Lena is based in the Dominican Republic. Her illustrations make you feel like you're getting a glimpse into the mind of someone with way too much imagination.
What's your story?
I’ve been working in advertising and graphic design since I graduated from college in 2009, and although I’ve loved illustration since I was a kid, it was never my primary focus career-wise. Not necessarily by choice, but I guess I got caught up with everyday work, and never really connected to it until last year when I started taking time to create illustrations for myself. As I kept practicing, I discovered that it was something that I felt very passionate about and at some point it stopped feeling like work and started to feel much closer to me and who I am. Around that time, 36 Days of Type was beginning their Instagram challenge for the 3rd time, and I decided to join in and see what I could come up with. It was my first time creating illustrated typography and I didn’t know at all how I was going to create an entire alphabet in a month, one different letter a day. At first, ideas came really hard to my too-used-to-advertising head, but as days went by the ideas started to flow, I got better and faster and it turned out to be an amazing project that made me decide that I should focus on illustration from that moment on. After I made that decision I started taking on only illustration oriented projects and collaborations and that opened up a whole new world to me. 2016 ended up being a great year full of new projects, many fun challenges and each one reassured me that I was heading in the right direction.
2017 started with a big project when I got the chance to work with the -ING Creative Festival in Dubai, creating a series of illustrations announcing speakers from huge brands like MOMA, Nat Geo, NASA and many more. The event was to be held in April and I was invited to be one of the 50+ artists that would be showing their work and representing their country in this event. It was a long distance to travel from the Caribbean and at first I didn’t think I would attend. When I decided that I would go, I had less than a month to prepare everything for the festival and those weeks were all running, production, hustle and craziness while making money to afford the trip. Being able to travel to Dubai and meeting so many great artists that I have admired from before - being able to hang out and learn from them was an unforgettable experience and it is something I would like to repeat again and again. After the event, my husband and I traveled for three weeks. It was a much needed break and a huge inspiration. After getting back, I’ve been lucky to have a lot more projects coming my way and although sometimes I work so many late nights, it is worth every second of it.
Since the moment I started focusing on illustration, I’ve had the pleasure of working with clients in many different countries like Germany, Spain, England, New Zealand, UAE and USA. I am very thankful for this shift in my career and I’m curious where it’s going to take me. Besides offering illustration services, I currently sell products online and I’m already working on manufacturing my own. Other goal I have this year is to make my first expo, something I have yet to work on, but I know it is going to happen. For me, all this is unexplored territory yet to conquer and it’s really exiting!
What's your creative process?
There is no on/off button for getting into the creative mood and start doing some awesome coolness. Sometimes it’s just not there, and even if your try very very hard, Elvis has left the building…and by Elvis I mean inspiration. When I find myself in that situation and the deadline keeps getting closer and closer, I stop what I’m doing and cut the current routine with something completely different. Going paddle boarding (if deadline is not close) or something simple like tending to my cacti and succulents for a while, or one of my favourites: doing yoga. I put some mood inspiring music and go to my favourite place in the house where i do yoga. It relaxes me, energises me and organises my thoughts. After I finish the routine I stay a while with my eyes closed “sketching” my possible ideas for an illustration/ project. It is much faster to imagine many different situations in my mind then on paper or digitally. Sometimes I do it before going to sleep too.
Having a -relatively-clear image in my mind of what my sketch will look saves me a lot of time. It let’s me go to my next phase faster: refining the idea on paper. I draw the idea a couple of times until I polish it enough for scanning and tracing it digitally with vectors (that is my usual go-to illustration technique). The part of retracing the entire illustration in vectors is relatively easy for me because I do it quite fast, and that is the part where usually I have my screen divided so I can do that and watch some Netflix show. I always vectorise my illustrations in lines and then as the final part I add colour and details. During that part I usually have to binge-illustrate it until it’s finished.
I like challenging illustrations, they make me grow. While making them I usually discover some new tool or some new way I start to naturally illustrate something. I usually discover what is difficult for me to do, and as I go on I find new ways of overcoming those difficulties. Those are the illustrations I like the most.
What makes your work unique?
This is a difficult question :) I think my most unique pieces are the ones I create guided by my imagination and drive. I think in those pieces I show more of myself, my inner thoughts, those surreal worlds that spontaneously travel through one’s mind. Those are truly unique moments that one can sometimes recreate in an illustration and share with others that moment when it was only a thought. I really loved magical stories when I was a kid, and I think that influences me still. Since I usually draw from my imagination, my art usually ends up being surreal, a bit weird, sometimes magical, sometimes fun but usually telling a story, even if it’s just a part of it.
What advice do you have for other digital artists?
Practice a lot, and always take time to do personal projects, it will help to get to know yourself and help to keep your creative flame burning.. It’s easy to get lost between client briefs, and day to day jobs. Personal work will keep you inspired. Challenge yourself, experiment, be spontaneous. Some ideas need to be searched for, but others come quickly and sometimes you just have to go for it, even if it wasn’t what you originally had planned. I often listen to my feelings, a hunch or it may be instinct. I believe it’s important to listen what your inner self is trying to tell you. It often gives you a nudge in the right direction. And as I said in the beginning: practice a lot. I mean really practice, as often you can. You will get better, I promise.
Where can we find your work?
For my most recent stuff you can check out my instagram @lenalaballena
My current online store where you can buy some cool stuff with my art on it: society6.com/afanasieva
For a more complete portfolio you can check out lenalaballena.com
For sneak peaks of my latest works in progress: dribbble.com/lenalaballena
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