Jörn Kaspuhl says that he’s a pragmatic decision maker, and not really an artist at all. He doesn’t feel an urge to make art, like needing oxygen to breathe. He says that he could even imagine a future without drawing. “It would be nice to produce something that I could hold in my hands,” he says. “I tried a pottery class last month, and it was amazing to physically hold a finished product. The last step to illustrating is always sending off a computer file. I never get to hold anything in my hands.”
When I look at Jörn, I see somebody with such an intuitive understanding of his subject that he can create life on a blank page. He doesn’t need air to draw because he is the oxygen. Granted, I’m not that objective - Jörn is a good friend of mine. But anyone can see that his work is extraordinary. We sit at a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, and he tells me what it’s like to draw for a living.
He has the process of executing an illustration down to a science, usually finished within a matter of days. When an offer comes, the client has typically seen his work before, so already knows his general style. Jörn asks for references to his other pictures to get a more specific idea of what the client wants.
The first sketch is a digital drawing, made on a tablet. At this stage, the client can request changes. Jörn usually draws the final picture with pen by hand, then scans it into the computer. Finally he adds color, often only splashes, collected from a previously scanned handmade catalog: his own color palette.
I think that Jörn's individual style becomes instantly recognizable. His careful attention to detail allows for every strand of hair, fold of material, or glimmer of moisture, to be perfectly positioned. He gives credit to the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg for teaching him how to draw accurate proportions. But his subjects show so much more than accuracy. A hand dips into lapping water; crossed elbows cover an embarrassed face. These people are moving. They have feelings and thoughts. Jörn captures a moment in his images, but it is never static.
Jörn admits that his work develops the most when he takes a break from assignments to work on his own projects. Most recently he has done a series of animals called Spiritual Warriors including an owl, a wolf, and a buffalo. I ask him about the element of fantasy that I notice in these images.
I wonder if this means he doesn’t see a development in his commercial work. “I do, but it’s more gradual,” he says. “I try to deliver what the client expects from me, so there’s less room for creative exploration. But over time I do see some changes. I’ve been drawing for GQ for six years now - that’s over sixty illustrations. When I look at all of them together, I see that the work has become more detailed, more refined somehow. And I’m really happy about that.
Jörn has spent the past few months away from his native Hamburg. I wonder how Berlin’s change of pace is affecting his work. “So far, it’s been harder to concentrate,” he admits. “I want to experience the city, and make time for things besides work. I think Berlin is inspiring in a different way, which right now seems less productive. But I’m looking for an office space in Prenzlauer Berg so that I don’t have to work from home."
He goes on to describe his biggest problem with the business. "Sometimes I find myself in a horrible routine where I have to be an idea machine. I feel the expectation to constantly produce and be creative, and I become blocked. That’s the problem: I’ve been so lucky to make a career from my hobby, but now I don’t have a hobby anymore. I need time and space to formulate truly creative ideas. I hope Berlin can give me that space.”
It's exciting to consider what the result could be. Jörn mentions a few recent projects that stand out as the most fun to have worked on, and both are collaborations with friends. “I created images for singer Johannes Held’s WinterreiseStaged set design, and made a poster for director Patrick Siegfried Zimmer’s film Anhedonia. The excitement that my friends bring to the process really inspires me, and reminds me why we do these creative things. But in the end, those ideas belong to them, and not to me. I'm waiting for my next big idea."
Jörn describes a project that he made during his time at university. “I came up with this idea of turning small drawings of animals into a mural of one big animal. Every day I went to school and worked on this project. It must have been two or three months of work every day, and it gave me so much energy! I wanted to make the time for it. When it was finished I got to present it in an exhibition. I was so proud to show this thing that had come from inside of me."