Christoph Niemann: “a train transforms chaos into a moment of poetry”

January 2021

Discovery / Secrets

High-Life invites you to discover our global community of Travelers. Meet different people from all walks of life whose travel experiences open our minds. Our first guest: illustrator Christopher Niemann.


Illustrator : Christoph Niemann
Photographer : Matthew Prisley

From the perspective of Niemann’s pencil

German artist, illustrator and author Christoph Niemann has been gracing the covers of The New Yorker, National Geographic and The New York Times with his best sketches for the past 20 years.
From live drawings at the Venice Biennale to the London Olympics or the New York Marathon to his collaborations with major houses and institutions – Hermès, The Museum of Modern Art, Paul Smith…- to his illustrated travel stories, Christoph Niemann sketches the world with elegance, irony and humor. Nourished and constantly inspired by the world, he has unveiled his series of illustrated travels for High-Life.


Christoph Niemann just launched « Pianoforte » (Abstractometer Press) A piano lesson with a touch of graphic wit.

High-Life: Train or plane?


Christoph Niemann: Going by train is my favorite way to travel. I could list a number of things that I like about it -being free to think, read, look out the window, move around… But the biggest reason is purely subjective: I am a train fanatic. I love train stations and above all, I love the idea that a train can transform a messy world into a poetic moment.


HL: Day or night?


Christoph Niemann: The only night train I’ve taken was to cross the Alps from Germany to Italy, which was a magical experience. My recent creation ‘Night Train’ is an illustrated adaptation of a wonderful article by Antony Lane in the New Yorker. It’s a beautiful and hilarious piece of writing that includes some epic memories of taking long distance trains.


HL: Are you talkative when you travel?


Christoph Niemann: Usually, no. I’m pretty content with my own thoughts. The real exchanges happen once I’ve arrived at my destination


HL: What is your drawing technique to capture a moment?


Christoph Niemann: The ink drawings I create require a perfectly flat surface. I rarely do them on location. When I walk around and a scene or situation clicks, I usually take a few photos, and maybe make a quick pencil sketch. My favorite time to draw is typically in the late afternoon after I’ve come back from an excursion and have a few hours before dinner. My experience of a place needs to be fresh in my mind in order to be able to draw it.


HL: How do you add your personal touch to a place seen millions of times?


Christoph Niemann: The drawings that work best are the ones where viewers are familiar with the place. They allow for different levels of interpretation. Their effect is closer to writing than to photography. They are supposed to unlock emotions and memories viewers have stored somewhere in their mind. If I want to properly explain to somebody what, for example, Angkor looks like, a simple high res photo is the best option. With illustrations, the goal is more to show what it feels like to be there. That said, unlike the written word, I create these pieces just for myself. I’m not striving to tell a specific story, or convince anybody of anything. They are a purely subjective mix of what’s in my head that I try to make visible through my hands and tools.


HL: Where do you like to travel?


Christoph Niemann: I’m pretty open. My wife, who’s an art historian, often comes up with the best ideas. One thing I realized about myself is that I don’t care at all about doing things that can seem cliché or boring when I travel. A lot of people are obsessed with the unusual, the spots they won’t find in guide books – it’s not my thing. Just because the Taj Mahal is in every travel book about India, it would still be the first thing I would want to see. I’ve been to Paris so many times, but I still get a kick of taking the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe and walking down the Champs Elysees.


HL: What if suitcases didn’t exist?


Christoph Niemann: A passport, my phone, my inks and brushes and a Credit card would be enough for me. Everything else can be purchased at the destination if need be


HL: Will the crisis change the way you travel in the future?


Christoph Niemann: I guess it’s still way too early to make any predictions about this subject. But I’m convinced that yes, it will…


HL: Where are you off to next?


Christoph Niemann: For the first time ever, I have nothing planned. 🙁


HL: And your final journey?


Christoph Niemann: Something slow, with the ability to stop as I please would be nice. Or maybe a long, long walk with a drawing desk, a piano and a very nice restaurant every couple of miles.


HL: And the year 2869, you’ll travel…


Christoph Niemann: If all goes well, I’ll still be boarding a train in an old-fashioned train station, getting a coffee just before the train leaves, looking out of the window at the ocean or some mountains …all while carefully avoiding spaceships and aliens and robots.

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