Interview: Viktor Kalvachev
Zagreb, 2018. IFCC is in full bloom, and a crowd of artists, speakers and attendees alike gathers in a small art gallery a short walk away from the main venue of the festival, Kino Europa. In one of the easels set up there, a middle-aged man with glasses playfully traces lines with a bar of charcoal on the paper. “That looks sweet,” I think. “This guy knows what he's doing.” Well, little did I know I was peeking over the shoulder of Viktor Kalvachev, and yes—as it turns out, he really knows what he's doing.
Hello Viktor, I'm pleased to get the chance to interview an artist like you.
Happy to be featured here!
I must admit I felt really silly for not recognizing an artist whose work I had been following and admiring for a while, but I guess that's to be expected in community events like IFCC and other conventions, right? Has it happened to you as well?
All the time. At THU 2018 in Malta for example, I talked for about half an hour over beers to a really great fellow, and only after a few suspicious words like “Team Fortress 2,” “characters,” and “decisions” started floating in the air did I politely ask, “What was your name again?” “Moby,” he answered. I was floored! I’ve been following and admiring Moby Francke’s work for years and to finally meet him was just fantastic! We’ve become good friends since then.
Your professional career has probably taken you to many festivals and events, both as a guest or speaker, and as a regular attendee. Do you still find excitement and inspiration in those events? What’s the best part of such festivals and conventions for you?
Without a doubt, the best part is seeing old friends and making new ones; putting faces to names and getting to know the people who inspire me. It’s so uplifting when the artist you’ve been following for a long time turns out to be a great person as well!
In the opening paragraph I didn't use the word “playful” by chance. Your personal work, particularly the pieces displayed in your book Inspire, have a strong sense of cheeky humor and a playfulness that shines through the technical skill of your craft. They really seem like the works of someone who is having a lot of fun with what he does.
True. Most of the works I share on social media and which I have included in the book are drawings I do when I am relaxing and just having fun. The world is quite cruel, and I find it easier if I don’t take it too seriously. There are plenty of fun little things happening outside and I sometimes capture some of them because they make me smile. My wife also shares the same philosophy, but she is absolutely phenomenal in stealing those tiny fractions of moments with her camera.
On the other hand, you have mentioned in past interviews your concern for very important issues, such as religion, politics, gender violence, etc. How do you tackle those subjects in your art?
Well, I do have strong opinions on those subjects, but I try conveying them in more subtle ways through art, rather than through making statements. My Instagram gallery is all about tolerance, compassion, patience, humor and love. In the rare occasions when I was vocal about issues, I chose to focus on domestic violence mostly because it’s something that we can all directly interfere with if we come across it. I did a series called “The Murdering Wives,” where I drew a series of “funny” little one-image stories of wives killing their husbands over dumb little things like snoring, leaving the toilet seat up, forgetting anniversaries, etc. People loved them, laughed hard and wanted more. No one objected to the intense violence; it was all fun and games. Until the last drawing, where I asked everyone to think how would they have felt if the roles were reversed? Would it still be funny if men were killing women over snoring? My audience is smart, and they got it in an instant.
Home and family are where we should feel safe; the one place where we can find peace, collect ourselves from a difficult day, rely on the people close to us. Imagine a kid growing up in an environment where this isn’t possible. Imagine the choices this kid will later make in life, and the impact he’ll have on others. Being kind to the people next to us is where it starts. Patience, tolerance, understanding and love are what we need more of, especially at home.
You studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Sofia (Bulgaria). How was your education there, and what part did it play in you becoming the artist you are now?
Well, I was working and studying the entire time I was there, so I wasn’t the most present student. Most of our professors were very old school and were not really open to anything different to what they’ve been learning. For example, “comics” was a dirty word. They threw out probably the best Bulgarian comic book artist (Evgenii Yordanov) out of the Academy because he dared to draw comics. However, the positive side was that I got a really good foundation in anatomy, perspective, drawing and history of art. I did my master’s [degree] in print (etching, lithography etc.), but I never got back to it. My heart lies in creating characters and telling their stories which is closer to animation and live action movies than fine art.
Being born and raised in a communist country in the years prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, then moving to the US in the 90's, and now being based in Paris, you must have seen and experienced vastly different mindsets both in your working life and in the daily doings of those societies. What's your general impression, as a professional artist, of those different professional environments?
Man, we can talk for days on this subject :) People are the same everywhere. There are geo-political and religious factors that shape a local society into a micro-system that could be stereotyped, but in general there are good people and assholes everywhere.
Bulgaria is a cool little country, but I wanted to experience more than what it had to offer. It being a communist country for so long really took a toll on people’s mentality and approach to life. There were too many things I disagreed with and did my best to change. Unfortunately, it was a lost cause at the time so I decided to leave.
Moving to California really showed me how much I could improve as a person and be a lot more open to the world. I grew a lot while living there and I am very grateful for all the experiences and friends who helped me evolve. I reflect myself in the society I am a part of and see what I can learn from this place and the people there, and how I can improve who I am by taking the best of their values and adding them to my own.
Paris to me is the most beautiful city I have ever experienced. Professionally it has been an emotional rollercoaster which has further enriched my understanding of people. It only made me stronger and made me rely more on myself than anything else.
In the end, I feel like California is the closest to what I could call home than any other place I’ve lived in. People there (in general) are the most tolerant, patient and compassionate I’ve ever encountered.
I am still nostalgic for my hometown, Varna, and love going back there to see my parents and childhood friends. Perhaps I will retire there, who knows :)
You are well known for your comic and graphic novel work, but you have also worked in animation and games. Do you think the latter (not taking into account independent animation productions) are living up to their potential when it comes to raising awareness about contemporary issues, or is that something the entertainment industry has not yet considered as a priority?
That’s a very difficult question. There are so many things in production right now and I am super excited about all the brave new projects that keep popping up. We live in exciting times where I believe a new wave of colorful variety is coming and will become the new norm. I can’t be happier about it.
As a father, I won’t ask you if parenthood has affected your work, but rather: how has it changed it (not only in terms of increasing lack of sleep)?
Well, my wife has been amazing in keeping me out of all the difficult parts of it so I can concentrate on work. As soon as we figured I am the one who can bring more money in the family we split our responsibilities and it’s been like that for the last twenty years.
I love my kids more than anything and whatever effect they’ve had on my work has made me who I am today. Through raising them I learned how to be a better man. There is nothing better than a hug and kiss from your kid—nothing! It’s like an instant hit of the best drug there is. I am super proud of our kids and who they are growing to be.
If I didn’t have kids it would probably have been a lot easier to do whatever I wanted, live wherever I wanted and traveled a lot more. Those things have their own perks, but I have zero regrets on raising two wonderful, educated and open-minded people, and contributing to society in a positive way.
Do you think that having a solid traditional art education provides you with a very different approach to projects and to your creative process compared to, for example, younger artists with a purely digital education, focused on animation and game design?
The most common question I get at workshops is: “Can you tell me any tricks, so I don’t have to learn anatomy and perspective?” Seriously… I feel like younger artists found a “cool way” through digital media to quickly accomplish an attractive piece of art, where most people focus on the “shiny parts” and aren’t bothered by the lack of structure and respect for anatomy that pokes my eyes like rusty nails. There is so much talent out there and they just need to not be afraid to learn more. I say, “Don’t be afraid” because it’s so satisfying to get those likes on social media and feel validated by thousands. It’s one thing to admit “likes” are a thing, but a truly solid piece of art is a totally different story. The young artists who keep learning are the ones I respect the most. Unfortunately, I know some who simply stopped improving because they felt they’ve reached the top and simply keep doing the same thing over and over. Such narcissistic self-confidence and laziness is poisonous for the creator and can only lead to false ego and creative death.
I'm the proud and happy owner of a copy of Inspire, the book you published via a Kickstarter campaign. Could you tell us about your personal experience developing a crowdfunded project?
What an amazing time that was. So much love and support from the community. I simply can’t express how grateful I am to everyone who backed me up. There is no better marketing than word of mouth and that’s what really made this a success. I thought hard about how to structure my rewards and after considering a ton of options I chose to simply add more pages to the book as the funding grew. I kept it simple and to the core of the reason people back me up—my art. So, I stayed away from prints, hats, t-shirts and pins, because some people genuinely don’t care about those. Now I have a very heavy book to mail all over the world :)
I pretty much had the design files ready by the time the Kickstarter ended but experienced some issues with the print house I had chosen. It took me months to find a new one and get things going. I learned a ton about preproduction and the right way to organize your workflow and communicate with the printer. Choosing the right paper is half the battle because it really matters how it feels when you hold a physical object in your hands. This s where it starts: the paper. After that’s chosen you prepare your digital files to look the best on that paper. I didn’t know that so I had to make all the files at least twice. Then it’s really important to have a great partnership with the print house as they can either have your back or ruin your book. I was super happy with my choice and they delivered an amazing product.
I used the same print house and paper for my next little limited edition project, “It’s Personal,” a collection of book sketches I did in the bigger book. Both books are now available on my website.
What about teaching? Are you passionate about it? What do you find more enjoyable about it?
Yes, I love sharing knowledge and seeing how artists improve quickly given the right approach. I am currently finishing up a class for Schoolism where I will share and explain my method of drawing and approach to an illustration by teaching my techniques through various fun exercises and homework. I’ve shot all the video, but putting it together proved to be a lot bigger a task than I had anticipated. Hopefully I’ll be ready by the end of the year. I’ll be using live topple models and some amazing photo reference from Scott Eaton’s bodiesinmotion.com for the exercises. People will also learn about how big Josh Brolin’s head really is :)
Does this also apply to talks and demos at big events, or do you still deal with stage fright?
Well, I am not terrified, but I am really respectful of the time people give me when they come to listen to my talks or watch me draw. I prepare very hard for it and am always nervous if I am giving them enough and if there is anything else I could offer. All this gives me a very healthy dosage of stage fright that keeps me on my toes, but I love talking and connecting with my audience. There have been instances where I had to remain silent for some time in order to suppress a choke because I was so brutally honest. I got very emotional and was having a really hard time keeping my cool. I learned later I had made a few people in the audience tear up and I am glad I was able to connect with them on such an emotional level.
Your years as a professional artist have paid off. You not only have some very big names in your CV, but you also have some amazing released projects and several awards. At this point in your career, is there any project you would really love to work on?
Oh, of course! I have several pitches ready, both animation and live action, and would absolutely love to work on any of them.
You have also switched between different industries, kinds of projects and art roles (graphic designer, UIX designer, chief creative, freelancer…) What are some of the professional qualities that have served you better in your career?
Listening carefully, being respectful and patient, being curious about other people’s points of view instead of arguing to protect mine, but most of all—not sending angry emails! There are two big types of challenges; 1) making work with your team a pleasant experience; and 2) staying inspired in your work. Both can be very challenging. I wish I had had someone give me good advice when I was younger, as I had a really hard time fitting in.
Lastly, what would you say to the newer generation of artists who are starting up in the entertainment industry nowadays?
Stay focused on doing things, rather than stressing out over being something! If you focus on the task at hand and do it to the best of your abilities, no matter how big or small it is, in the end you’ll have a product that best represents who you are today. With time, everything you have behind you will be the best you’ve ever been and that’s both volume and quality. Apply that to your relationship with the world around you as well. Be patient, tolerant, compassionate and giving. The world will give the same back.
…and f*cking learn basic anatomy, perspective and structure damn it LOL
Thank you so much, and please keep creating more amazing and funny pieces of art.