Artist Interview: Raymond Lemstra

December 24, 2013

Inspired by primitive art, Raymond Lemstra focuses on using the most basic components of drawing to evoke a visceral human response. The world Lemstra continues to build with every drawing is both subdued and wonderfully rich, full of mystery and totemic power. "I would happily embrace any comparison to how a kid starts drawing," says Lemstra in our interview, in which he expands on the primitive technique, being an illustrator, his childhood in the Netherlands and hanging out with Moebius.

Your work is hedged in an attempt to "bring back the sense of wonder we remember from being a child." What was your childhood like? Who are some of your favorite childhood characters?

I was born in Groningen, up in the north of the Netherlands. My childhood was filled with tree climbing, secret spy clubs, ninja training and drawing. Luckily I grew up in a very green area, which allowed me to do most of this outside, in the most adventurous manner. My Saturday mornings usually started with watching a lot of cartoons and I remember Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors being an absolute favorite. Its intro tune still is perfect. I also was a big fan of The Transformers and especially liked Soundwave with his vocoder-voice and cassette characters like Laserbeak and Rumble. Of course I never questioned how this huge robot could turn into a tiny cassette player. I also loved, and still love, the aesthetics of the Lamborghini Countach and the Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk. The kind of boyish awesomeness their designs radiate still inspires me every now and then to strive to find this in my own drawings. Then I could continue naming movies like Star Wars, D.A.R.Y.L. andBack To The Future. In this way my childhood was partly, but strongly influenced by the Hollywood of the eighties. When cool was still cool!


Your method of emphasizing character visually by applying primitive techniques is really intriguing. If there is an inherent character to your creations, do you imagine a narrative for them?

Yes, I image stories. When I draw portraits of fictional characters for example, I’d imagine the subjects have spent their whole morning getting fresh haircuts and dressing up in order to look their top best for the big event of being frozen in time. Just like one would have done during the first days of photography. I am interested in the stories the image suggests, little 'choices' of the characters, such as elaborate smoking gear or spiritual utensils invite the viewer to apply his own associations. I enjoy the most to hear the stories that others read into my drawings. I like how just a few random objects put together can provoke a very personal story.

Although I do have my themes and interests, I mostly work very intuitively. I do not conceptualize much. To work with a well thought out plan just kills the joy of executing it. I would happily embrace any comparison to how a kid starts drawing, with imagination not yet pushed into limits by experience. 

In your drawings, the face is often defined by just a few geometric shapes while the surroundings are more defined. Is there a reason for this?

This grew from my appreciation of the selective emphasis you for example find in pre-colonial masks or children’s drawings. In these depictions parts of interest are emphasized, and unimportant parts are reduced or left out completely. With this thought in mind, I get the most fun out of depicting faces and playing with facial recognition. And I also like to play with the human urge to recognize life in inanimate objects. Like how people recognize faces in facades of houses or animals in clouds. In my portraits I replace facial features with geometric shapes, which makes the viewer recognize a certain emotional charge in these otherwise impersonal shapes. The parts that seem more true to nature enforce this perception of the simplified parts. It’s interesting that all we basically need are two parallel dots and a line underneath to make us identify it as a face. It somehow points out how self-centered we are, but also reveals a beautiful imagination that is part of us all.

Would you ever consider creating a storybook/more narrative work for your illustrations? Are there particular kinds of stories you are drawn to?

I don’t make illustrations, I make drawings. An illustration is meant to clarify or decorate an idea or story. My drawings don’t do this. I create them in order to create stories or ideas. They come to existence intuitively, and demand for a context once they exist. But it would be a welcome addition to create work for a story I enjoy. Sometimes it can be nice not to be bound in your own world, but to work with somebody else and try to apply to that. I would enjoy working on a dark children’s book.

What are the rules of the world in which your characters exist?

Most of my characters come to existence under strong influence of my strict and personal rules for creating and combining shapes. One shape will dictate how the next should be placed to balance it all out. In this proces I refer to the esthetics of geometry, the golden ratio, or just my gut instinct. I usually feel I’m ruining a perfect empty sheet of paper with my first lines, but after some extensive effort I bring it back to a balanced total. My world is very shape-driven. Shapes put into the right context express emotions, like for example how the front of a car can be grumpy.


If you could hang out with one person, living or dead, who would that be? What would you do?

I would hang with Moebius. I am sure Otomo Katsuhiro would like to meet Moebius, who after all just came back from the dead, too. So we’d have dinner at his place. After an elaborate meal with these two geniuses we’d get drunk, draw fake tattoos on each other and hit the town.


Are there any rituals you have when you do art?

I have an eraser-pen that I maniacally rub in circles on my desk to get a sharp point on it all the time. But one would describe this more as compulsive behavior than having a ritual I guess. I listen to audiobooks a lot while I am drawing. And I also listen to music of course. Lately I listen to a lot of old melodic Japanese synth music. It’s the super happy stuff. A true ritual of mine is drinking green tea; I drink it as if my life depended on it.

If you were gifted with a superhuman power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil?

Instant transportation to any place or time. I would use it for good and evil.


Do you have any advice for aspiring artists/illustrators?

It’s a weird profession. You basically have to invent it yourself and find your own gratification. And at that, an audience that connects to the results of this personal search. So my advice is to make sure that you enjoy what you are doing and find confirmation within your personal growth.


Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

I have several exhibitions coming up next year and I am working on a publication, which I am thrilled about. Can’t tell you a lot about it yet, but if you’d like to stay informed; I recently created an instagram account @raymondlemstra.

Interview by Lauren YS