A Conversation with French Artist Sophie Klesen

A fresh new face in the international calligraphy conference scene, Sophie Klesen comes to us from the world of art, history, science fiction and fantasy. She regularly exhibits her work at conventions such as GenCon and DragonCon and has received awards for her sculptures, jewelry, mixed media and more. Known for her intricate paintings, detailed illuminations and exhaustive knowledge about pigments, Sophie will teach two classes at Rendez-vous this summer. She will start off the week with her in-depth pigment course (previously given to La Société des calligraphes de Montréal), where students will learn how to create their own ink and paints using both historical and contemporary recipes. For the second half of the week, it’s back to the 16th century to learn all about Renaissance motifs, decorated letters and borders. In the interview below, learn about Sophie’s background, how her grandfather inspired her love for science and art and get a peek inside of her studio in France!

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in art?

I grew up mostly in France and spent a bit of time in the UK and Morocco. All my very young memories are related to the place where I live now, near the medieval city of Provins. It is the family house. My granddad was a chemist and a very talented watercolourist. He did a lot of chemistry experiments at home, making soap, pigments, etc. I remember that when I was older, he decided to show me the chemical equations we were studying in school. He helped me a lot, even through funny incidents. I think my passion for science started here, deeply grounded in its tangible aspects. I’ll never thank him enough for that. My family has always been interested in the arts, collecting paintings and furniture. I often spent time in auction houses, I guess it started everything. All this art around!

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What is the first medium that you learned, and which mediums resonate with you most today and why?

I started with the very difficult watercolour because my grandfather was painting whenever he could. Being very young and self taught, I was not that successful... but I kept on drawing, all the time. Later on, I fell in love with digital media, and those were the years I produced the most, for advertising companies mostly. Digital is cheap, infinitely modifiable, fast. It is a production tool. But when I decided to change my line of work, I dropped digital completely and went back to traditional. It was hard! I tried a lot of techniques and ended up falling in love with illumination which mixes technique, chemistry, gold and everything precise. Near sighted and borderline obsessive, yup, that was my tool of the trade!

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

No official teacher per se as I did not follow a standard path and am self taught, but mostly lucky encounters. Mr San Marsal who really helped me start in jewelry (a craft that is deeply related to illumination!), Louise Cooper for inspiration (she was an author with a lot of books under her belt and she really pushed me to work more), Yannick Durand whom I met when we moved to Canada, who inspired me, offered me some space in her workshop and kicked my butt when needed ;) All my friends who encouraged me and even my parents who finally realized that hey, she can make a living with that after all!

Oh and Stéphane S., one of my professors in Uni (Applied Statistics) that kicked my butt into accepting to leave Uni and work with one of the first companies doing Digital images he introduced me to, that was in the late 80s. Thank you, I owe you tons.

And now, many MANY artist friends who inspire me all day long, thanks to the web where we can exchange ideas, crazy picts and beautiful images. That is one of the main engines of creativity. So, I will just mention a few of the most prominent ones because the list could go on and on: Stephanie Law (a goddess of hard work, really), Vladimir Nenov (for the sheer elegance of his works), Ivano Zyggiotti (a true master of illumination), and let’s not forget so many old masters in museum. This is where you learn the most.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular rituals or warm-up routines before you begin?

I need quiet. And our house being in the middle of nowhere, it is quiet! Space, not so much. I sure need cupboards to cram in all the papers, pots and brushes but my work area isn’t huge. That is the good thing with illumination, you do not need a lot of space. I don’t mind a little bit of mess as long as nothing is dangerous or at risk to be ruined, but most of the time I end up cleaning the whole area every two days to avoid chaos!

Illumination work needs a long time to develop so my days are really busy. I usually wake up super early and go to the gym. As I will be behind my desk for at least nine hours, sport now and then is mandatory, as well as resting your eyes. I cut my work day in several time frames in order to soothe them and get a fresher look on the job as well! So it can be a full day one shot, or several parts of a few hours... it will really depend on the work. But one thing is certain and written in stone, I need tea!

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What are three of the most essential tools of your practice and why?

Tracing paper - I sketch A LOT and move things around till I find the design I want. I don’t erase much, I just draw some more. I pile tracing papers on top of one another.

Burnisher - it is the most important tool of the trade, the one that allows you to make the perfect ground for the gold, to burnish the gold... and they are highly collectable.

Good brushes - Mandatory. Thick with thin points. I tried so many of them. I am in love with acrylic Princeton (go figure) or the splendid ones David Jackson (from the UK) makes.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging and/or rewarding?

I am slowly making a book. Illuminated with small texts here and there, because I am not a writer but I can write a few things to guide the reader from picts to picts. So yes, this is challenging and as I want to mix a lot of different techniques and inspirations in there, it is long and slow. Picture a book of tales from a very distant place, in space and time. One of the plates made it to the magazine Imagine FX, another one will follow soon. It is as well the first time I tried to convey a feeling of Persian art, which is very dear to me, and the next plates will be even more influenced but with a twist as I will mix very modern designs as well.

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You will be teaching “Decorated Letter and Border: 16th Century Renaissance” and “Pigments - The Colour Chart” at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain from these classes and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I am very down to earth and prosaic, after all, blame my scientific background. So I will try to show how to have fun while trying to soundly explain how all this works. I will teach in English and French, that should be funny and I’ll aim for the practical side of things: recipes you can do at home, easily, well made and stable so you can apply them to your own work, how to prepare everything for complicated works, lay out all the ingredients and elements so you don’t run into a wall after a few hours and get discouraged, and so on!

For me, illumination techniques are a tool, it is craftsmanship. The inspiration, the ideas, you have them. You just need some tools and ways to prepare your work and make it real. I hope we’ll be able to achieve that while having fun.

The pigment course will keep the goal in mind. Do you need watercolour? Ink? Historical pigments? Gouache? We will deal with the pigments and their medium. We will even make some watercolours with plants. There is a distinct pleasure in mixing your own colours and the toxicity of some can be a burden. Plants might be a very good option! We’ll make a beautiful and useful swatch and I will provide empty half pans for gouaches, bring mini bottles etc so you can run away with a lot of colours.

The Borders course is a bit more technically challenging. If you are a beginner, you will be able to follow it of course but you will probably need more time, so don’t feel discouraged, just push onward. It can be a really good introduction! I will show how to prepare everything for a complex border so you don’t run into trouble. You will try several states of gold: Shell gold, leaf gold on glue and leaf gold on gesso. We will work with gouaches and watercolours. I will as well show you a non historical technique that gives great results: grisaille with watercolours. For intricate borders, it can really make the difference in some cartouches!

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You have participated in a variety of fantasy and science fiction conventions, from GenCon, WorldCon and DragonCon. Could you tell us about these conventions, the art competitions and the awards you have received?

GenCon is a huge machine, essentially aimed at gaming companies so it is not super cosy but it is one of the ways to make it into this business. You know why you go to GenCon, it doesn’t happen by accident. I received two awards in GenCon, and I am still very proud of them. They really mean a lot. It is recognition by the industry and your peers themselves.

WorldCons are travellers, you go from one country to the other, so it is really interesting, although a little expensive, but their art show is fabulous. You can make a decent amount of money while having fun, so for any artist it is a win/win.

DragonCon is the craziest most admirable convention you can find in the US. It really feels like you’re coming home. Costume is (in my humble opinion) mandatory to get in the mood. The amount of creativity in this place can be overwhelming, as is the crowd. The dragon always has been good to me, be it in regard to the sales in the art show or the awards I received in painting and jewelry. Dragon Con is very special to my heart.

There is a smaller convention by artists for artists and collectors named Illuxcon, and happening every year in Reading, Pennsylvania. This is the best feeling ever, coming back home to your chosen family, sharing workshops, admiring sooooo many paintings. It drags people from all over the planet. I will be there this year, I can’t wait! You can go just to watch everything, as a tourist, attend classes, meet the artists. It is a beautiful experience made by awesome people.

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What does community mean to you, particularly in relation to the arts?

As the grumpy old bear introvert I am, the art community means the world to me. I have to kick myself in the rear to go anywhere but each time I join an art crowd, I feel like I’m home and I leave invigorated. The gathering, mixing of ideas, sharing stories and laughter - it recharges your batteries and makes you want to run back home and work! Most of my very best and dear friends are artists as well. We can’t create in a bubble, we need to get out there!

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What is something about you that people might be surprised to learn?

I am an avid astronomer but people might be surprised to learn that one of my true loves is... bugs. I adore insects. I breed quite a few species. I’m a bug nerd. I said it.

Sophie Klesen

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