Illustrator Micha Huigen on creating a multifaceted collage for The Verge’s 10th anniversary
The Verge is turning 10, and a look back at the last decade’s worth of stories provides not just an encapsulation of what The Verge has covered but also a snapshot of how quickly the tech that informs our lives transforms. And since we’re The Verge, we can’t just look behind us. Celebrating the last 10 years is also about examining what might come next. Micha Huigen is the perfect artist to distill this intersection into a single image because Micha’s images never actually confine themselves to one space. His surreal illustrations function like scenescapes within which we get to explore close-ups of tiny modular worlds and expansive reimagined realities at once. Though he inks and colors digitally, his art maintains an analog quality, filled with halftones that suggest DIY lithography.
The 25 editorial illustrations, each of which represents one feature in our Verge 10 package, link together into a seamless infinite grid, filled with Easter eggs and precise linework that offer something new with each viewing. (We also think it makes a great pattern for any of your home wallpapering needs.)
I spoke with Micha about dropping out of art school, the evolution of his illustration style, and why urban exploring was pivotal to his development as an artist.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How do you make your illustrations?
I used to always do the sketching and the linework on paper, then scan the linework and color it digitally. But I recently bought myself a drawing tablet with a screen, which makes working digitally feel way more natural. Nowadays, I only do the rough sketch on paper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll be doing that digitally soon as well.
For my personal work, I sometimes like to go fully analog, often with acrylic paint and markers. I like the way digital illustration is so efficient and that there’s an infinite amount of options within reach. That used to be a bit overwhelming, but now it feels like an advantage. I really enjoy the freedom it offers me.
How did you approach this project for Verge 10? Was the scale of it overwhelming?
When I read that I was going to make over 25 illustrations that had to be linked perfectly together, I was honestly a little overwhelmed for a bit. But once I let it sink in, and figured how I was going to approach it, I was just excited. I use different frames within one illustration, with things going in and out of those frames, allowing me to make objects go from one frame into another illustration that is linked next to it. Once I did four or five illustrations for this project and saw that they linked together nicely, I knew it was going to work out, which was very relieving.
How do you first approach a drawing? How does your process of sketching work — do you start with an idea, or just see what comes out when you sit down to work?
The first thing I do is make a little summary of the article to have an idea of what the subject is and how I can represent it. Then I start thinking about objects that have to be in there and how to make that look interesting, or how I can turn them into more than just a literal depiction of those elements. Take the illustration for the article about electric vehicles, for instance. The main idea of the article is that Tesla batteries died too quickly to be used as racing cars. A battery and an EV were things that, realistically, had to be in the image. So then I started thinking about how I could make those objects speak to the imagination. I started looking up what electric motors and the interior of Tesla’s cars look like. Tesla’s dashboard screens gave me the idea to create a frame with the arms of a race driver holding a steering wheel, going into a frame with a dashboard, and out of that screen comes another frame with an image of a battery that’s nearly empty.
How did you begin your career as an illustrator? Were there any pivotal moments that made you the artist you are?
I have been drawing my whole life. I was that typical dreamy kid who always filled the pages of his notebooks with doodles in class. When I graduated from high school, I went to an art school specifically to become an art teacher. But I was way too young in my mind back then and I didn’t really take it seriously. After half a year there, I quit. The future was not on my mind at all. I spent a while doing side jobs, and finally, I decided to go to ArtEZ to study illustration design. I guess I had to become a bit more mature first.
My attitude completely changed. In the first year, I thought I already knew how to draw and that I already had my own style. I did every assignment and handed it in on time. Never missed a deadline. But in my mind, I did it just to get that paper. But by the end of the second year, I saw my classmates discovering new materials, new styles, and that made me realize that it was stupid not to try and explore new things as well. That’s when I started to figure out what I wanted to say with my illustrations and how to say it.
I graduated with a portfolio of work about urban exploring. I went to abandoned construction sites and demolished restaurants and tried to convey that sense of adventure in my drawings.
After graduating, I had a variety of side jobs. I worked in a factory stacking boxes on assembly lines. Slowly but surely, I started to get more commissions, and about two years ago, I quit my daytime job and tried to make a living out of just illustration. Three months later COVID-19 hit, and a few big commissions got canceled. But luckily the government here in the Netherlands provided a subsidy to freelancers, which allowed me to continue working.
What drew you to making illustrations about urban exploring? Is there something about abandoned places that’s particularly compelling to you?
As a kid, I used to roam around with friends in the industrial area in town. It was always really exciting. Just the general feeling I used to get when building stuff like huts and bridges to cross ditches or discovering cool places never really left me I guess.
How did your style develop? Has it changed over time?
My style has gone through a few changes over the years. Both in terms of subjects as well as the way I go about an illustration.
I used to draw a lot of dusty attics, sheds, rusty factories, industrial areas filled with car tires, wooden pallets, and iron bars. After a while, I wanted to do something different. Then I started getting back into drawing more surreal, psychedelic things, which gives me the opportunity to come up with interesting compositions, switching perspectives and finding solutions to make objects morph into other things.
Your work is made up of a lot of modular, geographic elements — you zoom in on close-ups in a scene, you superimpose elements from elsewhere over the top of a landscape. How did this come about, and how do you create these compositions?
I feel like this way of approaching illustration comes from two things. The first is from the way I drew as a teenager. I used to just grab a fine liner and start drawing, with pretty much no concept in mind. It often started out with just organic shapes and I built from there. It enabled me to look at a drawing with a kind of bird’s-eye view and to see multiple ways of going about drawing things. I also developed a good sense of spatial awareness, so I can kind of visualize an object from multiple angles. And the other thing is the discovery of adding frames, giving me the ability to play with size and perspective.
Do you look at the work of other artists for inspiration?
I used to do that a lot, especially during and after graduation when I was really figuring out my style. I used to look at other works and try to pinpoint what it was that made that specific illustration look good. Nowadays, I don’t really look at other people’s work as far as inspiration in terms of style.
What is your working routine like?
I’m quite a chaotic person, so I really like having a bit of structure, which as a freelancer is something you really have to create yourself. So I try to have a five-day workweek from 9 ‘till 5. This past year, I’ve been renting a studio with another illustrator and an animator. It really helps me to keep my work and private life separated.
There are weeks when I’m very busy and work ten hours or more per day. Sometimes there are weeks where I don’t really have commissions to work on. That’s when I try to create personal work, of which I sometimes make prints for my webshop or just my portfolio. Only thing is that you can’t force inspiration and creativity. So there are days where I’m just staring at a blank piece of paper for hours, forcing myself to create stuff and do that until it’s 5:00. It often doesn’t work that way, so I’m still trying to figure out what to do in those moments because I don’t want to be doing nothing.
What is your dream commission?
Apart from making art, I’m really into skateboarding. I’ve been doing that for about 17 years. And I also love making music, particularly playing electric guitar. I’m in a band, we play a combination of some indie / funk stuff. I’ve had some commissions where I got the chance to combine those passions. I’ve made some gig posters, done some EP and album covers and some merchandise design, and I designed a skateboard deck once for a small skateshop. I guess my dream commission would be to create art for a band I really love. I’d also love to make deck designs for a well-known skateboard brand.
But this commission for The Verge was a dream commission as well. I really liked the challenge of making such a large number of illustrations and linking them together to make one big image. And it was quite an honor to get the opportunity to work together with such a big platform on a project that’s pretty huge for my standards.
But I don’t really have specific dreams or plans, I just try to continue to grow as an artist because every commission has the possibility to lead to another one. The way this commission for The Verge came about is the perfect example. A year or two ago, I sent an email to bimonthly magazine The Believer to ask for a collaboration. I didn’t hear from them for a while. But after a few months, I got a reaction and got asked to make a spread and two spot illustrations for the magazine about stolen relics from India. They appreciated my work at The Believer, and I got a new commission to design one of their covers. I was pretty proud to design a cover in my little studio in Zwolle for a magazine all the way from America. When Kristen [who used to work at The Believer] started working for The Verge, she offered me the amazing chance to do the Verge 10 project. So cool how that all started with one email! That’s already an unexpected dream come true for me.