After graduating from the University of the Free State in 2013, David Griessel made art his full-time profession. His drawings are often simultaneously delightful and frightening: the stuff of fairytales — or nightmares — depending on your imagination and sense of humour.
The themes of his work have always leaned toward the surrealistic and escapist. All of David’s characters have whimsical quality to them and often also elements of sadness or longing. Why so sad, David?
I am not exactly sure why my many of my characters are so sad. I am predisposed to being melancholic and that might percolate into my art. But I try not to overthink or over-analyse my creations: I am just glad that I can constantly come up with new characters, otherwise I would be out of a job. Some people have actually asked me whether I suffer from depression. I am extremely fortunate to say that I do not have this mental condition. I do have some anxiety though, and I think, because of this, my characters are often still and contemplative, which is perhaps a way to calm my own internal jitters and preoccupations.
David explains that the purpose of his art is open-ended. With each new character he creates, he is expanding the imaginary universe where they could all potentially exist, much like the Terry Pratchett’s Disc World or JK Rowling’s Hogwarts. (I like to imagine that there would one day be an encyclopedia with write-ups for each of his characters.)
As fiction is often born from reality, I ask him whether his characters are sometimes inspired by real people.
In a way, but not directly. I don’t think any artwork functions in a vacuum — our interpersonal relationships and interactions have a way of seeping into everything we do. I seldom base my characters on specific individuals, but the situation the character finds itself in is often based on an emotion caused by my interactions (both positive and negative) with people around me.
And, like many artists, I have a light case of narcissism (which I try to hide beneath a self-deprecating demeanour) which leads many of my characters to become representations of myself.
For David, drawing is as natural as breathing, sleeping, and eating (probably a little more natural). So, even though he’s only been a money-making artist for four years, he’s been drawing obsessively since childhood.
Probably since I was four or five years old… One of the main catalysts for my artistic pursuits was The Never-Ending Story. In the film, there is a sequence where crab monsters stalk and attack the protagonist and his owl companion. Probably because I was a sensitive child, this gave me nightmares for many succeeding nights. But, luckily, with the nightmares also came the perverse urge to obsessively draw these infernal creatures. Soon my room was littered with drawings of clawed and fanged crab-demons. So if I had to pinpoint a date of my genesis as artist, that would be it.
At university, the illustrative style of drawing that David naturally leaned towards was largely frowned upon. He was always directed by lecturers to create more realistic-looking imagery. He credits his studies for fantastic drawing techniques, and years of practice, which have since enabled him to take the rules of realism and bend them just the way he likes.
His work has lately once again become prominently illustrative, much like the works of artists he admires.
I love many of the classic and contemporary picture book and comic artists. There are almost too many to name, but I would say my favourites are: Shell Silverstein, Jean Giraud, Shaun Tan, Dave Mckean, James Jean, Bill Watterson and Jake Parker.
What I appreciate most about these individuals is their technical mastery of drawing and painting. In an age where conceptuality is often prioritized over skill, these “illustrators” are the stewards of a tradition of art-making that has lost traction with the rise of post-modernism and contemporary art practice.
Unlike many other artists, David has always managed to pay his rent solely by doing art. He has never needed to moonlight as anything else. David explains that 75% of his time is spent on commission drawings, which he always enjoys, because he only accepts commissions in keeping with the style and thematic approach which comes naturally to him. The other 25% of his time is dedicated to creating work for gallery shows.
Where can you see (and purchase) David’s work?
In the Western Cape:
- Fancon, Cape Town, 29 April – 1 May.
- DF Contemporary, Cape Town, and Imibala, Somerset West, until the end of April.
- Maggie’s Café, Cape Town, permanent exhibition.
- Haas Collective and KnexT Art Gallery, Cape Town, regular displays.
- Young Blood Gallery, Cape Town, 4th of July.
In the Free State:
- Kotze Kuns Gallery, Bloemfontein, works for sale.