Interview: Jonathan Niclaus
08.12.18 Jonathan Niclaus

Interview: Jonathan Niclaus

With a free, experimental style, we talk to Berlin-based Jonathan Niclaus, who has a knack for creating beautiful, elegant images. He explains the personal philosophies behind his intuitive approach to art and design, which is fed by music, led by colour – and embraces mistakes.
08.12.18 Jonathan Niclaus

For someone who doesn’t know your work, how would you describe what you do?

Well, I couldn’t really say that I know. It’s like the old dictum from German Romanticism: defining or naming a thing will kind of kill its soul, its essence. I guess I prefer to just accept the journey and to let the unknown flow freely. I like to experiment, and I like to let the materials I’m using take control. I study all sorts of aesthetics and if I’m lucky, things happen – if not, then I wait. But I do see myself as a designer.


And what inspires and informs your practice?

Music remains by far my biggest inspiration, because I don’t really plan much – most of my work is very intuitive, and music alters the very moment in which I’m creating something. A track can completely change my workflow, or lead me in a different direction from my initial idea, so I never know how a drawing will end up – that’s what I love most, and what saves me from getting bored. Sometimes I’ll play music to form a counterpart to the mood I’m in. You know those days when you wake up feeling smooth and slow and jazzy? I’ll put on a very fast and aggressive tune and it forms this weird temporary equilibrium where all the emotional range is present at once. I enjoy everything from Balearic sounds to psychedelic rock, and cosmic disco to spaghetti western soundtracks.

I’m also really into French new wave cinema. I love the aesthetics of ‘70s and ‘80s movies, especially in terms of colour grading, set design and fashion. Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris or Éric Rohmer’s Le Genou de Claire, for example, set the right vibes. And recently I’ve been really inspired by director Alain Resnais’ visionary works, including the masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad. And architecture too, because it manifests design ideas, shapes and colours into reality – I gained a lot from studying Antti Lovag’s 1989 ‘Palais Bulles’ (Palace of Bubbles) in Cannes for my poster series for online magazine Say Hi To_. A couple of months ago I visited Ricardo Bofill’s ‘La Fábrica’ [an old converted cement factory built over a number of different architectural periods] in Barcelona – in a strange way it just felt like coming home.

Music remains by far my biggest inspiration, because I don’t really plan much – most of my work is very intuitive, and music alters the very moment in which I’m creating something. A track can completely change my workflow, or lead me in a different direction from my initial idea, so I never know how a drawing will end up – that’s what I love most, and what saves me from getting bored. Sometimes I’ll play music to form a counterpart to the mood I’m in.

Tell us a bit about living in Berlin and how it influences you?

I love it, it’s a unique city, but really, I don’t get much inspiration from it. Everything’s kind of grey and too serious – not playful enough. If my work was a human being, I think it would rather live in the French Riviera in the 1980s. But you know, my studio feels pretty much like that – sunny and warm and nonchalant. Whether it‘s the Mediterranean Sea splashing below my window or some nightclub tourist pissing against my backyard door, it doesn’t change a thing for me or my work.


You grew up in Düsseldorf. What was that like?

Düsseldorf was a really inspiring city to grow up in, with its rich history of art, but my personal world has always been defined by what I could create by drawing. Perhaps that was my way of dealing with all the intense sensations you experience when growing up. As a kid, I could spend hours drawing on my own, or even watching other people drawing. When I got a bit older I started creating flyers for parties that I was too young to go to. Don’t ask me how that happened, but it was an adventure, even without going to them – or perhaps because of that. I would try to create a special world with these flyers, and it was probably more stylish and glamorous than the reality. Sometimes it’s not the worst idea just to stay home and make things up.

And how did you get into the career you have now?

After finishing school I did an internship at the creative agency Parasol Island, in Düsseldorf. Initially I was only planning to stay there for six months before going on to university, but the experience of jumping straight into the professional world was so inspiring and successful that I didn’t end up going, and instead stayed working there for four years.

Following that, I wanted to get out of Germany and experience somewhere new, so I went to work for design studio ilovedust in Brighton in the UK. There I got to work for a lot of big clients such as Nike, Red Bull and Disney, which really helped me to find my own way and style of working. After a while I moved to Berlin but continued working remotely for ilovedust. I was also able to work on a beautiful series of printed city guides called LOSTiN, as art director and illustrator.

Now I feel like expanding in all directions to see what incredible visual landscapes I can inhabit. I am very curious to explore all sorts of media and industries. Maybe next year I’ll be doing furniture, or installations – who knows? I am very excited about what the future holds.

Tell us a bit about your studio, and how you like to work.

For the last two years I’ve been working from home, and I’ve started to really enjoy it. I can just completely zone out, let go, do my thing – whatever that might mean. Being alone with my thoughts and work gets me in a very meditative state. No offence, but people would only distract me from that process, that’s why I wouldn’t want to share a studio, at least for now. I also like the idea of being surrounded by my projects all the time, even when I’m sleeping, even when I don’t want to be. Of course sometimes that can get on my nerves, but still, the positive effects are far more striking.


Tell us a bit about your studio, and how you like to work.

For the last two years I’ve been working from home, and I’ve started to really enjoy it. I can just completely zone out, let go, do my thing – whatever that might mean. Being alone with my thoughts and work gets me in a very meditative state. No offence, but people would only distract me from that process, that’s why I wouldn’t want to share a studio, at least for now. I also like the idea of being surrounded by my projects all the time, even when I’m sleeping, even when I don’t want to be. Of course sometimes that can get on my nerves, but still, the positive effects are far more striking.

What would a typical day entail?

I wake up, I usually have yoghurt and berries, in a bowl. I like all berries. Except strawberries. And I drink a shot of pressed lemons. After that, every day is different.

You’ve had a busy past year working on projects for Slowdown Studio, Say Hi To_ magazine and Aesop skincare. Was there one you especially enjoyed?

I couldn’t really pick one specific project to be the most interesting or rewarding – I was fortunate to work on several jobs that were equally demanding and fulfilling. But talking about the outcome, the Slowdown blankets happened to be the most fascinating, because they involved working with an unfamiliar material. I have produced designs for many different surfaces in the past, but a blanket was radically new for me! I was intrigued by the idea that the designs would end up being a moving surface, it almost felt like my work was coming to life – you can sleep or hide underneath it, huddle up in it, hang in on the wall to hide a hole, wipe your face with it or throw it in a corner. And it’ll never look exactly the same. That meant adding some sort of third dimension to a two-dimensional painting, but it also meant losing complete control over how my work will appear.

What tools do you use to make your work?

Photoshop is very useful – you can do quick experiments with colours, try compositions, mock things up. I enjoy working with it, and for most commercial projects it’s essential. For my personal work, I’m trying to step away from the digital and move towards the physical.


How do you pick your commercial projects and what do you enjoy about collaborating?

I like collaborating with brands as it can provide an interesting set of restrictions – obstructions which counterintuitively boost my creativity. As well as illustration, I enjoy designing websites, print layouts, products or storylines. I generally work on projects or products which exhibit a certain taste. A taste in aesthetics, colours, ideas…anything outside the mainstream, to the extent that recently I collaborated on designing the corporate identity for the deep sea fishing world champion’s fishing baits.

Jonathan Niclaus
I’m working on murals in Mexico, beer bottles, event management, running shoes – stay tuned.

You mentioned colour earlier and how important it is to your practice. Can you talk more about that?

In general, I think in terms of colour more than form. How I use colour is very intuitive for me. Either I have a very clear vision in mind before I start, so that the whole process will be infused with that colour theme – or, if I lack that vision, I just play around until the tonality feels right. But I’m always 100% about that: how it feels.

Our theme for this edition is ‘The Nude’, a subject that often appears in your work. Why is that?

First of all: who doesn’t like nudes? At least, I never questioned why I do. I mean, sure, it’s a subject that you can easily theorise about – the nude is at once strong and infinitely fragile, it’s the most natural state and yet we almost never see nudes when we walk through the park. The nude is at the very centre, and forever marginalised. But I don’t think about all that too much. Let the others come up with theories, I just like to draw a nice thigh, that’s about it. There’s nothing that compares to the perfection of the female form. I try to stage it in an abstract-decorative way, deconstructing it with graphic means.

So what was your approach when creating your artwork for Wrap?

I’ve been experimenting more with traditional mediums these past few months, so I thought this could be a nice chance to show what I’ve been busy with. To come up with a position for the figure, I sketch a lot of random poses on paper without thinking too much. By changing or leaving out shapes, it becomes more and more abstract. This I do until I find a pose that feels balanced and right in some way. I can’t really explain what makes me say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a final image – I never learned any rules for composition or design, so it’s all pretty much intuition. For the colour I used acrylics for this piece. I like to experiment with different paints and I’m not married to one yet. For my outlines I love to use oil sticks, although they take ages to dry, but they run smooth over the paper.

You’ve been exploring working on canvas recently too?

I have! It actually started with the realisation that my room was just a little too empty, too tidy, so I basically put canvasses everywhere. But an empty canvas is painful to look at, so I had to fill them. I think I somehow, subconsciously, wanted to get away from all the digital work I’d been doing for years. Not forgetting it, but rather, out of respect for what Photoshop has enabled me to do, I need to walk down some new paths, because no matter how limitless its possibilities are, digital image-making will never be the real thing. In order to get the most out of Photoshop, you need to emancipate yourself from it. I will always come back to it, but the experience of painting and actually feeling and touching the colours has made me so much more aware of what it means to put together a composition. It has shown me imperfection, mistakes out of spontaneity – that is what makes an image more real, more human, more accessible. I’m just getting started with this adventure, but painting has already taught me to let go.

And finally, where in the world would you most like to go and explore?

I went to Patagonia last year, but unfortunately only for a few days, so I really want to go back. It’s a place that needs more than a lifetime to explore. So far away from everything, it almost feels like being on another planet. Truly magical landscapes, the sun staying up high until night…it’s just surreal.