Carlo Stanga on serendipity in the art of architectural illustration

The Berlin-based architectural illustrator tells STIR how he got a dream job for himself, why he sticks to a limited palette of colours, and how hand drawing is key to his style.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Nov 08, 2022

To copy exactly what you see isn't what he likes to do with his art; for him the transformation of a scene into an image is marked by filters and unexpected details. After all, as he says, he is an illustrator, and not a photographer. Italian architect-turned-illustrator Carlo Stanga creates immersive colourful vignettes of cities and urban landscapes, resulting from a mix of hand-done and digital process which he believes is equally heavy and meditative. As cities are complicated and filled with whimsical stories, Stanga's theatrical compositions too carry magical characters and components that seek to reveal the spirit of a place.

An illustration from Stanga's special series, I am New York| Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
An illustration from Stanga's special series, I am New York Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

STIR recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Berlin-based artist over a Zoom interview. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Zohra Khan: At about two years of age, you had difficulty in speaking and you often used drawings to communicate. Do you recall some of those early visual or auditory stimuli that brought you to draw in the first place?

Carlo Stanga: I started speaking very late, but somehow I was really attentive to all the stimulus from around. It was an experience that made me very sensitive to colours, and I needed to reproduce this stimulus on a piece of paper, or on the wall, or the surface of my mother's kitchen. I was drawing everywhere.

A drawing made by Carlo Stange when he was 12 years old | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
A drawing made by Carlo Stanga when he was 12-years-old Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Later when I started to speak, it was very important to continue this need to communicate through drawing. I intensively committed myself to drawing. The fact that I decided to choose this way of communication instead of using words to share my feelings was a very strong moment for me, and it pushed me to deepen my technique and this kind of communication.

Zohra: You credit a teacher of your elementary school, and later, Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari, who you met in your early career, as key figures who shaped your perspective. What has been their biggest influence on you?

Carlo: It is always very important in life, especially for creative people to meet those who they resonate with. I have been very lucky. Well, we all need some luck in life when it comes to meeting good people.

I had a teacher in elementary school who supported me very much. She gave me a lot of free time dedicated to drawing so that I was able to develop this activity. Interestingly, the lessons she taught us, for example (about) Ancient Rome, I would translate (it) into drawing. It was a good way to learn how to interpret something into an image. Illustration, compared to art, is not so free, but is very connected with a theme or a subject. So, in this case, it was a very good school for me. Then many years later in Polytechnic University of Milan, I met a very important Italian designer, Bruno Munari who involved me in various workshops on his method, that he was teaching children. It was all about freedom and developing one's personal creativity without any kind of imposition. It was a great learning experience for me. And sometimes even today, I conduct workshops for children based on Bruno Munari's method.

A day in the life of Carlo Stanga Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: Being a trained architect, how did illustration find its way in your life?

Carlo: I faced many problems when I decided to close my architectural studio to pursue illustration because I was very tired of the bureaucracy in Italy. I realised that 80 per cent of my time as a professional architect was dedicated to bureaucracy and discussions, and only about five per cent was creative time.

Hand drawing (left) is followed by digital colouring and addition of new elements | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
Hand drawing (left) is followed by digital colouring and addition of new elements Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

What I loved most was drawing and illustration, and so I decided to choose my quality of life by making the right comparison between the two disciplines. I realised, within illustration, I could also channel my passion for architecture. In fact, I illustrate mainly cities and architecture. In a way I created a 'dream job' for myself where all my passions are mixed together. So I cannot say that there is a real contrast now between architecture and illustration because the content of my illustrations is architectural, comprising cities, and urban landscape. Both the disciplines are interconnected and they cannot be divided somehow.

Another thing that I was able to put together by creating this dream job is travelling. To illustrate cities, you have to personally be there. You cannot rely on photographs or what you find off the internet. You have to breathe that air, to meet people, to speak with the inhabitants, and have the real feeling of the city.

An avid traveller, Stanga loves to document his impression of different places | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
An avid traveller, Stanga loves to document his impression of different places Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga
The illustrator cites Rome to be the first city he visited that left a deep impact on him | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
The illustrator cites Rome to be the first city he visited that left a deep impact on him Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: Looking back, do you recall the first place that you ever visited where the enormity of architecture left a spell on you?

Carlo: I was very impressed by Rome. It was the first big city I visited when I was a child. I was eight-years-old. I remember entering the big temple of the Pantheon, which is still standing today after 2000 years, with this wonderful dome. In the middle of the dome, there is a big opening called the Oculus, 8-9 metres in diameter. I remember it was raining that day, and water was pouring down through the oculus and falling onto the floor below, at the very centre of the temple, which looked much like a basin. And just after a few seconds, as Rome's weather changes quite rapidly, a ray of light fell into this space and it was magical. I was shocked to see this changing dimension and harmony of the dome.

Later when we came back to the Piazza in front of the temple, I clearly remember saying that though I wanted to be an astronaut before, but now I want to be an architect. And 12 years later, I was studying architecture at the Politecnico Milano. I did not change my mind in all these years. That visit to Rome left a strong positive shock on me.

  • Carlo Stanga engrossed in a drawing at his studio space in Berlin | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
    Carlo Stanga engrossed in a drawing at his studio space in Berlin Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga
  • A peek into his Berlin apartment | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
    A peek into his Berlin apartment Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: How has Berlin - your home now - inspired your art?

Carlo: Berlin is very diverse and full of artists from all over the world. It's very different compared to Italy which in general is my home country and a place I love so much, but it's less international. You get the chance to meet other Italian artists or illustrators, but it's less diverse. And on the other side, that is what I like about Berlin— the fact that the city is full of contrast and is very colourful. There are different districts, and every district is like a city on its own. Every time you change a district, it's like visiting a new city.

What inspired me very much is that there is a lot of freedom here. And the other thing is the space. You almost never find yourself in a big crowd in Berlin; you never feel claustrophobic. And with all this space, your soul expands and you breathe better.

In my process, it's imperative for me to decide when to finish a piece of drawing. It's much like creating a wall against myself because when you draw too much and add too many details to a composition, it's an alarm bell. – Carlo Stanga
An animated illustration film by Stanga for Italian papermaker, Moleskine Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: You said this once that "to illustrate is to understand exactly what you have to convey to the public." I wonder how liberating or limiting this aspect is for you as an illustrator – this idea of knowing a little exactly what the outcome should be? At what point in your creative process do you let unexpectedness take over?

Carlo: It’s about what I call serendipity in the drawing process. That you are walking in a city, for example, and you encounter things, corners, and images that are interesting, and at the same time, completely unexpected.

I always start with a pencil and a piece of paper, and I draw in an analog way. Hand drawing leads you to a dimension where mistakes are possible, but these errors are not bad. They can suddenly lead you to find a new way to describe something in your drawing. In the digital world, where everything can be very perfect, if you are able to keep this precision of your hand, you’ll find beautiful new paths in your process.

Everything starts with a pencil for Stanga | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
Everything starts with a pencil for Stanga Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

You have to be trained to collect your beautiful living moments and reproduce them through the illumination of illustration. The act is to clarify something, to get rid of the darkness and shadow, and be able to explain what you see at first sight as an illustrator.

Zohra: When do you know a piece of work is done?

Carlo: It's not that easy because I never stop drawing. So to decide when an illustration is finished, I have to divide myself into two persons—one who is somehow more like my boss, who asks rational questions, and the other is my emotional extension, one who ignores everything and goes ahead to draw.

In my process, it's imperative for me to decide when to finish a piece of drawing. It's much like creating a wall against myself because when you draw too much and add too many details to a composition, it's an alarm bell. It means everything is going to be too heavy. One very important technique to know when to stop, is to take a break. To go out of the studio and then come back and observe the state of this drawing, and then justify it as someone else. It's like seeing the illustration and making final adjustments to it with a new set of eyes.

Detail-heavy compositions are key to Stanga's practice | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
Detail-heavy compositions are key to Stanga's practiceImage: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: You talked about situations when you encounter a certain heaviness both in your compositions and your creative process. While navigating these charged realities, how do you detach yourself from work?

Carlo: Yes, this is very intense work. It's always like a river. I go on and on and then I take a break. And between one work and the other, I take a longer break.

Book covers for 'I am the City' series for Moleskine | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
Book covers for 'I am the City' series for Moleskine Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: Your I am the City series, made in collaboration with Italian papermaker Moleskine, captures the personalities of prominent places through vibrant illustrations and compelling anecdotes. What was the process that you followed in documenting the various cities (New York, London, Milan) for the project?

Carlo: I knew the three cities very well. Had travelled extensively in the past to New York and London, and of course lived many years in Milan. But it was a big discovery, especially Milan, because when you live in a city, most of the time you follow the same streets, you have your favourite bar, restaurant and cinema, and while sticking to these places, you miss out on many different parts of the city. Sometimes tourists know the city better than you because they want to live the life of the place. It's very different to be an inhabitant and a visitor.

So with this project I tried the idea of discovering my own city, and to explore places I have never seen before. And so as I was very close to all the three cities, it was quite easy to visit, once again, the different districts, places, and corners. I had one year and a half to create these drawings, write the book, and to look through the reality of the city, unlike a normal touristic experience.

I am not a photographer, so I like to create a filter, an interpretation between the reality and what I see. - Carlo Stanga
For an architectural illustrator to thrive, Stanga believes that it is important to cultivate a unique and recognisable style | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
For an architectural illustrator to thrive, Stanga believes that it is important to cultivate a unique and recognisable style Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

Zohra: What would you advise those who are looking to pursue a career in architectural illustration?

Carlo: I think it's very important to be passionate about this subject and be able to create a personal and unique language of illustration. There is a lot of competition in this industry. It's also very important to be recognisable as an illustrator, and to be able to maintain your own style in drawing cities and architecture. For me it's very important to draw by hand because this is the best way to maintain my style. For me it's very important to stay in contact with a certain palette of colours. It helps me recognise myself in my work where I know that nobody else is like me.

Zohra: Could you tell us:

A colour you avoid using in your compositions…

Carlo: I use a few colours, like tones of colours because I don't want to make my illustrations appear like a carnival. If you pay attention to the colours in the street during the day, you realise that you don't have so many colours, but in general a few tones. I try to always pay respect to this reality, but at the same time, I tend to turn these colours closer to the colours I prefer. For example, orange instead of red. I am not a photographer, so I like to create a filter, an interpretation between reality and what I see.
To answer your question, there are many colours that I don't like. Green is one of them.

The illustrator uses a limited palette of colours| Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
The illustrator uses a limited palette of colours Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

The best time of the day to work…

Carlo: I am not an early bird so I very much like to work in the afternoons, especially at night.

A book you grew up reading…

Carlo: Books that I had collected of Saul Steinberg, an illustrator famous for many New Yorker covers. He has been a big inspiration for me.

The last movie you enjoyed watching…

Carlo: There was a very good film that I saw last year, the American science fiction drama film called Arrival.

Your biggest fear...

Carlo: Turning blind, probably.

Stanga tells STIR that most people don't know what architectural illustrators do | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
Stanga tells STIR that most people don't know what architectural illustrators do Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

The biggest misconception people have about the life of an illustrator…

Carlo: People don’t know who an illustrator is. When I say that I am one, they ask if I do comics. And so in times when I get tired of this explanation, I tell them I am an architect, and everything gets clear.

The last city you visited…

Carlo:Luxor in Egypt. I was there two weeks ago for work, and it was amazing. I visited Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Karnak, the Luxor Temple, and several tombs. It was a big experience.

The next city on your list...

Carlo: Jerusalem.

The best advice that someone gave you…

Carlo: “Be yourself,” Bruno Munari said this to me once, and it was the best advice for me as a young illustrator.

And the worst?

Carlo: "Don’t do illustration. It is stupid. It’s better if you work as an architect or an engineer. Have a profession that is recognisable and guarantees you a status.”

Your go-to design tool…

Carlo: Pencil and a piece of paper. I very much like the analog feeling of a pencil moving on paper. Also in the last few years I have been using pencil more than felt tip pens or ink pens. It helps me enjoy the warmth of my hand, and I appreciate it more because it is not very precise unlike ink which is perfect and quite recognisable. In my last few illustrations, I scanned the sketches directly before colouring them in Photoshop instead of colouring the ink outline that I scanned before. It saves a lot of time because I don’t trace the pencil with ink anymore.

An illustration by Stanga produced by Italian firm, Wallpepper Group | Carlo Stanga | Interview | STIRworld
An illustration by Stanga produced by Italian firm, Wallpepper Group Image: Courtesy of Carlo Stanga

What does comfort mean to you?

Carlo: Drawing during the night in my studio on a subject I like. To be at peace with myself, knowing that I made the right choice and that I was able to create a job that mirrors me perfectly.

Zohra: What is NEXT for you?

Carlo: It's always a surprise, this idea of what's next for me, because every day I receive new assignments. I am working now on an illustration, spanning 20 metres by 20 metres for an Italian real estate firm. I have to represent different monuments and important sites of Milan with a focus on showing the contrast of different districts. I am working with something that is very familiar and at the same time quite unexpected. The exercise is to share with people a new way to look at the city.

What do you think?

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