E -Thank you for doing this interview, Christophe. I'm sure a lot of artists and fans will be interested in learning about you. To start with, maybe you would provide us with a bit of background information about yourself.
CV -All right. Well, I'm 36, French, and grew up in a remote central area of France that looks very much like Ireland and famous for its Celtic/Roman shady past, its sorcery (still practiced nowadays), and its dark legends: for those of you who have seen the movie "The Brotherhood of the Wolf" last year, well, that's my region right there. And that story is the most famous legend of the area. Also, in "Interview with a Vampire", the main character -Lestat- comes from the same place: Auvergne.
I attended Fine Arts school there for 1 year. Then I went to a University of History of Arts for 2 years. This introduced me to medieval architecture -which I used a lot later. I did illustration for homebuilders architects for a while and then had to do 2 years of civil service instead of the army.
I started animation in 1989 -on "Ninja Turtles"- and worked my way through different studios in France. I finally ended in Paris where I entered the Disney studios in 1992. There, I became head of backgrounds on my first Disney feature animated film: "A Goofy movie". Following that, I worked on the 'featurette' "Runaway Brain" and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" (the great thing was that the cathedral was 15 minutes from us, and I tell you: by now, I know every single statue on the front of this building!!).
After that, I could negotiate my way to the US in 1996 and worked on movies such as "Hercules", "Dinosaur", "Fantasia 2000", "Tarzan", and "Treasure Planet".
In parallel, I had started to develop my own work on the side. I entered the Los Angeles gallery Morpheus in '97, then Powell street gallery in San Francisco, and finally Kaleidoscope gallery in Mission Viejo -where I'm actually going to have a new one man show on the 4th of October 2003.
In February 2002, I quit Disney to pursue a solo career full time. Quite a few people and publishers contact me now to do covers for books, CD's, magazines and videogames, and I like to do it once in a while, but I try to focus my work more on gallery art and free expression.
E -That's quite a career! Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be an artist?
CV -Yes. I was giving a try at my drawing skills before I knew how to write.
E -Who were your earliest artistic influences?
CV -Well, at first, I wanted to be a comic book artist. My first influences were famous European comic books like Tintin, and a lot of Italian black and white monthly comics. At 13, I discovered the world of super heroes (Daredevil, Iron-man, Spiderman and other X-men). I can say my life really changed then. Moebius and the birth of "Heavy Metal" magazine (when it was REALLY creative) were also a major influence to me.
Then, I went to a Fine-Arts school, and it opened my eyes on classical Art, although illustrators like Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Wojtek Siudmak or Michael Whelan also fascinated me.
Since then, things have changed. I've met dozens of amazing artists in animation (particularly at Disney) from whom I've learned a lot. I have broadened my horizons in Art and discovered many different styles and schools, from the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites, Romantics, Orientalists, Symbolists or Visionaries in Europe, to the Hudson River school, American Realists, American impressionists and Plein Air painters in the US, not to mention all the generations of great American illustrators.
E -Here in the United States (and perhaps in other countries) the majority of fine arts programs are woefully short on teaching classical technique and in fact any of the history of realism from the rise of the Impressionists onward. Was your school unusual in that respect - does the French art establishment allow more freedom of thought with regards to high realism?
CV -No, my school was not unusual in that respect. It was focused mainly on modern Art -like most schools these days, which is real sad. The only class we had related to the past was how to prepare our canvases the old way, but nothing about painting techniques. Well, even this class has disappeared now anyway. The way my mind opened to classical Art was meeting other artists who were searching in the same direction, and had different information and education than I had.
Nowadays, Fine Art schools are full of teachers who are frustrated artists, and got a job not based on their skills, but rather on how much they know the system, and on their ability to convince an audience that it's all right to nail a garbage bag on a wall and call that Art. And now, these people have a steady position that they don't want to lose. So, the best way for them to do that is to make anything that requires skills look bad, because they themselves don't know how to do it or are not good at it. Free expression is a nice thing, but from my point of view, you shouldn't have to explain what you put on a canvas in order to convey emotion. It should hit the viewer in a direct way, through beauty; and only then lead the viewer to deeper questions or meanings, if it's the intention of the artist. And in order to do that, you have to learn how to do it.
In everything, there is a learning phase, including in Art. You can't just start from nothing and pretend you know Art or that you are pushing further the limits of Art! I had a philosophy teacher who used to say about that: "On the road, when you want to pass a car, you have to know first how to drive, and then get to the same level of the other car before you pass it". Ah, the eternal fight between modern and classical Art! Well, I'm hopeful though: more and more people want to see a come back of figurative Art. You can see it progressively happening in galleries.
E -You started very early in your career at Disney. Did you have a desire early on to become involved in animation?
CV -Yes and no. Like many artists, I was both fascinated by comic books, painters and illustrators, and animation. I wanted to have a career in one of those fields, or maybe several of them. I remember watching the Disney cartoons and movies and thinking: "Boy, I live in the middle of nowhere. No one can give me any information about this. I'd be happy if I could only get to work for a low budget TV show. Don't even think about working on a feature film. There are probably millions of artists ahead of me knocking at Disney's door." It was such a distant and impossible dream.
But I had faith. And when the opportunity came to work for my first TV show, I left everything and took my chance.
An older friend of mine told me 18 years ago: "Everyone gets a chance at a specific point in life. You can take it or leave it. But if you miss it, it will never show up again. And if you take it despite the risk, it will take you further you ever dreamed of". I have never forgotten that.
E -Many great artists have emerged from the Disney system. Did you find your tenure there to be helpful in your training and maturation as an artist?
CV -Absolutely. Many artists are reluctant to work for a studio because they have the feeling that they will "lose their style", or they will "be lost in the crowd, become a number", or that animation "will steal their soul".
Well, on the contrary, in animation, you meet a lot of artists coming from many different horizons, with many different styles. The fact that they got a job there is already a proof that their work has higher standards. So, there is a lot of exchange going on: techniques, ideas and friendship. Even though we have to work on the same project and learn to follow the same style at a specific time, it only adds to our own skills, enriches our own style and pushes us to be more professional and demanding on ourselves. And if we're not happy, we can step out of animation at almost any time.
At Disney, I had the chance to meet people who pushed me to completely reconsider my way of painting and showed me older techniques and other ways of "thinking" a painting. From there, I could mix it with things I already knew and skills I already had.
In twelve years of animation, I have worked for and visited a lot of animation studios.
And studios like Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar or Blue Sky are definitely the best studios out there for quality standards, although you can find excellent artists in smaller studios as well. And not to forget someone important, Hayao Myasaki is one of these rare directors out there to have understood what animation is all about: story, poetry and imagination.
E -The move from France to the U.S. must have been a very big step for you. What prompted such a huge relocation? (And, now that you have left Disney, do you plan to stay?)
CV -Yes, it was a big move. I left everything behind, and it was hard, but I had always wanted to go to the US. I had the feeling that I would get opportunities here that France would never offer me. And I had a very familiar feeling about the U.S. that never left me. When I was 7, my parents had a record of Dvorjak, Symphony 9: Symphony of the New World. I used to listen to it all the time. On the cover, there was a picture of the Grand Canyon. For some reason, the music and the picture stuck together in my mind and -although I didn't know exactly why- became a symbol of my distant future.
Now, I've been here for almost 7 years, and yes, I think I will stay -if I ever find the right girl; and believe me, the LA scene is a tough one in that matter! Well, maybe I won't stay in LA, who knows.
E -You seem to have very classical influences, much more from the "fine arts" tradition than commercial art. Is this more the direction you wish to pursue, now that you have left Disney? The artistic freedom from doing more gallery-oriented work must be quite exciting.
CV -Yes, I think classical influence (like Alma-Tadema, Sargent, John Waterhouse or Lord Leighton - to name just a few) is really a direction I'd like to take, but still depicting modern imagery, keeping a foot in Fantasy.
The artistic freedom from doing more gallery work is nice, but it comes with a price: self-discipline and sometimes isolation.
E -You have an astounding consistency in style, whether you work in oils, acrylics or even digital. It always looks like a "Vacher" piece, not just in subject but also in technique. Is this something you have consciously worked to achieve?
CV -Not consciously. I believe if you apply the same principles every time you do an image -whether it's with oil, acrylic, digital or watercolor, the style is going to be consistent.
E -I'm sure a lot of artists (like me!) would enjoy a brief description of your work process when you create one of your spectacular Alkyd/Oil pieces.
CV -Quite a few people have asked me about techniques and process, so maybe I'll do a tutorial at some point, if you're interested, and when I'm a little less busy. But I can tell you already a few things:
Inspiration for a subject comes very often with music. I draw a quick sketch then, to be able to remember the concept later when I need to paint the full image. From there, either the image is very clear in my mind and I don't need any other elements, or I try to find visual references: pictures for similar landscapes, color inspiration or models. Then, I conceive the sketch, carefully paying attention to composition, shapes and scale. I don't always paint on the same support, because I like variety, but most of the time, I paint on canvas. I cover it with 2 or 3 coats of Gesso and draw my sketch over when it' s dry. After that, sometimes, I paint an undercoat of Burnt Umber, defining the light and shadow. I will use this undercoat later when I paint colors over it, keeping colors more transparent in some areas to keep the warm tones showing through. Most of the time, I will paint an overall rough painting with all the colors, before I work in it again refining only the places that need to be refined. The final painting is varnished (glossy).
E -Other than the needs of deadlines and such, what are your reasons for choosing to do a piece in Oils vs. Acrylics?
CV -Oil is more practical in many ways. It dries more slowly, so you can juxtapose all your colors and shapes and then blend together what needs to be blended. I love the flexibility of the paint, especially when you work on canvas. Also, the change of brightness in a color when it dries out is not as dramatic as with acrylic.
But acrylic has it pleasant sides too. I'm about to experiment water mixable oil paint. I've heard very good things about it.
E -Your ability to achieve a brilliant, glowing light in your paintings is truly special. Is this something you found naturally in your artwork, or did you work hard to achieve it?
CV -I was always interested in the power of light in a painting. But the process of understanding how light works with shadow, and how to transmit it to a painting is something I've been learning for years (and I'm still learning) through Disney people, as well as great painters, like Albert Bierstadt or Frederick Church.
E -One signature motif of your work is the rendering of huge rock formations, filled with personality, which either emerge from the mist or float impossibly over the landscape. What originally drew you to this unique and interesting subject?
CV -I'm not sure exactly. One day, I started to have an urge to paint this, and it never left me. I would probably say that they symbolize sacred spirits (or The Spirit), personified by the ultimate symbol of matter: rock. Their appearance was definitely inspired by the medieval feeling -both Celtic and Roman- of my hometown area.
E -How long do you generally take from beginning to end on a completed illustration?
CV -It depends on the size and the amount of details, but a painting like "Norova" -which is 30" x 40" and done in oils- represents about 110 to 120 hours of work. In comparison, "The Wait"- which is 12" x 16' and done with watercolor and acrylic- took me about 32 hours.
To put things simply, a big painting takes about 3 weeks of work, and a small one 3 or 4 days. But in some TV animation studios, I sometimes had to do 2 paintings a day!
E -Are there any subjects that you have ever had a particularly hard time rendering or drawing?
CV -The human figure; Marble, seen in perspective and under different lighting conditions; Objects seen through the surface of water, and under different lighting conditions. Nevertheless, these are not as difficult if you have photographic or live references.
E -Your particular Fantasy world seems to be very much your own vision, and more influenced by classical artwork than by popular Fantasy icons. Are you influenced at all by Fantasy or Science Fiction literature?
CV -I used to be -although not too much. I prefer to search for inspiration in a mix of reality and local legends, and mostly in music.
Most of my images don't come from processed thinking -even though the process involves thinking at some point- but rather from a sudden burst of imagination, or some kind of vision. Hard to describe with words.
E -That describes it pretty well, I'd say! What would be the most important advice you could give to young artists just thinking about a career in art?
CV -Persistence! There are a lot of ignored geniuses out there - because they didn't have persistence.
This generation has a lot of information tools (like internet) that I didn't have when I was in my late teens. Use them! Get interested in everything around you, learn, find your way, and be persistent!
E -Finally, the traditional Epilogue interview question: What cartoons did you watch as a kid?
CV -Well, besides the usual Hanna-Barbara series, I would say that the first Anime series we got in France were a real good kick in the head to me. It was "Goldorak" (I don't think that one ever made it to the US), and "Albator" (called "Captain Harlock" in the US). They were not as violent or sophisticated as Anime has become now, but they had a lot of heart.