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Featured Artist Interview - Fiodor Sumkin

What are words but mere playthings to the furiously interesting Fiodor Sumkin, who teases and twists language in a visible symphony of emotion.

This Amsterdam-based creative invites you on a tantalising tour of his Mad-Hatter art, at once deliciously wicked and romantically poignant.

TAXI>>Hey Fiodor! You are from the Soviet Union where your mother was an art teacher. This early influence has seen you grow immense respect for the traditional skills of illustration. In your opinion, what does this digital age, with all its tools, lack?

Fiodor>>Hey! Well, my passion for traditional skills can be explained by my weariness of the “digital age”. I have worked on a computer since 1991, when I was 13. At the age of 16 I started working with Photoshop on a Macintosh. I started at quite a young age, but didn’t achieve any great success. Maybe that’s the reason why I truly respect illustrators who create their artworks using only digital media. We live in a great time, which gives us a choice whether to work with an Inc Gel Pen on paper, or with a Wacom tablet and Painter or Photoshop. It is only important that these tools are in good hands.

TAXI>>Your images are beautifully, intricately detailed, and it must be an understatement indeed to say you have spent an incredible amount of time on each piece.

Fiodor>>Yep, but I am really embarrassed that I work so slowly. In fact, I am a very restless person and for me it is really hard to work on something for more than one hour. I am lazy, I get tired quickly. But I do take work seriously. At least half of the things I create no-one gets to see as it gets binned. But this is a question of my attitude to work, as well as my quest for a certain ideal. I don’t think of myself as of a talented person. All you see is mostly a result of very hard work. Moreover, my attitude to other artists is as critical as to myself. It is quite rare for me to really like someone’s work to a full extent.

TAXI>>As your style has been honed through trial & error over the years, has there been a time when you thought you might change and create an entirely different, new style?

Fiodor>>Many times. For example, I used to be very enthusiastic about drawing small pixel images and pixel fonts. For a while, I used to try felt-tip pens and even got quite good results. But usually all these experiments end up in receiving another commission in my old style. It is quite understandable. When an artist has a recognisable style, clients know how he or she can represent their idea and usually they don’t want any experiments.

TAXI>>Your characters' bodies are mostly formed by typographic design. When did you first begin and what inspired you to tattoo these messages onto your characters?

Fiodor>>My first artwork was inspired by cover of an old magazine called The Fifth Estate – I liked the way a face was formed out of words. However, my interpretation was painted in oil on a big canvas. In fact, my interest for typography and fonts is a result of my professional career. For 14 years, I used to work as a graphic designer.

TAXI>>You recently started on a project named EcoPera, which is dedicated to ecology and the world's current water crisis. How is that project coming along and what have you learnt along the way?

Fiodor>>Unfortunately, the EcoPera project was temporarily closed. It was a fantastic experience that brought together more than 50 artists from all around the world. The idea of this project is to inform people about the water crisis on the planet. Artists could submit their artworks with a message on environmental concerns somewhere in the corner. It was important that all the artworks could be on any chosen subject and didn’t have to look like yet another social poster.

The project was intended for people interested in modern art, but absolutely indifferent to environmental problems. They could look at the artwork, while the message would still catch their attention. I believe it is time to find alternatives for traditional advertisements, that didn’t change much since the 1980s. Sometimes I get really irritated by b/w photos of starving African children. I don’t think such social posters work anymore. I will address the environmental questions again as soon as I feel ready to do something better.

TAXI>>Your work is a strong, realistic reflection of the environment and of life. How do you think people today have come to regard artworks with social commentary and awareness? To that end, how does that motivate your work?

Fiodor>>First of all, I believe that any person should be able to express their views on any social or political subject. Some people protest, some write articles for print or online media. Yes, I am also quite busy, I do not have time to go to demonstrations. But I have my own opinion and I love drawing.

My latest personal project is a series of posters against the price strategy of Apple. I also do not like the aggressive advertisement. Young people spend their last pennies for a 4 Gb iPod when they could buy an mp3 player of any other brand with 8 Gb memory and a removable flash-card. But for them having a “no-name” player isn’t cool enough. With a stylish white headphones you become a member of closed “vip club”. Yeah, probably in 2003 iPod was a super-exclusive gadget, but nowadays most of its owners are simply victims of brands-name and globalization!

It reminds me of the Nazi propaganda in 1930s. At that time, every German girl wanted to have a baby by Hitler.

Sure, I know that many mac-fans do not like this comparison and do not see any relation between Apple and Nazi. But I don't care about rational approach and logic. I do what my intuition and heart tell me. It is really great to think independently and to have your own opinion, I must to say. Think different ©.

TAXI>>Since the world is a global village, many artists are inspired by and often incorporate different cultural identities into their work. As an illustrator, how far do you push the use of cultural significance or icons?

Fiodor>>Before I start work, I try to lean as much as I can about the project to avoid serious mistakes. However, I prefer learning not so much about different cultural identities, but rather about the historical stages in graphic design, advertisement or illustration. I like works from mid 19th century, as well as 1960s and 1970s in Europe, Russia and America. And I would like to continue exploring these periods. I collect old books about typography.

TAXI>>The old-world charm of your art is irresistibly fascinating, be it an editorial or advertising illustration. Which is your favorite to work on and why?

Fiodor>>Every commission from a magazine is like homework from school teachers. Editorial work is interesting because I gain a lot of experience. Every month I get different projects with same magazines and art directors. But if I made some mistakes I can work on them for the next issue. I continue to learn and every time I'm glad to get to know something new in my profession. Commercial illustrations are like school exams. The advertising campaign happens only once, and I need to use all my knowledge and skills.

TAXI>>What is one thing an artist should never lose sight of?

Fiodor>>An artist must be honest. And most important is what’s in the heart.

TAXI>>I'm sure everyone would love to see your current working space. How about showing it to us?

TAXI>>Okay, before we end, where would you like a TAXI to take you to now?

Fiodor>>In real life, I often travel by train Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam. By TAXI, I would prefer to go to New York of 1969. In a yellow cab – to the farmfactory by Andy Warhol or Avant-Garde Magazine by Ralph Ginsburg... Oh, and to Bob Dylan’s concert in a club.

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