Tomi Ungerer: “A white page is like a black hole where you can get lost”

We pick up some key insights from renowned, controversial illustrator Tomi Ungerer, taken from his talk at this year’s Offset London design conference.

Moon Man children's book front cover illustration, by Tomi Ungerer
Moon Man children’s book front cover illustration, by Tomi Ungerer

Legendary and often controversial 83-year-old illustrator and author Tomi Ungerer was described at last week’s Offset London conference as “one of the least well-known greatest artists of the 20th century”.

True enough, Ungerer’s brave satire has long been under the radar of mainstream culture, and sometimes banished from it altogether. While his work spans well-loved children’s books, his portfolio also includes radical posters speaking out against segregation during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, a memoir of his experiences under Nazi rule and sexualised 1970s magazine covers that were banned in the United States.

Last week, Ungerer spoke at Offset about his extensive career across continents, which has seen him publish in French, with wit and candour. We pick out some key pieces of insight from the talk, shedding light on his life to date.

On his darker work

“My work has often been inspired by the concept of death.”

“There’s no art without despair.”

On the power of creativity

“Your best weapon is your word.”

“I’m fascinated by words and ontology.”

“I fell in love with design 34 years ago.”

On joining the Méharistes (French Camel Corps) in 1952

“I joined the army, because I’m a pacifist.”

On travelling

“New York was the land of opportunity for me.”

On controversy

“For 35 years, I was blacklisted in the US – I wasn’t able to receive post.”

“Without taboos, you can do anything you want. Freedom is an essential thing.”

On his children’s books

“My children’s books were more of a sideline. I write in German, French and English, and have a style for each.”

On individuality

“Whenever I have a new book, I have a new style, a different way of expressing myself. I don’t want to be branded.”

On drawing

“A white page is like a black hole where you can get lost.”

“Always use cheap paper, and do the same drawing 20 or 30 times.”

On advising young illustrators

“Everybody has their own creative process. The essential discipline is to collect knowledge. The more knowledge you get, the more you can compare.”

“The art of drawing is essential. Sketch, sketch, sketch.”

“I don’t know what a great illustrator is, but I know there is nothing more boring than perfection.”

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