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Anna Dittmann: ‘creating art became a focused, peaceful oasis’

We spoke to digital painter Anna Dittmann after our recent commission with her to understand the sheer artistry behind her creative process.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a digital illustrator from San Francisco with a passion for figurative art. I graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in illustration and now live and freelance in beautiful Scotland. My love for nature and portraiture are recurring themes throughout my art, often blending the human figure with abstracted or environmental elements. My work is focused on book and comic covers, magazines, advertisements, posters and gallery exhibitions.

Bait by Anna Dittmann.
You’re originally from San Francisco. What brought you to the UK?

Being an American and German citizen, Europe was my second home growing up. I’ve always known I wanted to live somewhere new, and likely in Europe. I fell completely in love with Scotland travelling one summer. I moved to Edinburgh five years ago and now consider it home. I’m so lucky to have a flexible job and the opportunities available to have made such a move possible.

Have you always had a passion for drawing?

I think I’ve always had an obsessive need to create. As a child, my first canvases were the walls of my bedroom and it’s been a strange, fantastic ride ever since. My family encouraged my artwork as it transitioned from pencil portraits to early digital illustrations. I became obsessed with improvement, and creating art became a focused, peaceful oasis. After school, I would come home and draw the rest of the day. The internet gave me a new platform where kind comments from strangers became fuel for my obsession. Painting still gives me a unique kind of joy and thrill.

Ink by Anna Dittmann.
What drove your creative imagination when you were younger?

Even at a young age, I liked to escape into fictional words by consuming all the fantasy and sci-fi media I could get my hands on. Painting is like a departure from the real world to a fictional one. It gives me a platform to create environments and characters that only exist in my mind. Because I was drawn to the fantastic, a lot of my art is inspired by the fictional worlds I grew up reading and watching.

“…a lot of my art is inspired by the fictional worlds I grew up reading and watching.”

As an illustrator how important is it to have a recognisable style?

Your style is what sets you apart. Having a cohesive voice is generally what will brand you and encourage clients to see how your work can be applied to their project. That being said, my style does shift around here and there. Sometimes I get wrapped up in portraits, other times fuller figures. Sometimes I’ll be more experimental and abstract, other times more realistic. Sometimes I play up textures, other times I focus on softness.

I think style is a constant evolution and is bound to change as our experiences change us. As long as your vision shines through and you enjoy your technique and subject matter, it will reflect positively in your work.

The Sirens Last Song by Anna Dittmann, designed for a book cover.
What do you enjoy most about your style of work?

Getting lost in the details and design of a figure or element is often a meditative experience. I’ve always been drawn to softer, otherworldly pieces that feel suspended in time. I love capturing an expression and creating a contrast between movement and serenity in a piece.

How did your passion for figurative art begin?

My childhood was spent listening to my dad read children’s books using goofy voices. I found the pictures just as fascinating as the stories, and an interest in illustration blossomed. My parents always encouraged my artistic pursuits and indulged my love for drawing. Even at a young age, I gravitated toward portraits. Looking back, most of my early scribbles were odd faces.

“Most of the early art that inspired me, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau, were figure focused.”

Most of the early art that inspired me, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau, were figure focused. My favourite artists growing up were Mucha and Klimt. I loved their combination of realism with ornamental elements. I’m still inspired by their use of pattern contrasted with a rendered figure, and try to incorporate these qualities into my own art.

Has your style changed much since when you first started?

I used to work mainly with graphite and pencil, my goal being recreating a photo as realistically as possible. Then in my early teens, I received a tablet and discovered digital art. With more freedom to make mistakes, I loosened up and began experimenting. A lot of it had to do with getting older and becoming more experienced, but working digitally did allow a shift towards a more experimental, expressive style.

At the beginning, I would rely on airbrushes for rendering, but later I began using textures and chalky brushes for a more traditional feel. I used to be intent on getting every detail of a portrait technically correct, without telling much of a story in the process. But my favourite illustrations were those that feel lively, not static. Whether it be billowing wind or hair, airborne or underwater imagery, a paused gesture or faded texture, I began incorporating movement into my work. Nowadays, rather than just focusing on the figure, I like to make sure the piece flows entirely before getting caught in the details.

Laguna by Anna Dittman commissioned by Affinity and created in Affinity Photo.
We love your piece, Laguna, that you created for us using Affinity Photo. How much time did it take you to complete this project?

Thank you, it was a pleasure to create! I loved how much creative freedom was involved with the painting. I looked back at the process recording, keeping in mind the nitty-gritty detail work left out and the initial practice with Affinity Photo. In total, I would say ‘Laguna’ took around 20 hours. This is fairly average for a personal piece, though client work often takes a little longer as there are usually notes throughout the project.

What was your first impression of Affinity Photo?

I found Affinity Photo extremely intuitive. Being a creature of habit after using Photoshop for over a decade, I was surprised by how quickly I familiarised myself with the program and how professional I found it. Affinity Photo has all the resources I normally rely on for my workflow, in addition to some lovely brushes and effects. In terms of what you receive for the price and ease of access, I’ve been recommending Affinity to many digital artists I know!

A video showing Anna’s process painting Laguna in Affinity Photo.
Close up images of the Laguna artwork, showing the detail that goes into one of Anna’s paintings.
How do you approach the start of a new project?

My approach varies on whether an illustration is commercial or personal. I’ll be more methodical about client work from the onset. A brief may be specific or open-ended, but I’ll tend to sketch out a few compositions to see what works best. These will be rough, monochromatic sketches created either digitally or on paper. I’ll gather my references and inspirations throughout the sketch stage, and won’t tend to deviate greatly from the client’s selected sketch.

With personal work, my process is much looser. I’ll jump straight from a sketch to the rendering, continuously playing around with composition throughout the process. To initially feel inspired, I’ll get lost in a rabbit-hole of new and old creative works that give me the painting bug.

Glide by Anna Dittmann.
Describe your typical working day.

Routine has become more important to me recently. I used to (and still sometimes do) work all hours of the day, though I’m trying to create better habits as I get older. I’ll normally start with morning admin, and spend most of the afternoon and early evening painting. I’m trying to be more conscious about taking breaks by cooking, stretching, or making copious amounts of tea. I almost always have something in the background to tune in to when painting - whether that be audiobooks, podcasts, shows, movies or music.

If I can, I like to focus my attention on one project at a time. When there’s an opening in between work, I like to set aside time for personal art. I use those periods to experiment more with subject matter and style. Personal work does take less of a priority these days, but commercial projects can be just as stimulating. They do require a different mindset, though I enjoy the challenge and feeling of satisfaction when both the client and I are pleased with the final product.

Anna’s workspace.
How do you come up with new ideas?

Inspiration can come from anywhere, whether that be nature, texture, expressions, or colour variations. Often, a concept to a piece will come as an accident. A loose brush stroke will suddenly take on a design of its own, and I’ll just go with it. It’s fun to play around with shape when starting a composition. It might remain just a shape, or evolve into something else. Nature is often my go-to because of the varied and dynamic imagery. I have an assortment of random photos that can sometimes be the base for my next project—whether that be unusual plants, an interesting piece of fabric, or a colourful sunset. You never know what will ignite the creative spark later.

How many hours a day do you spend drawing?

If I’ve got a high-pressure deadline ahead, I can spend all day on a project. Generally, though, I do like to space my painting time out more. I’ve noticed that looking at a painting too long can take its toll and I often hit a wall in the later stages. If so, I find it helpful to take a day or so away—either engaging with personal art, focusing on admin, or distancing myself from the computer. This normally does the trick, and I can return to a piece with fresh eyes.

Do you use references for your illustrations, or do you draw from your imagination?

Typically, at the beginning of a portrait, I roughly sketch a face and then seek out inspirational or structural reference. When it comes to anatomy such as hands or more challenging poses, I sometimes reference myself or take photos out of convenience. I find that nowadays I can also pull more and more from the reference library in my head for certain elements.

Bauhinia by Anna Dittmann.
Please tell us how your sketches transform into the final artwork we see.

To begin, I normally sketch out my idea in black and white. After tweaking the composition, values, and being generally nit-picky, I start seeking out references and refining my sketch. Next, I throw in textures and colour on a variety of layer modes. Once the composition and colours are settled, I focus on the details and finalise the illustration.

While I typically work entirely digitally, I paint with a traditional mindset. I rarely use more than a few layers at time and have a limited set of brushes and tools. I prefer using chalky and textured brushes to mimic traditional effects. I also create and seek out traditional textures to use them in my artwork. I find textures help evoke a sense of mystery and spontaneity, giving an otherwise structured portrait a sense of improvisation.

We’ve noticed that you sell your prints on Society 6. How do you prepare your work for production?

Selling artwork online is fairly straightforward, whether that be through Society6 or INPRNT. I typically just have to keep in mind the size of a painting, making sure it’s high enough resolution to be print effectively. The printing and distribution are taken care of through the print sites, so the artist just needs to upload/format their high-resolution artwork and market themselves.

Rapt by Anna Dittmann.
Lastly, if you could have your work published anywhere, where would it be?

I’d love to tackle an art book one day. I’m not sure what that would involve, but it’s been on my mind for a few years. While freelance has been keeping me wonderfully busy, it would be great to revisit to the days where I’d continuously create for the sole reason of creating.

On the other hand, if it were a client commission, it would be amazing to work on something that I was already a big fan of. I can be a bit geeky, and consume a bunch of media. If I could work on a show, film, or another sort of project that I had a passion for, it would make me one happy fangirl!

Bramble by Anna Dittmann.

Anna Dittmann.

You can view more of Anna’s work at on Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook, and purchase prints of her art via her web-stores.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright © of Anna Dittmann and used with permission.