Each of us has a personal history with the art form of the comic book, the cartoon, the child’s toy. When you are at an age where you are too young to have anything of your own, these characters in cartoons and comics are yours. The onscreen lives of animated characters are more relatable than those around you. For Amsterdam-based illustrator and designer Jeroen Huijbregts the characters of his childhood are as deeply embedded in his craft as they are in his memories.
Huijbregts’ days are spent working in the world of commercial advertising — those print and web ads we live with on an everyday basis. His personal work takes on a different life. His mash-ups of characters born from Saturday morning cartoons are reminders of our own youth, mixing Peyo’s ‘The Smurfs‘ with the work of Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Marvel, and DC Comics.
His hand-painted illustrations wonderfully blend the shape and color of characters like Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, Wonder-Woman, and Papa Smurf into a Rorschach test for the modern world of pop culture.
Are you still working in advertising design? What sort of design work do you do?
I’m still working as a freelance graphic designer for advertising agencies. Still need to because it pays the bills. Most of the time I design the key visuals and I’m helping out the Art Director for several advertising agencies.
Is the corporate world you work in aware of you as a fine artist? Do those lives ever blend together?
More and more. Some of them like it, others they just don’t care. It feels like I’m living two different lives. Working for advertising agencies, I’m not more than a talking creative tool. As an artist, I get much more respect and meeting so much more creative people in different disciplines.
Was the mash-up style what you were doing as personal work? Was that always where you leaned stylistically, towards the comic / cartoon style? No landscape oil paintings in your past?
No landscape or oil paintings, but I did some nude model sketching in the past. The comic / cartoon style which I grew up with are basically the images which are always in my mind. I like the ink lines, the colors and the craftsmanship in it, but I see myself making landscape paintings when I’m older.
Before this, I tried a much more graphical approach. Eventually made one painting which came out very nice, but I did not feel very comfortable doing it.
Your first appearance in a gallery exhibit was for Name Gallery’s ‘Great & Amazing Art on Paper.’ Was your personal work up to that point the mash-ups we see from you now?
No, not all. Although I already did the ‘Panther Panther,’ the ‘Marge Monster‘ and ‘Horace Horsecollar.’ I just started doing those mash-ups because I wanted to do more with my hands instead of a computer. One day, Peter, one of the owners of Name Gallery, took a look at some of my work and asked me if I would attend at this group show. At that point, I knew this kind of work had some potential and continued to explore and figuring out if I could do more characters.
It’s interesting seeing you work with these characters of American pop culture – it’s always surprising, as an American, to see how far our cartoons, films, and comics spread around the world. Are there any characters that exist only in the Netherlands you’d like to play around with? Are there European cartoons and comics that Americans might not know about?
Europe has a great history of comic book culture, but with total different storylines and characters. European characters are more like caricatures especially the ones from Belgium and we don’t have any real superheroes as it comes to Europe as a continent.
There are some European characters which could be interesting to play with. I really like the work of Franquin, Moebius, Willy Vandersteen, Herge, The Marten Toonder Studios, Albert Uderzo, Morris and of course Peyo.
There’s an incredible amount of perfection to your paintings – it’s hard to believe these pieces are done by hand. Some of your designs don’t get handpainted but are printed digitally. What makes an illustration work better as a digital print rather than hand painted? Does it come down to how much time you have to finish a work?
Time is not an issue, but sometimes working with Illustrator or Photoshop helps me to get more of the result I would like to achieve. I like to draw most of the stuff but a drawing isn’t always working, like for instance –‘ The Man Who Took My Sunglasses.’ I need a perfectly painted Napoleon and my skills don’t come up to that level. So 80% of my drawings are done by hand and 20% are done by Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.
Your work is an experimentation in shape and color – ‘Genie in a Smurf’ and ‘What’s up, Doc?’ really push the forms of those characters in exciting ways. I would guess to get to that level of mash-up there’s a lot of sketching and drafts before you really nail down a composition you’re happy with. Do your paintings start as digital sketches? How much preparing do you do before starting the final piece?
To be honest, No. When I’m browsing through my image bank I memorize most of the images and after browsing again, I see a connection. After that, I will try to paste them, scale and rotate them digitally. And when it feels like a natural fit I print it, get my lightbox, bringing on the colors and doing the outlines. After that, I decide if I’m happy with the result. But most of the time I can already see it after I’m done with the digital composition. There is a lot of work storage on my hard drive you guys have never seen.
There is a large amount of fun and joy to your mash-ups – you’re not using these characters as a way of social commentary, but they feel personal – like these characters mean something to you. With being a father, do you see adding any current characters into your work? Are you watching any recent cartoons that may inspire future work?
Well, my son is a big fan of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine,’ which I don’t like, but he’s more and more getting into the Pixar stuff, Nemo is one of his favorites and he will watch it over and over and I really enjoy watching Bert and Ernie with him.
For my work, it’s easier to take the references from my own childhood. Because like you said, they mean something to me. I love drawing them and giving them that little twist, exploring the colors and lines. Especially the ink lines they did before the computer took over.
Part of the allure of your work is the nostalgia and sentiment the viewer has for the characters – your piece ‘When Loves Comes to End’ combines two of my loves, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Star Wars.’ For some, that piece may not work for them if they don’t recognize the characters. When starting a work, do you consider what the audience will want, or is it entirely what you want to see?
No, it’s entirely what I want to see. Most of my drawings make total sense only to me.
You create brand new characters with the bits and pieces of existing ones. With ‘Golden Clouds,’ I know that it’s a Smurf and Mario put together, but you did it in such a smart way that it becomes an entirely unique character. Do you see yourself moving towards self-created characters? Any desire to make a Jeroen Huijbregts original world of characters?
I tried in the past, but it did not really suit me. I’m more concept-based and don’t like to sketch on paper. Most of my work and sketching is in my mind.
I will continue to use the iconic pop culture characters from my youth. I’m thinking to take it to another level, more abstract. But it’s still a little blurry in my head. I need to work on my painting skills and start working on a bigger canvas.
Some of your work is already incredibly abstract. The Spider-Man hand with Smurf feet is wonderfully fun and inspired, and totally abstract. Do you see your work as being in constant evolution? Would your work lose something if it was pushed so far that the viewer couldn’t recognize the characters you were playing with?
Yes, I really like to go more abstract like ‘The Hand‘ or the ‘Blaggard Castle‘ piece. From a commercial point of view, it’s also interesting because I could do more merchandising without being sued. I have a show coming up in Tokyo and they really want to push more merchandise and we don’t want to have any problems considering rights. But also I’ve been doing so many mashups, I’m running out of ideas. Expect the new work to be much darker.
Was your show ‘Saturday Morning Mashup’ at Austin’s Mondo Gallery your first trip to States? For creating from American culture, did that show impact your work in any way?
No, it was actually my second trip to the States. I visited NYC back in 2006 with one of my best friends, but Austin showed me a different view of the States and it was love at first sight. My biggest dream was and still is to live in your country. It’s a country that suits me.
From childhood I wanted to live in an American suburb, you know, the ones you always see in the movies from the eighties, always wanted to go to high school and wanted to go out on prom night. American culture was always in my heart and mind but I can’t tell if it had any impact regarding my work.
Was ‘Saturday Morning Mashup’ an entirely new body of work, or were those pieces you already had? How involved were Mitch Putnam and Rob Jones in the creation of the show?
I made some new stuff and redid some old stuff. Mitch (Putnam, Mondo Creative Director) was emailing me if I wanted to do a show and I said YES of course! Then he replied and was telling me I couldn’t do Disney related stuff, because of the license Mondo has with Disney and I was like, shit! My work is like 90% Disney related (Disney, Marvel, Star Wars) so I had to figure out some new characters and reuse some old characters.
I’m not sure what Rob’s (Jones, Mondo Creative Director) involvement was, but I can tell you he and his wife were one of the finest hosts and Rob is a great personality. Really enjoyed my stay in Austin and the Mondo family.
Where there other restrictions outside of Disney?
No, that was the only restriction they gave me.
Jeroen Huijbregts across the internet —
‘Saturday Morning Mashup’ at Mondo Gallery, Austin 2016
Interview with Paste Modernism 2015
Interview with CYFE 2014
Interview with Peach Fuzz