Victoria Semykina on illustrating children's books
Victoria Semykina is an award-winning illustrator and fine artist who works in the field of editorial, advertising, and book illustration. Originally from Moscow, Victoria is based in Bologna, Italy, where the famous Bologna Children's takes place each year.
Victoria, you live in Bologna, the city of children’s books. Do you think it influenced your career path? We’re asking because originally you studied fine arts.
Yes, I initially studied painting. But later I studied illustration, and I remember my teacher Nikolai Popov telling me to go to Bologna or New York which seemed like a mad plan. Then I thought why not. Italy was a country that I’d always wanted to see! I really liked Bologna right from the start.
Oddly enough I am much more comfortable here than in Florence or Venice. In terms of an impact on my illustration path, I would certainly like to believe that it did influence me. There are a lot of books at the fair that you won’t see anywhere else. For instance, there are amazing Japanese, Czech, Polish, Korean books. Some of them aren’t sold in Europe, some you can only find in specialty stores. Therefore when you come to this fair you see some extraordinary books from the most remote corners of the world, and that is great.
Every year before the COVID19 pandemic the city became a Mekka for illustrators. Besides the fair itself there are numerous satellite events and exhibitions, can you tell us a little bit more about this experience? Is it helpful for an illustrator to live so close to the epicenter of the events? What are your favourite moments during the fair? Did you have any life-changing inspiring encounters?
As far as satellite exhibitions are concerned, this is an absolutely amazing thing, but during my first years in Bologna, I just didn’t have time for them.
I went to all four days of the fair, and when you’re on your feet all day long from morning till night, you no longer have enough strength for any other exhibitions in the city, you just want to crawl back home. After all one gets used to everything. In the most recent years I worked out the following schedule: I go to the main exhibition, then I come home to change and go to the city center to see all these exhibitions and then every morning I return to the fair.
Also now I teach an illustration workshop before and after the fair. I take the participants to satellite exhibitions for inspiration. They change every year, but there are really amazing ones, some of them in private apartments that feel more like parties, others in cafes or fashion ateliers... I would have been glad if someone during my first years had taken me by the hand and lead me along to these exhibitions because it is an amazing experience where you can make some great discoveries.
As for the fair itself, there are a lot of invited artists who conduct workshops and give lectures. I personally don’t really recommend queueing for portfolio reviews, because it’s absolutely futile in my opinion. It’s better to go to the lectures and workshops instead.
I really liked the way Anna Castagnoli conducted a tour of the Illustrators Exhibition once. It turned out to be a very valuable experience because I usually come and look at the exhibition with the eyes of a classically trained artist: I judge composition or drawing skills. Anna who wrote books together with illustrators illustrated herself, and has a blog about children’s books can put all those different hats when she looks at book illustrations.
Victoria, amidst the global pandemic you’ve managed to illustrate and publish a children’s book about François Truffaut (French film director, screenwriter, producer, actor, one of the founders of the French New Wave) together with the writer Luca Tortolini, congratulations!
French cinema doesn’t seem like an obvious topic for a children's book, so we’re really curious how this project came about? Were you contacted by the publisher or the writer? Were you immediately sold on the idea of making a book about François Truffaut? And why do you think you were chosen as the most suitable artist for it?
Thank you! It’s quite a funny story. The author and his agent contacted me and for some reason, they were convinced that it was me who had to illustrate this book.
I read the text and realised that taking on this book was absolutely an artistic suicide, because, well, which child wants to read about François Truffaut? Let’s say Fellini or Chaplin are much easier to sell to the publisher and the potential reader. But Truffaut is a very specific topic. Also when people think about Truffaut they think about his movies from the 60s, and this was the story of his childhood, which was during the dark time of the Nazi occupation in France.
In this case, I also needed to somehow interest the children in the story since it’s a children's book we were talking about. So I thought it was an impossible undertaking. I was convinced that I’m not going to take this project, but then I went to bed and in the morning I woke up and changed my mind deciding to accept the challenge.
The story is quite difficult to sell and then to get to the actual reader. For instance, if I compare it to the previous book I illustrated, The real Boat. That was a story anyone could relate to, and I was sure we would be able to sell it to any country and that it would appeal to any reader no matter the cultural background and geographical location. In this case, the potential audience seemed very narrow.
So that being said, making a book is one thing and finding a publisher is another story. In the beginning, we had interested publishers who liked it very much, but nobody dared to publish it. And then finally there came an Italian publisher who said that they were going to do it. Now we’ve already printed the second edition! I’m also very happy with how the publisher promoted the book.
Tell us a bit more about working with the publisher Kite Edizioni, how much artistic freedom did you have when working on the book? Did you have to discuss every spread, or were you given a carte blanche? Could you influence the design of the book and the typographic choices?
Oh, that's very funny. Our first edition came out in January 2020 and it was a little raw, we hurried because we really wanted to participate in the book competition about cinema at Bologna Children’s Book Fair. So there were a lot of things I wanted to change but my editor said that everything was great. Since I’m a perfectionist I re-drew about two-thirds of the illustrations afterwards. Again, she said that everything was perfect. Then, probably a few days before the book went to print, I changed a couple of things yet again and, she, of course, was utterly shocked. As an artist, you always find things to improve, in order to express your ideas precisely.
If we print the third edition, I will still find things to change and improve.
In the case of this book, it was the first time in my life when I sent the illustrations to this publisher and they did everything else themselves, even the adjustments. You know, normally the publisher asks the illustrator to change a few things here and there, move something, and it takes around three weeks before the book goes into print to make these adjustments. Here they took everything into their own hands. And I’m quite satisfied with the result.
There was another funny moment though. There was one illustration that I hated. It sometimes happens that an illustration you made seems very unsuccessful afterwards, it even infuriates you when you look at it. So I made a new version of it and it was much better. But my editor called me and said that she preferred the old version because it seemed more appealing to children. I couldn’t believe it. We even argued for about half an hour. And in the end, she agreed to include the new version. She said that being an artist herself, she understands how frustrating it would be to have the picture you absolutely hate in the book you’ve put so much effort and time into.
You’ve worked with different publishers around the globe. Can you tell us about the similarities and differences of working with international publishers? Is there anything in your opinion illustrators have to take into account when signing their first book contract and working with publishers?
I will gladly share my observations! When looking for a publisher, of course you need to check out what books they’ve already published, so that your book fits into the catalog. It’s also important that the publisher is involved in promoting their books. Some publishers who have very good books in their portfolio, sadly, do nothing to promote them. As book illustrators, we don’t expect to earn a lot of money from a book (unless it’s a rare case of a bestseller like Harry Potter), but we want our book to be seen by as many people as possible.
Also, these days I prefer to work with medium-sized publishers. Because a very small publishing house has little to offer in terms of resources and payment, and working with a very large publishing house is an impersonal experience. There are too many people, and the right hand does not really know what the left hand is doing. You don’t get to meet the editor, you only talk over the phone, they’re not particularly motivated to do anything to promote your book. In case of a medium-sized publisher that releases say, several dozen books a year it’s a different story. They want to know you personally, you meet with the publisher, discuss an exhibition, a book signing, etc. So you get to meet people, communicate, it’s a totally different experience, not just finishing a book and starting another one like a conveyor belt.
So what are ideal conditions for authors and illustrators?
Ideally, you want to keep either the rights to other countries or this publisher himself sells well and promises you a good interest in addition to royalties, which is usually 10-12% from sales that are divided between the author and illustrator. So in an ideal picture of the world, you have a terrific agent who sold your book to a terrific publisher, where you get paid, let's say, 20,000 dollars per book. And this publisher sells it to different countries, he promotes it, and everything is great. Some people publish their first book with these conditions and it seems to them that this is the usual practice. But in fact it this is great luck to publish a book like this. Unfortunately book business is very tough.
How do you usually work with authors? How much say does the author have on the way the final artworks will look like? You’ve worked with different writers and texts, what do you think is important to discuss with the writer when you start working? Are there any know-hows you can share that make an author-illustrator collaboration successful?
My teacher and mentor, Nikolai Popov, used to say it’s very important for a writer when giving the book to an artist, to completely let go of it. Because the artist will never illustrate the way the writer imagines it in his or her head. The artist creates a personal interpretation of the text and it’s not the artist’s job to try and guess what the characters should be like according to the writer. Thankfully all the writers I have worked with until now gave me a carte blanche to make my own interpretation of their writing. They all trusted me completely, but it was particularly interesting for me to work with Luca Tortolini, because he knows more about Truffaut, than Truffaut knew himself, I think. Luca gave me a lot of useful advice when I showed him the sketches. He always liked everything aesthetically, but he corrected certain things, like, say, this film could not be in France at the time, since it was an occupied territory, there were no American films there. When you work with a person who is as immersed in the subject as Luca was, it's very helpful and inspiring.
How long did you work on the book?
It took me more than three years. But, you know, when I say three years, it certainly shocks everyone, as if I don't do anything else besides this book. I do a lot of other projects, like editorial and commercial illustrations at the same time. I started a movie drawing marathon on social media and did all sorts of other work, because the book, sadly, does not bring much money.
Tell us about the perks of publishing a book in the times of a pandemic? Were you able to have a proper launch and a book signing?
The book came out and we were all afraid that nothing would happen at all because the culture of going to bookstores and libraries is very widespread in Italy. Italians prefer to communicate live, go to bookstores and read actual paper books. Since the bookstores were closed, we were afraid that nobody would buy the book, but to our surprise, the book sold very well. The first print sold out pretty quickly and there was such a moment after the summer, but before the second wave began in the fall, when everyone was still a little relaxed and when it was still possible to do something. So we decided to make a small illustrator evening in Padova where the publisher is located. There were a lot of books that came out in this publishing house and they invited illustrators from all over Italy to sign books in different locations of the city. I thought I needed to do something so the people will come. I decided to take one original illustration and hide it in one of the books.
A lot of people came, It was amazing. I was very glad that it was a 9-year-old girl who found the original picture. And she was totally stoked, genuinely happy! She came up to me and asked me if I was a famous artist (if it was a good investment).
Tell us a bit more about the gorgeous illustrations! What materials have you used and have Truffaut’s movies or the time when the events in the book take place influenced your artistic approach and techniques?
I picked a limited dark palette with some glimpses of bright colors and the sun. We discussed with Luca if it was necessary to depict the Nazi occupants in France and decided not to. My goal was to express this state of occupation through the color palette and the general feel of the illustrations. I used certain techniques to convey this mood, for instance, this illustration of rainy Paris, where I used scratching to create the rain.
As for the materials, I can’t really answer this question, because I honestly don’t know what I used. Because if you look at my table you’ll see that it’s very chaotic. I have my watercolor box open, I have oil and dry pastels, color pencils, there are tempera and acrylics. I stretch out my hand and take whatever it reaches.
I am always using everything. People sometimes ask me how I created certain textures and I don't know what to answer, I could never repeat it even if I wanted to.
And how much digital post-production do you do when creating the final pieces?
I do finish the illustrations digitally, but the amount of digital work varies from piece to piece. Some illustrations have a minimal amount of digital post-production, and some require quite a lot of compositing.
Well, let's take this a picture of boys at school. It is made of about three pieces because there are a lot of boys in the picture, and it’s quite hard to paint 8 characters perfectly in one go. It’s is doable, of course, but it’s much easier to just do the first, second, third version and then pick the best ones and compose them digitally.
It’s always exciting to find out the actual size and format of the original illustrations, can you tell us how large or small they were and why?
I like to draw illustrations that are slightly larger than the actual book format. So if the book spread is A3, I draw on a slightly bigger sheet. I did have A4 and A2 pieces, but I generally find A3 to be the most comfortable size to work with to be able to be loose and include enough details.
Tell us a bit more about the process of working on the book. Do you make zillions of sketches and color tests, or is a rough storyboard enough to start working on the final pieces?
My method of work has recently changed. I used to take one illustration from the storyboard, draw a lot of smaller sketches than I used to make a clean drawing, and painted the final piece. I now do the sketches directly on A3 paper. I buy very cheap printer paper because I noticed that I make much looser and dynamic drawings. So instead of drawing a small sketch, I sit down and make a large one, because very often you lose a certain something when you go from a rough small sketch to a final piece.
I used to paint one picture for a week and now I do a lot of fast ones in a week. I can sit down and do three quick pieces in one day, but then I just get much more tired. But this approach allows me to quickly iterate one thing with some variations then choose the best one, put it into Photoshop, and finish it digitally. As a rule, I need three to four attempts until it turns out right, it’s almost like swinging the picture like a sort of a pendulum.
You are an avid sketcher and often use the characters you find on the streets in your illustrations. How do you find inspiration and where do you find characters to sketch these days during lockdowns?
When I travel, I usually shoot a lot of photos with my phone. And instead of taking selfies, I usually take pictures of some strange things, weird objects, interesting characters in cafes, but never use these photos, just put them in my archives. I usually store them in some folders called Lisbon 2016/2018. Now I have the time to look through these photos and draw some characters from them. It helps me loosen up and free my head.
That’s interesting! I know that some artists consider drawing from photos taboo. But you clearly don’t mind drawing from photos!
I have said many times that it is absolutely okay to draw from photos - Degas, for example, drew from his own photographs. In case you didn't not know, his Blue dancers were drawn from a photograph! And nobody suggests removing the painting from the Pushkin museum because of that! It does not matter. I believe that drawing from photographs is NOT ok only in one case - when it is clear that one was drawing from a photograph. Otherwise when you use it as a reference and interpret it – there is no difference whatsoever.
You work from your studio at home and since the work of an illustrator is rather a lonely one, how do you stay connected to the outer world and the community in these difficult times? How do you get inspired and motivated?
You know, as it turns out, I am an extrovert in an introvert. I can stay in my studio for months and everything seems so interesting to me. I really enjoyed the time of the quarantine.
I made so many discoveries, I started reading a lot. I’m learning to play the piano. For me it was a sort of an adventure, doing yoga exercises on a balcony, slowing down. The only thing that is quite hard is the fact that I haven’t been on vacation for 2 years. This year, when there was such a period when the restrictions were loosened, my parents went to the seaside and invited me to come with them. But I said I that had to no time, because I had to rework the illustrations for Truffaut. This was a huge mistake. It is essential for an artist to take a break, an artist cannot be creative and motivated without a vacation. As a result, I now feel that I am going a little crazy. Not because of the quarantine, if it hadn’t been for the quarantine I would have found something else to do and I would still be tired now. I learned my lesson, now I’m finishing a new book and really want to go on vacation once the situation with the pandemic improves and we’ll be able to travel at least within the country.