Let´s talk art | Studying texture light and creating abstract portraits with Diana Novich
Hey everyone, my name’s Jack Woodhams (founder of PosterSpy), and welcome to another Let’s Talk Art interview!
This time, we talk to Diana Novich, an illustrator based in Russia. I have always been a fan of Diana’s work, her use of colour, composition and her very artistic and creative approach. Some of you may know Diana from her very popular pop culture illustrations.
In this interview, Diana talks about her experiences as an artist, including working with custom brushes, dealing with imposter syndrome and sudden overnight success.
“Drawing without references is like building a house without a blueprint.”
So let´s talk art…
Firstly I’m a huge fan of your art, I absolutely adore your use of colour and texture. Tell us a little bit about your process. How do you typically start a piece?
Thank you so much Jack! I start with a very vague image stuck in my mind and proceed by gathering reference material on Google/ Pinterest to help me build a strong core for my imagination to go off from.
Then, I get my notebook and write down 10 keywords that come to mind when I’m thinking about my idea. I find that breaking the subject down to small bits helps to stay focused and keeps me motivated. The rest is just craftsmanship. Once I had the piece visualized in my head, I roughly sketch out the initial composition with a pencil brush, block some colors, then merge everything and start painting. After that, it’s just details, details and more details.
Once you have an idea of the work you’d like to create, how long typical do you spend on a piece of art?
Somewhere between 4 hours to 4 months (if there’s no deadline). I’m very nitpicky about the smallest details on a compulsive-obsessive level, I tend to polish things over and over again until I’m at least 98% sure that I did everything as best as I’m able to. Unfortunately, it’s hereditary and there’s nothing I can do about it. Apart from doing freelance, I also have an office job, so sometimes that can get in the way as well.
Many artists own many art pieces they’ll probably never share online. Do you have a lot of art that never made it online and why did you decide to keep them private?
I’m certainly not an exception. Besides private commissions and work for projects that never saw the light of day, there’s a folder stocked up with abandoned art that is taking up space on my hard drive.
There’s no particular reason for that, but if I had to really analyze it… I guess it’s mainly because the bulk of that art has no theme, and I mostly share artwork that has something to do with pop culture, i.e. “fan art”, because I enjoy all the different reactions and conversations it sparks in people. And I know if I post something that doesn’t fit into that category it won’t get quite the same feedback I desire, so I just don’t post it at all. Not the best mindset, I won’t argue.
You work mostly digitally, what does a digital workflow enable you to do as an artist and is there anything you prefer to do with traditional mediums? (pencil, ink etc).
Digital media offers way more versatility and creative freedom. It allows you to draw, paint, sculpt and experiment with many different techniques while just having a tablet and a stylus (or a mouse, if you’re feeling like it). Which is practically impossible when it comes to traditional media, as you need quite many different tools and supplies to explore the world of art beyond pencil scribbles in your notebook, so to speak, which is not suitable for every wallet. So, for me, that’s probably the most important aspect when comparing the two mediums (also,Ctrl+Z).
The only downside that comes to mind is the “Digital art is cheating and therefore can’t be considered real art” mindset many people unfamiliar with the digital process have. It is something that will inevitably die out with further development and integration of digital technologies.
I still have a soft spot for watercolors, mainly because it’s what initially got me into art. And to this day I haven’t been able to find any other medium quite like it that has this zen-like aura to it. I always feel at peace whenever I paint with watercolors, just like I’m having a personal meditation session. Also, it’s way easier to wash out from clothes than oils, let’s just say that.
A few of your pieces have gained huge recognition online, especially your Will Byers “The Spy” illustration. Did you ever expect your work to become so popular?
Not in a dream! Well, I guess there’s always that thought in the back of your head thinking that everything you draw is a masterpiece and deserves to be hanged at the Louvre alongside “Mona Lisa”, but it’s nothing more than a self-deluded childish fantasy.
I remember freaking out the first time the artwork I posted online got 100 likes, I even send the screenshot to my mom. She was really proud. So needless to say that when my “Will Byers” illustration reached over 100,000 notes on Tumblr I was beyond belief. Noah Schapp even reached out and personally thanked me, so that was great (what a lovely kid, side note).
Though the self-deprecating part of me still thinks all of this attention is highly underserved, especially after chatting with, in my opinion, more skilled artists who struggle with countless insecurities about their work and abilities because of lack of exposure they get. And then here I am, you know, “drawing mediocre fan-art and getting it all”, which is an actual comment I saw once under my artwork.
I am beyond grateful for all the amazing feedback and support I got over the years, I can’t emphasize enough how much it helped me to get through the hard times in my life, but I suppose this impostor syndrome is not something that disappears so easily. You are your own worst enemy and all that.
As your work becomes more popular, do you ever feel a certain pressure as an artist to produce a piece you hope people will like?
Yes and no. I do feel the responsibility to exhibit quality artwork for people who now have certain expectations of me. However, at the same time with bigger publicity, I gained this sense of freedom I didn’t have before – freedom of being able to do things the way I want to.
Before, I always focused on creating something that would appeal to the major audience, and would often put down topics that interest me in order to save time for something that people would enjoy more. But at this stage, I feel confident I can potentially create a triptych based on a hallucinogenic dream I had while being under anesthesia for all four wisdom teeth removal and it won’t go unnoticed.
Artists often spend time sketching, studying and exploring the world around them, how often do you spend time sketching and practicing, and how long for per day?
Truth be told: nowhere near often enough. I used to be a complete layabout when it came down to practice. I much preferred the flexibility of figuring things out on the go rather than spending “precious time on theory knowledge”. I had this same attitude towards everything since I was a little kid.
Surprisingly, I was an “A” student. But eventually, I had to force myself to do studies at least once in a couple of days because I stopped progressing and felt that. So ever since I semi-regularly do master studies, anatomical sheets, palette challenges, etc.
Your character portraits are very emotive and contain subtle but effective facial expressions. How did you learn to create such intricate illustrations? Do you study or take classes?
I don’t have a formal art education, I consider myself mostly self-taught, aside from a few years I spent in a community center art class where I learned 101 ways to paint a flower vase.
At a certain point in my life, art became the only way for me to express myself – something that no one had control over except for me. So I was very driven to become better for my personal contentment.
When I was a kid, my mom used to constantly take me to various museum exhibitions, and I have this distant memory of just gazing at the subdued expressions of the characters from the vast majority of the Renaissance era paintings. I’m not sure if I really understood anything at that age, but I remember being really intrigued by the fact that you could never guess those character’s thoughts/ feelings by simply looking at their faces. Unlike in cartoons that show very clear expressions and often exaggerated for the purpose of making the viewer react with emotions of the character. It really forced me to examine every small detail of the painting to get the overall message and just have more appreciation for it in general.
These memories imprinted themselves into my brain and over the years my fascination with human face reached the point where I sometimes find myself riding on the subway and creepily staring at the face of a person sitting in front of me for way too long, examining its features and how much a subtle eyebrow raise can change their whole expression. It’s something I always try to take into account while working.
I might spend 2 hours just redrawing the same mouth over and over again until I reach the perfect curl of the lip, so to speak. I think more subdued expressions work best with my type of work, cooperating with other elements of the painting to tell a more engaging story while not attracting too much attention.
You have a very specific style throughout your work, often utilizing strong, contrasting colours. Do you have any particular method when it comes to colours or do you just create what feels natural?
My love for vivid colors is driven by a natural desire to bring some brightness into the dull and dusty environment I’ve been living in for the majority of my life.
I don’t have a well-thought method behind deciding on colour scheme, it’s mostly intuitive. At the beginning I’m guided by the overall feeling I’m aiming for and pick the colors accordingly, bearing in mind the surroundings and lightning. Typically in the middle of the process I start feeling like the colors I’ve chosen stopped cooperating with the mood of the painting, so I completely revamp them by either putting a black/ white filter on top of the painting and adding new colors with overlay/ gradient maps, or by going crazy with “color balance”/ ”curves”, hashtag digital art privileges.
More than anything, it’s important for me that the colors have the right emotional impact, the rest is secondary. To anyone wanting to learn more about color and light, I highly suggest reading “Color and Light” by James Gurney, it’s easy to read and it covers a lot of topics such as color theory, light exposure, limited palettes, etc. It’s a must-have whether you’re a digital or traditional artist.
As a self-taught illustrator, do you have any advice for artists who want to explore their own skills? Are there any things you studied that helped you to get to the level you are today?
My major advice, that was actually given to me by my community art teacher is:
“Don’t let the inevitable failure to discourage and stop you from enjoying the process”
As you try new things, you’re going to fail miserably once, then again, and again. But after each time you fail, you’ll realize that you got through it and you know you have a new chance to start again.
All in all, you’re not building an airplane, so keep your head cool and don’t let stress weigh you down. Draw what you love and what you´re are passionate about. Don’t force yourself into a specific setting you’re not interested in or comfortable with just because that´s what people want from you.
Another thing I would add: never underestimate the power of the internet! We live in an era of almost unlimited access to information, so use that to your advantage. I taught myself nearly everything I know about art through tutorials, painting process videos and observing other artists’ work, and I didn’t even cover 5% of the information that is out there.
Publish your work online, interact with people, get feedback, do challenges and art trades. All of this will eventually reward you if you invest thought and time in it that is.
For aspiring artists looking to improve their portraits and character illustrations, what is the one major piece of advice you’d give?
References! Don’t be afraid to use references. This is a simple, yet often overlooked advice. Expanding your visual memory library and turning to it whenever you feel frustrated and stuck is going to help you learn much quicker and more efficient.
I often see young artists saying they’re afraid to reference because they’ve been told it’s just as bad as tracing, which is a really damaging mentality. Drawing without references is like building a house without a blueprint, it’s just not going to work out unless you’ve done it a couple of million times blindfolded.
Personally, I think even tracing as a learning technique can be helpful for improving your muscle memory, it’s all about how you manage it.
Last year you entered an art piece for a´Star Wars The Last Jedi´ fan art contest and won! Then your work was displayed at the Worldwide premiere. How did that feel, knowing your work was on display in front of the cast and crew as well as hundreds if not thousands of fans?
Crazy! I didn’t actually know that my entry was chosen beforehand, I was watching a live stream of the premiere and suddenly saw a glimpse of my artwork being displayed in the background.
It was definitely a bucket-list deal for me, can’t say anything much. Being able to contribute to this enormous franchise (alongside with many amazing artists) even in such a small way was a great experience and it definitely increased my appreciation for this universe. And now I have something to brag about at dinner parties.
Your piece focussing on Rey and Leia, what inspired you to feature these two characters in your illustration?
Well, considering I learned about the contest 5 days before the deadline, so there was no time for debating. The overall image was partly inspired by various religious images I saw a few days earlier at a local Museum of the History of Religion, so at the beginning, I decided I wanted to convey a kind of ethereal feel with this illustration.
After some idea brainstorming, I remembered the first time watching the original trilogy when I was about 6 years old and immediately falling in love with Leia’s character. She quickly became the epitome of the perfect “princess” for me: fierce, passionate, witty, always being true to her beliefs and fighting for them.
Over the years, I saw many issues with how Leia´s character was written, but she still continued to be one of my icons alongside with Carrie Fisher, whose wit and unapologetic attitude inspires me to this day. I remember after the news of Carrie’s passing I was left nearly heartbroken like I’ve lost a very distant space fairy godmother. So that’s how I came with the idea of Leia passing the “torch of force” to Rey, who from now on will carry it to the new generation of girls and boys in need of a powerful female character to inspire and give them hope, just like Leia did generations before.
So, well, that’s the story. Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to fully explore this idea because I was very limited on time, but I’m proud of the outcome nonetheless.
When trying to gather inspiration for a new illustration is there anything you turn to or utilize?
Music is a powerful moving force for me, so I always turn to it when I’m in need of inspiration.
For me, it’s important to find something close to the theme of the painting or the character. Whenever I am working on private OC commissions, I like to ask if the client has some specific songs they associate with their character or bands they listen to while writing. I find that it always helps set me on the right track.
A lot of your art focuses on pop culture and characters from movies and tv shows. Are there any film or tv shows you are planning to create an illustration for or is there a particular title you’d love to cover in the future?
My art always reflects something I’m currently obsessing over, be it video games or TV shows, but for now, I’ve been stuck in a place where nothing really fascinates me much, so until I find something that catches my interest it’s hard to promise anything.
Though thinking about it, for the longest time I wanted to do something for “Let the Right One In”, which is one of my favorite books, so hopefully, I’ll get to it one day.
When you’re creating art, what do you like to do during your spare time? Do you find that your hobbies inspire your art at all or do you like to keep work and free time separate?
Well, illustrating is my main hobby, so it’s mostly what I do when I’m having a spare time. Other than that, I’m a big video game enthusiast and a film/ TV devotee, the usual bunch.
I take interest in law, psychology, politics… cooking. I love traveling, but sadly it’s not something I can enjoy regularly.
I have a musical upbringing, my dad was a theater actor/ operetta singer, so I quite enjoy singing and playing various musical instruments, even though I can’t call myself a natural talent in that area. But I do consider myself a giant music junkie and try to visit as many gigs in my area as possible. I absolutely love the atmosphere of unity out there, where all people are driven by the same energy and connected through a mutual love for music.
All of the small things I’m passionate about shape me into the person that I am, so in some way they definitely have an impact on my artwork.
Do you find yourself using consistent brushes and techniques or do you tend to experiment with different looks?
Mixing up your usual techniques now and then can help break the routine and get you out of an art block, so I’m always on the hunt for new ways to jazz up the process.
For me, it’s not always about changing the final outlook, but finding different paths to the same goal. The only downside is that it makes it extra hard to develop a consistent style, since I’m constantly changing my approach.
What kind of brushes do you use to achieve your style and do you have any tips for artists trying to create a painterly, natural feel to their art?
Generally, I like using brushes that have bristle texture and simulate the look of traditional materials. Some I created myself, some I found on random artist platforms or bought from Gumroad.
My absolute favorites to use lately are from the Munch brush pack created by Kyle T. Webster, which I can’t recommend enough for anyone looking for free high-quality brushes with detailed stroke textures.
While sketching, I use a small brush with uneven edges and set the brush flow to 60% for a more natural approach. I would suggest choosing a custom brush for eraser as well. Painting with small strokes and maneuvering different hues and shades of your current color can also help in achieving a more natural look.
Another trick is adding a canvas/ paper texture to the brush setting, or overlaying the texture over the base of the painting, then flattening the layers and paintings on top of that.
Finally, I try limiting my work to two layers max and using Ctrl+Z less frequently, that way if I mess up I’m forced to paint over my mistakes, like some would do with traditional tools, and not just Ctrl+Z my cares away. It helps the painting look less flat, which is a constant issue with the digital medium.
What is your current work set up, what hardware do you use for your art?
As someone who doesn’t settle in one place for too long, keeping my office as mobile as possible is one of my highest priorities. My workspace consists of my trustworthy Wacom pen tablet, Logitech mouse/ keyboard, MSI laptop with an external monitor, IKEA desk and a chair, and that’s about it.
Regarding painting software, I’ve always remained faithful to Photoshop, even if it’s a photo editing program first and foremost.
As for a pen tablet, I tested a few different models over the years, but nothing had worked as well for me as my ol’ pal Wacom Intuos 4 that I have been using for the last 6 years or so. It hasn’t failed me once throughout the years and honestly, I’ve grown so close to it, it’s hard to imagine switching to any other model.
Are there any artists that have particularly inspired your work?
It’s harder to say who hasn’t; I think almost every artist I’ve ever encountered has inspired me in one way or another. For example Botticelli or my mom’s fashion-artist-friend who would always teach me to draw fashion sketches when we would pay a visit (not talking about various photographers and musicians).
Of course, if I had to pick, I would say that I’ve always been keen on the early 20th century art, so artists like Leyendecker, Klimt, Rockwell, Mucha and a few more certainly left their influence on my drawing habits and gave me an idea of what I should aim for in my art journey.
The way I look at it, my style is very inconsistent, repeatedly changing and transforming. Thanks to social media I’m able to surround myself with numerous different talented artists and I’m in a constant creative boost.
I love modern traditional artists like Malcolm T. Liepke, James Jean, Andrew Salgado and Joseph Lorusso for example, as well as fellow digital artists such as Loish, Ross Tran, Yuri Shwedoff, Mezamero, Charlie Bowater, Tom Bagshaw, Alice X. Zhang, SachinTeng, James Fenner, Len-Yan, etc. The list is endless.
Also, Bob Ross. Always.
Finally, are there any techniques you’re currently trying to improve or experiment with?
Nothing special. I think right now I want to focus on leveling my overall artistry up and developing a more steady workflow.
Maybe after I reach a certain point where I feel like I’ve learned “everything there is to know” I will go out of my comfort zone, perhaps do more environmental studies, but I don’t see it happening soon.
Thank you for reading
That’s the end of this Let’s Talk Art interview, it has been wonderful finding out more about Diana Novich’s work. You can follow Diana on a variety of social networks:
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This interview series is produced by Jack Woodhams, the founder of showcase platform PosterSpy. We would like to thank everyone who has responded positively to this series so far and hope you enjoy what´s to come.