Who would have thought it would be so easy to warm to the naked mole rat? According to a new children’s book, they’re about 7cm long, ’are hairless, with tiny eyes that are almost blind and massive incisors that protrude out of the mouth with lips that close behind them’.
Even the book’s illustrator, Thibaud Herem, finds them ’really disgusting’, and yet his depiction of said rat makes it almost endearing. This rodent sits alongside 19 other of the species, in Ziggy Hanaor’s book Know Your Rodent, which was published last month.
It’s a sweet little hardback that combines rat facts with pen-and-ink and watercolour pictures, and is one of Herem’s most recent projects. But then the French-born illustrator has inky fingers in many pies. He’s an insatiable self-initiator and pours his energy into getting himself on the illustrative map, so to speak. (In fact, one such project is to do with creating a map of the world charting the origins of all his friends.)
After working in graphic design in France for five years, Herem arrived in the UK in 2006, with no English but two like-minded friends. The three met as students – Jean Jullien was studying graphic design and Yann Le Bec classical illustration – at the Lycée Le Paraclet in Quimper, west Brittany, where Herem picked up a BA in graphic design, advertising and book-making.
The trio share a house in London’s Stoke Newington and collaborate on projects, though they don’t have a name for their venture yet. The idea is that Herem does the design for Le Bec’s illustration projects, and the illustration on Jullien’s graphic design projects. ’I like to be able to swap between the two,’ he says. ’With Jean I did the communication for a Central St Martins College of Art and Design event. And with Yann I’m doing a couple of self-initiated books for really young children, which we hope will be published.’ One of these, The Star Thief, is now being translated into English.
While his collaborators are both continuing their studies at the Royal College of Art, Herem had had enough of school. Nor did he fancy freelancing for design groups.
He preferred working in a restaurant – he managed the café at Central St Martins for two years – where he could pick up English and make contacts. ’While I was doing something different during the day, I could do my own projects on the side and wait for that to take over. And I didn’t want to work for a design group, I wanted to be free in what I was doing. I’m not against consultancies at all, but I was afraid to block my creativity.’
Other self-initiated work includes a delightful series of bird portraits. This series turned into an exhibition at Shoreditch’s Prague bar, along with posters and postcards, which Herem sells from his website. ’That’s what I’m living on.’
Animals have always been an interest for him, partly because he studied biology at school. Hence his recent insect series. While the birds are all head shots, these are in their entirety. ’I couldn’t do portraits of insects because their faces alone are really weird and it made sense to do them whole.’
His second passion is drawing buildings and towns – and he’s just been brought on by Capital Prints, which publishes etchings of university buildings.
He shows me the illustrations that won him this job – a charming book of detailed, but quirky London buildings, in ink and watercolour, of course.
He likes the mental challenge of creating complex, factually correct work as well as the spare, one-line birds. ’Doing the detailed things helps me to do the simple things, because I see what’s necessary.’
Herem is influenced by ’the old American illustrators and cartoons and comics’, and cites Tomy Ungerer, whose pictures appeared in The New Yorker.
While he continues graphics jobs on the side – he designed and illustrated Know Your Rodent, for example – it’s obvious that his heart is in illustration, and classical illustration at that. ’There are fewer drawing illustrators, and more and more are doing computer-based design. People are surprised that I’m still drawing.’
He’s now finding more clients are asking for classical illustration, because ’computer-based illustration is getting more and more flat’. But then again, as he says himself, ’I’m an optimist.’