Illustrator and Muralist Rick Berkelmans: Embracing Limitations
Rookie screen printers generally employ limited color palettes and relatively simplistic drawings, because complicated images can create enormous headaches. From the very beginning, Berkelmans embraced those limitations, drawing images in pencil, scanning them into Adobe Photoshop, and replacing lines with bright colors. He also brought a few of his own limitations to the table.
“I can’t really draw in three dimensions very well,” he confesses. “If I have to draw a person in a chair in a room, my mind blocks and I end up just piling things on one another until it’s a big stack of illustrations. And I’m shit at drawing two eyes and a nose without using any lines, so I just decided to draw everybody looking sideways. I can’t draw shoes either, so everyone in my illustrations is barefoot. But somehow all of these flaws come together to create a style.”
The illustrator’s world is full of pink cats wearing sunglasses, monkeys dangling from purple tire swings, elephants reading, dogs surfing, and kangaroos eating salads with chopsticks. It’s not hard to see the influence of his early heroes like Canada’s Geoff Mcfetridge and Germany’s Henning Wagenbreth, who also employ simple shapes, whimsical subjects, and colorful palettes to produce works that feel childlike but never childish.
In the last few years, Berkelmans has tackled everything from editorial illustrations to packaging, murals, and branding initiatives, working as a one-man agency, Hedof (the name was inspired by a song by French DJ-musician Sebastian). As his client list grew to include big names like Greenpeace, Heineken, Nickelodeon, and the New York Times, he realized that not all limitations are good things.
Now instead of scanning images at 600 dpi and creating gigantic Photoshop files, he photographs his pencil sketches with his phone, traces images in Illustrator, and converts everything into shapes, with the help of a Wacom Cintiq and plug-ins from Astute Graphics.
“I used my old Photoshop technique for seven years, and I was really proud to say, ‘I created this image using only three layers,’ but it’s like walking from the Netherlands to Paris—you can do it eventually, but you can also take a train and get there a lot faster,” he says. That newfound speed allows him to tackle more projects and spend more time with his family, which includes a three-year-old son and a baby girl.
Last year, Berkelmans was in a hospital as he son underwent surgery for a rare lymphatic condition (now under control), when an agency called with a commission: Royal Arena, a new sports and music venue in Copenhagen, Denmark, wanted a mural to cover two walls running along curved central staircases—in all, 3,000 square feet to be painted in a few weeks.
Again, Berkelmans embraced the limitations—the curves, the textured surface, the shade of green that would serve as the background, and the limited timeframe. He created some sketches, then brought along two good friends who worked with him from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for a week—two days to trace the illustrations projected on the wall, and five days with paint brushes in hand, bringing those images to life.
Recent commissions come from all over the globe—a beach towel for Corona China, a mural for a design festival in Romania, a branding campaign promoting LGBTQ sexual health in Norway, and more. Although he gets a little help from agents in Amsterdam, London, and Paris, most of the work comes through his own self-promotion, which stretches far beyond the typical social-media channels.
“I live in Breda—a small city in a small country—and I have a very distinct style, so I really have to aim bigger to get client work,” he says. “Being creative is one thing, but you really have to be an entrepreneur to get things done.” Berkelmans identified the agencies handling the annual Green Man festival in Wales and the holiday installation at the South Korean Mall, and quickly landed both of them. That, in turn, generated more commissions for European music festivals and Asian shopping malls, one of which flew him to Hong Kong for the grand opening.
“I’m always reaching out to agencies and design studios that I admire and want to work with, sending them original screen prints with a note, hoping we can work together,” he says. “It’s very rare that a client replies immediately saying, ‘Oh you’re perfect for this project,’ but I always hope that they’ll put that screen print on the wall in their office and remember me when the right project comes up.”
So far, it seems to be working.