INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr IMAGES Courtesy of @elio_illustration
Inspired by humour and music, local illustrator Elio Moavero’s artistic journey began with childhood sketches of favourite characters. Over his nine-year career, he’s crafted a distinctive style that fuses retro aesthetics with a modern touch. We chat to him about what makes him tick.
Tell us about your journey into art and graphic design.
I remember drawing Spider-Man and Dragon Ball Z characters at a young age, which then developed into drawing comics based on my friends and teachers in primary school and then taking Art and Design in High school. I started going to rock n roll gigs at that time and was amazed by the poster art in the scene. I thought that looked like a fun way to make a living.
I attended The Open Window after High school, where I majored in illustration. That university clued me up to the world of art and graphic design, it was amazing (and humbling) to interact with so many like-minded creatives daily. Though I was a bit of a snot in University, I had an inflated sense of self without the skills to match it. I do wish I’d absorbed more of our lecturer’s wisdom, or at the very least experimented more with different mediums. Oh, the benefit of hindsight.
After graduating I worked at an advertising agency called Dogo 115 for about 2 or 3 months. I got a small taste of the advertising agency life there and decided it wasn’t for me. And also they fired me. For leaving early one too many times (why stay until 5 if you’ve finished all your work?). Anyway, I had already started doing some freelance jobs on the side and I imagined that if I put all my effort into that, then I could make something of it. Luckily I was still living with my parents because the freelance lifestyle isn’t very lucrative from the get-go, at least it wasn’t for me. But eventually, I started to build a name for myself.
2023 Marks my 9th year as a freelance illustrator; I’ve been heavily involved in doing the artwork for the South African music scene I love, illustrations for bands overseas (including Metallica and Bob Dylan) and I’ve worked on many big projects with clients like Mcdonalds, Granadilla Swim, Woolworths, Culture Trip and Cadbury to name a few.
How would you describe your work?
This word rubs me the wrong way, but I’d say the best way to describe my work is ‘retro’. But with a contemporary edge. Or contemporary with a retro (ugh) edge. My style is continually evolving, I get bored very easily and find it hard to stick to one approach. Over the years I’ve made and put art out and a lot of the time it’s been close to something I’m proud of, but not quite there. I think as an artist you’re always fine-tuning your work, trying new techniques and brushes and ways of using texture- and I think that’s incredibly important because you learn what fits your style best; keep the good bits for the next illustration and lose the things that didn’t work. It feels like I’ve been doing that for the past 8 years and this year it’s finally landed me in a place where I feel confident and comfortable in my approach. And I’m sure it will continue to change and evolve as the years go by.
What mediums do you use?
I only work digitally these days. I have a Wacom Cintiq, so I draw straight onto every bit of that 16-inch HD screen. I used to do everything in pencil first, then ink it with a brush, scan it in and colour it digitally. But the creative industry is a fast-paced environment – sometimes you’re working on 6 projects that all need your immediate attention, so it streamlines the process drastically. But I’m always trying to simulate the hand-drawn textures and feel of the way I used to do it and of vintage art (comics, posters etc). So the digital brushes I use always have a grittiness and I even use a brush that imitates a pencil when I do rough sketches for clients.
I’m an analogue guy in a digital world.
Do you prefer commissions or your own pieces?
I rarely work on something for myself these days. It’s hard to find the urge or excitement to illustrate something for the hell of it after a long day of illustrating for clients. Which is a shame, and I’m trying to cut some time into my life to get involved with illustration in that capacity again.
Truthfully I would love to only be illustrating for myself – having work in galleries, or making zines or some sort of card game. Anything where I could work without having to answer to the needs of clients, and what I put out was solely my own. But for now, I’m very grateful to be working in the industry – I have a very silly job and I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to make a living from illustration.
What are your thoughts on collaboration?
I’ve not had many opportunities to collaborate with other artists. Nor have I made any real effort to that end. I think, like Justin Timberlake, I excel at being a solo artist. But very recently one of my posters was animated by another company and I really enjoyed the final product. I’ve got plans to follow this collaboration where I conceive the illustrations and someone else animates them. But more on this in the final question. And I suppose that working with clients on jobs is a form of collaboration. They’ve got the ideas and vision (and the money) and it’s my job to conceptualise that into something that slightly resembles what might be a good illustration. It can be difficult when you’re quite pleased with the final product and you receive changes from the client that you don’t necessarily agree with. But at the end of the day, they’re paying for a service, so if you can get your point of view across while incorporating their changes then one often finds oneself in the gravy. Sometimes you have to acquiesce to a client’s crits and chalk it up to a job you’ll cash in on but won’t ever see the light of day in your portfolio. Though, there’s oftentimes when you don’t have to compromise your vision at all, and your expectations and the client’s line up exactly, in tune and beautifully. This isn’t as rare as I’m making it out to seem.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I usually wake up at around 7 a.m. If the weather permits and the mood is right I’ll do a 6km half run-half walk around my neighborhood. Of course, if work is pressing and on top of me I usually forfeit this serotonin-fuelling routine and head straight to the kitchen, where I make a coffee in my Moka pot. Like listening to vinyl records I enjoy the task of making coffee like this, like you’re part of the process in some small way. I appreciate the banality of this insight into the morning routine of Elio Moavero, Illustrator. But it’s important to understand my proclivity for procrastination. I’ll do anything to delay the inevitable start to the work day. But once I’ve sat at my computer (I work from home), delicious, hand-crafted, Italian cup of coffee in hand and get into the day’s jobs, I truly enjoy myself. I try to organise it so that I start the bigger jobs in the morning, I’ll find it hard to begin a job later in the day, there’s something in beginning the day with a new job that hits the right spots and is conducive to summoning up my full attention. I’ll have my first meal at 12 and work until about 6 (the irony of being fired from my first job in the industry for refusing to work a 9-hour day and then inflicting longer working hours on myself, later on, is not lost on me). I suppose it’s not the most interesting workday. I take a lot of mini breaks between hours of working to best utilise my skills. If I work for too long on something I can see the quality lowering. It’s good to find the rhythm that works best for you.
How do you decide on your use of colour?
I usually have an idea of what the colour scheme will be for a poster very early on — or a roundabout idea; warm, cooler, vibrant, subdued. I’ll make a few colour swatches of my own with that initial thought in mind and hope to get it close to what I had envisioned. But it’s certainly an aspect of illustrating I find the trickiest. Sometimes the palette reveals itself almost immediately, but other times I find it much more difficult. There are moments when I get into a bit of panic because I’ve spent too much time trying to find the right colour scheme when there’s a strict deadline hanging over the project. In times like these, or when I just don’t know what the colour scheme should be I turn to finding inspiration on Pinterest or using an online colour palette creator (like Coolors). I’m fortunate to have a mild case of synesthesia, so when I’m working on album or single covers for bands and other musical artists I can listen to the songs provided and gleam a colour scheme from hearing them. This has also helped with writing music for my band, I can see the colour of our songs which helps in keeping them the right cohesive shade, musically. I promise you, I’m not a hippie.
What inspires your pieces? Do you go by a general theme or whatever tickles your fancy?
Generally, I’m inspired by music. Mostly of the more old-school persuasion. I try to impress a personality into my illustrations, some sort of attitude or theme. I was asked to create a pattern illustration for a company a few years ago (vague), there wasn’t any brief or theme supplied, and I had free reign (which asking any artist, can be incredibly daunting). I was listening to an album by some band (more vague) and it just inspired the entire piece. There weren’t elements in the pattern that were taken from specifics in the lyrics, it was just a general feeling that the songs and album provoked. The way that music and fashion go hand in hand for me, a visual identity in music is always something that inspires and excites me.
So I suppose in some way I’m using that formula to create artwork that I can enjoy looking at and making. I’m constantly inspired by other artists too, there’s so much amazing work coming out of South Africa, that it’s hard not to be floored by it from time to time.
Going onto Behance can be daunting – there’s a pantheon of talented people making art that sometimes it feels like being an illustrator in the 21st century is an exercise in futility.
I take inspiration from art and design of the past too – old adverts, gig posters and fashion. Usually with any job, the client has an idea of what they’re looking for and that will dictate what the overall theme or tone of the piece will be. I’m also always partial to injecting humour into my work so that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
How do you bring local elements or pop culture references into your work?
Any references to local and pop culture in my work will surely come from fashion or film. I spend far too much time in front of the TV or at the cinemas, and it’s somewhat tragic how much pride I take in getting dressed up for whatever occasion and going to places where a fair amount of people watching will surely take place – so I’m constantly in a state of absorbing art in those mediums, which if I get the smallest opportunity – I’ll try find a way to incorporate or accommodate it in my work.
There may not always be in-your-face specifics relating to local culture in my work, but I think I try to capture the general energy of South Africa, the vibrant colours and the resounding soul. Whether it be subconsciously or not, I reckon that your environment will affect your work. Personally, I’m plugged into the weather.
Plans for the future?
I don’t have any large 5-10 year plans. That sort of thinking sends me into a cold panic-induced sweat.
One of my friends and I have an idea to start a motion graphics company, where he’d animate my illustrations. It’s an avenue I’d certainly like to explore. Other than that I guess I hope to just get better at this strange job, hopefully learn a thing or two along the way and more than anything just enjoy myself. I’ll be living in Cape Town as of 2024 so I’m sure that’s going to open up more doors in the creative industry and hopefully artistically and musically too. Or maybe I’ll just give it all up and save the turtles in Bali.
See more of Elio’s work on his website, here.