2011 "An Interview with the Balbusso sisters" by Melanie Gradtke, The Folio Society Blog

An Interview with the Balbusso sisters by Melanie Gradtke, The Folio Society Production Manager. Posted on November 10, 2011. http://www.foliosociety.com/blog/

Anna and Elena Balbusso are award-winning artists who live and work in Milan, Italy. They have illustrated several Folio titles including Ivan Turgenev’s First Love, and the great chivalric poem The Song of Roland. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is their next Folio commission. The twins shared their thoughts on illustration and their unique working relationship and illustration process with Footnotes.

What are your first memories of drawing?

We were three years old and drew on sheets of squared notebook paper with pencil and coloured markers but we also remember drawing on the kitchen wall and on white bed sheets!

When did you realise your creative abilities would be central to your career?

We knew from an early age. We were drawing at every opportunity, including during lessons. After secondary school we chose to continue our artistic studies at the Instituto Statale d’Arte in Udine (the Friuli region of Italy). It is a high school dedicated to art, specialising in the applied arts. After this 5-year diploma we decided to specialise in painting and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan.

Have you always worked together?

During the summers at Brera we worked separately as graphic designers. Upon graduation we had intended to continue doing so but fate intervened. The first half of the 1990’s were lean times for advertising and graphic design in Italy. With no contacts and little design work we returned to our passion – illustration!

In Milan, there weren’t a lot of publishing houses, so one of us would get an appointment to show our portfolio and the other would arrive an hour later to see the same person. The editors commented they found this too confusing! So we created a single identity. We are very lucky because it is not difficult for us to work together, it is a natural thing and there is no competition between us.

What inspires your work, any particular artists within the illustration world?

The list of artists we admire is very long but we take our inspiration from art in general – painting, sculpture and movies from all periods – rather than individual illustrators.

Can you describe your process?

…it’s like making a film…

After carefully reading the story, we select the scenes we want to illustrate. We choose interesting points and also balance the number of illustrations throughout the whole book. We always start by talking and imagining what we want the project to be. It helps us to look at a lot of paintings from the period we are illustrating – in all our work there is a clear reference to artists and paintings. We make detailed notes about the characters and the scene of each illustration then conduct preliminary historical research to understand how best to create the characters and setting. We collect all of the references for each illustration – artists and art, sketches, photos of people… then we begin the rough drawings.

We develop the idea through various different colour layouts and compositions until we achieve the desired effect. We work and rework the illustration until we have a detailed visual of the scene. We use graphite pencil on tracing paper then we digitise our sketch and then work in Photoshop.

After this stage, we proceed with the finished illustration and start the process of colouring. We use mixed media, our visible brush strokes are all handmade not digital. First we paint each picture element separately (background, characters and objects) with black gouache and pencil on paper. Then we digitise them and use Photoshop to colour the image. The colouring process is very complex and has been developed after many years of experience. We always compare the CMYK colour against digital proofs to ensure colour accuracy. Our final illustrations are in a digital format.

What appealed to you about The Handmaid’s Tale and how did you go about working on the project?

We really appreciate that Folio understood that this was a perfect book for us. For a long time we hoped for a book like this and we loved the challenge. The theme of a woman’s body appealed to our sensibility. The story gave us the opportunity to create strong graphic images.To give a visionary interpretation and to create the right atmosphere for the story, we chose a futurist tone with accentuated perspectives and strong light. We used few colours and with a prevalence of red, black and white. Futurism, Russian Constructivism and fascist-period design were our references.

It was important to have a certain freedom of interpretation to better express what the writing suggests. It was very difficult to choose scenes and we gave up on many interesting options. Instead we tried to focus our attention on the woman’s body. Some situations in the story are very complex and we preferred to leave the interpretation of those to the readers of this exceptional text!

What appeals to you about working with The Folio Society?

The opportunity to work with intelligent, friendly and professional staff who value the artists they commission because they believe in and love their work. In our opinion this is very rare. It is a pleasure to work on books of the highest artistic value and production quality. We are humbled to have the opportunity to compare our work to the masterpieces of world classical and contemporary literature and top international illustrators.

When you are not working, what do you like to do?

We would love to travel more but it is not always possible. We love to visit the cities of art, museums, and contemporary art galleries. We love pastries and cake and go to high quality pastry shops in all the cities we visit. It is one of our passions. We love to walk around…. not run. We love fashion and we love to go to the cinema but unfortunately we never seem to have enough time.

Do you have any tips for budding illustrators?

It is important to study the history of art and to know the past as well as the present. Always strive to improve. Try to be very critical of yourself but never give up – although it is a very difficult job. Follow and respect one’s personality, don’t follow the trend of the moment. If you do, the risk is to be used and thrown away in a short space of time. At the same time it is important to know about new trends and tastes. Don’t forget it is a commercial world, but be careful in your choice of projects. It is important that the quality of your work keeps growing. Interpretation is more important than technique and special effects. Young artists must not work for free, only if it is for charity. And last but not least, enforce the law on copyright!

Anna and Elena Balbusso :-) :-)