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Rudi de Wet gets in-depth on illustration and his own hypnotic style

Rudi de Wet‘s illustrations are characterised by bold colours and mesmerising patterns. Looping scrolls, squiggles, arabesques and letters appear to pop and jiggle off the wall, screen, canvas or whatever other surface Rudi applies his now distinct style of mark-making. His playful, almost child-like style belies his refined approach and skill however, which places emphasis on the creative process and the forms and shapes that begin to emerge sub-consciously. 

Not needing much by way of career introduction, Rudi was one of the founding members of Am I Collective back in 2005, and since then has worked extensively at home in South Africa as well as in Australia. He now works under his own name, continuing to produce illustrations, hand lettering, interior artwork and design from conception to craft for an enviably extensive list of clients. We’ve been showcasing Rudi’s work for several years on the site, but for Graphic Art Month thought it was about time we caught up with him for an in-depth interview. 
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How did you originally get in to illustration and typography?

I’m by no means a typographer, just a graphic artist that’s done a lot of hand lettering over the years.

From what I remember, I was always the kid at school daydreaming about the waves and drawing surf and band logos in my notebooks. Looking back it’s pretty clear that I was paying attention to a visual culture and it was obvious that I should pursue some sort of career in the creative world. Even though at that time it definitely didn’t feel like an option.

After school I had no idea what I wanted to do, and spent a portion of my gap year in Holland. Whilst there I attended the postgraduate exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague and that’s where I imagine it all finally clicked for me. This graduate exhibition prompted my decision to study a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication at the University of Stellenbosch.

In my final year at University we were encouraged to work on self-motivated projects for graduation. I had no idea what I was going to work on and that’s when I was introduced to Christo Basson and Ruan Vermeulen.

They persuaded me to bring my ‘machine’ (a clunky eMac) and join them in their studio/student house-cum-living room space to work with them on a couple of projects. At the time I still felt like I knew absolutely nothing, I wasn’t happy with my student portfolio so I saw this as a great opportunity to learn and build something. Those were the very early days of Am I Collective.

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The patterns that feature in many of your illustrations have an almost hypnotic quality to them. What’s your creation process like?

My actual work process always starts with a concise rough sketch. I feel I have more control over how positive and negative spaces work together when I’m sketching. If the project requires a digital treatment I’ll scan the sketch and start working directly with a Wacom Cintiq in Photoshop. I use Photoshop exactly how I would work if I was doing everything by hand. The digital layering process is faster and I really love that it allows me to quickly explore how the various spaces interact within an image. 

The creation process for me can be hypnotic at times and that’s exactly the experience I’m searching for. I feel this sub conscious mark making is where something unique starts to happen and where your own inherent style presents itself.

I feel like it’s taken me a long time to get to a place where drawing patterns feel like a natural extension of my hand. It still feels like I’m only getting started with this.

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Where does your love for bold colours come from and how do you incorporate this in your work?

I’ve always been drawn to abstract images and lettering that seem awkward and almost juvenile at times. Those images that you hear people saying, ‘my four year old could have done this’. But in actual fact reveal themselves to be way more complex than you ever expected.

Also, if I see something that intrigues me I’ll save it in one of many reference folders. At some point looking back something might catch my eye and inspire a new direction. The interesting part for me is that the work created almost never turns out like the references that influenced it in the first place.

Do your surroundings influence your work? Do you feel like your work is distinctly South African?

I definitely feel creatives are always absorbing their surroundings. Intuitively deciphering the things they like and don’t like. To be honest I’m not 100% sure what defines a distinctly South African vernacular these days.

I do however think we have the creative freedom in South Africa to create illustration and graphic design that isn’t governed by set rules, set guidelines and set tradition. This is a big privilege we sometimes take for granted. I do feel this creative freedom has allowed me to explore and make a lot of important mistakes along the way.

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Where do you look for inspiration for the shapes, forms and patterns that feature in your work?

Like most I enjoy going to galleries, museums, conferences etc. but I don’t really look for ‘inspiration’. I find if I look at too much it becomes overwhelming so I try not to spend that much of my time searching for ‘inspiration’. I think the drive and purpose to create comes from continuously working hard at whatever it is you’re doing. 

Working independently must have advantages and challenges – can you share a few examples of this with us?  

The obvious advantage should be that you get to play and create the work you really want to work on and hopefully get paid to do so. At the end of the day your studio space should be the place where you allow yourself to obsess about that work.

A creative disadvantage to some could be that you end up doing a lot of the same style of work. I see this side of the job as the more serious side of working independently but equally as important as the creative play side.

Having to do all your own admin is also incredibly time consuming and can take more time than actual creative work. The challenge with this is if you plan to grow and continue working you need to make that mental shift that you are also running a business and you can’t have one without the other.

Rudi de Wet's studio

Rudi’s studio

What value do collaborations hold for you creatively?

Self motivated projects and the opportunity to collaborate should always present you with an opportunity to play and explore new directions which hopefully inspire further work in the future. 

In your opinion, what makes ‘good’ illustration good?

There’s a lot of really good illustration work at the moment which I think is massively beneficial to any industry even if the work is trendy. Good work is still good work. I feel what makes really great illustration standout from good illustration is when I can see the hand of the illustrator in the work and when I wish I made it!

Have there been any pivotal moments in your creative journey? What were these and what was the outcome?

Winning Gold Loeries for my lettering work whilst working at Am I Collective was a moment. Not because I really give a crap about the awards… It was just an affirmation that we were doing something that people were noticing and that was motivation in itself to continue.

My first big interior art project for The Furnace (now Arnold Furnace) in Sydney. We hand painted all the interior artwork throughout the agency. It was a great feeling knowing that people were going to interact with your artwork on a daily basis.

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If I were to sum up your work in just one word it would be ‘happy’. Do you deliberately aim to incorporate humour and playful elements into your work or does this happen unconsciously?

I’m a little surprised by this one myself. I don’t think it’s at all intentional and deliberate. I assume it’s something that happens unconsciously.

In addition to illustration, typography and design you’ve also exhibited your work in a fine art context. What are your thoughts on the distinctions that are drawn between art and design, and between other fields for that matter?

The distinctions between contemporary art, design and other fields are constantly overlapping and evolving. I think this shift is very exciting. The context of work seems to change regularly and becomes defined by where it is used. Be it commercially through artist branding or in a gallery context. I’d love to (one day) be working full-time making massive paintings and sculptures. 

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Having lived and worked overseas, what’s your take on the local illustration and design scene?

There is a great sense of creative optimism in South Africa. The work being produced is fantastic and of such a high standard. I’m constantly in awe of the work being produced.

Anything else you would like to add?

I’ve recently co-founded a creative design collective called Back to Front based in Cape Town and London. Please go check it out.

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Follow Rudi on Instagram or check out his website to see more of his work. 

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