AnimalitoLand is the creature-populated world living inside Argentinean artist Graciela Goncalves’s head. Goncalves explores ways to bring her visions into our reality — paper, walls and screen the most oft-used mediums by which to build those bridges, yet if a creature has an urge to come out and play, Graciela will use any tool close by to get it out. Being in constant movement gives the Argentine energy to try out new paths: since 2004 she has jumped from design to animation and video games studios, developing a variety of styles for commercial work. But what Graciela Goncalves enjoys most is drawing free and sharing it; waiting for the weekend to go out and release all kinds of characters and colour onto street walls.
Goncalves’s fervent world of eccentric characters means the Argentinean artist is a perfect fit for Berlin-based Pictoplasma, the annual celebration of international character design — unleashing her fantasies on this year’s festival, Graciela found time to speak to us about how her style has evolved, her commercial background, and where the characters that occupy her mind are going next…
Tell us about your background and journey into the creative field — we understand you studied graphic design?
The University choices were Graphic Design or Fine Arts, which was too bohemian for me. I actually passed the admission exam, went to one class and never went back. I guess I was too chaotic, and was looking for a strong structure, so I enjoyed graphic design, yet I knew university wouldn’t be enough — I remember a lecturer saying: “this is graphic design, if you want to do little drawings you can leave right now”. I didn’t leave, I was stubborn. But I started looking for fields to apply what I liked. I did underground comics and fanzines, switched to animation, and worked in a studio — which was my first encounter with real industry. Then I started working as a designer, that gave me a different perspective about the things they taught us in class.
After getting my degree, I jumped to video games. Then the Apps fever started, so my new job was a combination of all the others things I’ve done. I had a lot of fun and freedom as art director because the studio’s target was children, but over the years I became more and more interested in drawing, and less interested in design. I spent endless hours drawing on the computer, for fun and for work, since I did a lot of character design for animation studios in my free time. Last but not least, I started painting in the street about five years ago. I think that that was like a university in itself, I learned so much from people. So I guess I had a zig-zag journey, but it’s been fun.
Why did create the alter ego Animalitoland?
It means “land of the little animals”, the first time I uploaded my artwork to the internet I needed a nickname. I thought it would be the virtual home of all the creatures in my head, so I named it that. I never thought I would stick with it for so long — yet I still like the idea that it’s not me, but the entire world living inside of my head… I’m just the person who draws it. Many people think I’m a man, or a group of artists, I find it quite amusing.
We understand that you’ve travelled all over Europe and further afield — tell us about this experience. How has seeing the world fuelled your ideas and creativity?
Travelling is a powerful experience. My first big influence was in Latin America: I traveled through the north of Peru, seeing different pre-Columbine art. I saw a connection between illustration, graphic design and wall paintings. These guys described their perception of the world with clear images, that covered all kinds of surfaces and mediums. I felt like all the things I liked were connected and it started making sense. That was a long time ago.
Moving to Europe has been a bit of a shock. First of all I felt I was breathing art history. I was face to face with things I studied in non-legible photocopies, and I could finally understand more of it. Then I wanted to paint in the street, but here you have to be careful with the police, so if you want to do something free you only have a few minutes. I was used to painting relaxed all day long. That was one of the negative things about Europe. It’s not even just the police, but the architecture — every wall is full of little doors and windows, and there’s also this historical constructions everywhere that I wouldn’t dare to touch.
In Argentina you just have big blank walls everywhere. Anyway, that forced me to practise ways to be faster and do small things, and at the same time I accumulated energy. So when I finally had a chance to paint a whole wall with permission and take my time, I think I put everything I had out there. I was really happy and motivated. Finally I started meeting artists from very different countries, it’s so interesting seeing how their cultures influence the way they work, regarding their personalities. In this process I found my own Latin American features, the sort of things you don’t know until you see your home in the distance.
Where do you live and work now?
I’m freelancing from Spain. My husband and I had a nice life in Buenos Aires, but we wanted to see the world, so we started looking for jobs abroad. At the end of last year he got an offer for an animation movie in Madrid, so here we are, until the end of that production. It was the kick I needed to quit my studio job. So now I’m 100% freelancing for people in different countries, which allows me to keep travelling.
Over the last two years you have developed characters who have become almost iconic and synonymous as the Animalitoland style — how would you say your work evolved?
I think that if you want to see harsh realistic images, you can just look around. We’re constantly bombed with violence, I found myself as a teenager having this helpless vision of the world. At some point I decided to start looking for small things to enjoy. I became happier, and so did my characters. The air got full of gigantic flying creatures that can take you for a spin, because that’s exactly what you can do with your mind. I wanted to draw the sort of things you can feel but not see in daily life — the thing about animals is that it’s socially accepted that playing is an important part of their life, but for some reason that doesn’t apply to us, the adults. That’s why humans in Animalitoland use animal costumes, it gives them freedom to play.
How soon did you see the commercial potential of your artwork?
I’ve always kept my personal art away from commercial work. But the first one travelled around the internet with positive feedback from people, so I started receiving requests to draw things in “my style”. It was difficult because when I draw for myself I just give shape to whatever I feel, but when I work my designer side comes out, and I can’t help thinking I must fulfil someone’s expectations. That makes a lot of noise when trying to create something fresh. So what I try to do is forget I’m working. For example, the first thing I do when I get a character description is look for the kind of music that will put me in the character’s mood, so I can just let go and start feeling a little bit like what I’m drawing.
We’ve seen you make a number of artistic collaborations with friends — can you tell us more about your favourite projects / murals?
One of the things I miss the most from Argentina is the drawing sessions with my friends: one night a week where drawing is pure anarchy. A lot of energy and inspiration comes from there, as well as friends I consider part of my family. My favourite story of a wall: One day my friend Cof and I found a billboard was taken off a wall in our neighbourhood, so we painted two characters in that brand new spot. It was winter so they were cold, warming their hands with a fire. I think the people waiting for the bus near the wall could relate to the characters. One day I saw some pictures on Facebook, one with a lot of posters covering our characters, and a second one showing how someone removed them to rescue the painting. So walls belong to the people: they decide what happens with your artwork. Another day we found our piece covered with a throw-up, so we repainted our characters twice the size. It was spring so the industrial drum where the fire used to be was now filled with ice and beers.
We always have fun when we’re together, so our characters do the same. With time the colours faded and some parts of the wall came off. We made one last bigger re-paint, covering the whole wall. We received comments like “it was about time”, so I guess people wanted us to update the wall every season or something like that. That wall belonged to us, and to the neighborhood. But it was demolished last year, with our characters on it. Another fun project was painting a subway station with nice people I met from festivals: Oz, Ice and Luxor — four different people blending styles across a 110m wall. We did an Amazon jungle with magic characters, and received positive feedback about people feeling they could now “breathe” there.
In your talk you mentioned the idea of creating your own visual language — bringing the graphic language of the computer to the street. Can tell us more about how you have developed your technique?
I just started with black ink on paper, influenced by comics. Then I spent more and more time painting freehand in digital, it allowed me to experiment with infinite colours and techniques, without the need of a big studio space or big budget to buy materials (especially important things in my early years). Then I just became addicted to the speed of it, I loved the idea of creating an entire atmosphere with a few strokes.
I start sketching with blocks of grey, which gives you control over the lights, shapes, and composition. Once I solve that, my mind is clear to have fun with colours, which I use to communicate a certain mood. This is my favourite way of working, and digital painting is the most comfortable tool to do it. I tried to do the same on paper, but pencils or markers work in a different way, so the sketchbook is just a place to experiment without control, which is also very important. When I started painting in the street, that took me onto a different path, because I thought I needed strong flat lines to get the characters off the wall. So I had the volume in the computer, and the flat graphics on the walls. The next step was to mix them, it’s a little difficult but interesting. I’m still trying to figure it out. At the moment I enjoy applying volume with spray-cans on the wall but I don’t want it to look completely digital, so for example I’m trying to keep subtle lines and textures. There’s a lot to play with.
Artists often get hung up on the idea of ‘style’ — yet it’s something that is constantly evolving. What does style mean to you?
It’s not about the colours, strokes or the way you draw the eyes — those kind of things can be copied by others or changed by yourself — the style is who you are… I think it’s something that comes with time, as a result of all your experiments. I didn’t even know I had a style until people told me they recognised it. I didn’t study illustration and I never liked copying as an exercise, so every time I saw something interesting, I tried to draw it the way I felt it, with whatever tool I had at hand. Sounds simple, but I tried a lot of different tools, and I’m always looking for new things. I find inspiration from the experiences I live and the people I know. So I think it’s just the way you look at things, which is why it’s constantly evolving.
Finally, what are your future plans for Animalitoland and your characters? What would you most like to focus on in your artwork?
Right now I’m focused on painting in the street, and designing characters for fun projects, no matter the media, so I’ll continue with that. I also started a series so I might end up with an exhibition, but there’s no rush about it. As long as I’m in Europe, the main goal is to get in touch with as many different cultures and people as possible. What happens to my characters will depend on that.