Tobias Tak creates mysterious and magical worlds inhabited by outlandish creatures. His comics have appeared in publications such as LeGun, Pood, Bare Bones, The Comix Reader and Hotwire, winning him praise from luminaries such as Robert Crumb, Joann Sfar, Art Spiegelman, Joost Swarte and Rod McKie.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
I started in art school (in The Netherlands), where I studied painting and etching etc., but my real love was illustrations and comics. Most teachers didn’t consider comic strips proper “Art”, so I did my comics secretly at home, and only showed them to friends and family. During that time, I watched a lot of old movies, I was awestruck by tap dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers (famous from Harlem’s Cotton Club) who appeared in some 1930s movies. So I got myself a pair of tap shoes, took the plane to New York, where I studied dance with the masters of ‘rhythm’ tap around Broadway and Harlem. This was the beginning of a new adventure: for many years I worked as a jazz singer, rhythm tap dancer and choreographer. In that time I drew only a few stories, for instance Mombah the Witch (a returning character), but I had no time for a real career in art, because of all the performing.
In 2003, I drew two zany short stories, starring the clumsy wizard Gaboon and his ultra-glamourous companion Schlenzy, for my book Upside Down. From that moment, I concentrated again on art and my work was published in various anthologies and magazines. I also wrote two graphic novels and I’ve almost finished The Land Behind the Mirror, a fantastical fairytale, which I will post in my blog in weekly episodes. Hopefully this will become a book by next year.
You do a lot of work in ink… do you always use traditional media for colouring? What type of paint do you use?
Yes, a lot of ink: I’ve just discovered the beauty of sepia inks. Normally, I colour with watercolour paints and colour pencils.
What appealed to you about working in pencil for ‘Tiny Pencil’… do you usually sketch in pencil before you ink your comics?
I love working in pencil. It creates a very specific texture and softness, and allows for many shades of grey – different from ink washes. And yes: I do a lot of sketching with pencils before I start the inking process.
What’s your favourite pencil… Brand? Wood? Mechanical?
In January 2013, I visited my sister Elise (who is also a visual artist) in Brooklyn, NY and near her is the Utrecht art shop: there I bought myself a set of Utrecht drawing pencils in various grades of softness. I initially used them for a collaborative piece (The Spirit of Saturn) with Elise for the Pool Art Fair in New York City in May 2013.
Where does your fascination with fairy tales and nursery rhymes come from… what particularly appeals to you about these kind of stories?
I’ve always loved weird creatures, fantastical tales and stories with supernatural themes: my favourite childhood book was Alice in Wonderland. I loved the way Alice wonders and wanders through this strange world and meets all the creatures in a ‘matter-of-fact’ sort of way. I guess in most of my stories that is what happens to my characters too; even now, in between novels, I often read fairytales.
Reading your comics or visiting your website, you do get the feeling of having entered a strange and wonderful universe all of its own! What are some of your influences/inspirations and what do you love about creating these alien worlds?
I simply like to ‘escape’ inside these weird and fantastical worlds. For me, it’s a big thrill when readers get ‘transported’ into my world, and when they talk about my characters (Gaboon, Schlenzy etc.) as if they really exist. (To me, it sometimes seems as if they are ‘real’ too, especially the characters which I’ve drawn for many years). My influences: comic-wise I fell in love with early newspaper strips like Winsor MacCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Gustave Verbeek’s Upside Downs, Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, Tharpe Mills’ Miss Fury and later comics by Doug Allen (like Steven and Idiotland), Christophe Blain and Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat).
Another source of inspiration are movies (especially old black and white ones): I was especially inspired by the expressionist movies of the 1920s (like Faust, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu), and the movies of Federico Fellini where the protagonists encounter grotesque and extravagant people. I am inspired by so many artists (Gustave Doré, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paolo Ucello, Harry Clarke, Arthur Rackham…) books and films that there are simply too many to name them all…
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
Mostly I think of my pieces as stories. The poem I did for Tiny Pencil is different in that sense: it’s more of a sort of snapshot, I guess… I haven’t got one way of working: every story comes into existence in a different way. Sometimes I conceptualise a story from the start: I write a script beforehand, and I think of every detail in the plot, the development, rhythm and especially how it all ends. I also wrote stories not knowing the ending when I started. Then the story itself would take me on a journey.
All of my stories and ideas simply start from doing lots and lots of sketches and scribbles in small notebooks. Some have been written in collaboration with others: actor, musician and composer Marc Forde has often co-written with me. He created some of the dialogues for my graphic novel, and he wrote most of Mr. More-On Goes Shopping (which is part of my second volume of collected stories Gaboon’s Daymare). He also co-wrote Klazeena goes Polka Dotty (which is in my first book Upside Down). Artist and writer Tanya Meditzky co-wrote Zizmo lost in the Groove (which I hope to publish soon), and she wrote the text to The Tree (published in Comix Reader issue 3). At the moment, I’m writing a short story together with artist and writer Kevin Ward, which will be part of my new book Zizmo lost in the Groove.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process, from the initial image or idea to the finished piece?
First I make lots of doodles, scribbles and sketches in notebooks. Then I work on the plot/poem/idea/story-development. Next is writing the dialogues with rough sketches, so I get an idea of the page layouts, but also of the ‘rhythm’ of the tale. Then more detailed sketching. This takes a while, and the final sketches are even more detailed. (Yes: I use pencil a lot!). Then inking. Finally colouring (normally, I use watercolour paints).
Do you have any early memories of drawing or, what’s your first memory of an image?
I have been drawing from an early age – I was about three. My first memories are of fairytales I wrote when I was five or six years old, about the adventures of a flying omelette. I still have those stories, they are quite surreal! The covers of these little books I made from left-over wallpaper samples.
What size do you tend to work at? Why this preference?
Normally a bit bigger than A4 but obviously I have had to work a lot bigger (or smaller) depending on the size of the publication.
You were always interested in drawing, but you also had a career at one stage as a dancer, singer and choreographer… tell us bit about that! Do you think your experience of these other art-forms plays into your drawing & comics at all, or they completely separate and different?
Yes, I worked as a jazz singer and rhythm tap dancer and choreographer for many years. Rhythm tap is considered ‘visual music’. The dancer uses the floor like a drum, and a lot of the rhythms and steps come from improvisation. My teachers were performing in venues like Harlem’s Cotton Club, during the golden age of jazz (the 30s, 40s and 50s). I taught and performed in many countries from small jazz clubs and cabarets to medium size and big theatres (The Queen Elizabeth Hall, various theatres in the West End etc.) with various musicians and guest dancers. (See www.tobiastak-tap.com)
I feel there is definitely a connection between choreographing a piece and designing a drawing. There’s always the finding of a rhythm, density, structure and shading. Compositions are answering to the same principles, no matter if they are drawings, choreographies, songs or sculptures.
What do you particularly enjoy about comics as a form?
The narrative aspect.
You recently collaborated with your sister on an exhibition… you both seem to embrace a wide range of media within the arts and take a lot of inspiration from literature and other areas of art. Do you come from a very creative family background?
Yes, my sister Elise and I both create our invented worlds, although hers is quite different from mine. Her stories are more based in reality and her characters are all actors. So all her images are scenes from invented movie scripts, which she also writes. Her stories are satirical and often comment on political and social issues, but always in a humorous way. Apart from having created a huge amount of pencil drawings and paintings, she now works on the computer and in 3D.
There were artists and musicians in our family from both sides, although unfortunately, many of them perished in World War II. Our mother was a great illustrator: she left many amazing sketchbooks, also inhabited by grotesque creatures. We always had a lot of books around the house, and Elise studied English literature before she became a professional artist. So yes, we’re inspired by all areas of art, including books.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
It sounds corny but I enjoyed doing the drawings for Tiny Pencil very much. The illustrations I made this year to some poems of legendary Spanish author Federico García Lorca were a challenge, but I am pleased with how they turned out. His writing is very evocative and poetic, so his brilliance made it easier for me.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, I have lots of sketchbooks. Plus, my little notebooks (which always travel with me), are full of scribbles, beginnings of stories, doodles and poems.
What directions are you interested in exploring in the future?
I am thinking of making an animated film, starring some of my comic characters. I am also playing with the idea of doing some painting again.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to from you next?
My next book of short stories Zizmo lost in the Groove, and my comic The Lunch for The Comix Reader Issue 5; Kevin Ward, Tanya Meditzky and me also did a stream of consciousness page for the same issue.
I’m now working on the final pages of my graphic novel The Land Behind the Mirror. As the title suggests, it features another mysterious and bizarre world, the one which is hidden behind all our mirrors… Not sure when this will be for sale, but I hope by the end of next year. Some of it can be seen in my blog.
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
You can find out about new work and books on my website.
My book Gaboons’ Daymare is for sale in Amazon.co.uk, Foyles, Gosh, Orbital, and Material bookshop. My book Upside Down is for sale at Last Gasp.
Right or left-handed?
Right handed, although weirdly I can only use scissors with my left hand…
What was the last film you saw in the cinema?
The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer 2012.
What are the books on your bedside table?
The Human Stain by Philp Roth.
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales illustrated by Harry Clarke.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Le Voyage de l’Incrédule by Fred.
Dona Flor and her two husbands by Jorge Amado.
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
No none of that, I’m NOT having it! I only drink blood in the mornings when I come out of my coffin and witches brew at night.
Favourite city in the world?
There’s no favourite. It changes because of the period you visit a town, your mood/feelings at the time and which friends you know there… I like Venice, New York, Barcelona, Florence, Hamburg, London, Scheveningen. The other cities which I love I have to still visit.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
London, because that’s where I’m inspired right now – and where I share a studio with other artists.
Tobias’s work appears in Issue 3 of Tiny Pencil: The Beast Issue… Monsters, Machines and Unnatural Things! Available to buy here.
We also have a number of signed artist proofs of Tobias’s work also available here!
This interview was brought to you by The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts.