You can tell a lot about an artist from the place where they make their work. Whether it’s the stark interior of the workshop where Ron Mueck produces his hyperrealist sculptures or the barely-lit chaos of the basement where Francis Bacon painted his anguish, an artist’s studio offers an insight into what makes them tick.
So it is with Octave Marsal’s bedroom-cum-studio in a shared flat perched a couple of floors above a busy south London street. Small, but light and airy, the space is noticeable not for any sort of bohemian disarray, but for its order. It’s organized. Immaculately organized. To the point where I’m worried setting my laptop down might disturb the room’s delicate composition: a chair here, a drawing table there, sparsely decorated save for a few books and some of his framed drawings.
Then again, where else could work as painstakingly etched as Marsal’s come from? Intricate and exacting, Marsal’s illustrations exhibit an attention to detail that’s almost obsessive. I wonder, as I survey the setsquares, rulers and Staedtler pencils carefully arranged on his drawing table, whether this discipline has been a constant in his life?
“Not really, I was always getting expelled from school!” he says with enough animated hand gestures to confirm his wasn’t a childhood spent holed up in a room studiously memorizing the periodic table. “I wasn’t a particularly ‘good’ child. I mean, I was always respectful with my parents but I was never really focused at school, probably because I’m severely dyslexic and was more interested in chasing girls and getting into clubs.”
Things are different now though, on the school front at least. More than halfway through a two-year MA illustration course at London’s Royal College of Art – which he repeatedly praises for its standard of teaching and caliber of students (60 per cent of whom he says are also visual-first dyslexics) – Marsal is making some of his best work yet. Like The Art of Building, his 2016 collaboration with the Royal College of Music which saw him complete – in just one month – an eye-watering 2,600 drawings to form the backbone for an animation synced with Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins.”
“The first thing I had to do was mark up the entire concerto so that each image in the animation would correlate with a particular point in the music,” he explains. “Then I worked out that there needed to be 12 images per second, and the music is almost three minutes and 30 seconds long so I had to do 150 drawings per day given the timeframe and if I missed a day, I’d have to make it up by doing 300 the next. I was working like a maniac, but it’s definitely the project I’m most proud of.”
It’s not hard to see why. From the sound of the very first stroke of the violins Marsal’s animation plunges you into a world in movement, a realm made up of transient images – some quickly sketched, others precisely delineated – that all nod to some of his most cherished sources of inspiration: Piranesi and Picasso, classical and modernist architecture, reality and utopia.
The effect is such that you feel like you’re watching something at once familiar and unfamiliar, uncanny for want of a better word, but not in the Freudian sense of something disturbing so much as something playful, wondrous even.
“At first glance people often see only the architectural references in my work, but my drawings aren’t just that. They’re sort of distorted; they might seem like they’re depicting something physical, concrete or real but at the same time they’re not that.”
It’s an assertion that reads particularly true of Marsal’s illustration for this issue’s cover. What might at first look like two women embracing is actually a warped mass of meticulously drafted arches, buttresses and columns. “I wanted to anthropomorphize the concept of girlfriends, so I chose to depict two powerful deities towering above the world below,” Marsal explains. “There’s also a castle in the sky that’s based on my favorite film from when I was a child, Le Roi et l’Oiseau  – a collaboration between director Paul Grimault and one of the greatest French poets Jacques Prévert. It’s a story of hard-won freedom and the triumph of love.”
The cover is the latest in a series of commissions that’s been keeping Marsal busy in recent months. But unlike some of his peers, who might see commissions as a necessary evil, Marsal welcomes them. “I love being commissioned, the process of thinking about how to create something around a specific idea or world, it’s something I really like. It’s also something my managers tells me I’m very good at!” he laughs.
At the time we meet, he tells me he’s been in talks to work with what he calls the “perfect brand,” the 180-year-old storied French fashion house Hermès. Enamored of the brand since the first time he saw his grandmother wearing one of its iconic silk scarves, Marsal finally plucked up the courage to approach the house about a potential collaboration a few years ago. Since then he’s been making solid progress, but remains tight-lipped about whether or not we’ll soon see his drawings writ large on luxury accessories.
“I first spoke with them when I graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2014, and all I can say is that we’re still having a conversation. Hermès is a brand that I love so much, so I don’t want to jeopardize anything.”
Later, after we’ve said our goodbyes and I’m back in the throng of the streets below I find myself wondering what Marsal’s next commission will be, and I’m reminded of something he said of his work: “It’s a proliferation of details. I compose a drawing like you’d make a puzzle. I never know, when I begin, exactly what the drawing will look like at the end.”
Written by Cillian O’Connor