had to continue buying from us at prices they couldn’t afford. Another instance of the West getting richer at someone else’s expense. Anyway, I really enjoyed making the illustrations for this story: I could make it larger than life.
I’m going to illustrate a children’s book. The writer was a poet for a long time and his writing is very dark: the subject for this book is ‘dissatisfaction’ and it will be aimed at 10 to 11-year-olds, an age when they start thinking about themselves and their life and maybe the first feelings of dissatisfaction. I think that’ll be a really nice project. Finding subjects is not an issue, but time and money.
So are you satisfied?
No, but I should be.
Thanks Elise for this interview! Check out her website for more about her and her work.