So, for me, I used
to be influenced
by Magic […]
Whenever you ask, “what’s the top city for artists to live in?” There will always be a good number of people who’ll default to saying, “Amsterdam”. And there’s a myriad of real reasons for that. After all, the city houses the Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and even Guerrilla Games, the AAA studio with one of the game industry’s strongest art departments. It’s a city that’s brought change into many artist’s lives, and as it happens, one of those artists is Thomas Rohlfs, a thirty-five year old freelance illustrator.
Rohlfs is an illustrator we first found on Behance, but what made him interesting is that he’s been building a community on Twitch since December 2018, and judging by their quirky inside jokes, it’s a pleasant environment. See, when Rohlfs was in his twenties, he gave up drawing in favor of graphic design, but that all changed when talented illustrators like Timo Kuilder started showing up in his studio in Amsterdam and their skills inspired his desire to get back to drawing again! “They really inspired me, and I found the urge to draw and become stronger again.” he says. Since then, his style’s gone through many changes, and we’ve been allowed to see it all unfold thanks to his newfound passion for livestreaming.
In this exclusive interview, you’ll hear about a very important realization each artist needs to arrive at, the ups and downs of Rohlfs’ journey, as well as a couple of general observations and fun facts about his ever-changing music taste. Here’s hoping that you enjoy it!
What sparked your interest in illustration?
I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid, and I loved drawing faces/portraits. I had this big pile of paper with all kinds of drawings. But I could only draw half of a face haha! I actually found it really challenging to grow, or draw new things when I grew a bit older. I got so insecure about my drawing that I quit for about 4 or 5 years when I was in my twenties. I became a freelance graphic designer and was quite happy about that. But somewhere in the back of my head, I always knew I really wanted to draw more, but got discouraged because of all the talent you see on the Internet. I switched studios a couple of years ago, and after a while, some great freelance illustrators joined the studio as well. They really inspired me, and I found the urge to draw and become stronger again. I always drew for fun when I had some time, but I didn’t give it the time it needed to grow and evolve.
I became less and less happy with my graphic design projects, and it took me about 2 years to finally decide I really wanted to be an illustrator. I wasn’t sure in what way exactly, did I want client work, or start a shop with prints? That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now.
It’s always been a struggle about not feeling good enough, about not being sure about what I wanted to do with my life, and about taking a scary step to just go for it.
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Devilry – Part 1
How did you go about finding a personal style that’s unique to you?
Ahh, that’s a tough question! It’s a difficult journey for anyone, and I don’t think a ‘style’ will be fixed from any one point. It’s always growing and evolving, getting more complicated or more abstract/simpler. I’m also not sure if you find a style, or a style finds you. Because everybody is interested in something, and you don’t know why you are interested in something. If you want to draw now, you could go on the Internet and search for inspiration. Why do you pick one thing as inspiration, and not another thing? Whatever you find influences you and directs you a certain way, and changes your ‘style’.
So, for me, I used to be influenced by Magic: The Gathering cards my brother collected, and I wanted to draw/paint like that. That’s why I worked in a painterly style for a long time, it all used to be a bit more fantastical and oriented towards concept art. After a while, I got a bit bored with that, and actively tried to find something new. I found new inspiration in Japanese fashion blogs and in a more minimal approach. I also knew that I really wanted to keep drawing in a more traditional way, so I don’t work in Illustrator but in Photoshop. A lot of people ask me if my work is vector, but it isn’t. I think I can get a certain authentic feel to my linework because they’re actually brushstrokes, done by hand. That’s important for me. All of these choices you make, stuff you find interesting, and even the things that inspire you, it all comes together to change your work, and it’s not a fixed thing, it evolves.
My current style isn’t fixed either. I’ve become very interested in old Chinese/Japanese folklore, and have been looking at a lot of old paintings and illustrations. They’re awesome. I’m working on a piece inspired by that right now, and it will be more colorful then my previous (more minimal) work. There will be textures and gradients. I don’t know where that will take me, or if I like it enough to keep exploring in that particular direction.
And of course it’s not as big a change as when I went from a painterly style to a linework style, but it is evolving and growing, and that’s the most important part.
Thomas’ New Year’s Card (2018)
You started streaming on twitch.tv recently, how’s that been so far?
It’s been great! I started streaming because I was looking for a way to share my process. Of course, there is Instagram and Behance and Twitter, but I was looking for something more extensive. So I thought Twitch could be a good platform for that. I didn’t realize that it would grow into something much more then that when I first started. I’m a small streamer, so it’s not like there are hundreds of viewers waiting for me to stream. But there are some people who’ve been there from the start and have been watching, chatting and supporting me. And they have inspired me to not only share my work, but also share more personal stories, to try and be more open. Also, I have never been as productive in my life as I am right now, and that’s thanks to Twitch.
Twitch is much more than just live drawing for me haha. I see it as a way to grow, and to figure out what I want to do with my career as an illustrator. As I said before, I’m not yet sure how to approach this. I feel like I want to be very critical about client projects, and I would much rather do personal work or try to sell more prints in my shop. Twitch is like a central spot in my online presence. Or maybe it isn’t right now, but I feel like it should be haha.
I can get input there, ask questions about things I have trouble with. And of course, my viewers can also ask me stuff. So, we all help each other as well as we can. And I do think you can make friends there as well. When you spent a lot of time together during a stream, you bond. I didn’t expect this to happen at all, but it really does.
You have some great music on your Twitch streams. Do you always listen to music whilst you paint?
Haha, thank you! And yes, I’m either listening to music or to podcasts. Mostly music because I can’t always concentrate while drawing. I have a lot of different genres that I like, and I won’t play all of them on stream. I have always been searching for music that I like, ever since I was a teenager. Like trying to find bootlegs from Radiohead or Prince concerts, or Elliott Smith’s LPs, etc. When I found an artist I that I really like, I wanted to find all their music haha. Of course, these days you don’t have to hunt for the music anymore. It’s basically all there on Spotify and YouTube. But I still like to think about discovering new artists as a small adventure. Maybe that sounds a bit weird, but it’s true.
I also have certain periods where I listen to a lot of a single genre of music. Mostly with progressive rock or metal albums because I like listening to it more focused, and I like the layers it has. The music I listen on stream is mostly relaxing background music.
Shapes are the key to adding character to your design. If you think your design lacks character, fun, recognizability and memorability, then it’s most likely a problem with your shapes.
Each shape you draw or paint should be aimed towards supporting one or more important character trait of the thing you’re drawing or painting. If you paint a tree, the silhouette should definitely tell you that it is a tree. The shape of the sunlight should then shout “tree!”, just as much as the shadow side. This kind of thinking should go into each and every shape you place on your canvas. So, always ask yourself, “does it support the character?”
Could you walk us through your creative process from start to finish?
This is for a personal project:
The first thing is finding something I actually feel like drawing. This could mean spending hours on Pinterest or Behance, trying to find something cool, something that connects with me. A good example of this would be a cool pose, or a cool piece of clothing, a certain hairstyle. It could be anything haha.
Then I usually do a quick sketch to get the dimensions and placement about right. This is really rough and I’ll know pretty quick if it’s going to work or not. If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board!
On top of that first rough sketch, I usually create a new, more detailed sketch. Here, I try to define where I want certain details to be, and I flesh out all the shapes a lot more. This is basically the last step before I do the linework, so I need to be sure that I understand the subject I’m going to draw, that I know how to draw the lines on top of this sketch. The sketch is done when I feel I’ve grasped this, when I know that I can move forward confidently.
Next is the linework. I do almost all of my linework on a single layer. I know that seems counterproductive, but it works for me. Creating the linework isn’t just tracing the sketch. There’s a lots of stuff to figure out, like the amount of lines I need, the flow of the lines, or there might be some problems with the sketch that I didn’t see before.
I also try to decide where my shadows and shading will go. So when I get to color the piece, I will know in general where I want my dark parts etc. I always color in black & white first, to see if the values are working. Then I add color to the black and white with adjustment layers.
Sometimes I have to go back to sketching when the piece is (almost) done, because something is not right, or if I find something that somehow irritates me. I would typically sketch this part on a new layer, delete the linework and color in that area, and start over.
Also, if you’ve seen me on Twitch, you’ll know that I draw my lines over and over again, until I’m happy with the line, a curve or an angle. This can take a good while haha.
For a client project, the process is basically the same. You’ll usually get a concept from the client, so the first step isn’t just finding inspiration, it’s also finding references and trying out different angles. There’s a lot more sketching involved.
An illustration Thomas made live on twitch.tv
So, what about Amsterdam? Would you say the city is good for artists? I know it’s a popular choice.
I love Amsterdam, even though it gets a bit busy with tourists these days. There are nice museums and a lot of cool events, like the upcoming edition of Playgrounds in April. I don’t really go out drinking and partying much (almost never), but I guess I enjoy the city in a more relaxed way. The thing I like most about Amsterdam is just walking in the city. Me and my girlfriend go for a long walk every weekend, I find that very relaxing and inspiring. I also like my studio and the work-life balance I have as a freelancer. Like I said, there are some great illustrators at our studio (Karan Singh, Frederique Matti and Timo Kuilder) who’ve become good friends and who motivate me to keep working hard and to just go for it! They played a big part in me becoming an illustrator.
Please give us your No. 1 piece of advice for aspiring illustrators.
Oh, that’s a tough one because I don’t really feel like I’m ‘there’ yet. If I look back at my own career/life, the thing I regret the most is that I quit drawing when I was in my twenties and that I was so insecure about my drawings/illustrations that I didn’t feel I could ever be a professional. And that it took me such a long time to start believing in myself again, to go for it anyway. I now know that there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘professional’. There is just doing it or not doing it. Of course, there’s stuff you need to do if you want to be considered a professional like making deadlines and communicating clearly. But as far as the actual illustrating goes, there is just you trying to create something, and trying to grow. I don’t think this feeling of not being good enough (and feeling insecure about your work) ever goes away. Some of the best illustrators I know still feel like that. It doesn’t matter, accept it and just keep going at it.
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What’s next for Thomas Rohlfs?
I want to grow and explore my style more. I’ve only been illustrating like this for about half a year now, so there’s lot of room for improvement. I also want to figure out which route I want to take in my professional career. Like I said, I think I want to try to become an independent artist more than someone who mainly does commercial projects. But I’m not sure about this yet. I also want to grow my Twitch channel, continue to learn to be more open about myself and to communicate better on my social media channels. For example: showing my personal life more and being more open about my insecurities, things I struggle with. Someone said in my Twitch chat that the moments when I get frustrated are the most interesting moments, because you can see me struggle and hopefully come up with a solution. And finally, I want to see if a Patreon page could be something for me. I’ve been doing some research into it and like what it has to offer, and I hope I might have something to offer to possible patrons. I want to continue growing in that direction.
I’m a pretty introverted guy, so all of this is quite a challenge to me. It’s an adventure that I find very scary and also very fascinating. And I want to make it work in my own way, on my terms. And my terms are subject to change, haha.
I see the Cathats illustrations as the first time I illustrated in this new style. And I just checked and uploaded that project to Behance at the end of June 2018, so it’s been about 9 months.
I also did some more painted projects after that one, like the Possessed Portraits. That was actually my first project that I did on Twitch. See, I wanted to paint on Twitch, but I guess that—like many other things—is something that’s changed.
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist.
© Thomas Rohlfs or respective copyright holders.
Slide – Vox Groovy © Troky
Article in Slovak language;