Δευτέρα, 9 Μαΐου 2016

The portrait of an artist: Yelena Bryksenkova

The firebird

Russian-born but grown-up in the U.S., Yelena Bryksenkova is a young artist who  combines so many different influences in her artwork: Russian folk art, Indian miniature painting, Persian royal portraiture. Nostalgic about the past, positive about the future, she has created an enormous world of tiny illustrations. 

Cara mia
Tell us a bit about your life. When did you begin to paint, what made you decide to do illustration?

I'm originally from St. Petersburg, Russia but I moved to the US with my mother when I was eight years old and grew up in the state of Ohio. I studied illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), but I also spent one semester at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, Czech Republic. Now I live in the state of Connecticut but I will probably move somewhere new very soon. I have taken classes in drawing and painting since I was young, but I became serious about it in high school, when I decided to go to MICA. It was when I was a student there that I discovered illustration and it seemed like the perfect fit for me. 

What kind of illustrations do you do? Would you like to share with us a unique experience you had when illustrating a book?

I do illustrations for all sorts of media: books, magazines, greeting cards. I have one general style but there are nuances within it so I can adapt to different clients (more fashion-oriented, children's illustrations, a serious topic, etc.) When I illustrated Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it was my first time working on a fully illustrated book. It's a Victorian winter story lit entirely by gas lamps, candles and fireplaces, so it was a real challenge for me to learn how to paint scenes with dramatic lighting, which I am not used to. It was also in the middle of summer, so I was painting snow but I had a small, rotating fan on my desk because it was so hot.

Christmas Carol
Is there a text, a book, a fairy tale, a song you would like to illustrate but haven't yet? 
I would like to illustrate some Russian novels like Anna Karenina or perhaps Pushkin's Evgeniy Onegin. They are beautiful stories and I had such vivid pictures in my mind when I read them. There are so many gorgeous visuals to work with as an illustrator.

What materials do you usually use?
I use Micron pens and Acryla Gouache.

Is there a time of the day you prefer to work? Do you always paint at home? 

I used to be more of a night owl but now I find that I feel calmer and more productive when I start my work early in the day and finish in the late afternoon. It makes me feel more accomplished and I can make dinner and relax for the rest of the night. I always paint at home, but if I need to do some research for a project or just pencil sketches, I sometimes take that work to a cafe, just for a change of scenery.

What is on your desk at this moment? 
I have a tray that holds cups of pens, pencils and paintbrushes, some erasers and a menagerie of miniature ceramic animals. There are also some plants and flowers in a glass.

Are you currently working on something? 

I just finished decorating a ketubah (a Jewish wedding document) that a couple commissioned from me. I hand painted the entire border around the document, which they will sign at their wedding this summer. Next I am going to design some wrapping paper for one of my longtime clients so I will get started on sketches soon.

Is illustration a profession for you or a hobby? Is it possible to make a living through illustration in your country?

Illustration is my profession; I have been doing it full-time for four years. It is possible to make a living as an illustrator in the US, and many people do. For me, it is a combination of doing commissioned illustration work, sometimes custom paintings for private clients and selling prints of my work through my Etsy shop.

Alice in wonderland                                                           Little red riding hood

Which illustrators (classical or contemporary) have inspired you?

Leon Bakst and Ivan Bilibin are favorites. I will always love Edward Gorey. Some of my favorite contemporary illustrators are Carson Ellis, Laura Carlin and Fanny Blanc. I also love many 19th century painters such as John Singer Sargent, Valentin Serov, Van Gogh and Matisse. Another major influence is Indian miniature painting, as well as 19th century Persian royal portraiture

Images form imagination. When you paint do you think that images will come alive in the imagination of children?

If the illustrator can create an intriguing world, the child will have no difficulty populating it. The book illustrations I remember most from my early years still haunt me, I still relate things that I see back to them.

Romeo & Juliet
What in an illustrator's relationship with childhood? How much do your childhood memories define your work? 

When I was a child I had many beautiful picture books and I studied the cover and illustrations very carefully, even compared them to descriptions in the text. I always remember that now when I paint. My favorites were fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Soviet artists like Vladimir Konashevich. Those images are still clear in my mind when I think of them.

You have created many book covers for classic novels (William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf). Do you think that the book cover is also a part of the story? Does it have the power to influence the reader?

I am very drawn to books with beautiful covers, and an illustrated one is a very enticing invitation to read. I always loved book covers that have references to the story, that I can always close the book to check before I keep reading. My favorite example is the original US editions of Harry Potter. Mary Grand Pre's cover illustrations had a ton of references to the story inside, and I loved it.

The firebird
Even though the faces you draw are simple and minimal, their clothes, their colors remind us something of the Russian folk art. On the other hand, the landscape or the picture of the city (big buildings, the rainy windows) reminds us of a soviet past. How much does your origin influence you?

My origin influences me in so many conscious and unconscious ways. I am in love with Russian folk art and its revival in the late 19th-early 20th century, especially in the theater when artists like Leon Bakst designed costumes for the Ballets Russes. Anything to do with Saint Petersburg's Silver Age is a treasure trove of inspiration. But I also love the melancholy of a bygone era, and St. Petersburg is a city that embodies that feeling: bleak and gray, with once-beautiful buildings half buried under the dust of time. There's a kind of magic in this combination and it appears in almost everything that I do. It's a feeling I can't quite put into words so I spend my time trying to put it into pictures.

You were born in the Soviet Era. Could you specify some differences between Soviet, European and American illustrations?

It's very hard to compare and contrast, but if I had to use my instinct I would say that Soviet illustrators were very technically skilled but hey lived in a kind of bubble, so for inspiration they looked back to folk art and other classical sources, which made for very beautiful work. European illustrators were more experimental and playful, Americans a bit more technical and striving toward realism, maybe? I'm thinking of illustrations for classical novels and advertising.

You often draw pictures of every day life, such as young girls dating, dancing, having parties. They often spend time alone, feel sad or look lonely. There is an atmosphere in this pictures; dark but warm, cosy but lonely. Are you mostly attracted by the domesticity or the darkness?

I like both feelings, so I'm attracted to both. I've always been introverted and solitude never scared me, so for me a painting of a woman alone isn't sad at all. Even the times where I have felt alone – when I am traveling by myself, for example – I have always enjoyed that feeling because there is a magic in poetry in it that I appreciate and find very inspiring. Now things have changed a little because I am in love and don't live alone anymore; I still spend a lot of time by myself but now I like to paint two people together in some special moment.


Your paintings combine modern with vintage. Is there something old that you feel nostalgic about and would like to include in your paintings?

L' inconnue
I always paint hardwood floors because that reminds me of old Soviet apartments; for the same reason a lot of my older paintings of rooms have radiators, too.

You often work in a very small size, which I suppose requires an extra effort. How can a character develop in such a small size?

It doesn't take much to develop a character I think, just a simple gesture or facial expression. For me, it is comfortable to hold my breath over a tiny face, painting a few tiny strokes until I get it just right. I feel more in control. If I have a larger painting, I lose sight of it as a whole.


For any information concerning Yelena 's work, have a look here.

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