Henning Wagenbreth Illustrator

Interviewed by Charles Hively

3x3 Magazine presented in the 2008 edition Henning Wagenbreth as the teacher of the year and published this interview along with his work.

Tell us about your early schooling, did you always want to be an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?

Both my parents are biologists and my sisters physicians. So I am the one in the family who took a different direction. But my Grandmother was singing in a theater choir and created wonderful costumes and toys for her sons.

And she told me mysterious stories about her live on the brick-making plant in Silesia where she grew up.

My parents had friends who were artists and designers. Seeing them I found that they had the most independent life. The arts were harder to control by the East German government then other areas of the public live.

This, I think today, was the main reason I liked to become a graphic artists. My first teacher was a worker from the tower crane building factory in my hometown, who liked to draw and paint and taught hobby artists in the evening.

My second teacher in my home town was Gerhard Wienckowski, a water color painter, whose work I admire until today. Before I applied at the art school I asked him for a review of my portfolio.

I rolled my papers together and went to his studio. He put my first drawing on an easel, set back and looked at it for very long 5 Minutes. It felt like 15. Most of the mistakes in my drawing I already saw by myself.

And then he told me: »The darkest area on your drawing is the dog ear at the upper right corner of the paper.« Later he told me that it is not the goal of an artist to achieve a certain style. To have a style is a prison.

That what people call a style is the result of many parameters: artistic decisions, political and economical conditions, personal interest. I think, he meant that a certain style finds you.

What were some of your early influences? Other artists you admired? That you admire today? 

My first and deep impression of an illustrated story was the German children book »Struwwelpeter» (Shock Headed Peter) written and drawn by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann. In the Middle of the 19th century he was looking for a Christmas gift for his children, didn't find one and made up this collection of own and traditional stories.

Cut up thumbs, a drowned boy, a girl burned to a pile of ashes, a hare shooting the hunter and a boy blown by a storm into the endless sky holding on to his umbrella. My first horror book. It sucked me in, I can still  look at those images again and again. 

Possibly this book triggered my love for popular prints and illustrations. All those images were made to tell a story. They were made to be legible fast and easy.  I am a big fan of those unknown artists in the history of popular prints who in the academic sense often could not draw but were able to invent forms, invent abstractions to display complicated content in a convincing simplicity.

Another book my family had was about the Dresden Painting Gallery. The paintings of Saint Sebastian, his body penetrated by arrows, the chopped off head on a silver plate of John the Baptist and the erotic paintings of the naked Venuses made a strong impression on me.

When I studied in the 80s I liked the more subjective approach to drawing by Jiri Salamoun from Prague and Volker Pfüller from Berlin.

Manfred Butzmann had a big influence on me with his offset-lithographs and etching prints and the political concept of his work. Polish Posters were important and the posters of Heinz Edelmann.

Later, after the fall of the wall I went to Paris and was impressed by all the different ways people did illustrations and books. This was an eye opener: Bazooka, Pascal Doury, Marc Caro, Loustal, Petit-Roulet.

At an exhibition of Bruno Richard I met Mark Beyer. I still admire all their work. I will never forget how Petit-Roulet called a newspaper in Paris to help me to get an illustration job.

How important were comics when you were growing up?

In East Germany we had only one monthly comic booklet published. This was an ongoing adventure story of three boys travelling through time and places. I read them at a friends house. My Mother never bought me one, she regarded reading comics as a waste of time.

What were your early impressions of illustration? Were there any particular artists who influenced your decision to become an illustrator?

It makes me dizzy to look back to all the »ifs« in my live. Was this all random or do I follow a code written somewhere?

My math teacher wanted me to study math. I was interested in Biology, too. But graphic design was the most interesting thing to me. But it was hard to get into an art school. For graphic design they took 6 students per year out of some hundreds applicants.

My geography teacher and basketball coach (who became later the mayor of my hometown) called his uncle Walter Graetz who was running a small but high quality print workshop in Berlin. He asked him if he would take me as an intern and he did.

Walter Graetz did a lot of art prints in originally offset print technics. All important Berlin graphic artists experimented there. Theater, music and art posters were printed, colour separations were made with a big reproduction camera or directly by hand. Printing inks were mixed manually.

I learned a lot. I was happy there. Those days influenced my technical understanding of the whole printing process and enabled me to think not only the design process of drawing but also the creative intervention of the production of print media.

First I applied  for graphic design at the art school in Leipzig, Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, and was rejected. A couple of months later I got into the art school of East Berlin, Kunsthochschule Berlin.

I had my application talk with Werner Klemke, the famous east german illustrator and book designer who was a professor there for years but worked his last months before his retirement.

I liked to learn the craftsmanship of letter setting, drawing, photo and printing. First I did everything, later I specialized in illustration and typography.

Scanners were rare those days in East Germany. Hard to believe today, but took weeks, even months to get an image scanned. So I did drawings on and printed directly from offset metal plates and silkscreen frames. I did wood- and linocuts.

My first typography teacher, Hans-Joachim Schauß, collected Polish folk art. I liked him and his collection a lot. He also was  the art director of a publisher in Eastern Germany and offered me to illustrate a book right after leaving art school.

But I really needed some time off after my diploma and went on a very far and adventurous trip to the Caucasus. I think he was disappointed that I did not accept his generous offer.

How did you get your first big break?

The father of a friend I made at the army was a graphic designer and illustrator. He was asked to illustrate a 5th grade school book for the slavic minority in East Germany, the Sorbs.

But he was too busy and recommended me to the publisher. So I illustrated my first book.

To sign the contract at the publishers house in Bautzen, a city in the south east I had to pass the receptionist. Although he spoke perfectly German, he did not let people in who did not greet him in the Sorbian language.

But I learned my phrase and was allowed to pass. It was a great feeling to hold my first printed book in my hands in 1988.

What circumstance brought together yourself,  Anke Feuchtenberger,  Holger Fickelscherer and Detlef Beck? Did you share a studio?

We never shared a studio, but we shared a showroom. In the last years of East Germany, before the wall came down, people demanded more democracy and got tired of the lack of a free press.

In growing numbers they started to publish independently booklets, posters and magazines. There was a need to discuss all political and social issues. 

So I also started to look for friends to work with. We printed linocuts on my small hand press about our life, political, social and environmental topics.

With Anke I studied at the East Berlin art school »Kunsthochschule Berlin«. I liked her work and her approach to drawing and illustration. Holger was the friend of a friend. He did the most hilarious cartoons those days, absurd, mean and funny.

Detlef Beck did political cartoons and lively silkscreen prints. There also were painters and sculptors in our group »PGH Glühende Zukunft« (Coop Glowing Future).

Printing and distributing our independent products were first of all an act of emancipation from censorship. In those days you got attention by the public and the police by glueing 10 posters at night at the walls of Berlin. Today they post hundreds if not thousands every night and you can't keep track anymore what is going on.

How has your work progressed, how is today’s work different than when you were first starting out?

In the beginning I mainly did commissioned work. But I always liked to gather a lot of background information about the content of a subject. From each job I got contentwise and formally new ideas for future projects.

I have a list of things I would like to do for the next 10 years. I am working more as an illustration author today then in the beginning.

Talk with us a bit about your process? What type of sketches do you provide the art director?

Usually I do very rough pencil drawings and explain the concept of the idea in words next to the drawing. I am always happy when I get the dimensions before I start, because I look at the whole page layout when I develop an idea.
I think, the Illustrator of an article is asked to interpret the written content visually. An image can be a comment, a short summary or a contradiction to the written content.

A certain difference between the written word and the image makes the reader curious. He has to close the gap with his brain. The size of the gap is subject of the discussion between the illustrator, the art director and the editor.

I can't really work when I am told to draw what is written.

Why did you create Tobot, the automated illustration machine?

Illustration is very closely connected to typography. I like to draw letters and words as much as I like to draw images. The different fusions of words and images are an endless playground.

Since I was shown a typeface design application by one of my first students in the early 90ies I started to digitalize with him some of my hand drawn alphabets, which later became the FF Prater.

I was also inspired by him to load images instead of letters into the frames. I kept on experimenting with this idea and made the drawn modules in different ways available for keyboard access and for databases.

What do you think about the current state of illustration?

There are a lot more illustrations and illustrators out there than 20 years ago. Thanks to desktop publishing and e-mailing you can produce more, faster, worldwide and all in colors.

Illustrators work internationally and publishers can choose them from everywhere. But it seems that the overall budget is the same.

More people have to share the same cake. That means illustrators have to work faster and do so. We are just a part of the global acceleration.

Let’s talk about your experiences as a teacher, what do you feel the role is of an instructor? 

The University of the Arts in Berlin, where I teach, is still organized as the good old Prussian Academy of Arts. Each Professor has a class and as a teacher you have autonomy what and how you teach.

You have a nice studio and get every semester around 20 students. All students from the 3rd to 10th semester participate in the same class project.

So they have different approaches to the project because of different levels of knowledge and experience. They learn a lot from each other. It doesn't necessarily mean that only the younger students learn from the older.
The students are free to choose where and what they like to study. Some students jump from class to class, others specialize very early and attend one class for 4 years.

Students have a lot of freedom in my class. They have to learn how to deal with a situation when they are not told what to do.

Every semester I start with a project I am interested in. I understand the illustration field as a big and wide landscape in which we are wandering like nomads.

Our area borders literature, music, design, theatre, movie, politics, science and other fields. So we move from one side to the other, explore the different areas and meet the other tribes.

Each semester I try to invite a guest teacher from one of those disciplines. So I supply the students over the 5 years of their study with different professional fields they can work in later.

In my opinion this is a highly flexible teaching and learning system. I can just start a project without waiting for months to have it approved by a committee. 

I never teach only illustration. This would be too narrow-minded and some people mistakingly understand illustration as a purely decorative element. I try to teach illustration as a sythesis of image and word in the context of visual communication.

The students have to be able to analyze the task, develope concepts, to write, to do research and experiment with the relation between images and words. They also have to learn that the production process can be more then pure reproduction of an original artwork.

Art directors always want to discover new and young illustrators. This is the chance and challenge of each young illustrators generation.

We are also talking about the ethics of our profession. How to stay truthfully. What means humanistic in an illustrators work? What is really funny? Where starts contempt, disrespect, pride, racism and arrogance?

How mean can I act against whom? Where are my own prejudices? I think a lot of good art comes from low levels in the political or economical power hierarchy and it is better to make fun of people above then below yourself.

Do you feel there is anything missing in today’s education of an illustrator?

In university I have a hard time to defend the necessity of drawing, painting and manual technics of printing and bookbinding, not to mention manual typesetting. The printshop was closed and the equipment sold 10 years ago.

In German the word »begreifen« means both: touching and understanding. There could also be an art historian who teaches the history of graphic design and illustration.

But we are pretty well equipped with professional manual and digital tools. The students don't have to pay tutorial fees. This means a lot of freedom, for the students but also for the teachers.

How does your work as a department chair differ from your work as a teacher?

What do you look for when hiring a new instructor?

I am not a department chair. I am just the professor for illustration there and run my one and only class. I only hire one teacher for a 4 hour weekly class for analytical drawing (mostly nude model drawing) and another instructor of the neighboring disciplines as described above for 4 hours weekly.

What is your advice to graduates entering the field today?

They should make excellent projects, stay together, form groups, publish their work in self-made magazines and share the printing costs. They should organize shows and send invitation cards out.

It is always better to make your future clients to discover you then begging for an appointment at a clients office to show your portfolio.

Just before leaving university one of my teachers advices me to turn down all job offers for the first six month, saying »I am too busy«, even when there is nothing left to eat. Then the clients think you are highly on demand and might hire you immediately even for a higher salary. 

I did not do it and don't know, if this would really work. But it also does not help if students follows any order and do everything they are asked for.

Final words to teachers?

Teachers should make it rewarding for a student to get out of his bed in the morning and go to school. There has to be something new and surprising every day.

They should show a lot of other illustrators work and should send the students to do research and speak about illustrators they never heard of.

They should make students to discover new technics, at least for some days, even when they don't like it.

Teachers should go with their students on a weekly trip once a year. Teachers should be strict but also helpful. They should propose their students to real jobs, so they can earn experience. Deadlines have to be made, no mercy. 

Final words to practicing illustrators?

Keep on building your own world at least on paper. If it's good it's ideas might be transformed to real life, if not, it doesn't do any damage. It can just be thrown into the trash bin.


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