The DART Interview: Dasha Tolstikova

By Peggy Roalf   Friday June 7, 2019

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

Dasha Tolstikova: I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s sort of remote where I am. It feels like you are in the countryside when you are here. I really like this. I like being close to the city but also having this escape hatch from the insanity of Manhattan. I have been traveling a lot this year and I find I work much better when I am not in New York. New York is here for me to absorb things, but I output better when I am away from it. 

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone.

DT: I work from home. I am very lucky to have an entire room as my studio. It has two desks—one clean computer desk and one messy painting desk. There are flat files and all of my picture books—I have quite an extensive collection. I look at the picture books a lot for inspiration. I like working from home in large part (and this is sort of ridiculous) because I hate having the conversation about lunch. I always dreaded this part of the day when I’ve been in studios with other people. Also, I get really distracted by other people’s processes—it’s easy for me to lose my center when I am around other people—I am much more confident when I work by myself. I sort of get in a zone.

I don’t really get lonely [working alone] –I am a very social person and I see people many nights a week, I chat with my neighbors when I walk my dog, I also go to the city a few days a week for a freelance design job – so it’s a nice balance of alone focused time and social time. 

PR: Please describe your work process—is most of your work done directly, or do you also use digital media? 

DT: I start traditionally, with watercolor, pencils, and children’s gouache I bring back from Russia. Once I have a painting I scan it in and mess with it in Photoshop. I use a lightbox for painting illustrations, but also recently I’ve been looking at pictures I’ve taken on my phone and just going straight to watercolor as a sketch or a color study. Some of my work is just line—and that I usually do with a marker or different black pens. I have a thick Pilot pen I like and also this other thin Pentel clicky pen.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

DT: I like to read. I read a lot of novels but also random pop psychology books, non-fiction, mysteries, poetry. Some of my recent favorites are Floridaby Lauren Groff, Exit Westby Mohsin Hamid, To the Lighthouseby Virginia Wolf. I’ve been very slowly making my way through John Cheever’s Collected Storiesand this biography of Alice Neel I borrowed from a friend four years ago. 

I listen to a lot of music. I’ve unearthed an old stereo and I’ve been listening to mixed tapes (!) from high school and college. It’s sometimes nice and sometimes horrifying to be transported to a different time in your life like that.

I like going to see art in the world, and living in New York is obviously amazing for this—but I really don’t go as much as I’d like.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

DT: It’s hard to describe. Most of the time you can just tell when something is done. It’s the best version of what it’s going to be at that moment. It doesn’t mean that I won’t return to it in a week, in a month, after it’s published and wish I had done something differently. (Some things happen very quickly – I do one sketch and feel happy and can go to final art right away. Other times I make fifty sketches and can’t get it right. My book dummies are generally very loose and it’s always maddening to come to a page that you’ve just thrown a very abstract doodle onto and decided you would figure it out later and now it’s later and you know how you want it to look but you have no idea how to get there.)  


PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference? 

DT: I do use photographic reference, and I also take photos of myself doing the actions that I want my character to be doing. (I think all illustrators have those on their phones and computers—they are super embarrassing but also hilarious.) 

My style isn’t super realistic so I don’t really feel worried about copyright or anything like that. I don’t trace photographs—I just look and try to grasp the basic idea of the thing I am referencing. A really long time ago someone told me that this is the most important thing in representing something—to try to represent its essence, whether it’s a person or a piece of furniture.

PR: I noticed that you attended the 2019 Bologna Book Fair. Can you tell the readers what were some of the best take-aways from that experience? 

DT: I have been aware of the fair for about twenty years but this was the first time I was able to go. I didn’t have any career goals in mind—I didn’t plan to network or meet publishers—I only wanted to look at books from other countries that I may not be able to find in the US, I had had a complicated year creatively and wanted a recharge. 

The fair it’s HUGE! And it’s all kids books and everyone you meet loves kids books and in the end I saw so many friends from all over the world. If you go, I would recommend getting there before the fair starts. I got there in the middle of the first day, so it felt like I was playing catch up the whole time. There is so much to do—talks, awards, art and books to look a—you want to give yourself all the time you can for all of this. Also, lots of things are happening in the city of Bologna after the fair end—book signings, openings, and (maybe most importantly) dinners!

PR: Your new book project has serious connections to being in the woods. What is there about being in nature that draws you to this environment? How do hiking and other outdoor activities play into your art making?

DT: I have lived in cities my whole entire life. As a child I loathed to go outside in the summer because I didn’t like bugs and all I wanted to do was read. But the older I get the more I am connected to the woods, to hiking, to nature. I find it relaxing and meditative—I like to go on walks in the green and listen to audio books or music. Trees are mostly around longer than us and it feels grounding and releasing to connect to something that transcends the human life span. Everyday worries fall away in the face of trees.



PR: If you could live and work anywhere, where would that be—and why?

DT: Hmmm. This is a really hard one for me because I think about this all the time and I don’t really have a solution. Maybe somewhere REALLY remote? Maybe in a house that overlooks water so I can look up and clean my sight line? But maybe the real answer is to keep moving a bit and go and work in new places; to be inspired by different things—shapes, colors, smells? 

PR: What advice would you give to a young artist starting to apply for Artist Residenciesabout figuring out which ones are right for the stage in your career as an artist?

I love residencies. I’ve only done a couple—but they have been very inspirational to me and I want to continue doing them. My main advice is to have realistic goals and also to be gentle with yourself if you don’t achieve what you set out to. One of the first residencies I did was up in the Caskills. I was going up there for a week and I had planned to get good at wood carving (which I had recently taken up), finish a book dummy, start working on this short story and make a four page comic. In the end I made three small paintings and went on fifteen hours worth of hikes. At first I was disappointed at not being more productive but all the hiking made the week pretty relaxed and in the end I just let it go. Those little paintings have led me to keep making more and better work.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

DT: I would love to do book jackets for novels for adults. Riverhead does very beautiful covers—I would love to work with them.  I also would like to design a line of something material, like sheets? Plates? Stationery? Gift boxes for high end fashion? Other fancy items? There are lots of things I’d love to do.


Dasha Tolstikova is the author/illustrator of the graphic memoir A Year Without Mom. She also illustrated The Jacket, by Kirsten Hall (New York Times ReviewNotable book of 2014); If a T-Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party,by Jill Esbaum; Friend or Foe,by John Sobol; and Violet and The Woof,by Rebecca Grabill. Currently, Dasha is hard at work on her new book The Bad Chair (Groundwood, Fall 2020)—her debut as a picture book author! 
Clients include: Harper Collins, Enchanted Lion Books, Groundwood Books, New York Magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, HBO, Icon Undies, Middlebury Alumni Magazine,Moscow News,Rachel Antonoff. Dasha recently launched a newsletter, which readers may sign up for here.

Originally from Moscow, Russia she is now based in Brooklyn.When not at her desk, Dasha enjoys spending time with her dog Muffin. She recently started a newsletter, which you can sign up for here.



No comments yet.

Sign in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join Now