Specializing in editorial illustration, Olimpia Zagnoli is one of the most important Italian artists of her generation. Her style is bold, playful and immediately recognizable—whether it’s on the cover of The New Yorker, within the pages of La Repubblica, on fabrics for Marella, or as part of a Prada campaign. We were delighted to visit Zagnoli at her Milan studio, ahead of the 25th edition of Design Indaba (in Cape Town later this month), where she will be speaking.
Her space—which she shares with other creatives—is full of natural light and bright colors. “I have been alone in the studio for many years, but now I share it with a person who works in a publishing house, a fabric designer and a movie director,” she tells us. “I was very scared of the idea of sharing space with someone because you have to get into a bubble when you work. In reality, it gave me a great deal of discipline.”
Surfaces and walls are covered with postcards, illustrations, prints, scribbles, magazines, books, trinkets and objets d’art—along with some of her own work. There’s a delightful chaos to it, but her desk and utility shelves remain neat and organized. “I use my notebook a lot,” she tells us about her process. “All the works I do start with a drawing. Sometimes I draw on the phone while [a client] is briefing me—I immediately begin to translate my thoughts into images.”
While her approach to different projects varies, there’s one invariable step. After outlining her initial ideas, “Then, always by hand, I make more refined sketches, after which I redesign everything from scratch digitally.” For this, she uses Illustrator on her Wacom tablet, but sometimes an iPad, she says, “Especially when I have to quickly show a new customer what I would like to do.”
I like the idea that the illustration is created in a short time and that it captures the mood of the moment
Pace plays a significant role in her process, too. “I prefer quick projects,” she tells us. “Indeed, very quick! For example, I like the idea that the illustration of a newspaper is created in a short time and that it captures the mood of the moment… Then the next day it becomes waste paper and will be forgotten, but I find it a romantic thing. It lightens the load and allows me to dare, to try new things.”
Romantic as the concept may be, it’s also how Zagnoli functions on a practical level. “Speed helps me a lot because I work well in emergency situations. This is what happens to me before exhibitions. If the exhibit is held in 10 months, I spend nine and a half months thinking about what I will have to do, without any kind of inspiration or idea. When the exhibition is two weeks away, it is very easy for me to come up with an idea and an almost adrenaline-like desire to go to the studio. I have a great esteem for my colleagues who make comics or write books, because it takes years and this does not match my personality.”
Zagnoli’s remarkable talent for storytelling with just a few shapes and colors means every line, angle, and hue is thoroughly considered. “The human figure is a recurring subject of my work. I try to add a small story to each portrait—a story that maybe I only imagined myself,” she says. “I work a lot with multiples and even if I often make mouths, eyes or hair similar to each other, every time I redraw them from scratch, perhaps changing the fold of a smile, an expression or another tiny element. For me, the story is told in the detail.”
We are used to thinking that the sky is blue or black, but seeing a fluorescent green sky is a very rare and precious thing
Along with the human form, travel also inspires Zagnoli, and she believes it’s essential to her overall process. “Some time ago I travelled to Mexico because I needed to change my color palette. I had become attached to a certain type of color balance and, after that trip, I almost immediately introduced new colors into my work. Once I happened to go to Norway where I saw the Northern Lights. This manifestation of pure color in such an unusual environment forces us to change all certainties. We are used to thinking that the sky is blue or black, but seeing a fluorescent green sky is a very rare and precious thing.”
With just a few weeks before Design Indaba, we pester Zagnoli for details on what she’s planning and what her expectations are. “I expect to be inspired by people, colors, flavors, sounds. It surely intrigues me that I will be in a group of people I have never met and who will have a lot of interesting things to tell. On these occasions, the most interesting part is precisely the relationship between the different people who—although from different backgrounds—often deal with common themes.”
Despite working well at short notice, planning for her talk at Design Indaba is well underway. She says, “I will tell how I try to represent many people, to capture their diversity, to exploit the two-dimensional language of illustration to tell different personalities. Being a woman, it is very natural for me to draw women. While not having the ambition to change the world, it is fun for me to try to propose models that are not the ‘classic lady’ or the TV star.”
“Maybe [with an illustration] I’ll tell the story of a lady who has decided to dress purple from head to toe and for me it is interesting because it means that there is a story, a will. It means that one day she decided that she would dress this way, go shopping, buy only purple flowers. For those who create images these choices require an action, a simple click changes the color and therefore completely changes your story.” She continues, “At Design Indaba I want to tell how my thoughts are translated into images, and explain the responsibilities of those who create images—even simply through color choices.”
Design Indaba is on 26-28 February in Cape Town, and tickets are available online.
Hero image by Paolo Ferrarini