#btconf Berlin, Germany 11 - 12 Sep 2023

Guillaume Kurkdjian

Illustrator and animator based in Paris, Guillaume creates colourful and living mini worlds, populated by friendly characters and curious vehicles.

Want to watch this video on YouTube directly? This way, please.

A Personal Journey Into Creating an Illustration Style

Based on Guillaume’s personal evolution in illustration and animation, from his beginnings to today, you’ll discover actual creative process as well as some hints and tips on how to learn just what you need to enjoy and explore at your own pace – and finally to create your own, unique style.


So, hello everybody.

Thank you for coming and thank you, Marc, for all this really great event.

So, I am Guillaume Kurkdjian.

I don't know how to pronounce my own name.

That's how French I am.

And I'm going to tell you today a bit about illustration and animation and share my personal journey to this field.

I got there and give you some tips about how to create a style and explain also the creative process behind a specific piece.

So, I'm a French illustrator and animator.

I was born on the west coast of France and I am now living in Paris.

I've been working mostly in 3D for a long time now and for almost actually more than 10 years now I'm freelancing.

And what I do is I usually work around architecture because it has been my main focus since the beginning.

I'm amazed by what humans have done and for example this comes from a little village in Normandy that I love called Onfleur that I recreated in 3D. And I have this focus around architecture so it can be just houses like that.

I love to imagine how life is going around the houses, people are living in their houses and also my dad is an architect and I guess I was seeing him working on his big table when I was a kid and it really inspired me right from the beginning.

And so by extension I love cities and I love how everything is working together.

It really fascinates me to imagine all the fire trucks, the public transportation and all the people going to their work and everything is working pretty well all together.

So it can be small villages that I like to make dance, for example this one inspired by a small city from the south of France.

Or also big towns, big metropolises.

And that piece I did for an actual puzzle and it was, I guess it took me more than one month to complete.

It's the biggest piece I've ever done.

And I love to imagine all the little details everywhere, like you have little stories at every corner like this sausage, huge sausage there on the barbecue.

And actually I think it's coming from the Where is Waldo books I was reading as a child and I love to look for all those little details everywhere.

So I did the same here.

And it's nice when your illustration becomes kind of a game in itself.

So I also have this passion for transportation.

So it can be any kind of transportation.

We invented all kinds of crazy machines to go from one place to another and it's an endless subject for fun creations.

So cars, I love cars obviously.

And this one I did for a video game demonstration and I love to imagine how everything could grow and build all together.

So cars and anything on wheels but also on the air or in the water.

These are for our client works as well.

And it can be also imaginary machines like this little one that could be coming from a different civilization maybe with its own purpose.

But most of the time the inspiration I have come from the reality, from the real life, the real things I see in the streets.

And a good example is this really cute fire truck.

And it's an actual fire truck I saw in Paris in a train station and I was like how is it possible?

How can they be serious driving this thing around?

Like yeah there is a fire let's go.

So I was like no, what's this?

So it was too cute so I had to recreate it in 3D. So I did this little illustration.

The goal is to keep all the important features but remove all the non-necessary.

And in that case I didn't even have to exaggerate the proportion because it was already perfect.

And then I animated it like imagine how it could be constricted and then moving away.

So yeah the inspiration can come from anything you can see.

And also I love to explore new directions when I can, when I have time.

Like this is a piece of ocean, this is really not what I'm used to do usually but it was really interesting to experiment with new textures and materials and I guess this is how I find the motivation to keep going after all these years.

So now a little bit about how did I get there.

So I'm going to tell you a bit about my story, my journey to illustration with some visuals I did along the way.

So firstly it was really messy.

It was a big mess, I didn't do, it was full of pauses, I didn't have like a real clear process and you will see that.

So I started in 2005 around those times when I was in middle school, like 14 years old.

My brother was doing 3D stuff also and he made me want to try so I downloaded a cracked version of 3ds Max at the time and I started to recreate the furnitures of my bedroom at the time.

It was not that clean also but so I was doing this little illustration.

I did also really much more scrappy stuff but I couldn't find them to show you unfortunately.

And I was doing like those cool scenes but it was really classic and with no real soul.

I guess in Bunkheight, by the way I was learning German at the time, I forgot everything, sorry.

And then I continued in high school and I started to add a bit more of personality to my works, a bit of life with those really strange characters.

And this one was for a band I was playing in at the time, it didn't last for a long time but I was feeling something was starting to happen and so I continued but this time on a different level I started to do some animation and this is one of my first animation projects.

You will see this intro logo is just beautiful.

I don't know what.

So this was a little project I did.

It's funny because it's like Chinese shadow puppetry kind of style but I did it on 3ds Max on a 3D software so it was a bit absurd because I could have done it really more easily on After Effects for example or something.

But also I think the feeling of this series of animation is linked to the fact that I was using 3ds Max like it's not perfect but there is something a bit cute and poetic about it because it's not perfect.

So here are some extracts.

It was quite poetic but very slow.

And I think I didn't do anything that long and with that much storytelling since then.

So then I paused everything for a couple of years because I was young and I wanted to think about different things and in 2011 I started again on 3D and at the same time I was starting a business called, so completely different, but I was still doing that on the side.

And this is a little animation I did around these times and without realizing it I was on this quest to try to find a real style and I realized later that even from this everything was there already even if it's not perfect.

You have the colors and the tones and the feeling was already there I guess.

And so then I paused again on the 3D stuff for a while and I bought a camera and I focused more on photography, video and motion design.

So I was like, this is a video called Animalia Metazoa and at the time I was exploring nature with my Canon DSLR and trying to find insects in the nature and I was imagining this robot like discovering us for the first time and trying to analyze the insects we were seeing and like this is really dangerous or something.

So it was really satisfying to do, to explore the nature and find living things.

And then I created this imaginary HUD that I would motion track to the insects and this is how I started to learn to work on After Effects and that was another door opening and it was really great.

This is another video I did for my school at the time and you can see it's really different from what I do now.

It was something like a completely different style but I guess in a way all those side roads are part of what I'm doing right now.

So yeah I loved to work on After Effects at the time.

And then I went back on the illustration but this time on Illustrator.

So it was as for the Nieto Baldes project, this project called Bisous les Copains was also the reverse, like I didn't do 3D at the time but I was back to 2D but trying to create the 3D world with this isometric perspective.

And so after a lot of exploration I arrived to this project that actually changed everything because before that I was publishing a lot of projects on the internet and I was really invisible.

And that one, I don't know, I created this series and I got noticed and then I started to have some audience and visibility because of this one.

And the thing is, it was inspired obviously by all the video games and I was playing as a kid and this orthographic angle came from that but also from the fact that I didn't have the skills to do 3D and to do more.

And also the limitation of the GIF format forced me to have these little loops, I wanted these but actually it forced me to have little loops with a really limited palette of colors and not a lot of frames and I guess it was a technical limitation but this is where the style is coming from also.

So I loved to do this and I created around 60 of them until 2015 and so then I got noticed, as I was saying, and I started to have interviews in blog and magazine online and clients started to arrive so I was at the last year of my business school at the time so I went to the director and I asked her, can I skip the long internship we have to do at the end and just start my business?

Because I felt it was now or never and she agreed and so I officially started my company and then started to work as an illustrator and I couldn't believe it at the time, it was my work and I still cannot believe it actually but yeah, it's how it started.

So in 2014 I started to go back on 3D and I knew I had this angle and this kind of pastel colors that were working pretty good, people seemed to like it so I did the same but in 3D this time to go further into the animation, to be able to have rotation and evolve in the 3D space is completely different and it's opening all the possibilities.

So the same spirit but new animations and also as you can see I'm often speaking about series because I think it's the best way when you found your style or an identity you're comfortable with, it's the best way to apply it and to express yourself and it's a concrete application of your style and you choose a theme and you go on and it's really easy to find ideas when you're starting a series and the motivation and it's also very engaging for the audience and they want to know what's next, so this was a series of animations based on the electronic items from the 90s and it also allows me to run the machine pretty good and then from there I had set my own rules and I set my base style.

In 2015 I did this animation called Simple Day and then from now I knew there was this endless possibilities so I could focus more and develop more complex worlds with more stories and all and yeah, it was really very exciting to work on that.

So those were the really exciting times and now we are in 2016 I got contacted even more, I work for a lot of companies and agencies from all over the world and these are incredible exciting times and it didn't stop since then so I'm really really grateful and that was for an illustration for Lyft in the US and they asked me to reproduce all their cars and like when you're on the Uber app you have all the cars so I did that and then a lot of illustrations to go along with them.

And now we are in 2023 and these are new times, I think after 10 years of good work I feel really sorry but I want to find this excitement again and I guess this will pass with, I want to tell deeper stories and go in to convey more emotion and stuff.

But for now I'm working for Renault, the cars, and in this recent job I realised you can also convey emotion with simple characters with no real limbs or faces and for example we worked on this little avatar and it is here to introduce and accompany all the new cars they will produce, it's for a new brand they are creating called Mobilize and they have those electric vehicles that will be in the cities and so this little avatar is expressing also emotion with these movements and all so it was really fun to work on that piece for them and we are doing still a lot of work together.

And finally on this I also want to be connected to the real world again so I bought a new 3D printer, a resin this time, and I'm starting to create little child toys and stuff like that.

So here is a little part about how to create your own style.

So I think as I was saying I love to just walk the street and see things and imagine how they could live and imagine stories around them.

And this is a typical French bar tabac in the countryside and this is a picture by the French photographer Raymond Depardon which is really famous and he's like a documentary master in France and in the world also.

And so I recreated the scene based on his photo and I invented this little story behind it like this guy going to buy his cigarettes and he got his car stolen.

And so it mixes everything I love like architecture, cars, character design and all.

So I started to continue this series and I got in touch with him, with the photographer Raymond Depardon and he validated this work and he said it was really cool so it was great to be approved by the boss.

So yeah the idea is to add your touch, extend the emotion by adding characters and little life scenes.

And the thing is for me this is, these are always isolated places like forgotten territories of France that nobody thinks about anymore and it's really, I'm from the countryside as well and it's really touching for me, it's really special to me and I think it's how you find the motivation to start and to spend actual time on it because you find your own material, something that you're connected with and then you'll find the flow.

So there is this emotional part to this exercise that is a bit, that makes the result unique to you but that is at the same time hard to explain concretely.

But there is also a really concrete process that I can tell you about to create, to have your own style.

First of all it's to create rules and to stick with them then.

So you want to choose here, do I want rounded edges or sharp edges, do I want smooth or faceted mesh, anything like that.

And here for example I couldn't choose so I choose to go with both, like sharp edges but smooth mesh at the same time.

And also you have to make compromise, like of course the bushes doesn't look like they are in reality but it's working within your own world.

And then you have also to set a level of details, for example the tiles here are way bigger than they are in reality but I couldn't have all of them because it would have not worked in my world.

So then you will work on the colours, like set a limited palette on colours and I spend a lot of time on the colours because you can understand it can really change everything on your composition and the same illustration can be perceived so differently depending on the colours.

And also I realise the less colours you have the more unique and impacting the illustration will be.

And then you choose also the angle and for this series I choose an angle close to the ground.

So yeah, these rules will create unity through your work and the good thing is that it's really satisfying to do as well.

And when you set them and you're happy with them it will work.

And this is another example with just one object, so you have to simplify reality and stylise the reality as well.

And this is a Turkish car I love, the good old Tofas.

And the idea is to, like for the other one, keep the interesting bits, remove what's not useful and that one was used as a really small piece in a bigger illustration so you can see there are not a lot of details.

And then you can bring style by changing the proportion, like bring the hood up, like the Pixar style of the really small wheels.

Here on the sense of scale, like in real life there are so many details you cannot keep up with that and here for example the containers are much bigger than in reality and the cables on the pole are much thicker as well but you have to make compromises to keep the consistency of your work.

And also on this sense of scale I had this job recently I did for N26 so they asked me to recreate French cities in the back of their cars, there was Annecy and Paris and Marseille.

And they wanted me to have on these little spaces huge elements like the huge landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and also a really small bike that is iconic of Paris.

So I had to find tricks to make it work and for example for this Paris illustration you can see the Eiffel Tower is really smaller than that is in reality, same for the bikes, they are really bigger, but the idea is just to find the right balance between the real scale to keep it credible and the look and the clarity of your composition.

And this is the same with Marseille here, with really big people in the street but it's not shocking because it's working within the rules you set to yourself.

And finally sometimes you have to reinterpret what you cannot see, for example I took this picture in Armenia in a small village there and I wanted to recreate the mood of the place but I just had this picture so I had to invent also the other parts I couldn't see and actually it's okay because nobody is counting the number of bricks in your house, as long as you have the same mood it's okay.

So just a little something, I feel like it's really hard to stay on track and to continue working sometimes, to dedicate time to creative work, but when you start to feel that you're doing something good, it's like a drug, a drug with no side effect, it's really cool, you can continue for hours and you're really deep into it.

So also I wanted to say this, if you have fun doing it, it's where the creativity comes from and you have to have fun because otherwise people will see that it's boring for you and it will be boring for them as well.

So a few thoughts, in order to do all that, for me it's important to bring dynamism to your work, so it could be through animation like that with different zoom effects and all, but it can be also just in a static illustration, like with simple changes like the position of the vehicle, you can take the same object and it will express something really different.

Like also the camera angle can bring a lot of difference and the change of the emotion, the piece will convey.

So now about how did I learn, I told you the whole process was a bit messy and it was really messy, it was just over the years I developed my skills little by little and I never attended a proper class, so it's just an accumulation of YouTube tutorials and little tutorials here and there and it's usually I want to do something so I go to learn this specific thing and sometimes it's just clients asking for something and I'm saying yeah I can do it, I will do it, no problem, I have no idea how to do it, but I just, it's a good way to force yourself to learn something, like to put this nice pressure, like fake it till you make it, it's what I did for a lot of projects and it's going to work eventually.

So that's why I don't have this academic clean process, so sorry.

I don't do things the proper way and I waste a lot of time, I know that, you should see my composition, my 3D files, for a 3D engineer or someone who is really into it, it must be crazy to him or to her, but on the other hand I think these skills limitations are maybe where my style is coming from and the subject I deal with, so that's the idea of what I wanted to say, there is no right or wrong path, there is no one way you can always find your own path and as long as you're happy with what you do, it's okay and if you find the motivation to dedicate time you can achieve that.

And for example it's the same idea with the character design, for me it has always been like a big scary thing, it's a job in itself and it's really hard, especially in 3D, so it's been one of my big struggle of all time.

So I could create the characters the classic way, like you create the structure, the articulation and the rigging and then you animate your character, but I never did a class about it, so it was always a bit messy and I couldn't feel what I wanted to have, so I created this DIY system for example on this series, like the limbs are just bended with a bend modifier, so it's really simple, it's a really easy technique, but I know it's not the right way to do it, but it's working, so it's okay to me.

But I know at some point I'll have to learn the proper way and to maybe do an actual lesson for the first time in my life.

So yeah, keep experimenting new stuff, I guess it's really important to stay in the race, so it's really hard to work all day on something and then go back to your computer and work again on it, but it will keep your brain fresh and agile I guess.

So those are advice from my field, but I guess it applies also to others.

For that I tried to work with textures, like this wooden texture I didn't have before, or to work with low polygons also as well was new to me.

It can be also a complete new look, like with no shadows, just blocks, plain colors.

I tried this quick test to see how it feels, and it was really rewriting as well.

Or you can try new palettes, new colors you're not used to work with.

It can also change everything.

It can be also a camera movement that you're not used to work with, but with the same style or a different point of view.

So the idea is to keep learning, to keep yourself motivated, because there is so much competition out there, and the techniques are evolving so fast.

Even for me I'm always overwhelmed by this 12 year old Russian little boy that is creating incredible stuff, I'm like, OK, I'm done, it's over.

But actually I guess it's cool to try new things, to stay in the rhythm, but actually you don't have to put too much pressure on yourself, because also there is time, and maybe your own way of doing things might be your charm, actually.

For me it's not the fastest or the latest tech that can change that, maybe your style is coming from that as well.

But if you want to try, these are some examples I did along the way, like try new techniques on the software you never used, like this is dynamics in Cinema 4D, and I realize it's really easy to do, and it creates new horizons as well.

It can be a completely different technique.

So this for example is also a bit absurd, because I did this in 3D, on 3D software, and I printed it, I painted it, and I did this little stop motion animation, so it took me ages for something I could have done in no time in a digital way, but the result is kind of unique, so it brings something else.

And one last example is this other project, like I was testing the motion tracking of Cinema 4D, and I realized it opened my horizon like nothing else, I could just go in the street of Paris, take a little video with my iPhone, and then go back home, map the whole thing, track the whole thing on Cinema 4D, and add these little characters, this little monkey on his toy car, and it was really funny, and I didn't have enough time to continue that project, but it's just an example I guess, at the time I didn't know at all what I was doing, but I think it's never a waste of time, it can bring really unexpected outcomes.

And now I'm gonna tell you a bit more specifically about how it's working behind an illustration, and for that I'm going to take this example of a piece I did based on the city of Luca in Tuscany, that is a really cute village, I spent one week there last year, and it was just amazing to me, and I wanted to recreate the feeling of this town, and there, everything is there, it's perfect.

So at the beginning you want to just find the mood of the place, like if you're on the spot the best is to wander and take pictures until you find a precise place that you like, and that will serve as a base for your illustration, and then you're going to list and notice all the details you want to feature, like for example, these lovely typical green shadows there, the windows variants, the awnings, everything, so it's really nice to do, and then from there when you have everything under your eyes you will create a little sketch with everything.

So at this stage it doesn't have to be precise in the proportion or anything, but everything should be there already.

So I list all the things, I put them in a well balanced way, and I also leave some space for the animation of the characters that will come after.

And so it's a bit, this part is a bit hard to explain also, it's coming after, the more you do it the easier it becomes, but you want to stay simple at the beginning.

And just a little something, then I jumped into the 3D, just a practical aside for those who are interested, I work on Cinema 4D for all the illustration and animation, it's really nice to, it's a really cool software, but my advice would be if you want to try and start 3D now, you should maybe go on Blender instead, just a little something, because the community is huge and it's really also easy to use, but there are two different schools, so it's really as you prefer.

And the render engine I use is called Octane Render, and it allows me to have live rendering, which changes everything for me.

For the post production I use After Effects for the retiming, the grading, and I'm on the Macbook Pro. So yeah, the first step would be to rebuild this sketch with big blocks, just really geometric shapes, just to feel the mood, like really simple, see how the volume fits together.

Then usually I work on the angle, like you put your camera, and then from there you have your camera and your angle settled, and you can develop around that.

So then I add some light, and it's very important of course as well, like do I want sharp shadows with the sun, or diffuse shadows in the real life for example.

Usually I mix both, especially for this series, like the sun is a bit too sharp, so I add also a little light to make it more diffuse, and you do all those little settings, all those modifications to reach the look you want to achieve.

Then you start to add little details here and there, it's really cool to do, I mean for me I love it, like holes for the windows, you start to put the doors, everything, the roof awnings, the tables and all.

Then I add the colors, and also all those, of course the order or the way I do it, it's just my own way of doing it, there is no good way of doing it, it's just I like this process and that order.

So you define your palette of colors and that can change until the end, obviously, and then you add more details here, step by step, little pipes, little chimneys and everything, and then I will add some imperfections to go a bit away from the static, cold, digital aspects that you have when you start, like you will tilt the building a bit, add some laundry, make some cracks in the walls, stuff like that, so it's not too perfect.

Then the grading, like on Photoshop, RGB curves, levels, stuff like that, and then I add the characters, so again I can't go in detail, I don't have time for this now, but this is when it happens, and then I animate the whole thing like that, to create just little loops.

So to finish, here is a little piece we did together with Maim and Toby here, and yeah he found, he really captured the mood I was going for, and you can even hear his voice and his voice in it.

And yeah, that's it.

Thank you.