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Behind the scenes with award-winning illustrator Eleni Debo

Eleni Debo is a Belgian illustrator who freelances from the breath-taking Italian Alps. Her work regularly features in international newspapers, books and magazines and she has an incredible talent for distilling often complex stories and subject matter into a single thought-provoking image.

Fresh from winning a prestigious World Illustration Award, Eleni talks to us about her submission piece—which she created in Affinity Photo, how she got into editorial illustration and why she loves to combine and mix analogue and digital painting in her work.

Firstly, congratulations on winning the professional editorial category in the World Illustration Awards 2019! Could you tell us a bit about your entry and what the award means to you?

Thanks! I submitted ‘When to stop’, a three page editorial illustration I made for Belgian newspaper De Morgen. In the wake of the #metoo movement and the viral short story ‘Cat person’ by Kirsten Roupenian. The article dealt with the dilemma of how even consensual sex can turn bad, and the taboos involved. Based on the story of Roupenian, my illustration reads as the story of a sexual experience slowly turning bad. I tried to represent this in the gradual removal of colour and the evolution of soft and flowy to sharp and aggressive shapes. The passage of time and the feeling of movement is suggested by showing fragmented scenes both flowing into and disrupting each other.

‘When to stop’ created by Eleni in Affinity Photo.
The full article in Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

“Based on the story of Roupenian, my illustration reads as the story of a sexual experience slowly turning bad. I tried to represent this in the gradual removal of colour and the evolution of soft and flowy to sharp and aggressive shapes. ”

Winning the award with this work was a wonderful surprise to me. For the past year I have been setting my sights on new horizons, hoping to attract overseas clients. By participating in the contest, I had hoped to at least catch the eye of a few people involved. Actually winning my category has, aside from a pleasant confidence boost, definitely opened doors for me professionally, and will go a long way towards reaching my goal.

What inspired you to submit this particular illustration?

It’s always such a pleasure for me to illustrate for De Morgen, as they generally give me a lot of freedom to work with a subject. Because of this, I felt confident to approach this assignment somewhat more experimentally. Despite the deadline I ended up really having fun working on this illustration, and the end result was exactly as I had wanted it to be. I felt like this illustration represented my abilities, both visually and conceptually, especially given the delicate nature of the subject, and it remains to this day one of my favourite editorial pieces.

‘When to stop’ process clip.
Your work regularly appears in international newspapers and magazines. How did you first get into editorial illustration?

When I finished my studies at the academy, I knew I wanted to get involved with editorial illustration and had in particular set my sights on De Morgen, as they had a very decently designed newspaper and weren’t afraid of experimenting with their visuals. I decided that, while having a part time job in an awesome little letterpress studio, I would spend that first year out of school working on a strong portfolio. I bought a random newspaper, chose a variety of articles (going from psychological and human interest to economics and politics), and got to work illustrating them. Once I was confident my portfolio was strong enough, I sent them to different potential clients, including the art director of De Morgen, making sure to include an honest handwritten note explaining why I wanted to work for them.

De Morgen actually ended up being the first to contact me upon receiving my portfolio. Our first collaboration turned out to be a successful one, and I ended up working for them almost weekly. This kind of exposure turned out to be huge, and very soon other clients started trickling in. Before I knew it, I had enough work on my hands to start working full time as an illustrator, and things have been trucking along rather pleasantly ever since.

Illustration for Belgian cycling magazine Bahamontes.
How would you describe your illustration style?

I would say that, for me, the important part of my illustration is the concept, and the style of the illustration is often chosen in function of how to best represent that idea. That being said, I suppose there are some common factors, style wise.

My work often shows a mix of analogue and digital painting, which does give it a more signature ‘noisy/painterly’ feel. I developed a range of brushes based on my favourite analogue painting techniques to further blend the line between the analogue and the digital.

In terms of content, shadow and light often play a big role in my illustrations and are often a determining factor for the mood of the image. Other than that, I have noted people often saying that I have a rather particular use of colour. To be honest, I always felt like I am having a hard time choosing a palette (which is something I could keep going back and forth on for hours, given the opportunity), but perhaps that might just be the exact reason why people find it so particular. Perhaps a classic case of weaknesses becoming strengths.

When starting a new illustration do you normally have access to the full article your work will accompany?

It depends. For the daily news, I often just get the six-sentence pitch of the journalist describing the article. So in the same time I’ll be illustrating this embryonic article, the journalist will be actually writing it. For weekend publications, or opinion pieces, it does happen that I get the full article or a proof of some sort. In some cases however I just get the phone number of the journalist and the message to go find out whatever it is I need to know, which often results in a way too lengthy, non-billable, but nonetheless pleasant chat.

How do you go about creating your illustrations? Do you prefer to sketch ideas on paper first or work straight on computer?

Generally I start off with jotting down my ideas in scraggly looking thumbnail-sized sketches on paper, which honestly would suffice for me to work on. However, given that my thumbnails are usually bordering on illegibility, I tend to sketch the ideas out a bit bigger and neater in order to present them to the client. After approval of the client I’ll start working directly on top of my sketch.

Technology has definitely influenced my process these past few years. When I started, my sketches and finals were mainly analogue. But the fast paced newspaper work really forced me to develop quicker ways of working, which lead me to working a lot more digitally. After I bought the iPad Pro, it has been a lot easier to work completely digitally, from sketch to finish. Which can be very handy since I’m travelling a lot and I can just take all of my work with me. But ideally my process will be a mix of an analogue painted base, which I combine with digital painting, generally going back and forth between the two media during the process until I’m satisfied.

Sketch and final illustration.
We were delighted to hear that you use Affinity as part of your workflow. How did you discover the apps and what inspired you to start using them?

After having spent countless evenings as a young kid entertaining myself with drawing in MS Paint, discovering a program like Photoshop as a teenager effectively propelled my love for digital painting, even if this was not the primary function of the software. When, years later, my boyfriend introduced me to the launch of this promising new software suite called Affinity—similar to Adobe, but seemingly better and definitely more democratically priced—I quickly fell in love all over again.

Given my familiarity with Photoshop, I was most attracted to switch to Affinity Photo, and although illustration might not be its main focus (as opposed to, say, Designer), I discovered the software worked perfectly within my workflow of mixing scanned analogue painting with digital painting. I have been working with the Affinity software for a few years now, and I’m definitely not regretting my decision!

What do you like most about Affinity apps?

Live previews of blending modes and brushes have been a game changer. It has without a doubt greatly improved the speed of my workflow.

Other than that, there’s Affinity Photo for iPad, which has definitely appealed to my cocooning habits: drawing while sitting on the couch wrapped in a comfy blanket, count me in!

“Live previews of blending modes and brushes have been a game changer. It has without a doubt greatly improved the speed of my workflow.”

Illustration for Belgian newspaper l’Echo.
What are your greatest influences and inspirations?

I suppose it’s a bit of a mix. There’s the amazing black and white ink drawings of Tove Jansson, or the expressiveness of the Italian futurists. Then there’s the effective simpleness of the works of Dick Bruna or the downright disarming charm of the drawings of Josef Lada. And of course there are many of my contemporaries like Leonie Bos or Charlotte Dumortier. My first big inspiration however was my mother, who used to show me these amazing drawings she had once done of birds and gnomes. She didn’t end up working in the creative field, but she definitely had a hand in me ending up in it.

What does a typical working day look like for you?

I wake up to the sound of my (early rising) boyfriend preparing breakfast: oatmeal porridge. I’ll start working around 8.30 am, unless I have an early deadline, in which case I will rise at an ungodly hour and eat breakfast after having finished. I tend to be more productive and focused in the mornings, so this is when any conceptual work or sketching is done. Communication with clients and the actual painting of the finals is reserved for after lunch. Usually I’ll start with a new brief at 9.00 am, go through the research and jot down some ideas in thumbnail sketches. At around half past ten I’ll be craving a coffee, and there will usually be a small debate between me and my boyfriend (who also works from home) on who will be the one to make it. We will sit together with our coffee and discuss our projects for the day. Usually this is where I pitch those thumbnail ideas to him to get a feel of which would work best with the client. After having chosen one or more ideas, I’ll work those out in a neater sketch and present them to the client.

Illustration for Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

When lunchtime comes around, and it’s a particularly pleasant day, we’ll pack a picnic and either hike to the top of the little mountain our village is situated on, or descend from said mountain to the little lake below to have a swim and cool down during the hottest hours of the day. If I’m lucky, by the time I get back behind my computer, the client will have reviewed my sketches and I can proceed with finishing the illustration. I usually keep painting until it’s finished—I hate getting interrupted during the process—or if it’s a particularly labour intensive illustration, until I get too hungry. If all goes well, I stop working between 18.00 and 19.00. After dinner I spend some time relaxing or meeting up with friends before going to bed and waking up to the sound of my boyfriend making oatmeal porridge. Rinse and repeat.

Illustration for Belgian cycling magazine Bahamontes.
You’ve worked for a variety of international clients. What have been some of your favourite projects so far?

My work on the book ‘Shoplifter’ by German art and design book publisher Gestalten is definitely way up there on the list. I also very much enjoy working regularly for the beautifully designed Belgian cycling magazine Bahamontes, or the American, equally aesthetic but more spiritually inclined In Touch magazine. Designing an art print for an exhibition on bicycle design for the Chicago Design museum was also a highlight of the year.

Cover illustration for book ‘Shoplifter’ by German publisher Gestalten.
Time-lapse video of Eleni’s process.
If you could illustrate for any publication, what would it be and why?

Working for the New Yorker or the New York Times is of course up there on my list, as illustrating for those iconic covers is probably any editorial illustrator’s dream. That being said, I’d love illustrating for any publication that tries to push boundaries with the use of its visuals.

In a more modest aspiration, I’ve been aching to get my hands on a commission to do a mural. Seems like so much fun to make bigger than life drawings, and I’d love for an opportunity to let my illustrations interact with an actual environment instead of a layout. So if anyone has an empty wall laying around, give me a call!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m an avid nature lover, which happens to perfectly compliment the fact that I’m also a passionate cook. My favourite pastime is hiking into the mountains, foraging all the wild edibles I can find on my way, and either preserving them or cooking them up in a nice dish when I get home.

What advice would you give to aspiring freelance illustrators?

Choose your goals in small steps and then work your butt off to attain them. For example: If you want to work for a certain client, instead of spamming your portfolio like an unguided missile, get to know them, discover what they like and ask yourself what quality your work has that could appeal to them. Work hard to improve your work, and train yourself in the kind of projects you hope to be getting in the future, be it editorial, commercial illustration, children’s books or a bit of everything.

And lastly, unless it’s for a charity you support or for, say, your mom, don’t get sweet talked into doing work for free. I know that for an aspiring artist, in the short term any exposure whatsoever might sound appealing, but in the long run working for free devalues your work, unhinges the illustration market, and gets you stuck in a circle of bad-paying customers. Be patient and focused, and in time the good (honest paying) fish will bite!


You can see more of Eleni’s stunning illustrations on her website and on Instagram.