Illustrator Carlo Stanga’s Technicolor World

In the “I Am City” series, Carlo Stanga teams up with Moleskine to publish three visual essays that serve as love letters to the dynamism and vibrancy of Milan, London, and New York. Here, we ask the Italian illustrator about the endearing collaboration, his favorite haunts in the three culture capitals, and his unbridled passion for color.

A colorful vignette of the subway in I Am New York, a collaboration between Carlo Stanga and Moleskine.

Cities are similar to people in that they are unique with lots of character, history, and charm. Taking time to understand what about a city is distinctive. Like you would invite someone to a coffee or a drink at a bar, I spend my time getting to know the city and the people living there,” says Carlo Stanga of the approach to his illustrated storybooks for Moleskine, the I Am City series. (Limited-edition notebooks with Stanga’s playful drawings on the cover and flyleaves are also available.)  

We can think of no better time to celebrate the magic of cities given the challenges the world’s metropolises have faced during the pandemic. In conversation with Stanga, the artist reveals the creative and research process behind each book, his situational sources of musical inspiration, and how architecture training informed his illustration work.

A trademark of your illustrations is vibrant color. How did you become such a big proponent of color and what kind of effect do you think it has on the viewer?

I actually did not always draw in color! When I first started drawing as a child I would only draw in black and white. It wasn’t until later on that I started to see color and learn how to express my feelings through it.

Colors speak to our emotions and every one of us uses color idioms to convey different moods: We use terms like “feeling blue” to express sadness or “seeing red” to express anger. There are so many more emotions we can explore with color!

My passion for color keeps growing over time. I studied color theory and learned the importance of not using too many but focusing on the different shades and tones that go well with each other. By matching opposite colors to generate contrasts I am able to create an image that has depth. It is through this visual play that I invite the viewer to feel immersed in my illustrations.

What is your creative process like? How do you get into a flow? What are some of your essential must-haves when sketching? 

I almost always have a coffee in front of me. I listen to music, but I also listen to different lectures and conferences on topics I enjoy. Of course, when I’m drawing, I become very focused on my work, so I often have to re-listen to everything! Music also influences the type of work I do. I find that jazz is perfect for when I sketch spontaneously or develop rough ideas, while I listen to classical music when I need to focus on details and structure.

The I am Milan book.
A Queen's viaduct in I Am New York.

How did you get interested in illustration? I read that you used to draw objects in your home as a kid and that drawing was really your first form of communication. Why do you think illustration is a powerful and effective way to communicate?

As a young child, I was always interested in drawing. I did not develop language until a later age, so drawing was a significant need for me to communicate.  From there, I kept drawing throughout my life. It was not until my later years that I realized that I could turn my hobby into a profession and become a working Illustrator.

I find illustration to be powerful because it immediately transmits the idea of the piece without reading words. It is an art form that breaks language barriers and is able to speak to everyone in a universal way. 

How did your architectural training and experience impact your ability as an artist?

In Architecture school, you are not trained to develop through freehand art. Everything is very exact, has straight angles, and relies heavily on precision. The school did not help me develop my creative hand but furthered my knowledge in architecture which is the protagonist of all my work.

Together with my architecture studies, I took classes at a comic school in Milan, where I was able to refine my style. This experience was important for my career because it allowed me to stay connected to the illustration world and express myself creatively while working. 

The I am London book.

Your new I Am City series for Moleskine is a trio of visual essays about New York City, London, and Milan. How do you tell the story of a city through illustration?

I try to approach each city as if it were a person, someone I don’t know well. Cities are similar to people in that they are unique with lots of character, history, and charm. Taking time to understand what is distinctive about a city. Like you would invite someone to a coffee or a drink at a bar, I spend my time getting to know the city and the people living there. I also do much research before my trips by reading about the city’s evolution, speaking to its inhabitants, and following its timeline until the present day.

What types of characteristics did you want to convey about each city and how did those characteristics manifest themselves in your drawings? Where do you find inspiration for the characters who inhabit your scenes?

Like you would in a person’s portrait, you need to spend time getting to know the subject. You need to understand why it is the way it is and how you can translate that with imagery and color.

For New York City, the city itself is so varied and extensive; there is a structured chaos that manages to keep such a diverse group of people together. Manhattan specifically is locked into a chessboard, while its buildings set their personal architecture free.

 The people of the city are inspiring because no one person is the same. Everyone has their own origin story and how they ended up where they are. Often in European cities, you are not exposed to such individualism within one area.

It’s been a difficult period for cities due to the pandemic. Your illustrations are a love letter to their dynamism and vibrancy. What is it that you hope people take away from the I Am City series?

Most importantly, I want the series to give the reader a sense of the city’s identity. I want them to recognize the city without any doubt and be able to identify it through its characteristics. Unlike a traditional travel guide, my books are meant to serve as inspiration to explore the city’s atmosphere and personality. 

A quintessential Manhattan shopping scene.

What are some of your favorite things to do in each of the three featured cities? 

When in Milan, I always attend an outstanding place like Bonvini1909, a historic stationery shop and hand-print house with a unique concentration of many different activities: stationery itself and a wonderful workshop, a sophisticated bookstore, a culture center for lectures and meetings and, last but not least, an art gallery!

 In New York, the Brooklyn Art Library, is an amazing project, a place to which you can entrust your sketchbook that will be available for consultation, not only in this cultural place, but also, once digitized, online. I like to dive in the ocean of thousands of notebooks that are obviously authentic artworks, an incredible experience you can have just in this magical space.

In London, still speaking about culture centers having to do with sketchbooks, you have a never ending choice, but I love particularly to visit the Somerset House, on the Thames River, where it is possible to enjoy very original and impeccably set up exhibitions.

I have to say that I am quite addicted to Moleskine Stores, after working with this firm for a long time and creating so many amazing projects! So I like to visit them, speak with the store attendants, discover new products, and check how my books are going. Every time I meet interesting people and leave the store with such a good feeling—always in a very “city” state of mind. 

What are you working on next?

I am currently working on a series of animations for the Mandarin Oriental in Tel Aviv. I am also working with a charitable organization in Berlin designing double-decker buses that bring students to see theater. Of course, I am also considering the next city to portrait in the City Books series!

Art imitating life in New York.

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