Art / Illustration / New York

Olimpia Zagnoli: a witty balance between colors and shapes

I met Olimpia for the first time at the 7th floor of the New York Times building. Tall, slender silhouette, dark brown long bob, and her signature round glasses: she clearly stood out from the crowd. Just landed from Italy, she swung by to say hi  at the opening of “Townies”, an exhibition on the illustrations of the Thursday op-ed series about living in NYC, where her work was featured.

Look at me I am crying, Olimpia Zagnoli

Look at me I’m crying, Olimpia Zagnoli

Actually she was in the city for a lecture on her work at Pictoplasma, the twice-doomed conference, first by hurricane Sandy, then by blizzard Nemo. The exhibition was just a happy coincidence. A glass of tasteless white wine and there is the time for a couple of questions on her career – that started right here in New York – before the chameleonic night would devour us and set us apart.

When did you realize your passion for drawing could become a profession?

After focusing on humanities at high school, I decided to enroll in IED (European Institute of Design), because I had noticed they had a vast array of drawing classes, not forcefully linked with painting. I had clear in my mind that I wanted to have a graphic and editorial approach to drawing.

I would say that I have always drawn all the time since I was a child. Even at high school during other classes I would easily distract myself and start drawing. Then at a certain point started to be paid for it.

Cappuccetto Rosso, Olimpia Zagnoli

Cappuccetto Rosso, Olimpia Zagnoli

Your mom is a visual artist and your dad is a photographer. What did you learn from their professional experience?

I was born with the idea that I could do what I wanted. When I started working, my parents knew very little about illustration. Even though it was a field they were not familiar with, they didn’t try to influence my decision.

Their being artists is as if they made a carpet on which I then learned to walk by myself. They taught me the principle of succeeding with my own strengths and that I could make a living by doing what I most liked doing. My parents never thought that to be successful one must have a college degree, or that sooner or later one must be content with a 9 to 5 office kind of job. When I was a child they never made me feel guilty because instead of doing my homework I spent four hours drawing. They let me discover my own creativity and the freedom to go along with my interests, under the condition of being extremely serious and professional about it.

It looks like, whenever you have a chance, you try to escape the two-dimensional constraint of the piece of paper, to explore other surfaces. Do you feel “illustrator” or “designer” would be a better word to describe what you do?

I am an illustrator who likes to stretch the surface she works on, to see her work applied to different media. There are some limitations with editorial illustration, such as the connection with the text and the boundaries of the piece of paper. I like to try to circumvent these limits by drawing on shop windows, T-shirts and putting my drawings in motion collaborating in music clips.

You like plain colors, saturated hues and two-dimensional geometries. Your style is very strong and recognizable.  Did it take you a while to find it? Do you remember the drawing that made you feel you were going in the right direction?

There is not such a thing like a drawing that makes you say: “Eureka! I’ve got it”. Finding your own style is an ongoing process that never ends. I actually feel that I haven’t completely found my ultimate style yet. Nonetheless I can tell you what my research aims at. With my illustrations I like to make a synthesis of concepts through my line.  I have always loved the illustrators from the Sixties and the Seventies who expressed themselves in a very minimal and synthetic way.

At the beginning, my drawings were not like the most recent ones. There was an abundance of colors and lines, due to the urgency of communicating and of expressing myself. It is much more difficult to give identity to something and to express yourself when you decide to only use two colors and half of a line, for instance.

Mother Daughter, Olimpia Zagnoli

Mother Daughter, Olimpia Zagnoli

Do you see the world in term of geometries?

I don’t think so. With my mind I photograph some aspects of the outer world that spark my attention. Colors are what I notice the most, may it be at the supermarket or at a bus stop.  I linger my attention on details that show an interesting balance between colors and shapes. When I project the composition of my illustration, I don’t necessary feel the need for symmetry. If you closely look at my work, you’ll find out that most of my symmetries are wrong. I am not a precise person. To me it is important that shapes and colors can speak by themselves, as my style is so simple and essential.

Lack of Communication, Olimpia Zagnoli

Lack of Communication, Olimpia Zagnoli

Once you said that to be a good illustrator you don’t need to be a good drawer. What do you mean exactly?

I meant that a few years ago I was not so good at traditional drawing, such as drawing from life. Now I think I am even less good than I was before, since I draw everyday according to my frame of mind and not following any sort of superimposed approach. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of admiration for people who can perfectly draw from life all sorts of subjects. Anyway to be a good illustrator you need first to be a good communicator. You need neither to master all the techniques available nor to have a huge toolbox. What is necessary is having great ideas and knowing how to communicate them. Lately, for example, I have noticed that illustrators who don’t even draw but use collage as a technique are becoming pretty successful. The ideas are what really matter.

What do you like to do by hand and what do you like to do digitally in your work?

I have a lot of respect for those illustrators who do everything by hand. As far as I am concerned, I do all my sketches with pencil and pastels, but I create the final illustration digitally. I like the rapidity of the digital techniques. They let me easily see how the final result will look like while the work is still in progress, and they let me change something without having to start over. I have the aptitude for hand drawing and I transfer it into the technology available nowadays. I took my inspiration from the past, but I speak today’s language.

Are you more interested in doing illustration for kids or for adults?

I like them both equally and I think I keep the same approach with both of them. Kids are extremely intelligent and completely capable of appreciating an image. I remember that when I was a child I had a selection of favorite books from my parents’ bookcase, they were not books for kids. I remember contemplating those books for hours, observing every single detail. Now that I am on the other side, I like to think that I can have an impact on a child’s imagination and I am really fascinated by the idea of being able to become part of their imaginary thorough my illustration.

What do you like most doing when you are not working?


What is a dream of yours you haven’t been able to accomplish yet professionally?

I would like to do a cover for the New Yorker. I think this is a dream that every illustrator has. I am also very interested in the world of textile. I would like to develop some patterns for clothing lines for example.

Is there anything you would like to learn in the future?

Yes! On my to do list, there is learning French and learning to play the piano.

 Ritratto Olimpia Zagnoli

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