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Nick Liefhebber: creating dynamic worlds through colour

Dutch designer Nick Liefhebber talks us through the inspiration and work behind his lively, colour-rich illustrations.
Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m living and working in Utrecht, The Netherlands where I also studied at the University of the Arts Utrecht. I’m an illustrator and graphic designer working on both commercial and self-initiated projects ranging from campaigns and identities to illustrations for packaging and apparel, to my own screen-printed artwork.

Nick Liefhebber—photo taken by Juri Hiensch
How would you describe your style and how has it developed over the years?

Most of my images are collages from actual paper cut shapes which I often arrange and adjust on my computer. It’s a combination of handmade and digital work. I developed this way of working when I started experimenting with screen and riso-printing. With these techniques, you print one colour at a time so you have to keep in mind how colours blend and how to separate them. Since each layer takes quite some time to print you’re limited in colour and I think that reflects in my digital work. I like symbols and I found out cutting shapes from paper works well since you limit yourself. Lines are rough but natural and the more complicated the work gets the more time it takes. With these symbols I try to tell abstract intuitive stories, it doesn’t have to be clear. You can say my style evolved from limitations in material.

Shadow World small screenprint package
Deep Deep Down Exhibition
You recently worked on a commission for us—talk us through the concept and thought processes behind it.

The commission involved creating three pieces and I wanted these to be connected, it had to be one project. I also wanted them to be different enough that it wouldn’t be interchangeable so I came up with the idea to create three nature-inspired pieces on different times of the day. Morning, midday and night. The morning piece shows hares which are night/morning animals running off to their dens. I wanted the colours to be soft like the morning light.

The midday piece shows tropical birds in a green lush forest with the bright warm colours of the sun. I thought of adding flowers but I also wanted the pieces to be limited in colour and shape. Most forests aren’t full of flowers anyway so I focussed on leaves, birds, greens and reds.

The last piece represents the night with an owl and cat, real night animals in a dark environment with purples and reds.

Sliding down the ladder of time—created in Affinity Designer
What would you say your strongest skill is and how have you honed that skill over the years?

I think the skill I’m proud of most is to create dynamic colourful worlds which might be a bit overwhelming in the first place yet are balanced. By filling these worlds with characters, animals and symbols they tell a story which hopefully connects with people from different ages, cultures and backgrounds. I’ve been working on projects all over the world so I hope the intuitive part speaks to people on a global level. The balancing, finding out what’s too much and what works well is something that came with the years. It used to take a lot longer to find out what compositions would work.

What’s been your favourite design to date?

That’s difficult, I’m always most enthusiastic about stuff I’m fascinated by. New work, trying new techniques or communicate new subjects. A little while ago I went to a medieval art exhibition and saw some unintentional parallels with some of my older work which is very pattern heavy. Now I’m working on new screen-prints which are an evolved version of my older work inspired by the exhibition. It’s also great when your designs go places and are used by many people. Last year, for example, I made a beer can for The Bruery, a Hawaiian shirt for Tombolo Company and an image which is used in Apple stores worldwide. Those are things people encounter in daily life, use or wear on a big scale.

Poseidon’s Eye shirt design for Tombolo
What do you hope people take away from your designs?

I hope people are intrigued, and get a certain sense of wonder, willing to discover the details and feel the positive energy and dynamics of the image.

If you were to design for any product, brand or event of your choosing who would it be, why and what would you create?

I’d love to do an installation one way or another. I don’t mind if it’s for a brand or for myself (although it’s always hard to find time to do big unpaid projects by yourself). In 2018 I had a solo show with a lot of screen-printed work and life-size cut out wooden panels of the shapes which worked very well. It feels like something I want to do more, maybe I’d like to paint or screen-print those panels next time. It’d be cool to do something like that for a large festival, a stage design or setting. It’s always fun when people interact with your work.

Deep Deep Down expo
If you could give your younger self any advice when you first started out what would it be and why?

That’s difficult, I’m not sure if there’s any advice I’d give to myself. I had a nice childhood, studied graphic design in art school, had a job when leaving art school, started my own studio, developed my own style of illustration in the meantime. The work I do now is a culmination of everything I did before. Of course, you can always do more but it’s also important to not overdo and develop in a natural way.

Who or what has been your biggest creative inspiration?

I like artists and designers with a broad range of projects. There are people focussing to perfect a certain technique or subject and there are people making all kinds of stuff with their philosophy in mind. Some examples are Kiyoshi Awazu who did graphic design, illustration and art projects. Tadanori Yokoo who made posters and lots of magazines and books, but also fine art painting. Henri Matisse who made paintings, collages, stained glass, clothing and drawings. David Hockney who makes iPad paintings, photo collages, panel paintings and whole investigations in art history. All these people make contrasty bright and colourful work, that’s also something that speaks to me. These people are legends but I can be inspired as well by people just starting out and are really driven, a cool packaging design or a local painter.

New Cool Collective—Dansé Dansé record sleeve
Where would you like to see your art in ten years?

I think applying my work to new media gives a new dimension to a graphic or illustration. I’d like to create something in a public space on a large scale. I also like to work for clients in different places and cultures all across the world.

How long do you typically spend on a project?

It really depends. I can work well under pressure but I’m not ultra quick because my illustration style is quite detailed. With sketches, feedback and mailing back and forth usually a least a week to a month for complex projects but that’s not just illustrating. I can make an illustration for myself in a day but always take longer. When I let an illustration rest for a while I see new details and finetune it in new ways. I also think commercial work gets better when I take longer and I always tell clients that.

“Le Guess Who?” festival poster
This was the first time using Affinity for you—how did you find the experience?

Yes, I used Affinity Designer for the first time. I work a lot in vector and Affinity Designer has all the tools I need, it just took some time to get used to it. Some things work slightly differently than in the software I’m used to, some things are missing and there are some extras. Setting up a new illustration took a bit longer than usual but after finding out the basics it’s all intuitive. I also tried the iPad app which I’m not completely used to yet but I like to draw vector shapes on a tablet on the go to use in the desktop app. As mentioned before I create images like these for Affinity like a collage and it’s great these work together well.

What’s your ultimate goal as an artist/designer?

I want to be able to keep living from my work. I’ve got enough ideas for coming years. Both ambitions for commercial projects and creating my own work. I know it’s hard for a lot of people to get to the point you can make a living out of design or illustration and I’m proud of the clients I work for. But you’re not in control of what people like, trends and preferences. I think the hard part is staying in the right place.

The garden of unearthly delights festival

You can view more of Nick’s work on his website, Instagram and Behance.