Artist Interview: Elena Distefano
2015-10-15 · by Tory Hoke
Elena recently graduated from Loughborough University (UK) with a degree in Illustration and is pursuing a career as a freelance illustrator. She specializes in dark imagery and works in traditional media such as graphite and acrylic paint. This year she was selected as a winner of YCN Pan Macmillan’s brief to recreate the cover for Alice in Wonderland.
Elena provided the cover art for this week’s story, “The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton.
Tory Hoke: Each of your compositions seems like one perfect, balanced, self-contained world. How much energy goes into making something look effortless?
Elena Distefano: Oh, thank you! It’s always good to hear that. Erm, well, I try to look at something like an environment, animal, or person as much as possible beforehand, so that I understand the subject matter as well as I can. I like to have a clear image in my mind so that I can modify or invent an environment that doesn’t necessarily exist, using knowledge of the real world. I hope that this knowledge gives me the basics, so I can then just create a character or environment that I have imagined and hopefully make it look believable. I also think practice makes perfect, and the more stuff you look at, the better you get at drawing. The will to do something plays an important role in getting better. I am nowhere near done learning.
In short, a fair bit of energy!
Tory: Very heard, especially given some of the complex lighting setups visible in your art. How do you go about planning these?
Elena: Well, sometimes I plan something down to a T, and it works. But sometimes you get really awkward compositions that you think will look good based on thumbnail sketches, but on a larger scale you find there is something really wrong about them.
The wolf in the woods was one of those drawings, and it ended up looking completely different from the original sketch. At the point when I realise something is going wrong, I’ll take an element of the original idea and just do what looks like should be on the page. I had that basic knowledge of what the animal looked like from study sketches, so that allowed me to position it wherever I wanted on the page. The lighting just fell into place where I hadn’t mapped out any trees. I had also looked at how light falls in forests—mainly from looking at photographs.
Then you rely on your ability as an illustrator to work out what shade something will be comparison to another. I just keep working until it’s as close to the image in my mind as it can possibly be.
Tory: Intriguing. The effort pays off. Those shafts of light are captivating.
Elena: Thank you!
Tory: It’s clear from your Twitter feed that you’re an animal lover. Does this help your study of them? Does it influence your depictions?
Elena: I love animals! I grew up surrounded by animals. I would definitely say they are my favourite subject matter. Being around them does influence my depictions of them and how I make up animal characters. It helps a lot with their physical appearance, because I’ve become so used to drawing them from childhood, and because they were just there all my life. Also, they looked way cooler than people, but you could also anthropomorphise them to express human emotions. Animals are definitely the best things to draw.
Tory: What animals did you grow up around? And which ones capture your interest most?
Elena: I grew up in Italy for the early part, and there we had four dogs, two cats, three pigs, chickens, a goat, two rabbits, a horse, and a Shetland pony. I think that’s it!
Tory: Oh my!
Elena: I think the ones that captured my attention the most would be the horses and dogs.
Tory: Where in Italy?
Elena: We lived near Pisa on a mountain.
Tory: How did being surrounded by this much animal life affect your world view? Surely you saw the whole circle of life at a young age.
Elena: Yes, I did. I think it’s always good to grow up with animals! I think more recently it has definitely changed my views on the world. I understood where food came from at an early age. It was safe to say that I wasn’t too happy with that information at that age.
Tory: Understandable! How has it changed your views lately?
Elena: I recently stopped eating meat.
Tory: What happened recently to inspire the change? And how is the transition treating you?
Elena: I was brought up a meat eater, and—don’t get me wrong—I liked it. But then I saw a few things and just realised I felt a little guilty and sad to be eating cute animals. Ah, I sound so soppy, but it’s genuinely how I feel. They make better muses than being on my dinner plate!
Tory: Understood. Surely growing up with animals, studying them, and drawing them all set the stage for giving up meat. What were the few things you saw that pushed you over the edge?
Elena: I watched a documentary that shocked me a little—about the food industry, but also about the health benefits of eating less meat or none at all. Most of all, just my love of animals. If I see an animal, I’ll be like, “I’m going to adopt you now.” [laughs]
Tory: How do you keep from having twenty cats? (No disrespect if you have twenty cats.)
Elena: I have only one cat at the moment which belongs to my mum. I don’t have twenty because, at this point in my life, it’s a bit hectic. I’m fresh out of university, and I’m still settling. It wouldn’t be fair to own that many. It’s about whatever is best for the animal at the end of the day.
Tory: That’s excellent discipline. How was your experience at Loughborough? How is life after university treating you so far?
Elena: Loughborough was a lot of fun and a lot of work! I definitely had a good time there—met some amazing people and made some great friends. Life after university can be tough—and it has been—especially as an illustrator. I think my classmates would agree on that! But I chose illustration because I love it, and I’ll power through to be the best that I can be. If I can’t make a living solely on being an illustrator, I would find something else in the industry just to be involved!
Tory: What would you like to see more of in the industry? In fantasy, science fiction, and horror illustration?
Elena: I would like to see more in the way of children’s/older children to young adult horror. Obviously not really terrifying or horrible nightmare material, but slightly darker stories. In England I’ve seen a lot of very twee picture books—which are really good, don’t get me wrong!
In terms of adult science fiction and horror, there is so much good stuff out there, and so much illustration that inspires my work, I wouldn’t know where to begin! I personally like illustration that had been created using traditional media or digital that has been made to look traditional.
Online science fiction picture books for both adults and children—that would be cool!
Tory: Agreed! What’s your dream project? Would it fall in one of those categories?
Elena: I would love to work on my own picture book! Whether it’s illustrating my own story or someone else’s. I think in this day and age, picture books have to work both in a print and digital format. Yes, a picture book would be a dream. Obviously the darker the subject matter, the better for me.
Tory: At the same time, your work is very appealing. The appeal seems only to enhance the horror, like bait for a trap. For you, as an artist and a fan, where does that attraction to darkness come from, do you think? (And what are your Halloween plans?)
Elena: I honestly don’t know. I really wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it. I just always found myself attracted to dark subject matter! I think I enjoy being frightened a little bit.
I go to town on Halloween. It’s like Christmas for me.
Elena: I’m like that scene in Mean Girls where Lindsey Lohan comes to the party dressed scary and the other girls aren’t and it’s all a bit awkward. . . but then I don’t care because I know I’ve done Halloween the right way.
I take it you’re a fan of Halloween!
Tory: Oh, yes. It’s the best time of the year. How will you “go to town” this year?
Elena: Last year I got the liquid latex out. Not doing that again because I cried getting that stuff off my face! So I think I’m going to do a skeleton body paint look. Maybe along the lines of Day of the Dead theme because that stuff is beautiful. Who knows? I could change my mind!
Tory: Nice. Well, not nice that you suffered at the hands of liquid latex. It’s a master hair-remover!
Elena: I almost lost an eyebrow.
Tory: Oof. What’s next for you? (Either professionally or Halloween-ly)
Elena: Keep going, that’s all. I’m going to keep building my portfolio and taking on commissions and projects that suit me and my work. I want to gain as much knowledge and experience as I can regarding the illustration and the publishing of picture books and do my best in that industry. Who knows? I might do OK!
Halloween? Well, you might see that on my Twitter page.
Tory: I’ll have to follow. That and your Instagram page. Thank you so much for your time this evening, Elena! It’s been a pleasure and a treat.
Elena: Thank you for liking my work enough to commission it! It has been really fun.