Story, Work

What I would draw if I wasn’t worrying about market and social approval

When I first thought about writing this post I had another title in mind: “What I would draw if I didn’t have to worry about market and social approval”. Have to. I had written it down not to forget it and it stayed there on the notebook for days on until something sounded suddenly wrong. Have to. Has anyone ever obliged me to worry so much about external approval? Nope. Why do I feel obliged then? It’s because of me, only me.

The idea for the post comes after a disappointment. In the past months, I’ve been working non-stop on my portfolio and on a couple of illustration contests which I had put a lot of hope in. I felt ready to give a boost to my job and I worked hard to achieve the goal: finishing personal projects, creating a book project, updating my website to show it to potential clients. I focused on what, according to my thinkings, could bring me more (and better) work. Sometimes even pushing my style a bit to get a more “marketable” version of my illustrations. Everything was ready by the beginning of February. I sent my emails, published the best things on my Instagram account, and then I waited.



By mid-February, I was still waiting to see the results of my strategy. Neither via email or social network things were moving as I had expected. By the end of February I had received a couple of feedbacks, none of which followed by a commission. I kept waiting – “waiting for Godot” my boyfriend told me one morning – and, in the meanwhile, I tried to do new things. But the less feedback I had the less I felt like drawing for a new project. I desperately needed an external approval and this was not coming. I waited and then I got completely stuck.




It’s impressing how external approval has the power to change the opinion we have of the things we do – and to give or take away the energy and passion. To even change the opinion we have of ourselves. I wasn’t getting any positive feedback and this made me think that nothing of what I was doing was worth the time and the effort. Even worse, I – the mind and the hand behind these creations – wasn’t worth anything. Day by day the passion I had put into my works drained and the energy left to continue, to improve and make new things almost exhausted. It’s at this point that I took the notebook to write and, after some days, I realized I was the one obliging myself to please others with my work. I was the cause of my own frustration.

I don’t know if caring about external approval is wrong. What I know is that it’s not good. And it doesn’t make any good to us. When I started drawing again without thinking about anyone to please but me, joy and ideas slowly came back. I drew whales and lines, and things that don’t make sense but that helped me get back on track. Now I’m still in the process of recovering but what’s important is that I’m back in my priorities. Here in the post, you see some of the things I actually drew the moment I stopped thinking about market and likes on social media. They appeared on the paper sheet and I felt light and free to do as I pleased.


Becoming an illustrator without an artsy background. Some piece of advice

Health issues have a silver lining: while forcing you in bed for days they also force you out of the working rush in which you’d been putting yourself for months. They come right in time – the body knows, they say – right when you started wondering whether you still had things under control, right when you started feeling bored and urged to recalibrate.

I was in bed reorganizing my hard disk, filling my new Behance profile (I read I should have one) and that was already feeling like playing Marie Kondo with this past year’s jobs life. Then came an e-mail: someone was asking me (me?) for advice. It was an email asking if I could share my experience – and, if I had, some advice – as an illustrator not coming from an artsy background.  

I’d never thought about it. My background – a bachelor in Italian Literature and a post-grad Journalism School, plus some years of experience as a freelance journalist in Italy (I’m telling you more about it here) – for some time has been something to set apart, not to mention but to hide shamefully like a past mistake you don’t really want to talk about. Then I made peace with it but still, I’d never thought it could be interesting.

This said I can assure you starting life as a professional illustrator wasn’t easy nor fast. I’m not even sure it fully started. There are still moments in which I wonder if I should take an extra part-time job to pay the bills when commissions are slow to come. It takes a long time to build an audience – meaning people who are interested in what you do, who even appreciate it and might want to collaborate with you eventually – and a lot of very hard work. Especially if you come from a different background.

For instance, I’m not someone who’s been drawing her whole life. I loved drawing when I was a kid. But as I started high school at 14 I dedicated less and less time to it. I drew during summer vacations, mostly copying others’ art or comics. Then I stopped for ten years, from 15 years old to 25, just a week before enrolling for the illustration school. So when I blame myself for not being good enough at what I do I also think that I’ve dedicated my whole self to this activity for only five years. Five years in which I had to learn everything – even how to hold a pencil.

Hence if I had to give a piece of advice to someone entering this field without any artsy background that would be: be indulgent. Don’t compare yourself to the others. Don’t compare your timing with others’ timing. If someone is already successful and mature at 21 or 22 it’s probably because he or she has a different story and 10 years of serious practice and research in the background.

Then I would say be honest with yourself. I remember when I’d just finished illustration school I was so eager to send my portfolio to publishers and newspapers. I spent days fixing my website, trying to look as professional as I could. I hadn’t realized what lacked professionalism wasn’t the website but its content. It took me some time to recalibrate my goals, looking for simpler jobs, privileging door-to-door promotion, studying potential customers.

Last but not least: keep going. Never stop drawing, creating, experimenting even when commissions don’t come, even when you feel invisible. It’s the only way to get more experience and self-confidence. Two things that will allow you, at some point, to go for more highly rated clients, to dream a bit farther.

This job needs a lot of time. A lot of patience. A lot of hard work. And I’m addressing this advice to myself as well.

P.s.: Talking about hard work and time, here’s Lady Gaga’s very inspiring speech at the Oscars. I liked it very much.








On Drawing for Me: #theyogaseries

I rarely draw just for myself. I always have to find a purpose to my illustrations, even if they’re not commissioned – a story to submit to an editor, a series of drawings to turn into a fanzine, illustrations to improve my portfolio. Even #theyogaseries, a series of quick sketches of yoga poses I published on Instagram over the past few months (you can find all of them under that hashtag), started with a purpose. I wanted to participate to Ohh Deer’s Pitch a Papergang competition and, following the unwritten rule according to which success comes if you do what you like, I decided I would do a whole stationery project on yoga.

As weird as it may sound I’ve had a thing for yoga poses for months. I go to a yoga course twice a week and it’s true: sometimes I’m so concentrated doing a pose that it feels like I’m following a drawing in my head. I can portray myself while I try to find my balance on one foot, or while I hold up all my body’s weight only with my arms. I see where my legs are even if I’m not looking at them. I feel the pose and it’s a very cool experience sometimes. Sometimes I just feel clumsy and weird.

I thought it would be fun trying to tell all these sensations with a drawing. I started with more detailed illustrations that featured brief thoughts/sentences. I went minimal later, an afternoon when I was trying to get some work done despite a debilitating headache. The result was a series of small drawings of yoga poses as I remembered them. I turned them into a pattern and the effect made me smile. 





I then used this pattern for the competition and here’s what my stationery project looked like.





In the end, Pitch a Papergang turned out to be just a good excuse to draw only for me. No clients to please, no style limits, just me. Free to use my beloved black and white. Free to draw without any plan. Free to decide that a three-minute sketch is my final illustration because I want that roughness, that gesture, that dynamics.

I didn’t win the competition (the unwritten rule for success can be fallacious sometimes) but I enjoyed so much drawing tiny girls in clumsy yoga poses that I’ve kept doing it until now. I published some of them on my Instagram account and, to my surprise, people liked them a lot. I thought yoga wouldn’t be of much interest to my followers and that’s probably true on the one hand. But on the other hand, it’s not all about the yoga practice, I know it.



P.s. If you like the series here’s a little gift for you. Follow this link to get the free pdf file to print at home your own yoga “Thank you” card.


Illustrating an App, (my) “Instructions for Use”

While I organize my ideas for this post, I scroll the past ones and worry that you might feel dizzy with all the different works I’m showing you on this blog. A series of Christmas cards in two colors in the last post. An experimental half-analogic half-digital series of illustrations in the previous one. Other different things in the older posts. And, today, an app. It’s probably due to all the changes I experienced in my way of working during this past year. But it’s also very likely due to my normal work routine: being able to adapt my style(s) and my illustrations to different contexts and different media is a daily need. I never get bored, that’s for sure, but I too get dizzy sometimes.

For three years I’ve collaborated with an Italian publishing house, Art Stories, which makes educational apps for children (an educational app is mobile or tablet software – often a game – through which kids learn about a certain topic). It’s one of the most interesting, yet, most challenging jobs I’ve had so far. Interesting because it’s a chance to get to know a whole new world and to directly contribute to a learning process. Challenging because illustrating an app isn’t the same as illustrating a book. And while I learnt how books work at illustration school and through essays and courses, I’ve always found few – or no – explanations about how to properly illustrate apps.

That’s why the first thing I do when I start working on a new app is to study. I download the apps I like most (I’m a huge fan of Yatatoy‘s apps and Meikme, just to name a few: they both mix minimalism and a rigor for colors and shapes that I admire very much). I take notes and see how I can apply some of the things I see – a particular use of textures, or a certain organization of the elements, or a use of colors that is both pretty and useful. The screen has its own rules. There are animations. Elements – characters or objects – are interactive and it has to be easy to touch and move them on the screen with a finger. Images have to be simple and clear. In other words, illustrations for apps have to be first and foremost functional.





I didn’t know that when I worked on my first app (which was also my first job as an illustrator). I used watercolor textures and digital collage. Not a functional choice as I understood later that each element had to be animated and it took me a lot of time to create all the pieces we needed. The color palette had some issues as well, as I worked on tone-on-tone scenes. Delicate and pretty, but I learnt that the contrast in apps is very important to allow all interactive elements to emerge from the background. A trial and error process, as usual.





Maybe the most challenging part of working on educational apps is when illustration and photography have to fit within the same scene. Art Stories, for instance, often works with paintings and original photos of works of art. A lot of times, I found myself dealing with paintings I had no idea how to fit in the illustrated world I had so carefully created. Or dealing with a color palette I was so proud of, but that didn’t work with all the paintings we needed to feature in the app. It’s a delicate balance between different artistic styles and a unique graphics that should be able to add value and give coherence to the whole product.

Project after project I do have found some solutions that I like and that are also functional. The images you see in this post come from Cities, an app to learn and play with some of the most fascinating cities in the world. I worked with Adobe Illustrator which is so far the best tool I used to illustrate an app – this is my opinion, though. Photoshop works as well (I used it for Artesport, the lastest of Art Stories’ apps) and has the advantage of making me feel freer to draw as I would normally do. Yet I think Illustrator works perfectly with animation and looks great on every screen. As for the colors, I like experimenting with textures, but the solid color is still my favourite choice.




Last but not least, the style. So far I’ve changed style every time I did a new app. Again, it’s always me, but the technique and the drawings look quite different. It was both the need to adapt to different kind of scenes and game mechanisms and the will to experiment and see what worked better – and fitted me better. Each time I get more confident with the logic of the app and the screen and I feel like, experience by experience, I’m able to put a little more  “me” in the project. And that’s always a good thing.

Have you ever worked on an app? What are your “instructions for use”?



A New Website to Get out There

Yesterday I sent my portfolio to a list of publishers and magazines for the first time. Today I’ve got a headache, I’m checking emails every other minute and I’m pretending to be working on something important while I can’t even concentrate. I should just call it a day off. So far I got one answer: “Thank you very much!”. I spent the next 15 minutes asking myself whether that exclamation mark had some deep meaning in it I needed to encrypt. Was it a hopeful exclamation mark, or just a kind one, or, even worse, a bored one? Of course, there’s no answer to it. I’m just feeling vulnerable and I guess it’s time to cope with it.

When one week ago I started building my new website from a blank webpage, the first thought I had was: “I’m not ready”. My work seemed a confused set of drawings I had no idea how to organize. “I’m not ready to get out there”, I said to myself.  And “there” meant the foggy yet fascinating book and editorial market, a place I hadn’t dared to ask myself in so far. 

It’s a place I’ve always looked at from the cozy protection of my studio (that is, my living room), wondering if I’d ever been good enough to work there. I’ve worked and studied and worked on myself for the past year always aiming at that goal. Criticising my own work like I thought an art director would do; slowly feeling more self-confident, surer of what I was doing, happier with what my hands were able to produce. So happy that at the beginning of February I thought: it’s time.





I wanted to build a new website with a portfolio that could look professional and show that I can handle longer projects, that I know how to deal with texts and images. And I wanted a coherent portfolio, not a scary mix of styles and personalities. That’s why as soon as I started working on the website and had all my illustrations opened on the computer screen a part of me thought “Not yet”. Not yet because I don’t have only one style. Not yet, because there are things I like, but in a couple of months I know I could do better. Not yet, because I might receive a lot of “no” and it might be painful. Not yet, because there are always a lot of good reasons for keeping you inside your comfort zone.

I took my time, I looked at a lot of online portfolios. I looked back at my illustrations and found again the reasons why I thought I was ready: they represent me and I wouldn’t feel bored nor scared if someone asked me to work with one of the styles I was going to present. In the end, it’s always me. I could be waiting, but no one forbids me to update my portfolio with new work whenever I want. There’s no harm in getting started.





Hence, I built the new website – which is here, by the way. All my last illustrations found the right place in it: some can already be seen on the static homepage, where I had fun (yes, in the end, I had fun!) creating a coherent yet manifold composition, some only in the projects. I thought this was the best way to present my illustrations without forcing them into style limits that don’t belong to the way I work. With this online portfolio, I presented my work to publishers and magazines yesterday. Each email I sent felt like jumping from a trampoline and endlessly waiting to reach the water. I’m sure tomorrow it’ll all be fine – with or without answers. But for now, let me and my headache refresh the inbox a little bit more.





P.s.: The illustrations you see in this post were my entries to Hoppipolla‘s Christmas Cards Competition. The last one was selected and became part of December 2017 surprise box.




Photoshop as a Therapy: One Year of Experiments and What I’ve Learned From It

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to therapy. Usually, what happens when you start seeing a psychologist – or a therapist – is that you go there and talk. You talk about what’s been filling your mind lately, you talk about whatever you feel like. And you continue talking each time you go there, not really knowing if something is happening, but you continue. Talking and talking. Until, at some point, the magic happens: that knot which was obsessing you at the beginning, which was leaving you sleepless at night, that knot is loosened. You have no idea when it happened or how, but it did.

Now, my experience with Photoshop this past year has been exactly like a therapy. I can recall when it started. I was teaching at a workshop in Rome and I felt stuck. I had to make a little sample illustration to show our students how I processed a morning walk into creative material for a story and my mind was blank. I remember I had a lot of fear and cold hands. I took a wax pastel from the pencil case and I started drawing something on a notebook. It looked like a dog. I drew another one. Then I drew two trembling sticks that turned out to be a woman’s legs. And I went on. At the end of the afternoon, I had filled lots of pages with this casual drawings.

Instead of throwing them as I would normally have done, I decided they deserved my trust. Afterall, hadn’t I been looking for a more instinctive way of illustrating? And what’s more instinctive than doodles? Borrowing a working method I had so many times seen used by a dear illustrator friend, Laura Savina (check her beautiful work here), I scanned them all and opened each file in Photoshop. I chose the doodles I liked most and started playing with them. Moving the dog from the left corner to the center of the paper, changing its color, adding the woman, transforming the woman into a man, moving everything all over again. At the end, I got these two illustrations. Minimal and raw, but, for once, deeply mine.



It was exactly one year ago. After these illustrations – which were, by the way, used for an exhibition – I decided I would pursue this method. There was something relieving, liberating, playful in it. And the total lack of planning scared me, it’s true, but it was also very attractive. Like with therapy, I kept trying.

At first, it felt confusing. I enjoyed the fact that I could feel free while drawing – or scribbling or stamping – on paper. I had completely stopped worrying about making a pretty drawing and my goal was to see where my hand – and not my brain – would bring me. Yet the lack of planning was something quite hard to stand for a person like me. I envied my friend Laura, the “mind” behind this method, and her way of creating illustrations like “accidents”. Anyway, I went on.

For some time I adapted the method to my needs, allowing myself a little planning before starting playing with Photoshop. Within a couple of months, though, I realized I could trust the method and that, actually, I got best results when I didn’t have no idea about what I was going to do with the computer. I started experimenting, mixing new and old doodles, building a little archive of material that could always come to use – mostly drawings of plants, scribbles and all sorts of spots. I hadn’t realized it yet, but without the pressure of control and pre-established ideas about what I thought I liked – or I wanted to like – my taste, my own, unique taste was slowly coming out. And spots, little imperfections, and trembling lines were definitely part of it.     

I’ve worked in this way for almost one year. I remember the joy and the total surprise when out of a bunch of senseless gouache spots this illustration came out.



Here nothing besides the animals (which were made with wax pastels and then digitally colored in white) has been drawn. What I knew before starting was that I wanted a wood. It came out just by playing with spots in Photoshop.

I could go on and on showing you examples of how this method changed my approach to illustration experiment by experiment. I call it a “therapy” because it really loosened a lot of knots and fears and it helped me know myself better. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to grow and improve. Especially, I saw these changes:

  1. I got rid of anxiety. After the first moment of panic due to non-planning, I started trusting my instinct, realizing ideas often come when you stop thinking and you start doing. The fear of the white blank page – and the anxiety connected – doesn’t come if you start filling that page with whatever comes to your mind. Sense comes after, I promise it comes. This works in Photoshop and on real paper too.
  2. I understood what my taste is. Photoshop has allowed me to experiment quickly and without limits, pulling me out of the paper+pencils comfort zone I was stuck in. I’ve worked without prejudices, confirming things I already knew about my taste and surprising me with a lot of new discoveries.
  3. It changed my way of drawing. Since I realized I like the way I draw in sketches and doodles more, I started developing that kind of style. Now I don’t need much elaboration in Photoshop because on paper things look already like I want them.

Of course, this is what worked for me. But what about you? What about your “therapy”?


Bad at Drawing, an explanation

When I tell people I work as an illustrator I usually get three kinds of reaction.

  1. “Do you make comics?”
  2. “Ok, wow, you’re a disegnatrice” (I can’t find the perfect English translation of this word, it literally means “someone who draws”)
  3. “Graphics, right?”

None of these.

I used to get quite disappointed, at first. The fact that people didn’t know what my job was made me feel indignant – how could they don’t know? – and embarrassed at the same time because I, too, didn’t really know how to explain it. I would end up making examples, summarizing at the end with an inglorious “I draw things and get paid for it”. It took me more than two years to come up with a better – yet longer – explanation.



Certainly, I don’t do comics – I tried but it’s not for me, at least for now. I work with graphics sometimes but in a different – and most of the time messier – way than a classic graphic designer. If you come to me for a logo I will probably start drawing, using colored pencils, painting. And the result will have my own style. Am I “someone who draws” then? Yes, I am, but not just that.

I think – and here I would love to hear your opinion – an illustrator is a person who tells something with images using a unique style. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a drawing, a paper-cut, whether it’s a figurative or an abstract work. What matters is it says something and that everybody can understand it. 



Maybe you didn’t need this distinction in order to work well, but I did. I struggled so much and for such a long time to stop focusing on the technique – or the style – I was using rather than on what I wanted to say. I was so concentrated on making a “pretty drawing” that I almost lost track of what it really meant being an illustrator for me.



When four years ago I enrolled in an illustration school in Rome I felt partly the urge to learn how to express myself in a satisfying way – I was unhappy with my job as a journalist – and partly the will to develop my artistic skills – if I had any. I spent the following three years focusing on the latter goal, trying to make up all the technical skills as fastest as I could. It turned out it was impossible. I learned the basis, became good in what I liked most – pencils, graphite, botanical drawing – failed at a lot of other things. That’s why I say I’m not good at drawing. What I mean is I’m not “academically” good. But I understood, at last, that that doesn’t mean I can’t be an illustrator.



It’s now been some months I have allowed myself not to be technically great at everything. Admitting my limits has actually been the first step to enjoy what I’m doing and to focus on the other goal: expressing myself. As a student who’s always got top grades in every subject, it feels relieving to know I can live with my gaps. I start thinking they might transform into strengths. This is where I am at right now.


A few notes:

  • the images of this post are from the book “Little Blue and Little Yellow” by Italian author Leo Lionni, in my opinion one of the best examples that illustrating doesn’t necessarily mean drawing (photos are mine);
  • the first person I heard saying she transformed her limits into strength is Olimpia Zagnoli;
  • speaking of unique style check Brian Rea‘s website, a hymn to non-academical drawing and joyful freedom of expression.


Story, Work

36mountains, or Falling in Love with a Sketch

I’m starting this blog with the story of a mistake.

It was last summer and I was working on a project for 36mountains exhibition (here all the information about it). I had been asked to fill a concertina notebook with black and white drawings about mountains – free interpretation, free media. I took some days for sketching and deciding what I would be drawing. Then I started.

My sketches looked like this.



04 copia


I had overlapped different layers of paper – I didn’t mention it had to be tracing paper, like the pages of the notebook – and I used paper scotch tape to be able to move every part as I pleased. The goal was to recreate the flexibility of Photoshop, a software that I had been working a lot with those days, while dealing with the fact that the notebook had to be “the” original: no prints were allowed on it and, most of all, no mistakes.

I designed my sketches with extreme care, calculating the exact position of each element: nothing had to change in the final work, it would have been just a matter of relaxing and copying. Then something happened.

Has it ever occurred to you that, no matter how much energy and precision you put in the final work, the sketch always looks better? My teacher at the illustration school used to call it “falling in love with the sketch”. It’s a kind of love, I think. It’s probably the lack of pressure, the fact that the sketch is yours and potentially nobody can see it; or it’s the feeling you have when you’re sketching. However, the sketch is special, it has a magnetic roughness and, unfortunately, is irreplaceable.

And here comes my mistake. I convinced myself that I could actually reproduce my sketch. The secret, I thought, is in the paper cuts: it’s this way of mixing drawing and collage that makes the sketch so powerful. I bought a very expensive spray glue and, proud of my discovery, I started drawing and then pasting paper cuts as in the sketch. The result was, of course, terrible: it had nothing of the plainness of the sketch, it was just a bad collage.

I hurried up to remove all the paper cuts but the glue was still there. It took me three days to dry it under August’s sun. The pages were still sticky though. I closed the notebook and put it in an envelope, hoping my addressee would be able to open it. Luckily she did.

Here are a couple of pictures of the exhibition (in the second one you can see people actually looking at my notebook, a photo that honestly made me feel relieved).





The notebook looked like this.







Needless to say: if you’re in Rome and you need spray glue hit the “contact” button and I’ll reach back.


What You’ll Find on Bad at Drawing

It’s probably the tenth time I start writing this post and then press “delete”, ashamed and horrified by my inability of explaining to you what I’m planning to do on this brand new blog. I guess I’m looking for the perfect words to catch your attention, to get you through the fifth line and, maybe, through the next post, which is already written, while this introduction is taking me an impressive amount of time.

Hence, I say it: this is going to be a blog on illustration, or better, a personal blog on illustration.

My name is Cinzia, I’m Italian and I’ve worked as a freelance illustrator for two and a half years. Not a lifelong career. Not even a ten-year experience, but this is exactly the point.

Here you won’t find absolute truths on how to be a world-wide successful illustrator. I’d love to tell you, but I’m not there yet. I know quite well how to get started, though. I know all the beginner’s mistakes. I know all the beginner’s crisis. I’ve said the sentence  “I can’t find my own style” hundreds of times and heard it pronounced by my illustrator friends quite as much. This is what I’d like to share on this blog. It’s my experience, nothing scientific, but it might be of use anyway.

I called it “Bad at Drawing” because I recently realized I’m not good at drawing, at least not as one would expect an illustrator to be. Yet realizing this, along with understanding that “illustrating” isn’t “drawing”, has changed my whole perspective on this job and has allowed me to actually enjoy it. The path is still long. But from now on I’m going to tell you what I find on my way.