Interview

There’s no such thing as being bad at drawing: an interview to Sibba Hartunian

Bad at Drawing is about the process. You already know that. When I started I had a lot of questions in mind – how do you develop your own style? How do you achieve a satisfying creative process? Am I the only one struggling to create? – and I thought writing my own experience would be a good way to start giving some answers. Until I felt ready to turn my questions to someone else.

That moment has arrived. Today I’m publishing the first interview to an illustrator here on the blog. Let me introduce you to Sibba Hartunian. We’ve been following each other on Instagram for a while (years, actually) and I saw her developing her own style (although she says she doesn’t really think she has one) through illustrations, books, and zines (zines that have been recently featured on It’s Nice That). Her experiments with collage, pencils, gesture, paintbrush are something that inspires me very much for their freedom and originality. I asked her to give me a little insight of her work and here’s what she told me.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? When did you decide you would become an illustrator?

I was born in Los Angeles, and after living in a few different cities in the US, settled down in New York about five years ago. I have always been into art and drawing (my mom is an artist) but started to take it more seriously as a career just a couple years ago.

How does the creative process work for you?

It depends on what I’m working on. If it’s a children’s book I usually start with the text then go back and forth between text and images. There’s a lot of planning involved. The zines happen a lot more organically. I’ll usually think of a topic or theme and just start drawing whatever comes to mind.

 

 

 

 

What do you do when you get stuck?

Sometimes I force myself to just keep going but I’ve realized that I usually just get more frustrated. I think it’s good to take breaks and do something else to give your brain a rest and restart.

Among your works, what’s the project or the illustration you’re more proud of?

This is a very hard question! I’m not sure. Possibly my two latest zines: Sharks and Snakes because they were the most fun to make. I thoroughly enjoyed the process from start to finish: drawing, printing, and binding the books. I think creating something “just for me” also lessened the pressure and allowed me to enjoy the process more fully.

 

 

 

 

Your style is quite experimental. What do you enjoy most of it and what’s the hardest part of it?

I actually can’t really pinpoint my style (maybe it’s harder to notice in one’s own work). I think I am always trying new methods and media. I would say that is my favorite part – experimenting and trying new things. But that is also the hardest part! Sometimes it’s hard to get focused and settle on a “style.” But maybe that’s not important anyway.

If you could come back to when you started working as an illustrator and you could give your younger self a piece of advice what would that be?

It wasn’t that long ago so probably the same advice I would give myself now! To loosen up and enjoy the process instead of focusing on the end result or how you want an image to end up looking.

 

 

 

 

Your favourite subject to draw?

I really love drawing people and animals.  I love trying to capture the individual personality or character of each person/animal.

Is there anything you can’t draw or you don’t like drawing at all?
Hmm not really.  Maybe it’s the teacher in me but I don’t think there’s a such thing as being bad at drawing! I don’t think things necessarily have to look realistic for them to be good. Everyone has their own way of interpreting what they see. If I had to choose my biggest challenge though I would have to say it is coming up with interesting compositions.
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style, Work

Does creative process always have to be painful?

Every time I start working on a new project I hope my creative process will work differently than it did for the previous one. I hope ideas will come smoothly and in abundance. I hope I will follow all working phases consciously and without panic. I hope I will get to the final goal with elegance and self-confidence like an expert climber gets to the top of a mountain without any trace of strain nor sweat. I wish all these things all the times and each time I am disappointed.

My creative process is painful. And by this I mean it’s a workflow where phases of great enthusiasm (there are, of course) alternate with phases of despair and panic. Sketches are abruptly torn, thrown into the bin and dig up the day after. I spend hours – sometimes days – begging for a good idea, I panic when I don’t see it, I watch my previous works wondering where on earth I found the skills to make them – and where are those skills right now? I cry, not always, but sometimes I do. And the reason isn’t that I’m creating something deeply emotional, but because I’m frightened I will never make it.

 

 

 

 

It happens all the times. Then each time, right after the biggest crisis, something happens and I make it. It’s usually a matter of cleaning the table where I work and going through all the sketches I’ve made. With renewed rationality, what looked like a chaotic set of doodles just a minute before, suddenly becomes a good idea. THE idea. The time to finish the work is then ridiculous compared to the time spent to get there. I complete the project. I am relieved.

 

 

 

 

Since, as I said, this process repeats every time I’ve come to the conclusion that this is my creative process. Even the images you’re seeing in this post (a little series for the Italian clothes brand Salomè) went through these phases. From a rational point of view, I know there’s nothing weird in the way I process ideas. Afterall I start with a brainstorming, I put my ideas on paper, first quite freely, then in a more selective way. It takes time, of course, and some thinking. Rationally I have nothing to object to my creative process. But emotionally there’s so much I wish I was able to control in a different way.

 

 

 

 

And here I come to the question I’m asking in the title: is creative process always painful? Is it a matter of personality, experience, confidence? Does it improve with time or do I have to accept the fact that there will always be some struggle?

 


 

I don’t have any answers but I do have some good reads on creative process I’d like to share with you. My favorites:

  • this recent post by Valentina Solfrini on her blog Hortus (love the part where she explains crisis)
  • this post by LJ (yo!) from Superlatively Rude – I’m going to repeat “Your story is not ready for you to worry about yet” as a mantra
  • the comic by Giulia Sagramola published on Illustratore Italiano last issue, such a true story
  • I love reading artist’s biographies, my favorite so far is Picasso by Gertrude Stein (here in English, here the edition I have at home in Italian) – it was relieving reading about Picasso’s research for his own voice.
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Work

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”?

 

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Work

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.

 

 

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About

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.

 

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