’50 Shades of Gray': Conquering the Pencil

“Luxury” seems to be Ralf Tekaat’s favorite word. During our hour-long discussion, the contemporary German artist used this unexpected word at least four times. Looking at his nondescript clothing and relaxed demeanor, you would be perplexed by his choice of wording. His sparse studio, nearly all black and white except for pops of blue in his sneakers, the flowered trash bin, and a large water bottle, also seems to be the antithesis of “luxury.” As it turns out, Ralf was not describing his lush lifestyle in Berlin. Rather, he was humbly referencing his tidbits of luck in the city, such as living five minutes from his studio and working in an environment untethered from digital distractions – his personal luxuries.

Modern Gentleman

The longer I spoke with Ralf, the more I realized that he is an atypical artist variety: without hubris or an inflated sense of self worth. I found such modesty, not to mention his constant grin, refreshing. Perhaps it was his lack of frustration when I got terribly lost searching for his studio or his frequent tinkering with the coal heater to ensure that I was warm, but something tells me Ralf is a modern gentleman. I am not sure if I caught him on a good day, but Ralf definitely seems to be a rare breed.

Cut the Wires

Ralf ensures that his sacred studio space is a technology-free zone except for his mobile phone, which he assured me was not a smart phone. However, I quickly noticed a stereo in the corner nestled between stacks of CDs. It turns out Ralf listens to audio books in the morning, currently Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” and music later in the day. To maintain stamina while working on such massive drawings, Ralf uses music to break through his low energy points. His current favorites: Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and DJ Shadow.

The Darker Side of the Pencil

Ralf is currently producing large-scale, more abstract works with pencil. When he begins a piece, he does not have a concrete plan but instead lets the work guide him. After he draws a few lines, he sees more “precise formations emerge” and he then “reacts to what’s happening.”

Ralf TekaatRalf Tekaat works on one of his pencil works inside his studio. Photo: Chris Philips

If Ralf had not already won me over with his personal charm, his intimacy with his medium of choice – pencil on paper – definitely would have done the trick. He spoke of the pencil like a loved one, waxing lyrical about how they met and its many positive attributes. He explained that although pencil is not the fastest medium to work with, his work necessitates that medium. Pencil allows Ralf to build the piece layer by layer, thereby creating a 3-D effect. Ralf uses a variety of nearly 20 different pencils, each with a different classification of darkness, to create this sculptural effect. Ralf drew my attention to the fact that with pencil, “even in the darkest parts, you can still see the layers. Visibility of hidden forms also depends on the light, so the works vary depending on the lighting conditions. Brighter light allows you to see something deeper.”