Canterbury Tale

An Exclusive Interview with Anna + Elena = Balbusso Illustrations

CF is happy to introduce you to twin sisters Anna and Elena Balbusso: a talented, contemporary pair of illustrators who flit between New York City and Milan while creating their work. The duo has been recognized continuously by the Society of Illustrators bringing home more gold medals than a number of Olympian athletes. The Balbusso twins aren’t in it for the gold however, they are in it for the art. Their work is beautiful; a painterly style reminiscent of medieval artwork – this is especially fitting considering the two have done fantastic work for Canterbury Tales. Their unique style adds a creative layer to literary works and any child should consider themselves lucky to pick up a book with their illustrations inside of it. We were able to catch up with the Balbusso twins for an interview and here’s what they had to say about their process, inspiration, and advice for future illustrators.

You have an amazing painterly style – are you influenced by classical Italian art? If so, is there a specific period from which you draw your inspiration?

The Italian art plays a key role in our work, it is an important source of inspiration but not the only. Every project is different, we do not work in series, our sources of inspirations change, there is not a specific art period but art in general, from Ancient Rome mural painting (frescoes at Pompeii), Italian Renaissance, Romanticism (prelude of modern art) Modern Art (symbolism, surrealism, Russian constructivism, Italian Futurism) and Contemporary Art. In all our work there is a clear reference to artists and paintings. After having carefully examined the brief, the first thing we do before starting to design is to do iconographic researches. We never start a project without our collection of images that will inspire us.

Title: Among the Thorns
Short story: “Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes
Client: Tor Books
This artwork accompanies the dark fantasy novella “Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes, published on, 2014.
Selected Society of Illustrators 57 New York Annual Competition 2015

I have to ask the obvious: does being twins have an impact on your artwork at all? You are both clearly identical but how widely does your work differ from one another?

There is no rule, depends on the project. We work together on all projects, even when we divide the tasks. For example, Elena is responsible for all communication, email, translation, writing, management, and social media.

There are many phases of a project that they can be easily divided between us, overall we decide together which is the best way to work and we agree on the final result. The constant search for quality is our strong suit― we take into consideration even the smallest detail. Our personalities complement each other. If we disagree about something, we can discuss and mediate. At the end of each project we must be agreed and convinced of what we did. If we are doing many different assignments, one of us usually starts to think how to develop a new project.

Can you tell us about your collaborative process? I come from a very large family (six children) and I will admit that it would be very hard for any of us successfully to work together on an art project.

Our style has developed from our collaboration gradually. It is not difficult for us to work together because it is a natural thing as drinking a glass of water! There is no competition between us. It would not be possible to work together if one dominates the other. There is a lot joy to share the credit. We share the credit and successes but also the difficulties and fatigue.

There is a specific painting you did entitled ‘Peter’s Dream’ which you did for the “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories”, it’s one of my favourite pieces. Can you tell me about your inspiration for this work?

Title: Abram Petrovich’s dream
llustrated book: 2014 “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories” by Alexander Pushkin
Client: The Folio Society
The image “Abram Petrovich’s dream” accompanies the “Peter the Great’s Negro” unfinished historical novel from the illustrated book “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories” by Alexander Pushkin, The Folio Society 2014.
Selected Society of Illustrators 57 New York Annual Competition 2015

The image “Abram Petrovich’s dream” accompanies the unfinished historical novel “Peter the Great’s Negro” by Alexander Pushkin. About the subject and idea: We choose to represent this phrase of the novel “It was in his frame of mind that he lay down on the camp-bed prepared for him, only for his usual dream to transport him to far-off Paris and the arms of his sweet Countess”. To convey the idea of the dream, we imagined the two embraced lovers suspended in the clouds, the huge Countess’s skirt has the appearance of a great cloud. Below them we represented a view of the Paris city in the 1700s. We took inspiration from the fresco decoration of the greatest decorative painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770), Italian painter and printmaker from the Republic of Venice. We watched the “skies” of the Tiepolo’s works. His colors and pictorial textures. Many of Tiepolo’s works are on Metropolitan Museum in New York. The image “Abram Petrovich’s dream” is part of the book “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories” by Alexander Pushkin, Folio Society 2014.

Balbusso Beach

What is your typical creative process? Can you run our readers through it from the inception of an idea to the execution of the final piece?

After the research and documentation stage, we rarely start from the pencil sketches, we prefer starting by many digital layouts, color or grayscale. We work and rework them. When we got a compelling proposition we begin to carefully study the individual elements of the image through individual pencil drawings. We define the details of the image: the face of the character, the landscape, the clothes decorations….An image archive that we have prepared before, helps us. We collect all of the references for each illustration. In all our work there is a clear reference to artists and paintings. After this step, We digitize (scan) the best pencil drawings of the individual parts of the image and we work the final version with photoshop. We get a drawing on transparent layers that allow us to modify, remove, move with ease, reduce, enlarge the individual parts of the project to obtain the final version that we will present to the client.

About the final color art, we use mixed media. Gradually we developed a personal style where traditional methods (acrylic, gouache, pencil, pen) were combined with digital programs, however we do not use the virtual paint brushes instead relying on doing all our brush stroke by hand with black gouache on paper.

The coloring process is very complex and has been developed after many years of work experience. The final result is like a painting on paper or on canvas. The advantage of this technique is the reduction of the working times compared to an oil painting or acrylic, the total color control and the possibility of continuous changes. During this process we test the color many times through digital color proofs. Our final art is in digital format.

There is no rational method to find the idea. It turns out, comes from a “feel” then there are the imagination, fantasy and talent (essential) that are released. To power all this, we think it’s very important the study. By now everything has already been done, but you can rework, mix, through ongoing research, the constant effort and study of art history…

Balbusso Knife

If you don’t mind us asking – what is your primary source of income as artists? A lot of illustrators are chasing this perfect ideal where they can do what they love and make money while doing it.

We are only “illustrators” freelance full time. It is the only source of income. We know this is rare! We sale of the copyrights of the images we produce on commission. Since 1998 we have been working as a team freelance doing illustrations. It is a job without certainty. We have been able to transform our passion in our work because we are international artists who work mainly abroad…we work in many fields of communication with different styles for different markets. It’s important to promote own work worldwide. Today in the global world the competition is very high, there are many opportunities but also many illusions. Our profession is a very difficult and exclusive job. Many young people aspire to do creative work (graphic design, illustrator..) to follow their passion, but only a few are able to turn their passion into a profession to earn for living. Talent is necessary but passion, study, commitment, tenacity, hard work, research, courage to change and evolve forever are fundamental. It is important to not only think about the immediate gain. Without luck, it’s impossible! The road is long, you need to make the right choices. Success is important but we think it is much more important last long…

Balbusso Cover Art
Mother’s sins by Regan Eberhart, Middlebury Magazine. Spring 2014, U.S.

Speaking of other illustrators, do you have any advice for emerging artists? How to put their best foot forward and get themselves known?

An our general advice: be very critical of yourself but never give up – although it is a very difficult job. Follow and respect one’s personality, don’t follow the trend of the moment. If you do, the risk is to be used and thrown away in a short space of time. At the same time it is important to know about new trends and tastes. Don’t forget it is a commercial world, but be careful in your choice of projects. It is important that the quality of your work keeps growing. Interpretation is more important than technique and special effects. Young artists must not work for free, only if it is for charity. And not least, enforce the law on copyright!

We recommend the illustrations competitions to the young talents. This is the easier way to get themselves known…Illustration market is limited, we think it is very important reach the “target audience” that uses illustration: top professionals from different sector of communication in the world, not only in a limited geographical area.

The international illustration competitions help to get to know “high levels” and also gain not random followers but illustration industry experts.
The Competitions are not only a way to promote the work in the market but they are a test to compare our work with the best world production. This is useful to understand how our artwork is evaluated by the best art directors, editors, publishers of the world. The comparison with the other artists makes better understand what we can do to improve ourself. Selections show new talent and the best production beyond the logic of the market and sales. We think it is a democratic system. Through meritocracy, individual talent manages to get out of the pile and can hope to live with this work for his “merits” beyond the personal relationships, family (these are a benefit only for a minority).

In order to improve you have to look at the best models that are more ahead. Of course, all our discourse is valid only if the contests are serious and transparent.

"The Goblin Emperor" by Katherine Addison, cover art
“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison, cover art

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Fred McCoy

Fred McCoy

I live in the now, darlings. I live in a permanent #selfie. I stare only outwards, because I am a man of outwards thoughts. Twitter / Google+ / Pinterest