Ralph Zabel

Can a tree grow out of a book? Can a chair grow out of a wall? These are among the many questions that Ralph Zabel raises throughout his art. By challenging our basic assumptions and associations, the Dutch illustrator subverts normality and prompts his audience to ask wider questions about the purpose and value of life in the modern world. His philosophical approach to art is rich in detail as he invites the viewer to create their own narrative within his work. We talked about what it’s like to work at Star Bucks, the meaning of life and the role of the individual in a globalised world. Excerpts below…

Interview With Artist


What inspires your illustrations?

I’m interested in social behaviour and how our human needs contradict and with where people find satisfaction. People have this need for safety and comfort but also a need for adventure and new experiences. Can we ever be satisfied? There’s always something on the other side that pulls people across. So that’s what interests me – what is that? What is it that people are looking for? And what do they need? What could actually progress them? I think I’d like to make my art serve messages that could inspire people to always look for new ways to get them out of a rut.


Do you have any consistent symbols that you use throughout your work?

I do a lot of big drawings so I try to fill them up with details and textures. I also have my own sneaky stories that people don’t understand right away. A clock is a reoccurring theme throughout my work. I use hour clocks and doomsday clocks in the fine details of larger works.


Why clocks?

People have become a slave to time. We are always looking at what time it is now or how much time is left. People are always looking back at stuff they could have done or looking ahead at all the things they have to do. There is a constant conflict between what is going to happen or what has happened and now no one is living in the present. Living by the clock takes you out of your personal experience with the world around you.


What is the narrative behind your We vs Me series (featured above)?

That series mostly explores the tension generated by the human need for structure, safety and security and on the other hand; the need for innovation, individuality and discovery. These conflicting needs are at the core of a created society that is struggling with it’s structures and uniformities. The project explores the herd behaviour within society and the new ways that people overcome it. People become dissatisfied and look for something new. Dissatisfaction will then set in again. It’s like a circle of looking for new things and then not being satisfied with what there is.

I like working on and reading about how individuals in society look at each other and mimic their actions. How people try to find themselves between asking the question what do I want and looking at the other person what does he do?

It’s a cycle of people looking for where they can belong. Through my art, I try to distort everyday life and make them weird and abstract. Twist things around a little bit. Can a tree grow out of a book? Can a chair grow out of a wall? If people see inspiring things in every day life it would prevent them from getting in a rut and maybe make people more creative and less fearful. I’m not really saving lives or anything but I’m looking for a way to give art an empathetic purpose.


What is your art marking process list?

Before I start making an illustration, I read into the subject. I try to form an opinion through the learning and reflection process. I think the artwork is like the conclusion of this learning process.

I use fine liner pencils and brushes and all kinds of material and then I scan them into the computer and give them colour. I do this in different layers. You get more colours through layering. For one illustration I could use 20 different papers and scan them in to create many different papers and textures. It takes a lot of time doing it this way but I love it.


Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’ve been invited to work on an etching workshop with a famous Dutch etching artist called Robbie Cornelissen. He’s 62 now and I’ve been invited to be his student for a some time this summer, he’s going to teach me etching and we’re going to make prints together for this big festival in Utrecht. My city has a history with this way of print making. There are young people and more experienced people working together, I’m really excited about it.


 To see more of Ralph’s work, feel free to look at his website or follow him on Instagram.

Alternatively, feel free to contact the artist directly via ralph.zabel@gmail.com.

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