Illustrator and Muralist Rick Berkelmans: Embracing Limitations

By Scott Kirkwood

When he was a young man, Rick Berkelmans loved design—but design school? Not so much. That didn’t stop him from successfully pursuing a career as a visual creative.

Berkelmans has a client roster that includes some big names—for whom he creates illustrations, as well as large-scale murals and installations.  

Berkelmans attended a design school that was stuck in the past: “All of my teachers had been at the school for 30 or 40 years, and they gave students the same assignments every year: ‘design a Shakespeare poster’ and other boring stuff,” he says. “The whole world of illustration and design is so big and exciting, and yet they would say, ‘If you want to be an illustrator, you can do children’s books or newspaper articles—that’s it.’”

It’s no surprise that Berkelmans was not a great student. Instead of pouring his energy into classwork, he spent his time skateboarding and planning parties with his classmates—planning that often involved elaborate promotional materials like posters, flyers, and entire murals painted on the streets of Breda, the Netherlands.

“We were students without any money, so were looking for a cheap way to make posters, which is why I signed up for a screen-printing workshop at school,” says Berkelmans. “When I lifted the screen for the first time, I literally fell in love at first sight. In just a few moments, I was holding a real piece of artwork in my hands.”

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.

An illustrated map of Copenhagen made for a client. 

“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.

Illustrations created for Harper Collins’s Big Book Bonanza festival in 2015.

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.

Berkelmans created this poster for the ongoing travel-illustration project The Jaunt

Starting with his earliest screen prints, Berkelmans created his sprawling illustrations layer by layer, which meant various components of a single character were isolated by color—a yellow arm, a yellow hat, a yellow eye, and yellow flowers on a shirt, for example. When clients wanted to reuse a character in other materials, Berkelmans had to open the file, cut out the character, and flatten the layers to put all those pieces together again. Not very sustainable.

So he started spending an hour a day teaching himself Adobe Illustrator. And before too long, he got a dream commission—a seasonal campaign for a South Korean mall required an illustration that would be rendered as vectors so that various elements could be turned into 3D sculptures. Berkelmans made the transition from Photoshop to Illustrator on-the-fly, working night and day for weeks to hit the deadline. 

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.

For this “dream commission,” Berkelmans created a vector illustration that was turned into 3D sculptures, which became an installation in a mall in Seoul, South Korea.

“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.  

Berkelmans created a massive mural that he and two friends painted on the walls of Royal Arena in Copenhagen.

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.

Recent commissions include a beach towel for Corona China, a mural for a Romanian design festival, and illustrations for a Norwegian sexual health campaign. 

“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.

Berkelmans earned this commission for the Green Man Festival in Wales by reaching out to the agency involved. 

See more of Berkelmans’s work on his website, on Behance, and on Instagram, where he often shares videos of his process.

December 20, 2018

A frequent contributor to Communication Arts, HOW, and Adobe Create, Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director focused on do-gooders, graphic design, and the great outdoors.