Beirut born and Paris based illustrator Raphaelle Macaron is setting the world alight with her distinctive brand of bold and brash illustration; as much at home in the world of high-end branding as she is in creating graphic novels, editorial illustration and music promotion for a variety of clients. With a keen eye for subtle detail and a penchant for emotive narrative threads, Macaron uses vibrant colour, bold composition and striking typography to grab viewers attention and hold it there. Beneficial Shock! spoke to her about early inspirations, good collaborations, the importance of personal interests to her commissioned work and why staring at a wall for hours can sometimes be the best thing for a project.
Can you tell us a bit about your art education in Beirut?
I went to art school in Beirut, which was one of the main art schools in the country. I started doing what I guess you would call advertising because it was more like visual communication. At the end of your education you could choose a specialism to receive a BA. I chose illustration, and then I went on to complete a masters degree in comics and illustration. The situation in Beirut has changed a lot since I graduated as there are far more options now and a significantly larger interest in comics over there. When I did my masters in comics, it was just me, and another guy. It was amazing though because I had an up close and personal mentorship with my teacher Michèle Standjofski who is one of the main pioneers of the comics scene in Lebanon. In terms of cultural education, I guess the most notable thing would be that they direct you to work in the Lebanese market. But back then and still to this day, compared to other countries, the market is almost non-existent. So what was really good is that they would teach you to really hustle... so we had graphic design classes and were given business and copyright law assignments; things that would permit us to actually get employed if we couldn't find work in illustration; to pivot to something else like working in an advertising agency or doing storyboards or whatever. There were local authors and artists spotlights who were active on the scene, even though it was a tiny one, but that was interesting. But we also had access to a lot of international references and this is when I really got to delve into American and French comics that were new to me.
Growing up in Lebanon, was much of your work infused by social, political or cultural issues that were going on around you?
I guess there isn't really a way around it because storytelling is at the centre of comics. When you grow up in that environment, and the challenges that come with it then it's really hard to not end up talking about those things. So I guess the content that we would bring to work, at least in my case, was definitely linked to what was going on. There's lots of attention given to how you transcribe complex matters into comics, which is the most difficult thing to achieve, so for me It's much more about storytelling than it is about drawing.
Having been brought up on Marvel and DC comics of the 1970s and 80s (John Buscema’s Fantastic Four, Todd McFarlane’s Spider Man and Dale Keown’s Hulk are personal favourites), it wasn’t until reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen graphic novel that my whole idea of what comics could do really changed. Was there a similar seismic moment for you when you realised the power of the medium?
Absolutely, I definitely had the same introduction as you. To be fair, I had started reading French and Belgian comics, which were very traditional, but I was reading those because my mom was a reader of comics, and I had inherited her collection. Later as a teenager my interest for comics grew and that's when I discovered American comics, which weren't easy to find. At that time in Lebanon, I remember there was this tiny section at Virgin Megastore in Beirut where I could find some Marvel and DC. So I would read a lot of superhero stuff and was so impressed by the drawing because it was really technical. And then I started getting into Batman, The Dark Night and The Killing Joke. I think that's when I started to notice a type of writing that was more character driven. But the real earthquake for me was reading Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. I remember reading that book before I started art school and it was the most incredible storytelling I'd ever seen. Not because of what happens, because nothing is really going on, but because there was the sense of an effortless creation of a mood which was very driven by characters and relationships, which I thought was so fascinating. The plot is this friendship between these two girls who are growing older and questioning themselves about their identity, their sexuality, their taste in music... so there were lots of references that were speaking directly to me and my interests.
Daniel Clowes and a panel from Ghostworld
There was a very cinematic feel to the world he created which is similar in some way to the work of Chris Ware and Charles Burns; capturing the everyday life of somewhat ordinary people – harking back to the French New Wave or Italian Neorealism even where the drama is more captured than constructed. It sort of continues in the early films of directors like Richard Linklater (Slacker) and Larry Clark (Kids); finding this empathy for young people on the margins of society.
Absolutely. And it's interesting to think of the level of empathy that someone like Clowes was able to produce; allowing us to be able to feel so compassionate with American misery which can be so excruciating. At the time I had never been to the States and I couldn't even relate to somebody living there. For me the USA was always presented in music and movies like this glorious country. So being able to relate to somebody who feels miserable in Chicago and draws these stories was kind of crazy.
So was this absorbing references from music and film something that was important to as you were developing your craft as a comic artist and a graphic novelist?
Absolutely. It's vital for me. I love movies, I love watching movies and music is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. When I'm writing and working on something that takes a significant amount of time I can't really read comics, because I get too excited about authors that I like, and then I get too distracted. But I watch movies, and series a lot, because I'm really interested in seeing the story unfold. For a long time, I was really obsessed with the Coen Brothers, watching the way a scenario would unravel, because it was so interesting to me how a very simple series of events could turn so catastrophic. So movies definitely nourish me for sure.
On this subject of film, can you tell us how the Abbas Kiarostami Where is the Friend's House project came about?
We began discussing it at the end of spring last year, I then started working on it in September of that year, so the timeframe was really quick. It was a project that was made in collaboration with the Abbas Kiarostami Foundation, which is headed by his son, and a production company called Even/Odd based in San Francisco. I was contacted by Even/Odd to create a special object that was meant to follow a global travelling exhibition retrospective of Kiarostami's career. My book would be one of a limited edition set of objects in relation to each of his films, so I was happy to be working on Where is the Friend's House as it is my favourite Kiarostami movie. I haven't watched all his movies but I was definitely a fan of his before, so when I got that email, I was really blown away as it's the type of project that you didn't even think could exist; to adapt a movie that you love in a comic form.
Do you know why they reached out to you specifically?
I don't think they saw in any of my work a real connection to cinema besides maybe my poster work which is really fed by music posters and movie posters with its use of big typography and very symmetrical, efficient compositions. When they reached out to me I was in LA, and we talked about it and when they saw how excited I was about the project and Kiarostami in general they probably thought, okay, well, actually, this is a great match as she's so excited about it!
What challenges did you face in working on the book and interpreting the film into yet another visual medium? Was there a certain level of freedom you had to work with it? Or did they have a very set parameter for how you would work and what you would produce?
Well, it was definitely intimidating at first because my initial thought was, what on earth could I possibly add to this movie, which, for me, is so brilliantly executed in every single way? They definitely gave me a lot of freedom but I chose to stick to the chronology of the script because I really wanted to respect that. But it was a challenge to think of what the comic art form could add to the narrative and how it could push or present the story in a different way. That's when I had this idea of turning it into an interactive activity book. The thought was that it would also be a notebook because the notebook is such an important part of the script and it's the thing that sparks the whole story.
In the film a boy forgets his notebook in his friend's school bag and it becomes almost a life or death situation to get it back to him, because he will be kicked out of school the next day if he doesn't do his homework. So I wanted the object to resemble a notebook and the playful interactive approach be a link to the fact that most of the characters are kids. So there's a labyrinth, there are colouring pages, there are places to take some notes. I thought this would really add something that is not present in the movie. I also used typography a lot to accentuate the idea of repetition as people repeat themselves a lot. The movie opens with the scene of the teacher just repeating a million times while he's scolding the kid, "how many times have I told you this? Three times!" So this, for instance, is a good example of how the comics approach can help to really show these things, using big block letters that would take up the whole page. But it definitely was a challenge for sure. And it also required my interpretation of things, which is intimidating when you're dealing with such a masterpiece.
Was there a lot of good back and forth discussion? In other words did you feel that it was a good collaborative working relationship?
Oh, this was definitely an example of a great collaboration. Because I honestly was really free to suggest everything. We also worked with a designer, Samra Thompson who is amazing. He suggested a lot of little printing and production ideas to really elevate the book. He's the one who came up with the poster that actually gives an alternate cover to the to the book because the cover of the book is a cutout. There's also a little cutout flower on the back cover that is meant to be popped out and placed inside the book as a reference to the final scene, so there's a lot of little glimpses like this into the movie throughout the book.
Looking at your work, you often use lots of expressive typography, so where did your love of type come from?
Well, I definitely think the influence must have been record covers, because I was really passionate about music at quite an early age. As soon as I could buy my own records, I started a collection. And when I would go to concerts, I would collect the tickets and flyers. I think that one of the most fascinating things to me was the lettering specifically for rock bands and psychedelic rock, which was music that I grew up listening to. That was definitely my way in. And in the Middle East, Egyptian movie posters are quite notorious for their compositions and type. And I guess I started looking at letters as drawings. It wasn't too different for me to draw a face and to draw the letter B, as I approached the problem in the same way I would if I was drawing a flower or landscape. I don't know if you agree with this, but the typography world is kind of intimidating. They're very precise in their thinking and get really offended about things. I always thought that I didn't have the graphic design background to really understand the right way of using kerning and exactly how space between letters should be. So as soon as I started thinking of type as drawing everything made sense to me. It became quite natural to integrate type into drawings and it became almost an essential part of each drawing to know what the message would be. This is probably linked to comics in a way because even in my illustration work my priority is the storytelling. What does this image say? and what story am I telling?
'...as soon as I started thinking of type as drawing everything made sense to me. It became quite natural to integrate type into drawings and it became almost an essential part of each drawing to know what the message would be.'
Yeah, I totally agree that there's an intimidating world of typography, which is attached historically to formal graphic design of the 1940s and 50s with its focus on grids, baselines, kerning, and tracking. I've always felt that illustration allows for a more expressive, human approach to type with more freedom from precise exactness.
Right, it's not about being exact, we're looking for a feeling or expression. I actually met a girl who was a professional typographer, and would create characters on commission. She came to our studio to do a small residency, so I was always overlooking what she was doing. And at some point, I was like, hey, I'd love for you to teach me some stuff because I don't know the rules at all. And I remember she started telling me things about baseline and kerning and whatever, and then at some point she just stopped and was like, 'you know what, I actually think it's a bad idea because I may ruin it for you!'
Some of the most enduring comics of the last half century have been by artists chronicling their own or others cultural/political/social circumstances. I'm thinking Art Spiegelman’s 'Maus', Marjane Satrapi’s 'Persepolis', Joe Sacco’s 'Palestine'. These books helped to change public perception around comics being ‘just for kids’ and brought attention to important global issues. As an artist with Lebanese roots, is it important for you to try to use the form of a graphic novel as a device to engage with social issues or is it just if the opportunity arises? I saw this more socially engaged approach in your comic 'Dodo' - so are you looking for those types of projects or do they just happen to find you?
I think that type of work is starting to find me because it's so obvious that I have an inclination for that. I find it really hard when I get a comic commission to not infuse it with things that really matter to me personally, because I feel it's the only way that I am able to really engage with the work. 'Dodo' is a really good example, actually. It was a commission from Doctors Without Borders, who have a clinic that provides free mental health care and sexual health care to migrant workers in Lebanon. The project aimed to explain the real horrors of the Kafala system which is the only legal system in which migrant workers can be recruited to work in Lebanon. It's not verbatim an abusive system, but it's so vague that it leaves a lot of space for abuse and a lot of space for violence, and more often than not, it leads to types of abuse. Workers have no rights and aren't protected by any kind of labour law as they're actually not included in the labour laws. Employers tend to be really abusive of that. The most common scenario is women from countries like the Philippines, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Nepal who get recruited to be housemaids and they often end up being abused by their employer. There are some extreme examples of torture and sexual violence, so it's pretty horrendous.
'I find it really hard when I get a comic commission to not infuse it with things that really matter to me personally, because I feel it's the only way that I am able to really engage with the work.'
When I was asked to do a residency in their clinic to interview patients and deliver the testimonies of the patients in a comic, it was really hard for me to not make it personal because a Filipino woman, who we affectionately called Dodo, helped to raise me because I had working parents, and she became a mother figure to me. She had passed away shortly before I got the commission, so it felt important and natural for me to talk about her, because in this specific case I had benefited from the system with a woman showering me with love and affection throughout my childhood. It's a very good example of how I treat comics. I'm not really into autobiography, but it's hard for me to not at least engage with a personal connection in the subject that I'm treating. Social issues are fortunately, or unfortunately, a very common theme that comes back in my work and I think comics are such an amazing way to tackle them. It's quite new that people are interested in that as a medium to denounce political problems or social injustice, and I think it's quite an efficient one.
A spread from 'Thank You Dodo'
How important is research to your work and what is your initial process when receiving a brief for an editorial illustration for example?
In editorial illustration, there is a streamline process that's quite regular. I start by reading the article that they've sent me, then if it tackles a subject that I'm not very knowledgeable about, I would really try to document as much as I can about it. I'm not required to have a vast knowledge of the subject, but I try to get a sense of what the author is trying to say even if it's unrelated to the subject. I remember this article that I was given right before the the American elections. And I think it was about how everybody was terrified about Trump being reelected. But the article was quite analytical and overwhelming plus I don't really fully understand the election system of the US. But I ended up thinking, what the author is really saying here is that we're all batshit terrified, so I drew a face of a woman that was just freaking out that had red eyes like a Republican and that was it. There are other types of project where I really have to get a sense, by reading and understanding the story and maybe sometimes discussing ideas with the art director as I'm rarely in touch with the author. I also look at a lot of photo references, specifically for the press articles when there's something precise that needs to be shown.
I also work on a series for The New York Times called 'Read your way around the world' which are literary guides for each city. So in that case, I really look at a lot of pictures that would identify the city by not being too cliche. And in that, in that series, particularly, I really like having very diverse characters every time. I get a kick out of looking for outfits and looking for types of people. So that's the part of storytelling that I like.
Is there a direction that you want to take your work, or is the flexibility of being able to go from corporate work, to graphic novels to cultural projects the ideal and what you had hoped to be doing?
Well the flexibility is definitely something that I really enjoy simply because I feel like even when I'm doing a commercial gig, I still end up gaining something from it. I feel like I'm at a very privileged point in my career where people come up with the briefs that actually make sense for me. I rarely accept a project where I'm not having fun at all. And so even when it's a very commercial one, I always try to find a way to make it my own, and thankfully I've been able to do that. But I think if I should hope for something in the future it would be to find more time to work on personal projects, because it's been quite difficult to find a balance between commissions and writing. I've also been doing some painting so I really want to be able to take this further. In the long run, I think this is what will feed my freelance commission career, so it's kind of a win win situation. But I do think it's one of the coolest things about my job that I get to work with musicians but also with the fashion industry, and what I love about editorial illustration is that I learn so much about subjects that I don't usually read about unless I'm asked to, so that's really nice.
As a freelancer who works on so many varying projects do you have any advice about time management and division of time and labour?
Honestly, there isn't a secret to it. It's really just putting the effort into being disciplined every day and thankfully, I feel like this is something I've been able to integrate well into my life. There's this one piece of advice that I saw in a speech that Neil Gaiman gave at the School of Visual Arts which for me is still, to this day, one of the most inspiring things I've seen. He said there were three rules to succeeding as a freelancer. First is be nice. Because it's good that people think you're always a pleasure to work with. Second is be punctual, and third is make good work. What makes the whole thing effective is that he said you actually don't need all three, you could also just do two. Because if you're nice, and on time, people would excuse the work not being amazing. If you're doing great work, and you're nice, they would excuse you for not being on time. And if you're on time, and the work is great, you can be an asshole. But yeah, ideally do the three, because if you do the three then you can be pretty sure that they'll use you again!
'I think what I've learnt about discipline and being kinder to myself, is that in order for me to be inspired, I actually have to take care of the ecosystem that's in my mind. In order to do that I really have to listen in on the days when I'm tired, uninspired, or really inspired and want to work long hours. I think respecting this flow is requiring from me more discipline than the actual very rigid stuff.'
Going back to your point about discipline - what does that discipline look like to you?
For me, it's a double edged sword and what I'm about to say actually has two sides of the story. I go to my studio every day and if I don't go to the studio, I'm working from home – and I really try to persevere with the work. If a drawing is not working, I'll do another drawing, but I'll do something. This isn't always good advice though because sometimes you have to let it go, you have to be like, okay, this isn't working, it's fine. I was really rigid about discipline before, it was like, I don't care if there's no time, you just have to come up with something now! And this has been the case for a long time with me. I think what I've learnt about discipline and being kinder to myself, is that in order for me to be inspired, I actually have to take care of the ecosystem that's in my mind. So in order to do that I really have to listen in on the days when I'm tired, uninspired, or really, really inspired and want to work long hours. And I think respecting this flow is requiring from me more discipline than the actual very rigid stuff.
Also, with time management, what I'm learning now is that I used to book projects based on 24 hour days, where I would work 12 hours. I would never take into account the hours to eat or sit down and look at the wall and wonder about this idea. And I think now I'm calculating this more into the project time, because sometimes giving yourself that hour of staring at a blank wall is actually the best thing you could do for the project. Also I realised at some point that while I was living in Paris – one of the most cultural cities in the world – I wasn't going to see exhibitions anymore, because I didn't have the time. So taking strolls in the city, or having an interesting conversation with a friend, watching a movie, going to see an exhibition... these are proving to be the times where my brain is actually gathering information.
I guess these things sometimes depend on how far you are into your career right? You don't want to say no to anything when you start out due to the stress of not knowing if you're going to get another job. But it goes through different stages, like anything in life. You might be working 'hell for leather' at the beginning pulling crazy shifts, but then you reach a point where you can be more flexible; making more decisions about the way you work because people are coming to you, rather than you having to chase the work.
Yeah, and actually, if you don't take the time to slow down when you're at that second stage and have a real think about where you want your work to go, or questioning how is this affecting my mental health and my am I living the life that I want?. If you don't do that you're actually harming the work, because in the long run, you won't be producing things that you're happy about. I definitely have always had this really strong fear and anxiety that work would stop. I'm still convinced that people are just going to forget about me, you know, and it's a possibility as there are no guarantees. It's a very risky kind of industry. But I guess I've gotten to a point where I would prefer to say no to money than do something that I don't feel 100% Excited about, and that I won't be 100% excited to show once the work is done. Because now I know that I'm at the point where each piece that I show is me indicating, 'this is what I want it to look like, so please come back for that type of thing.' When you're putting work out there that you don't like, you're actually sending a signal to people to make you do that work again. And honestly, that's what made me leave Lebanon after art school. I was working as a freelancer for a year, but I was getting commissions to do wedding invitation cards and the type of project that would not stimulate me at all. I remember building a website, and trying to select from all this work that i'd done and thinking that there was nothing in there that I felt represented me as an artist. And I was like, 'okay, well, yes, time, money' but also 'what am I building?.
'When you're putting work out there that you don't like, you're actually sending a signal to people to make you do that work again.'
That's great advice Raphaelle. Lastly, do you have any book or movie recommendations?
I would recommend everyone to read a book by the music producer Rick Rubin called 'The Creative Act: A Way of Being' which I genuinely think is a life changing book. He has nothing to do with my industry but it's quintessentially about being creative and it deals with all the issues most of us struggle with... getting ideas, impostor syndrome, life balance, how to find inspiration, how to find your own voice and perfecting your craft. I just foud the book so comforting and felt a real sense of belonging, so I highly recommend it!
See more of Raphaelle's work at www.raphaellemacaron.com