As the names of the Nobel Prize winners are announced one after the other in Sweden, Stockholm, their portraits appear on screen. These portraits -- black outlines embellished with gold foil -- are drawn by Niklas Elmehed.
October is a special month for Niklas. He may remain behind the scenes, but is busier than ever. This year, as the Nobel 'season' ended, I sent him an email. He replied after some time, "What do you want to know?" I wanted to know while the whole world waited with baited breath to hear the names of the Nobel Prize winners, did he get to know their names in advance?
Before we come to the interview, let me write a bit about Niklas. He lives in Sweden with his wife and children. He joined the Nobel Media in 2012 as an art director. At the time not many good photographs were available of these who won the Nobel prizes in the science categories. It was then decided that Niklas would sketch the winners whose good photographs were not available on the internet.
In 2014 Niklas left his job with the Nobel Media to work as a freelancer, but it was still his task to sketch the Nobel Laureates. It was then decided that all the Nobel Prize winners would be sketched in the same style by Niklas. That continues till now.
How much time you get to draw the Nobel Laureates?
Unfortunately I can’t tell you exactly how long I get due to the secrecy of the Nobel Prize authorities. But I am pretty fast when I paint and finalise a portrait in a few hours.
Why did you draw Nobel Laureates with just bold black lines? And why do you use gold foil? I mean, why did you choose this style?
The graphical concept behind the portraits is to give them the expression of breaking news - a strong and unique visual impression. In 2017 the Nobel Prize went through a graphical makeover and it was decided that the main colour for the announcements would be gold, preferably gold with texture not just a representational colour. I was asked to adjust my blue and yellow paintings, which was the look 2014-2017, to the new golden look. I experimented a lot with different gold paint and fell for the gold foil, a super thin metal foil that you can put on the painting with a special glue. Together with black outlines, painted on a white background I think the portraits have a very strong and exclusive impact.
Your paintings are there in the Nobel Media headquarters. Did any laureate express excitement or frustration about their portraits? Do you remember anything particular when ‘confronting’ the laureates after drawing them?
Actually I have never received any feedback from the Laureates. I guess they are too busy at the time, after they have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
I read that you left your job at Nobel Media after two years. I guess that was so you could pursue other things, other projects. What do you do when you are not drawing portraits of the Nobel Laureates?
I work about half of my time with different art projects. The rest of the time I create visual content for clients other than the Nobel Prize. For example I do a lot of motion graphics design for the Swedish National Football Team, both women and men.
Many people wished that there would have been a Nobel Prize for art. What do you think?
Literature is art, so that already exists. But of course it’s pretty limited in the discipline of writing. To be honest I have not missed such a prize for fine art.
What if you get a Nobel? Would you draw your portrait yourself?
Well, I guess so, at least as long as I have the honour to paint the Laureates. The question would rather be in what category I would have any chance to achieve that success.
Which one is your favorite portrait?
Do you mean 2020? I had a great time to paint long haircuts this year. If I have to pick one I would probably choose the portrait of Louise Glück. She had both a very interesting and characteristic cheek line and mouth, together with a long haircut.
Is there any person you want to draw a portrait as a Nobel Laureate?
Yes, I have some people that I would love to portrait as a Nobel Laureate but I can’t tell you that. If I did so, people would start to speculate if I have any inside information about upcoming candidates.
Last time a Bangladeshi got a Nobel Prize was in 2006. It was Muhammad Yunus in the Peace category. That was before you started drawing Nobel Laureates. But I saw you drew a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, another Laureate who is close to the heart of many Bangladeshis. He wrote our national anthem. When and why did you draw Tagore?
I have painted several earlier Laureates during the years, like Marie Curie, Einstein and MLK, to practice my technique and also to develop my graphical portrait style. I love the strong character of Tagore’s face and I’m also aware of his status as a legend. I have seen old black and white videos with him at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm and he was truly a very strong character.
I read your interviews and about you on the internet. So I have an idea about you. But, would you like to add anything about yourself that people would love to know?
Well, I really like sports and practice both floorball, football and kickboxing several days a week. I’m married and have three children, a 15-year-old son, an 11-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old daughter.