Slovakian illustrator Petra Stefankova on process, change & marketing yourself whilst living outside a creative hub

When I moved back to Slovakia in 2011, I suddenly felt that the buzz around my work got quieter. So I decided to experiment with style redevelopment and I had to reinvent myself a couple of times.

The internet has opened up a plethora of opportunities for the digital creative. We all know the dream, to be able to work anywhere [insert ‘Bali beach / tropical climate / mountain top view’ here]. As charming as this scenario sounds, it also requires additional considerations, such as: how do you market yourself to a global audience from a provincial base?

Slovakian illustrator and artist Petra Stefankova is a mid-career freelancer, who has worked on an array of commissions (Guardian, The Economist, Microsoft Games Studios, Nanny Mcphee 2) and self-initiated projects. However, since moving from London back to rural Slovakia several years ago, Petra has had to think laterally about her career.

We caught up with Petra for a career overview to date, discovering how to beat creative blocks and marketing yourself when living outside a creative hub.

Q) How would you describe yourself in 5 words?

Introverted, traveler, explorer, visual artist and illustrator.

Q) What was your pathway into your career?

I have always been creative. As a child I always held a pen or pencil and doodled something, even with my eyes closed. The wall in my room did not stay white for too long either. So my parents naturally supported the idea of me becoming a visual artist and I was confident to believe that. However, the process of becoming one was not so easy for me, because I had to make a transition of my early drawings into a professional execution. This took months of practice and I cried a lot during the process of learning.

I decided to study Graphic design at a high school and later at the art academy in Bratislava, and Film and TV graphics in Prague, but every project I produced was very pictorial.

Most of the book and magazine covers, theatre posters and brochures I created at that stage of my career, were enriched by my own illustrations. That’s when I began to feel more like an illustrator than a graphic designer. These days I do both graphic design and illustrations for my own books. I’ve also designed characters for local and international TV commercials and I’ve animated a few short films myself.

Q) How has your illustrative style evolved over the years?

I originally started with simple geometric vector illustrations, depicting funky little characters and it remained my main style for a long time. Later in 2006, I started to explore 3D graphics, which resulted in a series of 3D cubist and surrealist illustrations. I was then awarded by Channel 4 for that artistic invention in the UK, and I was published in magazines worldwide.

I spent these fruitful years living in the UK and I exhibited my work extensively too, so the whole experience was exciting. When I moved back to Slovakia in 2011, I suddenly felt that the buzz around my work got quieter. So I decided to experiment with style redevelopment and I had to reinvent myself a couple of times. Back then I was strongly focused on digital creations. I introduced traditional media drawing and painting in my work in 2013. It was all very abstract at first, but I kept in mind that my main motivation is to be an illustrator, therefore I played with characters and their environments.

The results were hand-drawn marker drawings scanned into the computer and vectorised. I also started to paint in acrylics on canvas and paper. At the moment there is a refined portfolio on my website with just a selection of the best styles I personally like the most, or the ones that are commercially most viable.

The majority of my work is intended for adults and I am more confident in this area.
The combination of some hand-drawn relaxed elements and simple geometry is vital and essential to this style.

Q) You have developed a style called Large People (images featured), which seems to be a refinement of your fine art based work. How did this style come about?

The Large People style was created last year. I felt the need for a clean aesthetic for [some of my] sophisticated characters, which meant something that looked more mature and not too childish.

Some people tend to think my work [in the main] is suitable for the children’s market but I never primarily felt that way. I can do children’s book and magazine illustrations when a project comes up, because the cultural environment of where I live, requires that flexibility. But the majority of my work is intended for adults and I am more confident in this area. I also think that the combination of some hand-drawn relaxed elements and simple geometry is vital and essential to this style.

Q) What has been your biggest creative influence and how has it manifested in your work?

Creative influence changes all the time. Geometrical characters [dated back to the early 20th century] can be found in the work of Ludovit Fulla, who was a modern graphic artist, painter and illustrator in Slovakia.  His work was featured in many books when I was a child.

The tradition of Czech and Slovak classic animation and illustration had a major influence too, namely they were artists such as Viktor Kubal, Jan Svankmajer, Albin Brunovsky , Adolf Born and others. In my recent work there was a little bit of Kveta Pacovska influence too – she is known for her children’s books and some of my work for children has a similar quality.

My acrylic paintings on the other hand, are inspired by the lowbrow / pop surrealism movement from Los Angeles and comic art. I am also a big fan of contemporary French illustration. Since I lived in the UK, I have to mention that I admire work of many British illustrators, some of whom I’ve met. Rod Hunt or Paul Thurlby, both great award-winning artists. So I think that my work is a cross-cultural mixture of creative influences really.

Q) How important is storytelling to your work? Are there any narratives in particular that you like to explore / champion?

I always look for an interesting combination of symbols, elements and characters in a scene. Although some of my work is purely figurative, I try to push myself further into more complex creations, to navigate the viewer through my visual material and indicate creative interpretations of it.

I usually draw female characters. This specific focus has its origins from my high school years, when I explored feminist themes and the role of women in society and the arts in my old school paper.

More than anything, I usually draw female characters and this specific focus has its origins from my high school years, when I explored feminist themes and the role of women in society and the arts in my old school paper. I was also the creator of a visual identity for Slovak-Czech Women’s Fund. So the subject can be seen across different projects of mine throughout the years.

I am very interested in environmental themes too. It comes out naturally in my work, for example, in a series of ecology posters created during my art academy studies; several book illustrations and exhibitions exploring the theme. And most recently a newspaper cover illustration. My current personal project [in acrylic painting] is a stylisation of our environment and the behaviour of human beings in it.

Q) You’ve applied your work in a variety of mediums (fine art / bags / rugs) and formats (editorial / books), what have been some of your stand out projects and why?

Here I would like to mention my collaboration with VooDooDog Animation in London, on an animated title sequence for a feature film Nanny McPhee 2. I designed some of the objects and elements and they were then modelled from paper and animated.

I was called to this project because I think the director of the film – who liked the illustrations of the Czech book illustrator Miroslav Sasek – wanted to do something similar, with a Central/Eastern European feel. The title sequence then won a Silver Medal at a World TV and Film Festival in NYC, so I am pretty proud to be part of the team.

Another high profile project was my recent collaboration with the art director of the Guardian G2. It reached my desk exactly at the time when I felt ready for such a commission, because it takes some prior training to become a flexible editorial illustrator.

Q) How important do you think it is for artists to be enterprising with their creations?

For me it was fundamental to become entrepreneurial. Additionally, an interesting personal story attracts press and motivates art buyers of fine art. However, the most important part of the illustrator’s job is the creative outcome itself and the ability to compete in this overcrowded arena.

Q) Since setting up as a freelancer / business, what’s been your biggest challenge to date?

Surprisingly the most difficult challenge of my freelance life was the process of my moving from the UK back to Slovakia. I was somehow used to my freedom and constant interest of press and clients while living in London. In Slovakia on the other hand, I still have to discover how to stay internationally visible, connected and an attractive visual arts creator, without the need to spend all my savings on self-promotion.

Q) Since moving from London to Slovakia, how have you gone about actively marketing your work to commercial clients? And how important is it to have representation?

I bought a contact list of UK clients and did some e-mail and direct mail marketing to them. I usually advertise in illustration source books such as the 3×3 Directory in the US and Luerzer’s Archive in Austria and some other books in Australia and the UK.

From time to time, I enter illustration competitions and I take part in exhibitions such as Open Source show at Los Angeles Center for Digital Art. This year I also have a half-page in a catalogue of World Wide Art Promotion company from the US, that will be presenting selected works during Spectrum Miami art fair in December.

I am also a member of the Association of Illustrators in London and have online portfolios on the AOI and the Directory of Illustration web sites. It was also very helpful to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London because local and international press were very interested to hear what the Fellowship is about. Last year, thanks to the RSA, there was an opportunity to become involved in 7 Days of Genius festival, initiated by New York based organisation 92Y. I took part in the event by doing a local drawing workshop for children in Slovakia. The story was then published on the organisations’ blogs online.

If my travel budget allows, I attend illustration conferences such as ICON in the US or other events. Most recently it was LSE Alumni Association event at the British ambassador residency in Bratislava, which actually brought me some interesting collaborations.

I personally think that having an illustration agent is very important and helpful, I used to work with two international illustration agents in the past, now I am represented only by animation studios in Bristol and Prague.

Q) Do you ever suffer from a creative block? If so, how do you stay motivated and rejuvenate the creative process for yourself?

I wouldn’t call it a creative block, but I do need time off every time I finish a more complex project. I self-initiate many personal projects to keep me motivated. When I’ve finished, I have to relax for a few days and travel; give presentations, meet friends, co-workers and some clients too.

I also visit exhibitions of fine art and read or browse visually compelling books.

Q) What advice would you give other creatives wanting to start their own independent ventures?

My advice is that creatives shouldn’t give up on their dreams. Although it can be hard to keep going as a freelancer and when you live outside of a creative hub, it gets even harder to stay focused.

I believe that dreams come true and some of the commissions I had the honour to work on, are the exact evidence of it.

Q) What books are you currently reading?

I am currently reading: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab and History of Illustration, both in the original English version.

Q) What’s next?

In November I am travelling to Prague in Czech Republic, where I will be presenting my work at Frame Comics Art Festival at Karolinum, a building of the famous Charles University.

I am also working on some presentations and marketing materials for various art events in the US and the UK to keep my international visibility at a good level. I would like to finish another children’s book and I will look for a publisher soon.

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