With all the problems in our world, Chloé Bertron rubs them out, redrawing her worlds into utopian paradises that are peculiar and romantic. But what of the issues in her own life? She tackles them head-on, creating the characters and stories around them. Love with loss, friendship with isolation, sincerity with surrealism; the Swiss-French illustrator uses opposites to create her eccentric work. We have a chat with her to discuss environmental issues, cinema, art, and ratatouille with fresh herbs from the garden.
We’d be really interested to learn a little bit about you, your life and your illustrations. Could you briefly tell us about the curious world of Chloé Bertron?
I'm nearly twenty-six and live in Strasbourg (France), where I work as an illustrator. I love both reading books and making them myself, and in my drawings, I use lots of different colours and symbols to create several layers of meaning. This ‘curious world’ is a distortion of my everyday life, of things I learn and feel.
The illustrations have a real folk art/naïve quality to them. There’s real beauty in their simplicity and I love the peculiar stories. Are you trying to convey a sense of innocence in your illustrations?
I love folk art! I spent so much time at the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne. I think there's everything to learn from people who helplessly and sincerely create complex, alternative worlds. I'm not as fascinated by innocence as I am by sincerity, and I’m more interested in showing the complexity of life than its lightness.
Your colour palette is so warm and vibrant, it really gives your illustrations an atmospheric quality. But, as I understand it, the colours represent more than just pleasing on the eye – each symbolises emotions and mental states experienced by the characters in your stories. Could you explain how it works?
I'm not obsessive enough as to have a set palette with colours corresponding precisely to emotions; the first purpose of colours is to please the eyes. But each drawing has a particular emotion attached – especially when it is part of a story –, so I pick the colours to match that emotion. This is my favourite part of the process. I like to tell different stories at the same time, as both the text and images form a narration. Sometimes, inside the images are other parallel stories. In my book 6-4-2, the colours of the landscape change according to emotions, regardless of geography.
One of the influences you’ve mentioned previously is Persian miniatures. You can see this in 20 Fantasme, where the illustrations are tiny and set in the middle of the vast white page of the book, then exhibited separately in small frames for your audience to get up close to squint at for a glimpse. This requires meticulous attention to detail and, I can imagine, lots of time, why did you choose to do this?
These images show fantasies. Isn't it something you would want to see closely? (Smiles)
Your lone characters wonder over desolate landscapes, amongst dark shadowed cliffs and setting suns. The illustrations bring to mind Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealist paintings, with mysteries and melancholies of their own. Do you find surrealism to be a big inspiration to you?
Yes! Especially René Magritte. He was so prolific that I keep discovering more paintings of his. I love how he was able to create so much sense with such little vocabulary.
Another theme you’ve touched upon in your stories, specifically in 6-4-2, is this contrast between extraversion and introversion or solitude and companionship. Are you an introvert or extrovert, and do you find the solitude of being an illustrator to be a vice or a virtue?
I'm definitely an introvert, like the main character in 6-4-2, Auguste. When starting this book project, I read Quiet, by Susan Cain, which separates the world into these two categories. Since then, I think that everyone has a portion of both. Being alone is, for me, the only way to explore ideas and create. But it can also provoke anxiety. As an illustrator, it is sometimes hard to ‘stay the course’ and keep balanced. For now, I try to keep myself busy with short and long-term projects, a small job on the weekends and a lot of friend-seeing.
The world(s) you’ve created are filled with peculiar utopian lands, sprouting with lush vegetation. If you could live in one of your worlds, how would it look like?
It wouldn't be falling apart like ours! I don't know if it shows in my drawings but I'm very anxious about environmental and social issues. I hope to show both the beauty of existing nature and landscapes but also to create impossible utopic backgrounds to escape from reality.
Illustrations aside, you’ve also co-made films with Antoine Josset – which are just as unusual as your artwork. One of which won the grand jury prize at the Si Cinéma festival this year. Will you continue to experiment in the realm of film in the future, or maybe even merge your practices to create animations?
Actually, we are currently writing a short film about someone who can't stand change and fears abandonment. Making a film requires being much more open to the world, it is a whole lot more of trouble, but it is also very rewarding and interesting to work directly with other people. It’s another way of finding balance. Antoine and I have talked about making a videogame together, let's see if that happens. In the meantime, I highly recommend playing his one!
On some of your Instagram posts, you’ve shown your drawing process complete with mistakes and little doodle-like tests. By showing how you work, are you trying to keep your practice more relatable and down-to-earth for your fans?
I myself enjoy seeing doodles or preparatory drawings of artists I admire, so yes. And I think Instagram and other social media always ask for some storytelling.
You created a series of illustrations, Manger le midi à la Mine, every Tuesday for three years, documenting your passion for food with fantastical menus. Also, in a previous interview, you’ve expressed your love for pastries, and often draw quaint little loaves of bread in your illustrations. What’s your dream menu?
In Bretagne, in summer, we’re on the patio of Nelly's house and the sun is setting. We've already had a couple of beers while cooking and open the red wine while eating melon and olives. There's bread on the table – not a baguette but a whole wheat bread. Friends and family talk loudly. The main dish is a huge ratatouille with vegetable and herbs from the garden and polenta on the side. As the night falls, we eat dessert; one of my friend Thibault's strange experimentations. Something not very pretty. Maybe with rose, lime and oats… or with pumpkin, sage and dates.
Working for yourself has its own advantages but naturally has its own challenges, and this digital age is all about self-promotion; updating social media handles and websites constantly. Do you find this difficult and wish for a simpler time before the invention of the Internet, or is it more helpful in getting your work out there?
Self-promotion is not something I like doing very much. But since that’s how it works today, I try my best to make the most of different tools and possibilities. It’s hard to keep a cool head sometimes with the ‘like’ and ‘follower’ system, and it’s definitely something I’d like to escape. But the Internet (as wonderful as it is) is becoming a huge environmental disaster that nobody cares about. Even if it may sound totally in vain, I always resize images, never send email attachments if not needed, unsubscribe from mailing lists, etc. It’s like keeping Internet hygiene. So yes, I mostly dream about a simpler time before the Internet, but then I would miss watching documentaries and would probably have to change jobs.
On your Instagram, you’ve announced a new edition coming soon: Passion pour les têtes enlevées. This translates directly to ‘passion for the heads removed’ and I’m curious, what will it entail?
It's a short zine about a person who is given an object and tries to find out what it is. When she realizes that it is love she’s received, she decides to get rid of it. It is a way of reflecting about my recent separation, as the stories I tell are always personal – but encrypted and digested. My biggest dream is to get into other people’s minds and feel what they feel – so why not start off by telling how it is in my own head?