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Illustrator Profile - Anna Parini: "You have to constantly feed your brain"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 26, 2017

Anna Parini is an editorial illustrator and book cover artist based in Barcelona. Her smart, thoughtful, graphic illustrations have been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, and many more publications. Parini says she is constantly absorbing culture, because to be a successful illustrator “you have to constantly feed your brain.”

MY LIFE:
I grew up in a small town close to Milan. I am the youngest of three children; my mom is an housewife, my dad’s a chemist. My two older brothers raised me with Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, The Goonies, Stand by Me and Monty Python’s movies. We grew up playing around with our cousins; our grandpa was a bike frame manufacturer but the foundry closed when I was very little. That huge, abandoned and dusty space became our playground—it was filled with happy memories.

After high school I attended an illustration course at Istituto Europeo del Design in Milan while working as a receptionist for the local gym. I spent the year after my graduation working as an assistant to a web developer until I decided to come to Barcelona to attend an illustration postgraduate course at Escola Massana. I was supposed to come back to Milan right after the course ended, but I never left.

During my first two years in Barcelona I worked in a take-away noodle place and then as a bartender in a skater’s bar. At first I thought that doing night shifts would have allowed me to focus on my portfolio during the day but eventually I realized that it wasn’t quite working the way I expected to. I left the bartender job and asked a dear friend of mine to pick three articles for me to illustrate each week. After less then two months I had enough images to build an editorial portfolio and bought a flight to New York.

MY WORKSPACE:
I used to work from home but a year ago I ended up moving to a studio I share with other professionals. The 10-minute bike ride every morning to the studio is my absolute favorite part of the day. The thing I miss most about working from home is watching Seinfeld during my lunch break and karaoking on YouTube while waiting for a client’s feedback.  

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
First I start by writing down a few keywords, brainstorming and drawing very small thumbnails. Then I move to sketches, which are done either by hand or digitally; finals are done mostly using Photoshop.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
Once in New York I got in touch with Nicholas Blechman, who was working as an art director for The New York Times Book Review. He invited me to pass by the offices and I showed up with a huge, heavy and almost empty leather portfolio—that was embarrassing. He introduced me to Aviva Michaelov and Alexandra Zsigmond and, as I was leaving, he handed me an article and asked me if I felt like coming up with an illustration for that piece. That was my very first job and my first time seeing my name written on the newspaper.

MY INFLUENCES:
My very first crush was the collaboration between Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl. As a kid I was an avid Dahl reader—they worked so good together I can't imagine one without the other. Even though it didn’t directly influenced me in terms of style, it definitely awakened my darker side and my macabre sense of humor.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
Sorry, it’s not design-related but I must say it’s Freddie Mercury.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
I’m not sure if I believe in inspiration but I do agree that you have to constantly feed your brain and keep it trained in order to be efficient. A cultural and visual background is crucial when it comes to doing this job, especially the editorial one.

Beside books, biographies, music lyrics and exhibits of all sorts I realized that sarcasm and observation are generally very good allies when I have to come up with new ideas.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
There's nothing I dislike about working on my own—it's such a privilege that it would be unfair to complain. I still work on my laptop because I don't want to rely on anything that doesn't fit in a backpack. Even if I don’t do it as often as I wish, I still love the idea of being able to work from wherever I want. That said, there's still one thing I consider very challenging: bureaucracy and paperwork.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
I did an illustration for The Guardian about moving in with someone on the same week I finally surrendered myself to the idea of moving in with someone. I wouldn’t say it was memorable but definitely one of my favorite illustrations from the past year.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
A cookbook, a big mural, a cover for The New Yorker.

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
There’s something about Matt Dorfman that makes every illustrator very comfortable and confident. Nicholas Blechman, Aviva Michaelov and Alexandra Zsgismond are in my top list and I completely trust their taste and opinions.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
The qualities I most admire in an illustrator are generally the ones I can’t find in my work. I really admire Leanne Shapton for what she does and for making it seem so effortless. I’ve always loved Brian Rea for his spontaneity; his work never tires me. Luci Gutierrez is great and always makes me laugh.  Jon Han’s images are very powerful. Dadu Shin’s work is absolutely perfect. When it comes to concepts Christoph Niemann is unbeatable.

OTHER WORK:
Unfortunately at the moment I’m not working on any side project but I have a sketchbook I use in my spare time as an escape from the digital world. I also would love to work more often with animation.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
My work changed a lot since I first started—I barely recognize myself in my past works. I had zero experience and I learned in the field. In my first assignments I noticed that my style was distracting the reader from the real concept and that I needed to clean it up in order to be more effective. Nowadays I have the opposite problem and I wish my work was much more messy and spontaneous.

I would love to press the pause button and take six months away from assignments, deadlines and concepts and see if I’m still able to function as a creative without directions and constantly checking the clock.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
When I first started I did a lot of promotion of my work, mainly by emails. I used to send updates of my works every two-three months and I was constantly in search for new contacts and art directors. After a couple of years that was no longer necessary and clients started showing up more regularly. Social media is also very important but I must admit that I still feel quite clumsy and wish I were better at it.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Work, read or watch the news, don’t settle and be patient.

See more Anna Parini illustrations, new work and updates:
Anna Parini website
Instagram: @annaparini



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