A winning Canadian Slovak collaboration

Martin Dupuis and Peter Licko

January 27, 2023

A winning Canadian Slovak collaboration

2022 Applied Arts Illustration Awards winning work Herzog by Martin Dupuis, creative director at Les Évadés, and Peter Licko, illustrator.


Collaborations can be tricky as we all know yet, sometimes, we hit the jackpot and find that the chemistry is there from the start. And throughout the process we experience exchanges that continually push the work forward and meld into a unique and powerful vision, one we wouldn't have molded on our own. This was the case with our 2022 Applied Arts Illustration Awards winners Martin Dupuis, creative director at Les Évadés, and Peter Licko, illustrator, in the Poster Illustration category. We asked this duo to participate in a Q&A and they knocked it out of the park!

Can you talk about the Werner Herzog poster project that brought you two together?

Martin: I’ve been doing posters for a movie theatre called Cinéma du Parc in Montreal for a few years now, mostly for films they play during their midnight movie screenings. They had scheduled a mini-Werner Herzog festival, so I picked out three films from the list and started putting together ideas and looking for an illustrator with whom to collaborate. I had seen Peter’s work and was waiting for the right project to write to him about, and my feeling was that this was it. He had made a series of images including one of a man riding a horse that convinced me that we could do a great poster for Aguirre the wrath of God together. 

Some of Peter’s previous work

Peter: After seeing my work on Behance, Martin wrote me a convincing email about the project. It made me check his portfolio and look at the Werner Herzog films he was suggesting we create posters for together. I liked the idea of doing the project but there was one of the three films he had picked that did not resonate with me at all called Nosferatu the Vampire … I really don’t like horror movies, so I actually asked him if there was a chance it could be replaced. I was a bit scared that asking this would mean the end of our possible collaboration, but I asked him anyways. 


Martin’s sketches in the initial brief that included an idea for Nosferatu

Martin, what was your reaction to Peter asking to change one of the three films? 

Martin: I did find it a bit odd at first, but I’m such a big fan of Herzog that finding another film to work on was really easy. In fact, I’m happy it worked out that way. Nosferatu is one of his most well-known films, and while its broad appeal was one of the reasons I picked it, pushing it aside gave me a chance to give a bit of love and attention to his lesser known Woyzek. Which I also really love … but I still think and have no doubt that Peter would have made an amazing Nosferatu poster! 


What was the working process between you two, how did the work evolve?

Peter: I felt that Martin had a really strong vision of the project as a whole, he sent me a solid brief that included notes and sketches. In fact, I think that his sketches were better than my illustrations and that HE should start a career as an illustrator!  


Martin’s process notes and feedback

Martin: The process was pretty smooth. I had spent a lot of time thinking about and packaging up a decent brief, pointing out which aspects of Peter’s work would really shine in this context and he pretty much delivered on it all in the first drafts he showed me. My process is usually to print something out, leave it around for a little while then I start to get obsessive and write little notes everywhere on the draft. I sent these notes back to Peter and we kept chipping away at all these small details until the work felt JUST right. Sometimes I made suggestions and they made things better and sometimes he showed suggestions and made things better. It’s the ideal in collaboration, we both wouldn’t have gotten there alone and if the work is good its good it’s because of the interaction that happened between us during it all. 


What was the biggest challenge to make the Herzog series and what are you most proud of in them?

Martin: Since I’m such a big fan of the films, one of the challenges was dealing with the self-imposed pressure of wanting to hit a home run, really do something special. One of the things that stood out and made me think of Peter for the series was how he draws heads. I love how their exaggerated diminutive proportions impose a certain quality to the figures. I’m proud of how it worked itself out in the series, giving it all a fairy tale like feeling - especially in the Aguirre poster. I love his exaggerated arm and the idea of being a contrarian and NOT showing Kinski’s famous face in our version. And I’m proud of how we got his contorted hunchback and head JUST right. 


Process tests to get the hunch and head just right

Peter: There is a strange and unique atmosphere in Herzog’s movies that was hard to capture. I had to sink into and study all the photos, trailers and movie sequences with my full attention to get the interpretations correct. To respect the source material but make it look new and different at the same time.  


Putting aside the Werner Herzog poster series what is the hardest project you ever worked on? 

Peter: The most difficult project I ever worked on was book for Dohviezdny večer, which is a Slovak folk name for Christmas Eve. It included many challenges. One of them was the fact that the book was a collection of 25 different writers – so every story was completely different and demanded its own personal approach. It’s much easier when dealing with illustrating one writer at a time, so it was hard. 

Another challenge for the book was more of a technical one… it was the first time I dealt with using Pantone colours, so there was extra time spent learning and preparing the illustrations so that everything came out the way it should in the printing process. Lastly the cover was made by a duo, an illustrator and a designer, working together, which was unusual for me. 


Peter’s illustration work for a Christmas book project

Martin: The hardest project I ever worked on happened last year. Each Christmas my agency gives a gift to their clients and the idea was to make a book featuring the posters I’ve been working on in the last six years. It was a huge endeavour that had an incredibly tight deadline. Having a book made of my work was most likely never going to happen again, so it got ALL of my energy and focus. It turned out to be 200 pages and showcased 30 of my favourite posters that I had worked on at the agency. It has interviews in it, process work and personal text. I designed it all myself and wrote it all myself. It was a roller coaster ride of sleepless nights but the hardships were worth it. The book represents a successful merging of work and personal passion. It was great to have the backing of my agency, Les Évadés who were willing to go ahead with such a project. A real win-win situation for everyone.  

Images from Martin’s poster book project

What is a project that you guys are most proud of? 

Peter: This might be a strange answer but when I think of a project that I am the proudest of it brings to mind something I did when I was in architecture school. The project had to do with the concept and challenge of placing buildings near a river. I needed to find a new approach to dealing with the structure and how it engaged with the river bank. It won an award from the Dean of the faculty and to this day I am still extremely proud of it. Looking back, I can see that this project has had a lasting effect on how I go about solving problems and currently doing illustration.


Images Peter did for a project in architecture school

Martin: I saw the documentary on Robert Crumb in the late nineties and it made me start drawing in sketchbooks. In the film Crumb never uses pencils and draws with ink right away. I’ve followed this rule from day one and fill a sketchbook up about every six months or so. I’m currently half way through sketchbook forty-three. As a whole, they represent a never-ending sense of momentum and drive … They are filled up with notes, found images, drawings of things that catch my attention and of things going on inside my head. I always buy the same ones, and they are all filed very neatly on my shelf next to each other. I’m proud that I’ve been able to keep them going. 


Stack of Martin’s sketchbooks

What advice would the two of you give to those seeking a career in illustration?

Peter: Jumping into what you love and sticking to it is really important. Your first job might not be the best and your style might not be fully developed yet but you have to give each step of the way all you’ve got. You’ll improve and get better jobs.  

I have a bachelor's degree in architecture and it really helps me in my creative work, including illustration. You bring all you’ve learned to it and find your own way. There is no one right approach, but the process of engaging with illustration and sticking to it is incredibly satisfying.   


Martin: I often get reeled in seeing work that illustrators do as personal side projects. Work that no one has asked them to do but they do anyways. It sits alongside their school work and client work but speaks volumes to the kind of passion and creativity they have. My advice would be to cultivate a work ethic that involves doing stuff that you really want to be doing, work that no one has asked you to do - and post it up as much as possible. It might end up attracting the kind of job offer that aligns with what you really want to be doing. 


How has winning Applied Arts Awards impacted your business?

Martin: What’s really great about winning an Applied Arts Award is how it makes the work travel around to places it wouldn’t have otherwise. You don’t do the work for awards, but they certainly give great momentum and credibility to the emails I send to people as I keep reaching out to new collaborators about doing projects together. It helps. And it feels good to get that kind of attention from your peers, from time to time - a pat on the back for a job well done.  


Peter: I live in central Europe, so Applied Arts is new to me. What I hope happens is that the attention I get from the award can translate into people seeing it and it can result in new Canadian collaborations. 


Who are your creative heroes?

Peter: I have a lot of creative heroes. A big one is Petr Sis, an illustrator from Brno one of the Czech cities. He is someone that persevered and was able to stay true to his values and ethics during the communism in Czechoslovakia, which I admire greatly. He later on went to LA and became a great illustrator of children’s books and lots of other work I really love. 

Another one is Dusan Kallay, a Slovak illustrator who won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s books. His illustrations in Alice in Wonderland stand out for me as particularly stunning. But my biggest creative hero is my grandfather, Jan Licko. He taught me how to draw. He was a woodsman and painted a lot of Slovak mountain landscapes.


Left: illustration by Petr Sis. Right: Dusan Kallay

Martin: One of my creative heroes is definitely Werner Herzog. I grew up in a small town in New Brunswick and his films were not easy to find but when I eventually did, they were a revelation. So were the stories ABOUT them … how Herzog navigated the hardships to make them happen. 

Lessons that still ring true today for me as I do these film posters – don’t wait till your dream projects magically fall on your lap, make them happen. Bring genuine momentum and ideas on the table without anyone asking you and little by little people gravitate towards the enthusiasm and things fall into place. But nothing starts until you put forth the first steps by yourself. That’s the approach I used to start the momentum on all the movie posters I’ve been doing in the last 6 years. 

I also like how Herzog’s relation to the medium is not academic, but from a personal relation to films. The school of picking up a camera and doing a film rather than going to film school. You learn by doing. And you don’t fall into the trap of liking and being inspired by all the films that everyone else watches in class. 


Werner Herzog, left: on the set of Fitzcarraldo

How do you stay inspired?

Peter: I think it’s easy to stayed inspired nowadays. We live in an era where we can find good art everywhere. Of course, bad art is all around us as well, but if we keep focus and pay attention good quality design, architecture and illustration is there to discover. I also get inspired by getting to see how older masters worked, diving deep online to see their process, sketches and paintings. It’s not hard to stay inspired with all of that around. Instagram and Behance are also quick ways to see good stuff pass by. 


Martin: I agree with Peter. Staying inspired has never been a problem for me, in fact it’s the opposite - there is TOO much good stuff around to absorb! Maybe it takes a bit of work, but I’ve been hunting down great books, albums, comics and movies for a good 25 years now that it feels like the machine runs itself. The well of inspiring things around me is deep and seems endless. It’s exciting.


What are a few things that you guys are currently reading, watching and listening to?

Peter: I have a new baby boy, so I am reading children's psychology books and listening to lots of podcasts about it all. I’m learning lot about myself by doing this! Having the new born takes most of our energy these days but one way my wife and I like to unwind these days is to get into Agatha Christie stories. Trying to solve the murders before Miss Marple or Poirot. It’s great fun! 

Music wise – I’ve been listening to John Mayer, Josh Garrels, Jon Foreman, and John Mark Mcmillan these days. Oddly enough all musicians whose names start with J! I did start to play violin last month, so along with a new piano and an old guitar I’m not only listening to music these days but also playing a bit too. 


Some of Peter’s current inspiration

Martin: MF Doom’s Operation Doomsday and Mm… Food have been on a lot these days, along with Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom and Cuckooland. I just finished watching all the 15 Fellini films from the recent Criterion collection box set. It’s been an education and particularly thrilling to see them in chronological order … to see all his themes and ideas build up the way they do, eventually crystalizing in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. 

I buckled down and read Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” over the pandemic. I thought the immensity of that book would be all the Pynchon I needed, yet I’ve now found myself wanting more and am currently reading his first book “V”. Comics wise there is just so much good stuff out there these days – a HUGE book by Genevieve Castrée just came out from Drawn and Quarterly that is really beautiful and a collection of Jim Wooding books called One Beautiful Spring Day has some of the weirdest and most mesmerizing comics I’ve ever seen. 


Some of Martin’s current inspiration