Nolan Pelletier is a graphic designer and illustrator originally from Connecticut and currently based in Toronto, Canada with his wife Kaley Mckean, also an illustrator. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Design at the Ontario College of Art & Design in 2011, Nolan began collaborating with some of the most important magazines in the United States, including New Yorker, New York Times, Village Voice and Boston Globe.
Passionate about ancient and modern History, lost Civilizations and mythical animals, it is very common to find cats in his works. For these and many other reasons, I decided to do this interview with Nolan.
Hi Nolan, can you describe your artistic journey as if it were an adventurous trip, describing the main stages, the difficult passages and the moments of maximum satisfaction you have found up until now?
I graduated from art school in 2011, and completed my first illustration for the New York Times that summer. Since then I’ve been slowly building up a group of clients and continuing to work freelance. In 2017 I self published a free broadsheet newspaper, The Somnolent Garden Rambler. The newspaper lead to several collaborations with the fashion designer Anna Sui. In 2018, I published the book Mirror World, with the California based publisher Tan and Loose.
An aspect that struck me about your work is the endless series of artistic references that we can find and that seem to increase every time I look at your work. Personally, apart from the Victorian style, some references to the Cubism of Picasso and many others, I see much more, even a certain psychedelic graphics attributable to the Sixties Americans especially on the West Coast … What are the cardinal points that you think move your work and especially your aesthetic taste?
Since I was young I’ve loved collecting antiques at sales and flea markets. I’m particularly drawn to both mid-century art, and Victorian packaging and antiques. Discovering the work of the East Coast American illustrators Naiad and Walter Einsel, Joseph Low, and John Alcorn was a revelation for me. Their work combines historical imagery with a simplified modern aesthetic. I’ve tried to continue that tradition in my own work.
In a period like ours where graphics and above all design follow the strong tendency to work by subtraction, to make the effort to eliminate the superfluous and lighten the eyes, your work moves in the opposite direction, filling every inch of available space, increasing details and repetitions up to the maximum possibilities. So what is your relationship with the white space of the paper, and why do you believe in such a total fullness and complexity of the illustrations?
I find it very fun and stimulating to look at art that is full of pattern and detail, and there’s something hypnotic about the act of creating it. I read a good passage in a Victorian decorating book that said that good design should replicate the complexity of nature.
The outside world is full of detail and pattern and movement, so why shouldn’t design be as well?
In one of your previous interviews I read that you love to repeat a quote from the great director Jim Jarmusch where he claims that “Authenticity is priceless; originality is non-existent.” Could you explain what this words means to you and why do you consider so important?
I forgot about that quote! I think art is about recycling of ideas and images that inspire you, and the act of recycling always creates something new. I love to spot inspirations in other artist’s work, and see the ways they make those inspirations their own.
We are now, for some years now, rediscovering the beauty of paper through the birth and continuous diffusion of new magazines. Given that I love this rebirth of print and as I see it perhaps as one of the few spaces for experimentation both of content and especially of graphics that are left, I would like to know which are for you 3 magazines that you consider really interesting and why.
The Smudge: I love receiving the Smudge in the mail every month! Clay Hickson and Liana Jegers consistently assemble a great roster of artists. It’s nice to have a beautifully printed physical collection of all my favorite modern illustrator’s work.
FMR: I have several volumes of Franco Maria Ricci’s titular 1980s magazine in their black silk slipcases. They’re a lot of fun to flip through when looking for inspiration. Their design and content is timeless, and everything about them feels luxurious and decadent. I want to live in that glossy, esoteric world.
Graphis: I’ve discovered a lot of my favorite art and design in back issues of Graphis from the 50s-70s. I used to read them in the stacks of my college’s library, and have since assembled a complete run of them. So much of the work they featured still feels fresh and modern. Graphis features a great blend of contemporary, historic, and folk art. I love being able to read an article about Pushpin Studios from the 60s right next to articles about “Wall-Paintings by Snake Charmers in Tanganyika”.
What you represent is a dreamy, almost oneiric world where you can find absurd and imaginative animals along with men with smoke in their hats and women with red cheeks and big eyes. All this shows a great ability to look at reality with different eyes, to imagine worlds and dynamics far from those in which we live.
If your imagination had the power to change the reality and improve some aspects, what would be the first ones you would like to intervene and above all how would you do it?
I wish I had a grand plan for world peace and global equality, but I don’t! Haven’t figured out the secret yet! To improve the world visually I would outlaw lit plastic signs on the fronts of buildings. They ruin the facades of historic shopfronts, and are often digitally printed and super ugly. If all signs were neon or hand-painted the world would look a lot better.
In many of your illustrations a lot of importance is given to the typographic part in which you demonstrate a great knowledge in lettering, especially regarding the old style characters. What do you think is the role of the word in an illustration and where does your passion for vintage lettering derive from?
I love antique packaging, and also the revival of wood type in the mid 20th century. I think that typography really helps define an era visually, so it’s useful shorthand to evoke a nostalgic feeling. I collect antique ephemera (printed matter, brochures, booklets, flyers etc.) and I think a lot of my affinity for type comes from this.
Could you describe your technique of illustration through the steps and tools that from time to time you choose to use?
I work digitally in Photoshop with a pen and a Wacom tablet. I used to work using traditional tools, but have found it is easier to create the effects I desire digitally. I’ve figured out various ways to recreate my hand drawn techniques in Photoshop, and like the amount of control Photoshop gives me. I have a digital library of custom brushes and textures that I use to ink and color my art.
Your world, what you are designing and representing, transmits a subtle but courageous tranquility. I would define it as quiet happiness and, in my opinion, this feeling matches perfectly with the look of those who are faced with your work. How do you think you can define happiness in today’s world? It almost seems as those who define themselves as happy must feel ashamed in front of those who feel resentment.
Thank you! That is nice to hear. I guess in my work I try to share the things in the world that I find beautiful, and create a world removed from the everyday realities of life. While there are definitely political and social issues I feel passionate about, my art is a bit of an escape from those realities. I definitely find a lot of my happiness in visual culture.
I believe that each of us, throughout our lifes, have sooner or later come across a proverb, a motto, a quote to which we have become attached over time. A quote that has played a role in the choices of life or which simply helps in difficult times or in everyday professional work. What is the phrase that Nolan Pelletier would choose to close this interview and why do you chose it?
At risk of sounding saccharine, I really respond to the quote attributed to the 15th century monk Fra Giovanni, but likely written in the 1910s:
“No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see, we have only to look.”
There is so much beauty in the world in so many different forms—and that quote is always a good reminder to keep my eyes open to it.
THE LAUNDRY ROOM
In which historical era would you have wanted to live and why?
I’m very happy living in our current era, but if I had to choose… I would love to see what the world looked like during the gilded age (1870s-90s)!
What is the recipe you can cook like no other in the world?
Toronto has bad pizza, so I like making NY style pizza with homemade fermented dough.
Nolan Pelletier directs a film, what would be the plot?
Bird Island: in 1910 a young man inherits a haunted Victorian mansion on an island off the coast of Maine. The mansion has a large aviary full of exotic birds. Psychedelic horror!
What are the 3 songs that make you cry like a child?
The Go-Betweens, Cattle and Cane
Action Painting!, These Things Happen
The Verlaines, The Lady & the Lizard
The one thing you really never thought you could do is…
Not sure if I’ve done it yet!
In love, words don’t count, what really matters is ..