Where illustrator Karlien de Villiers draws the inspiration for her quirky characters.


Dark, child-like, humorous and ironic are just a few ways to describe 
Karlien de Villiers' artworks. She tells us more.

19 January 2020 - BY LEANA SCHOEMAN

Karlien de Villiers Sunday Times Lifestyle Art 

Feature: Karlien de Villiers. SUNDAY TIMES LIFESTYLE. 19 January 2020. Images Supplied by Artist.

Who are you?

As an artist and author, I am best known for my watercolour works on paper, comic books, and colourful, often satirical illustrations. In recent years my creative work has expanded from the printed page to include large-scale paintings, original artworks on paper, limited-edition prints and sculptures.

Karlien de Villiers Watercolor Artworks on Paper Karlien de Villiers. From L to R: The Wooden Man's Bride (2018), Doggy Style (2018), The Model (2016). Images Supplied by Artist.

Were you creative as a child?

I guess I was "creative" in the same way that most children are. I was (and still am) very curious about understanding things, whether it was by taking apart a radio to see how it worked, building things from scrap materials, collecting different plants and insects or reading people's facial expressions and body language. For me, creativity has always been about problem-solving and emotional insight or awareness - finding the connections and ambiguities between "feeling" and "facts".

I don't believe that I was "predestined" to become an artist - I also wanted to become an architect, geneticist or a criminal profiler, but I chose art instead. That said, since childhood, drawing and making things has been a type of ritual for me. It's an integral part of how I think, visualise and remember concepts.


Karlien de Villiers Tan Lines

Karlien de Villiers. 2018. Tan Lines. Gouache, watercolor and ink on paper. Image Supplied by Artist.

Did you have formal art tuition, and do you think having a degree is necessary to succeed as an artist?

I studied graphic design and illustration at Stellenbosch University and I also have a Master's degree in information design from Pretoria University.

I started my career as a designer in advertising at Garth Walker's Orange Juice Design Studio at Ogilvy & Mather in Cape Town. Although I love design and I learnt a lot from being in advertising, my dream was to pursue an illustration and art career - not the easiest choice at the time. It was before Google, Wix, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram, so getting your work out there to potential clients or galleries meant literally building a network by walking door to door with your portfolio bag under your arm and doing lots of unpaid jobs just to get your work published.

I don't think having formal art training is necessary to succeed as an artist, but I can say from my own experience that it helped me to gain the background and skills I needed to develop as an artist. Not only in terms of techniques and skills, but more importantly to develop the necessary discipline and critical thinking to build up a body of work and to foster a personal artistic voice and vision.

Also, at an art school you have to deal with constant feedback, and that is how you learn to have a slightly thicker skin (which can be difficult for most artists). Formal training also helped me to be critical of my own work - you need to constantly take a step back from your creations and reflect on ways to improve, edit and start again.

Karlien de Villiers Watercolor on Paper

Karlien de Villiers. (2017). The Story of Us.


Who or what is inspiring you now, and why?

Safi Bahcall, author of Loonshots: How to nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases, and transform industries. Loonshots are "widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy". I love the way the author relates stories of different inventors, artists and entrepreneurs who were often rejected or considered crazy by their peers, but later turned out to be the real innovative thinkers and creators of our time. He links these examples of "loonshots" to complex systems, business innovation (or lack thereof) and organisational structure - with a core takeaway message to big corporations: "Love your artists and soldiers equally".

Then there's Dixon Chibanda. He is one of only 12 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe (with a population of more than 16-million) and the founder of the Friendship Bench Programme. He trained elderly Zimbabwean women to deliver talk therapy on benches under trees to bring care and hope to those in need. Through this programme, he developed a new and cost-effective way of reducing the treatment gap for mental, neurological and substance-use disorders. I find it really inspiring that he managed to take a dire situation with terrible odds and turn it into such a positive and socially uplifting movement.

 Karlien de Villiers Sculptures

Karlien de Villiers. From L to R: Voëlvry (2017), Tonteldosie (2017), Chagrin (2017). Images Supplied by Artist

What was the last piece of art or décor you bought?

I can't afford to buy art. (I don't know if you should print that!) I do have some favourite artworks that were gifts or works that I traded with artist friends - an etching from Claudette Schreuders is one of my favourite pieces. I also love going to second-hand and antique stores to find vintage furniture, Art Deco wall units or cabinets - and I collect vintage toys.

Where do you get the inspiration to create such incredible characters? 

I have always sought out books and stories as a means of escapism and comfort. Reading is also a way to learn about different societies, the dynamics between people, and to experience other worlds. I think this has made me a rather acute observer of human nature.

In the article "How the books we read shape our lives" (The Independent, London), David John Taylor describes the influence reading can have on shifting one's world view: "Tantalisingly and incrementally, like some lost, sub-tropical island emerging out of a weed-strewn lagoon, a whole new world had begun to take shape - a world that, like most inner literary landscapes, is all the more enticing for being self-fashioned and, as such, a fundamental part of the experience that makes us who we are."

I don't have much free time or the energy for reading much now, so I listen to podcasts while I work. I also enjoy watching an episode (or two) of a good series on Netflix after my kids have gone to bed.


Karlien de Villiers. From L to R: Academics Anonymous (2018), Rain Clouds (2017), The Familiars (2017). Images Supplied by Artist.

The best and worst thing about being an artist?

The best thing ever is to complete a large body of work for a solo exhibition or art fair - especially if the work really speaks to someone and they get it. Also, to finish a book and see it in print after months (or years) of blood and sweat is one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced as an artist. Even better than seeing my work on a wall or in print was to meet some of the people who collect my artworks, or to chat with readers who appreciated my book.

The most difficult aspects of being an artist for me is the loneliness and isolation I often experience when producing work for an exhibition or finishing a book. At the moment, I teach part-time at Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography, which breaks the monotony of being in my own company just enough. I really enjoy talking to my students and colleagues, and I still have enough time to work on my own projects.



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