Morning Person: Vasco Mourao
Architect turned illustrator, Vasco Mourao has an unparalleled eye for detail and underlying structures that has led to a full-time career drawing buildings. He describes himself as having a ‘tendency for obsessive drawings,’ starting with an early focus on horses, but growing to encompass entire cities in his own intricate style.
Vasco’s positive personality has made him many friends over the years, friends who have pushed him to move to Barcelona, organize CreativeMornings/Barcelona, and, ultimately, pursue a career in doing what he loves. I spoke with Vasco on having fun, his odd obsession with horses, and the magic of the internet.
How did you get your start? What led you down the path to illustration?
The beginning of the beginning. As a kid, I always liked to draw. You know, everyone who does art has this similar background. You are a kid, you draw a lot, but I had a weird thing going on: I only drew horses.
I have piles and piles of paper with horses on them. It was a bit strange because I didn’t have a horse. My friends didn’t have a horse. I didn’t even see a real horse until I was 18!
But, I was really fixated on horses and I drew them from the time I was 7 years old to 20. It was something I really enjoyed and I spent a lot of time doing that. Basically, I was known by my friends as the horse-guy, that guy who drew horses.
Last September, I gave a talk explaining this and as I prepared the talk I found that I didn’t have any of these drawings of horses, so I called my mom and asked, “Do you have some of my drawings?” She said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll pick up a few.” When I came by the house, my mother had boxes and boxes of these horse drawings. Just pages after pages of horses. It would almost be boring if it wasn’t also so strange!
Horses, horses, and more horses.
Even in assignments at school where we were told to draw your family or draw your house, it would be my family and a horse, my house and a horse. We found one drawing that didn’t have a horse, but flipped it over only to find… a huge horse.
The bottom line is that it was something fun for me and got me into the pleasure of drawing. When I ended up going to school to study architecture, it helped me understand the underlying structure to things, how bones and muscles operate and work together to create movement.
Horses are supposed to be one of the most difficult things to draw.
There are a couple of tricks. There are a lot bones and bone articulations but with some practice you’ll get it. When I was younger, I’d even come up with a game. I could start with the head, or I could start with the feet and then draw for there. It was helpful to understand how the same object can be assembled and reassembled.
I went to architecture school because one of my friends, who was studying architecture, said it was very fun. Not architecture, per se, but studying it. I decided to go for it. I didn’t really know what it meant to be an architect and was a bit unaware of it all but one of the first, most important disciplines was drawing.
The first year, the teachers asked for you to deliver the final project along with all the process and drawings made while you were working of this assignment. When I saw that, I thought—jackpot! I could draw a lot! I could produce piles and piles of drawings. This school work took me to a different level. In the beginning, drawing was just something I did only for pleasure but architecture school taught me drawing as a way of thinking. Now when I have to explain or understand something, my instinct is to draw it.
I finished architecture school, took a few internships, and began working. I continued to draw for myself, but didn’t think it had any value to other people. It was just something I did it for myself or friends. It was something I liked to do. Sometimes I would make a drawing for a friend, but nothing more than that.
Five years after graduating from architecture school, I moved to Barcelona because another friend of mine asked me if I could come help him organize an event for six months. It was Gil—the organizer of CreativeMornings/Porto! He said, “Do you want to come to Barcelona? I am here, there is an office looking to hire. I’ll recommend you…” And I said, okay, for six months, I will go. I came for six months and I haven’t left for seven years.
He went back to Portugal, but I’m not planning to leave anytime soon. When I first got to Barcelona, I didn’t have anything planned—as usual. I didn’t know the city very well and had to quickly figure out a way to get to work. I had to commute 30 to 45 minutes via subway to get to the office. It was very stupid because there was a bus line for the same distance that only took ten minutes, but I didn’t discover it until three months later.
Some of Vasco’s earliest subway drawings.
So, for those first three months, I had one hour each day sitting on the subway. I would always carry a pen and notebook. In the beginning, I would draw what I was thinking about, make lists, just stuff that was related to work and what I had to do. Then I developed a kind of drawing that I could continue each day, which is how I started on the path to my current illustrations that are full of deep details. I began adding extra windows and structures to drawings of buildings, stretching them out over several trips. Drawing by accumulation.
With a lot of detail, a drawing could take three trips. At the end, I would have these huge drawings full of detail. I showed it to a friend of mine and she said I should start a blog. I said okay—again. I made some scans of the drawings, put them online and, a month after that, I got my first big commission.
It was surreal. A famous London furniture company wanted me to make drawings for their catalog. They flew me out to London and paid for everything. That was that. Not bad a bad start for my illustration career!
After this, I came home and everything was the same. I was still working seven days a week at the architecture office, but the commissions kept coming. That same friend told me again, “Vasco, you need to set up an online shop.” So, I made some research and set up a real nasty and ugly online shop—I didn’t know better! Once again, a stroke of lightning and luck. An hour after I published it, I had my first sale. Yay!
That’s when I realized that something I actually love to do might have some value for other people. This notion still blows my mind. So I kept on drawing and alternating between commissions and personal projects.
In 2012, I was commissioned by The New Yorker to do this drawing for the New Yorker Festival.
That is why I love the internet. My business model is to put my work online and the internet gives me back commissions. It’s that simple. Guess I’m just lucky.
I don’t know how much luck has to do with it. It sounds like some persistent work coupled with some wonderfully timed advice from friends. Is there anyone who stands out to you as helping you along the way?
Yes! My mentor was Alice Bernardo, she used to make and sell handmade scarves and was a bit more savvy about this than I was. She told me what to do. I followed her advice and it worked quite well. Sometimes you just need someone say, “Hey! Go ahead!”
I also have to thank to my parents. They’ve always encourage and support every decision I’ve made and gave me and my sister a wonderful childhood. And, oh, surprise we’re both happy and optimistic! That’s something that helps a lot.
How do you think living in Barcelona impacts the work that you do?
I can’t really pinpoint it actually.. It’s just that this city provides a every day live that is so comfortable, so easy going that I seem to take it for granted. In my view, Barcelona’s ordinary everyday life seems to become extraordinary. I adore the fact that I can go anywhere in my bike, my neighborhood is like a lovely small village in the middle of Barcelona, the fresh produce market is right next to my home and that’s where I buy almost everything I eat, there’s always a terrace bar for beers with friends and this may seem a cliché, but having so many sunny days does make a difference.
All of those seemingly little and unimportant things make me feel very happy and motivated which lead to a nice work routine. That is the way to get work done.
Also as the organizer of CreativeMornings, I am re-discovering the creative community of the city. It has been fun for me to discover and contact all these creative people to speak. It’s the perfect excuse to get to know all these people that I admire and get to learn from all of them.
If you had to give advice for someone who was just starting out in their creative career what would you tell them?
Work like a madman. Edit it. Then put it online.
I have friends who are very talented, but still fear the internet. They are afraid that people might steal their ideas. For me, the opposite worked much better. I put online everything I do that I think has some value.
The internet is an amazing connector. Use it! I sell drawings to Thailand and Australia so it’s possible to find your niche online. You don’t have to be super famous to have a nice work life.
Just make something with love and a bit of craft and I think you will make it.
You see so many posters these days with these short bits of advice. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Work hard. Be nice. Be generous. It has become kind of a frou-frou thing. Sometimes it can be hard to take seriously what’s written in a tote bag, but those are still so true.
What are three things you believe in?
A while ago, I’ve read something that struck a chord, which I really believe:
“If you fail at your work, it is not failure at all,
but if you fail at your relationships, that’s really failure.”
You can be the worst in the business, producing awful work, but if you love and cherish the people around you, that’s the really important part. The work that we do deserves some attention, but the people around you are so much more important.
Wow. That’s beautiful. What are two more?
Ah! I was hoping one really good one would be enough. Alright, another thing is try to have fun and don’t take things too seriously. When it’s sunny, go outside and do silly stuff.
Third, define what it would be your perfect day. I took this from Chris Guillebeau:
Imagine how, where and with whom it would be, what kind of activities are involved and so on, and then strive to achieve it. That quest to get the perfect day, even if at the end you don’t get to all of it, is very rewarding.
And, also, this way you’ll recognize success when it happens!
What’s the last thing you made for work?
I just finished an illustration for the Washington Post [should be published late June] and a couple of full page drawings for The New Yorker. Now, I’m focused on creating twelve or more drawings for an exhibit in New York in October.
In September, I’ll have to pick up and finish a gigantic drawing that I began earlier this year. One of my best client asked if I could do this a really big and challenging piece… He and two other friends are from Genoa, Italy, and ordered a triptych drawing based on the city. It will be huge, my biggest piece ever. I had to rent out a space to do this because it is really big.
How big is big?
It is 5 meters and a half by 1.5 meters high to be divided in three irregular shapes. It’s crazy!
Do you have any side projects?
I’m currently designing and illustrating a book that my wife wrote, a textbook to teach Portuguese to the business world. Also, with Madalena, we will open a online shop to sell some incredible objects we found during our work-travel-experiment trip and from our home country, Portugal.
Other thing that it’s been on my mind is Maplio, a website to connect places with their stories.
What do you do to actively challenge yourself and push your work forward?
For me, it is all about regularity. What I have to do is find the time every day to sit and draw. That’s really important to me.
I try do this with my almost-daily drawings project in which I do a small drawing each day. It works well because it’s easy to share. Also, when I draw fifteen drawings in a row, they all seem a bit similar but maybe number 13 and number 9 have something I didn’t see in any of my drawings and I can then develop that idea. To push the work forward I uncover something of interest to me and that only comes when I am drawing. So, I just need to be more consistent and keep up the ritual. Everyday. Music, pen and paper.
Some of Vasco’s daily drawings.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I had some coconut, pineapple, watermelon, mango, papaya, lychees, then a fresh baguette with butter and a very fragrant black coffee. Just the normal stuff you can buy in a Vietnamese street market!