Didier Cremieux is a New York City based painter and illustrator. Born and raised in Clermont l’Herault in southern France, Didier moved to the United States in 1977. He majored in literature and art history at the Université Paul Valery in Montpellier, France. Upon his arrival to the U.S., Didier furthered his studies in photography in Oklahoma City, and etching and lithography at Antioch College in Ohio, along with apprenticeships and jobs in printmaking and graphic design. Along his career, Didier experimented with various printing techniques from silk screening to etching and Xerox or letterpress printing. His artwork has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. Didier also designs book illustrations, posters for various events, and promotional materials for the music industry. As a painter, he is mostly interested in City scapes and still lifes.
Didier had an exhibit at the Orphic Gallery in Roxbury this past fall, called “Postal Mix Tapes.” The exhibit included hand-made stamp sheets and posters celebrating music and music history.
Simona David: Didier, talk a little bit about your training as a painter and illustrator.
Didier Cremieux: When I came to the U.S. my formal training was in literature and art history, and I was also a painter. Then slowly I moved into the graphic arts, as a source of employment, to supplement the fine arts.
SD: Do you still paint?
DC: I still paint quite a bit. I’ve always painted. It’s like I have two outputs that I have. The graphic art is a tradition that goes back to the history of the posters; that is something that I’ve always been fond of, and that I’ve designed for a long time. A lot of my work, for example, has to do with music. So I did music packaging, and posters for bands, and stuff like that. It’s just a tradition from the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec to the psychedelic posters of the West Coast, then the punk posters, and the Xerox machine. This is a tradition that I think I belong to.
SD: The golden age of illustration was roughly considered to be from the 1880s to the 1920s. And you mentioned Toulouse-Lautrec. How is your work today as an illustrator different than that of an illustrator’s from the early 1900s, both from a technical and artistic standpoint?
DC: With the arrival of the digital age we moved away from the traditional printing on paper and ink, and switched to digital files. From what I’ve seen in editorial illustrations for magazines, the artist may very well start with pen and paper, but then he would finish the layout on the computer. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s I used to deliver illustrations on paper. And then towards the end of the 1990s every single magazine I worked with switched to digital production. One thing that really changed is the way you work as illustrator. It used to be like the editorial team would meet and discuss the project. The illustrator would meet with the creative director and get the outline of the project, he would read the article or the draft of the article that was going to appear, and then would deliver pencil sketches via the fax machine. Now it’s all done by email using digital files. You don’t sit in an office anymore, and talk about how everything is done. There is no more human contact involved. It changed the human relationship that the illustrator has with the production team.
SD: There is A National Museum of American Illustration in Rhode Island; on their website at americanillustration.org they say that illustration is “the most American of American art.” There is a tradition of illustration in this country going back to Norman Rockwell. People value illustrations, they collect magazine covers, or clippings, or something like that. I hope this beautiful tradition will be continued in some manner. You seem to have adapted to digital technology.
DC: Yes. A lot of artists went from working with the brush to working with the computer, and replaced ink with pixels. But I think, in a positive way, that brought all kinds of new styles, with all kinds of possibilities. Again, illustration is part fine art, and part commercial art. And, there are a lot of parameters that have to be followed in commercial art. Personally, I really like doing this sort of thing on the computer, and making changes, and offering all kinds of versions with colors or anything else.
SD: You work both on fine art projects as well as commercial art. How is your work different when you work on a fine art project compared to a commercial one?
DC: I did less illustration work in the past few years; the market has gotten quite a bit smaller, because of the crisis in the paper publishing. When a magazine goes digital, they sometimes do use illustrations, but again, it’s different. Also, trade publications are using more and more in-house designers as opposed to hiring outside illustrators.
SD: Let’s talk specifically, when you work on a project, where do you start, how do you decide on a style or an approach?
DC: It really depends on the project. My approach is completely different for a fine art project than a commercial one. The illustration work is more the work of a collaboration, of your skills being used for a bigger project. If I create a piece of art that’s going to illustrate a story, I need to create a visual that supports the story and makes quick associations with the concept of that article, but it’s also a visual that appeals to people so they read the story. That’s for magazine illustration. For book illustration is a bit different. The book illustrator and the writer are kind on the same level; on one side you have the text, on the other side you have the illustration, and maybe sometimes the two combined; but the two of them are almost like equal. What you’re doing with the illustration is offering one possible visual to the world that is in the story that the visual supports. That’s how I work: this is the story, and this is my narrative, my view of the story. What I mostly like about illustration is this collaborative effort.
SD: Who influences you, who do you admire, and how do you go about improving what you do?
DC: I started designing posters when I was 14, growing up in southern France, in a small village. I started a print studio with friends, we really had to come up with something to entertain ourselves. We were driven, interested in the creative things. We would do posters for events, or just ideas that we had. And we started showing them to people, we started doing shows. When I paint or do prints for myself, personal aspects come first. When I work on illustrations for various projects, it’s the collaborative process that matters most.
SD: How do you decide what to work on?
DC: The show that I did at Orphic Gallery in Roxbury, called “Postal Mix Tapes,” is a project that goes back to the 1980s. Around that time in San Francisco I met a lot of artists that were involved in the mail art movement, if you can call such a thing a movement. It was all about mail art, it was about exchanging pieces of mail with art on the envelope; it was also about experimenting with new machines, like the Xerox machine, at first black and white, and then color. Artists were experimenting. But again, there was this whole idea of the mail art. Stamps have always exerted a fascination for me since childhood. It was a very popular, democratic process for people to just look at pictures. And these pictures were always commemorating something. When I was a child I was very fond of stamps from around the world commemorating space. It was very great art, but in a small format. In the 1960s I also liked a series of stamps commemorating castles and monuments in France. They were really beautiful, with really beautiful engravings. I really loved collecting those.
SD: Let’s talk specifically about your show at Orphic Gallery.
DC: When I got in touch with Philip Lenihan, and decided to do a show about postage stamps, about music, I went back to some of the work that I had already done, and started adding quite a bit more. The main idea was to really follow the concept of stamps, which is a commemoration. It’s like we put out this stamp to celebrate this or that event. What I wanted to celebrate with this show was my very personal interaction with music throughout my life. So I did different sheets of stamps for various styles of music that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.
SD: I also collected stamps as a child. Going back to your profession of designing stamps, does anyone else today either collects or designs stamps? How common is this?
DC: I’m not really sure. Collecting stamps is still very traditional. But, as you noticed, in the last 10 – 15 years stamps have changed quite a bit – now they look more like stickers. You can also go online and print your own personalized stamps, even with your own images. Traditionally stamps have always been linked to history. When I was a child I had all these stamps from my father, who had stamps from his father, so it was just an album that just kept growing for three generations.
SD: Looking back at your career as a printmaker and illustrator, and you’re also a painter, how has your style changed over time?
DC: The style for me has always been about experimenting with paint, paper, cardboard, different materials that I use. And in the fine arts the evolution of the digital world just added another dimension to that. A lot of my work combines the analog and the digital method, like working on a computer print, then paint on top of that, or add elements of color that the printer could not do, such as for example gold bleach, or special varnishes in different areas.
SD: Is there any project you’re working on right now that you would like to talk about?
DC: I would like to talk a bit more about the show at Orphic Gallery in Roxbury. One thing about this show was the music, and the way my generation experienced music. In the late 1960s and 1970s music played such a big part in our lives; for one thing you bought an LP or a record, and the artwork was absolutely beautiful. One of my first experiences with art was looking at record covers, and really falling in love with that form of art – photography, illustration, painting. And then there was so much more in those albums than just music. It could change your life, and the way you looked at the world. That music may have had messages and aspirations that went way beyond just a commercial product. The show at Orphic Gallery was really about that. I really enjoyed the show because it gave me the opportunity to talk about this. A lot of people came to me, and shared experiences of their own.
SD: I attended the opening reception at Orphic Gallery on October 11; that was a very nice show. You showed stamps with icons like soprano Maria Callas, legendary jazz musician Thelonious Monk, a Balkan Band – I believe Goran Bregovic was on one of your stamps. I remember asking you if you had met all these musicians.
DC: It’s not that I met them. But in some ways once I discovered their music, it was something very powerful. For example, regarding the Balkan music, one day I stumbled into Central Park, and there was the Summer Stage Festival, and there was this musician and his Wedding Band Orchestra playing this music that I never heard before. I was really taken by the rhythm, by the power of the bass dominating every other sound. That was something extremely appealing, almost like a trance. I had never heard any kind of sound like that. I went to a record store, and asked about that kind of music. I had to hear more of that; it was truly fascinating.
SD: And you also paint. What subjects are you drawn into?
DC: I like to paint New York City scapes, this is my idea of landscape. I never work from an image, I always work from memory. The colors and the geometric shapes show New York City landscape, but a bit in a more abstract way. I also like to paint images that immediately bring you to the southern France, for example hills or this tree that I’ve always had a fascination for – cypress; it’s a tree that is found in Europe, especially in southern lands. And third, I like to paint still lifes – vases or pots with flowers. I do not work with any specific flowers, but it’s my own take on those shapes.
SD: So, it’s all about the visual appeal of a painting.
DC: Yes, and also it’s comfort. Looking at an abstract painting, but still seeing an image in that painting. It touches people, because this is how maybe they interpreted something – they didn’t see a landscape, they saw geometrical shapes. I am trying to tell people that this is my interpretation of my own experience with the landscape.
You can find more about Didier Cremieux at didiercremieux.com.