Bob Venables on his world of surreal imagery for beer brand Pauwel Kwak

Garrick Webster interviews Bob Venables to find out more about the conception of the beer brand's art.

Part 2: Written by Garrick Webster

The English pastiche illustrator Bob Venables has painted a wide range of artworks to define the new look and feel of the Pauwel Kwak beer brand from Belgium. Briefed by the creative agency Epoch Design in Bristol, Bob’s work features on the labels, in TV commercials and across a variety of promotional and marketing materials for the brand.

In the following interview, the artist talks about the project’s background, replicating the style of René Magritte, and surreal Kwak World he has created.

When and how did the job come about?

Juliette, my lovely agent at IllustrationX contacted me in the Autumn of 2021 after receiving interest from Epoch Design, an agency in Bristol that specialises in fast moving consumer goods branding. They’d seen my work for Waitrose in which I’d painted things like a pig with pearl earrings, a prawn in a suit and a cow eating gherkins. They wanted to see if I could produce similar work to help rebrand a Belgian beer.

What was the brief?

Initially, the brief was to sketch the character behind the brand, a Napoleonic innkeeper called Pauwel Kwak, with a view to painting the illustrations for three beer labels. They had the idea of replacing his head with ingredients that go into the three versions of the product. So, on the Amber label his head is a sheaf of grain, on the Blonde label it’s a hop cone and on the Rouge version it’s a cherry.

What did this opportunity mean to you?

Well, it was great. They wanted something quirky and unexpected. Because the beer is Belgian, some of the inspiration for the rebrand came from Magritte and his surrealist paintings. That’s a style I’m comfortable with and I couldn’t wait to get the sketches done and start painting.

How did you develop the label artwork?

First, I sketched Pauwel Kwak with the three different ingredients for his head. I tested different poses and adjusted his stance. Getting the details just right was part of the challenge. For example, at first the hop head looked a bit like an artichoke, so I had to redraw the cone and lengthen it. The barley I drew at first was too detailed and complicated, and we reduced that down to three heads of wheat. The distinctive Kwak glass is an important part of the brand, so I sketched that being held in different ways, giving the client some choice.

What kind of look and feel were you going for?

Part of the creative vision for the brand was to celebrate Belgian surrealism, so I painted the labels in a style similar to that of René Magritte. He used oils, and although he was a surrealist, he painted in a very realistic and traditional way. It’s just that the subjects he painted were unusual.

The other aspect of the look and feel came from the historic character, Pauwel Kwak, an innkeeper who invented this special glass to serve coach drivers in the early 19th century. In fact, we updated his look to around the 1850s and I looked at lots of old paintings and photographs of gentlemen from the Victorian period to reference their clothing. 

Does Magritte inspire you?

In actual fact, I think an awful lot of illustration owes a debt to Magritte. Throughout graphic design, throughout the 1960s, so much was based on putting oddities together. You can’t ignore him. In a way, everything you see is loosely based on Magritte. The client wanted that essence, with a 19th century look to it.

What tools and media did you use?

I sketch on a Wacom Cintiq into Adobe Photoshop, and then I paint over the sketches, again using the Wacom stylus and Photoshop brushes. It looks just like an oil painting when you’re finished, but changing the image according to the client’s wishes is a lot easier.

How do you give an image charm and personality when the characters have no faces?

I played around with the posture a lot. I had someone photograph me in a jacket trying different poses. I asked the clients in Bristol to give me an idea of how they wanted Pauwel to stand and they sent me photographs of themselves holding glasses. Is his hand on his hip? Is the fist clenched? How is he holding the glass? Which way are the shoulders angled? All these things hint at his personality. 

What was it that interested you most about the project?

I was pleased with how it developed. After we’d perfected the labels, they asked me to paint full-body versions of Pauwel with his different heads, in different stances. These were used for the boxes and things like point-of-sale displays.

It grew even more interesting when I started working on the imagery for the TV commercial. They asked me to sketch the storyboard, and gave me a list of items to paint which included a parrot made from a pear, a juggler, a Victorian strong woman, windmills with seeps made of hops, flying almonds, a piece of nougat being towed by bees, hot air balloons made of caramel… all sorts of quirky and unexpected things. Most of them were inspired by the flavours and aromas of the three beers.

What were some of the challenges?

The clouds, which are made of beer foam, were a bit of a challenge. The beer itself produces very fine head, but if we’d kept it 100 per cent realistic you wouldn’t be able to tell that the clouds were beer bubbles. I kept a few bigger bubbles in there to give them a texture people will recognise.

Where will we see your work in the real world?

The new labels are out now in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, and there’s even a tram driving around Brussels covered in images of Pauwel Kwak and his world. I’ve helped create all sorts of items – three moulded tap handles, inflatable versions of Pauwel used at events, and there might even be a Pauwel Kwak hot air balloon in the summer of 2023.

What’s next for Bob Venables?

Funnily enough, I’m working on another beer label. Because I use so many different styles, I can chop and change from one thing to another, so whatever I do next will look totally different from the previous project. I quite like that – never the same drawing.

Read part 1 of this feature here.

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