Stan Manoukian’s fantastical universe is occupied by a menagerie of wonderful creatures whose like we have never seen before. These specimens of unknown species are at one with the natural world; often existing as hybrids of both plant life and flesh. Manoukian’s critters are spawned from his life long passion for the genres of science-fiction, fantasy and comics, which he fuses with an intimate and introspective emotional charge. An expert draftsman, Manoukian’s images are rich in detail and personality. Visually everything is so beautifully described for us, while the constructed narratives are skillfully left with the required amount of ambiguity to encourage our imaginations to feed the unfolding stories and make them our own.
Stan Manoukian is a French artist who was born in 1969 in Paris, France, where he currently still lives and works. He first made a name for himself as a comic book artist and story designer for film and commercials. In more recent years, as an exhibiting fine artist, Stan has shown his drawings and sculptures on the international gallery circuit.
WOW x WOW recently had the pleasure of catching up with Stan as he was putting the finishing touches to a new collection of sculptures which will be going on show as part of the ‘Monsters & Misfits IV’ group exhibit, in collaboration with Tomenosuke and Circus Posterus, and will be held at Shibuya Hikarie in Tokyo, Japan, opening on 1st April. Read on to find out more about Stan’s new work for the show and other interesting insights into his background and creative practice.
Hi Stan, thanks for agreeing to free up some of your valuable time in order to have this wee chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself and talking about your background, touching on anything you feel has been relevant to shaping Stan Manoukian the artist?
I was born in 1969 in Paris. My father was a professional painter and antiquarian and my mother worked in a textile design studio; at that time everything was done by hand.
I grew up in the apartment behind an antique shop where my parents would always bring back old antiques, books, paintings, engraving prints and other curiosities. I was born with a pencil in hand, motivated by my environment and my parents, with a particular taste for ancient works, science fiction, fantasy and comics!
At 15 years I joined an art school in order to improve my drawing and hopefully help towards finding a job within the arts. After graduation I became a freelancer in various fields: advertising, illustration, film and sculpture for Disney licenses.
It has been almost 30 years since I worked within these areas. Ten years ago I started developing my own universe, which is inhabited by the strange creatures I’m now known for. This all came from my need to escape from the various commissioned works I was doing; it afforded me daily introspection without constraint, and provided a platform which allowed me to really find out what I had inside. I started by drawing one creature per day, which I posted on a blog to create a daily meeting with the public, first in black and white, then in color, and a book was released at the end of this first year.
Three years later I had over a thousand little creatures in my universe, and I had arrived at the end of this exercise. I had to move on, be more ambitious, start experimenting with new techniques, produce more complex drawings, and continue to build the universe into a more coherent whole. My research and designs have since become more sophisticated, and now take me a lot more time to draw.
You’ve recently been preparing a new body of work for the upcoming exhibit in Tokyo entitled ‘Monsters & Misfits IV’ which opens on 1st April. Could you tell us a little about the theme of the show, your work for it and how your involvement arose?
Being invited to participate in MMIV was a big challenge for me! I had never done so many sculptures for an exhibition, and the desired quality was very high! Have you seen the quality of work of the artists involved? I used what I had learned from earlier pieces and tried to improve on them. I made twenty sculptures of differing sizes, some larger than usual. I had to improve my techniques and I concentrated more on the finer details. I also needed to clarify my style, because I wanted my sculptures to be more like my drawings, just with the addition of color!
I put a lot of pressure on myself because I didn’t want to disappoint Kathie Olivas, Brandt Peters & Shinji Nakako who are organizing the exhibition. Each exhibition allows me to evolve, and this is very important to me. MMIV displays a step up in the work of my sculptures. It made me want to make larger pieces still to detail more to create a link between my drawings and 3D. That’s what is interesting for me; making a progression in my work and never thinking about what I’ve done before, but instead, only focusing on what’s to be done next, and on doing it better!
Imaginative storytelling is at the heart of your creative process. In your opinion, what are some of the most important ingredients that go into making a successful visual narrative?
This is a difficult question to answer…
Many of my works are created instinctively, and I draw from everything I’ve learned over the years. But with experience there are things that I’ve learned do not work. I try to compose my picture with an obvious center of interest in most cases; a place where the eye will go directly, even if the design is full of details. I try to create situations between characters and work their expressions, so the viewer can imagine the story I’m wanting to tell. There is often an idea or story I’m trying to get through in a drawing, but it still remains open to the free interpretation of the viewer. My main goal is to evoke an emotion, a smile, sadness, melancholy or joy.
I think the most vital ingredient to tell a story, is to try to inject your feelings into your work; in the end the audience will pick up on these emotions.
What were some of the earliest inspirations on your visual storytelling?
As a teenager in the 80’s, my favorite authors were those in Métal Hurlant (Howling Metal) a famous French magazine; Mœbius, Enki Bilal, Yves Chaland and Serge Clerc, etc. Then the American artists in the Spécial USA magazine; Richard Corben, Wallace Wood, Dave Stevens and especially Bernie Wrightson.
The big shock for me was probably ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. You could be a writer of comics and pay tribute to the classic artists. This is a wonderful book. And of course, the stories I preferred in movies, comics or novels were those acted out by monsters and creatures of all kinds, with science-fiction and adventure. I’m still a big fan of science-fiction and fantasy movies!
Many of your large scale drawings contain tremendously ambitious compositions filled with arrays of curious creatures all rendered with mind-boggling precision and detail. Please talk to us about your creative process. Does your process differ when working on your smaller and larger scale works? What kind of planning takes place?
I always start with a series of small sketches where I try to fix ideas that come to mind. I try several compositions and the small size allows me to not dwell too much on the details, but instead focus on the composition, center of interest, lighting and different plans. At this stage I only work on the design of the main characters. I do extra small drawings of the characters that will help me at the time of the final big drawing. Once I make a choice between my sketches, I scan and enlarge it to the desired size of the final drawing, and then I transfer it on a light table with a red pencil; lightly, because I will not erase it. At this point the details become clearer, I add characters, plants and refine the background and environment. I can also change the design of some creatures.
Then I attack inking; the longest step. I often look at my sketch, in order not to forget to place the light and shadowed areas, and to respect the overall atmosphere of it. I also sometimes look at pictures of plants and documentation on the internet for inspiration. The inking takes a long time, several hundred hours! The process for a small drawing is much faster, but the steps are basically the same.
The stories which unfold within the fantastical universe you create, may feature a magical kingdom of otherworldly creatures, although at the heart of your narratives appear to reside very human sentiments and emotions. Would you say this is a fair comment, and if so could you tell us about how your style developed and some of the reasons you have for using fantasy to explore the human condition?
Yes, that’s absolutely right! My work focuses solely on nature. My creatures have no objects that could be seen to originate from a human world; a hat, a bottle or a house. They are in harmony with nature, they’re the nature. I try to remove the materialistic side of man, the emotions and interactions are the main points of these drawings. Very often my creatures are a mixture of plants and flesh; hybrids that represent the vitality and importance of nature. Simply put, living creatures and nature are one in my drawings. I want to remind the viewer that we come from this planet and that we are destroying a major part of ourselves.
You don’t limit yourself to working in any particular medium and take a multidisciplinary approach to making art, working in both 2D and 3D. Excelling in all avenues you pursue, it must be said. What is your main motivation for mixing it up? Does your work in each different medium fuel the creativity within the others?
Yes totally! My sculptures are an extension of my drawings. It is as if they become real when sculpted; they emerge from them as if by magic. I feel that it brings credibility to the universe that I develop in drawing. They are creatures that exist, you know! You can adopt one if you want!
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
I’ve come from the book industry and the majority of my drawings, whether comics or illustrations, have been printed in books. With my personal work and my fantasy world, I continue to explore the feelings that my original drawings can produce as part of an exhibition. The direct relationships of my sculptures and drawings with the viewer, with the texture, size, design and staging at the site of the show. There’s nothing better than to see the works of artists in museums or galleries. We view too much through the window of our computer and it creates a distance. For me, true feelings arise within exhibition spaces, simply due to the atmosphere that can be created by assembling works for viewers and inviting them into your universe. It changes the way I work; I see each of my works as part of a set.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, one which you feel has contributed to shaping the person and therefore the artist you are today?
At the age of fifteen, as big comics fan, and going to see an exhibition of Hergé, Tintin’s creator. Because, I realized then that drawing is a full time job where every detail is worked out and nothing is left to chance. It was wonderful to see, in real life, the comics that I’d read, with their pages out of their albums in large, colorless panels. Every detail had been carefully worked out in order to entertain me.
If you could own any piece of art from the world’s collections, what would it be and why?
I think it would have to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Fallingwater’ house. Just imagine listening to the sounds of the forest and water of the waterfall, and being at one with nature. Living in an art piece would be the ultimate. Because, it is a piece of art isn’t it?
What’s next for Stan Manoukian?
A big solo show in December in Paris! With bigger pieces! Hahaha!