“I Want to Explore and See What I Can Do”
An Interview with Dominican Illustrator Lena Vargas Afanasieva
Lena Vargas Afanasieva is a Dominican illustrator based in Santo Domingo. She is one of those people who seize the opportunity and don’t let negative experiences prevent them from reaching their goal — even if they might not really know what that is at that specific moment. Lena started out as a graphic designer, but right now she is a full-time illustrator working on an alphabet related to coral reefs among others. I asked her about the path that led her to become the passionate illustrator she is today, her dream projects and plans. After experiencing the craziness of the SXSW in Austin, she was kind enough to let us look around her Rubik’s Cube of ideas.
Let’s start with the very beginning! Was your childhood dream to become a designer and/or illustrator or did it just happen?
When I was little, I wanted to become a veterinarian or a zoologist, basically doing something caring for wild animals. I always had a huge interest in the wonders and diversity of the animal kingdom — above and under the sea. It has, in fact, stuck with me even to this day. Mum tells me that I often escaped to the library close by to read books about animals and the only books I was interested in reading were about them. One can say that I’ve always had a tendency towards drawing but never explored it as an option to become an illustrator professionally. I think that is why at some point I thought design and advertising would be a better way of earning money. I only realised that it wasn’t for me after having worked at several advertising agencies and being an art director for big accounts. After 7 years, I was a bored, unchallenged and stressed art director who did her job well but wasn’t creating anything great and didn’t have the time for it either.
My switch to being an illustrator came three years ago with a blessing in disguise when I — and several co-workers of mine — got fired from my last ad agency on a Friday. Although this was something I was hoping for, when the moment came, it stung a bit, of course. But I took that opportunity to become a full-time freelancer and find my passion and drive for creating art again. At first, I was still working with advertising and design and was making illustrations as personal projects, but then I found my way. I became passionate again, and I think this started reflecting in not only my personal projects but also my day-to-day work. And, with each illustration project I did, more similar projects started pouring in. I must say that illustration has taken up 100% of my work this year. It also feels like doing personal projects, which is so awesome, and I am very grateful for that.
It’s great that you are able to do what you love so much… Going back in time a bit, you studied in the Dominican Republic (DR) and Mexico. What are the differences and similarities between your two schools when it comes to teaching design and visual communications?
The first one was Chavon School of Design, where I had a very intensive two-year programme. The school is located in a secluded area in Casa de Campo, so I and all the other students had to move there and live in this “altered reality” where you breathed, ate and lived art and design 24/7. It was very cool and the teachers were great, but I do think the programme was intense. I remember a few months after graduating I was like: “Ahhh, that’s what the teachers were talking about! Now I get it!” Also, being post-teen, living far from home with tons of crazy friends like me was a great formula for so many distractions. Great ones, though! In contrast, the second school was right in the middle of the vast Mexico City. It felt like a usual college experience, and most of it was about learning theories, reading textbook after textbook. It was a bit of a shock as I was used to this secluded bohemian small world of art and design. In this one, I had to behave and get used to a completely different way of learning about design. There I learned many things that helped me understand what I had practised in the previous school. So the schools were rather different, but they complemented each other in many ways. Experiencing these two ways of learning, I’d say, my ideas flow much better in a rather isolated environment far away from the city, friends and family.
We can hear quite a lot about the Dominican Republic in terms of tourism, but not necessarily about its art, cultural and design scene. What should we all know about Dominican contemporary art & design?
Yes, tourism and white sandy beaches are something that people think of when thinking of DR, but the art scene here is strong and getting bigger each year, even though if this is not what the country is known for. There are famous artists locally and some of them are known in different countries in the world in terms of art, murals, fashion, music, advertising, sports and even tech invention. Also, I see a lot of fellow contemporary artists growing stronger in both technique and their quality of content. This makes me very happy. I think every one of us is finding our individual voice and that is helping us be getting stronger as a group and little by little being noticed internationally.
What position do you think Dominican design holds in the context of the Caribbean region and in the world?
Although our island is small, there are definitely very talented people out there. They are putting DR on the map in the art, design, music and film scene.
What do you think the biggest challenges and greatest opportunities designers in the region have?
I think one of the challenges we face is to gain recognition and acknowledgment from other much bigger and more developed countries. Another huge challenge is that only a minority of artists can afford to go to a good design school and buy the right equipment to create art. Many are stuck with day-to-day jobs to sustain their living — not having enough time to actually create what they want and explore more of themselves. Thankfully, most of us have access to the Internet and with that amazing tool we can learn from tutorials and see how other international artists are growing. We can also build up our online presence to get noticed even if we live on this small piece of land.
You’ve attended SXSW in Austin, Texas this year. Why do you think designers should attend this particular event at least once in their life?
I would completely recommend it to everyone related to interactive, advertising, marketing, music, film, gaming and other industries. It is a very enriching, fun and inspiring experience that everyone should live even once. I didn’t see so many talks oriented towards art and illustration, but there was a huge market of amazingly talented illustrators I was so happy to meet and buy their prints. I would recommend buying the tickets early since the prices go up by $100 each month prior to the event.
You’ve worked at agencies and now you are a freelancer. Do you miss anything from the time spent at agencies?
Well, I do think working at ad agencies is an experience that all designers should go through to learn about teamwork, leadership and working under pressure, but do I miss it? Not really.
You obviously do a lot of projects commissioned by a wide range of clients, and still have time to work on your personal projects. Does the creating process differ a lot depending on the nature of the work?
I think personal projects kept challenging and inspiring me to do more interesting stuff, and, by doing it, it has made me be better at my day-to-day work. The process is very similar but they both start in a different way. When it comes to personal illustrations, I definitely tend to be guided more by feelings and sparks of inspiration that come in a moment. I tend to write down my ideas or sketch it out really fast so I won’t forget and do it whenever I get the chance. Commissioned work usually starts with a lot of reading, investigating, thinking, analysing and browsing references. After that, both processes are the same: sketching and then digitalising.
You write on your Behance profile: “Every illustration I make is an exploration and a challenge, and, with each one, I try to show a little bit more of myself.” Have you ever looked at an illustration done in the past and thought that does not relate to you anymore?
I think I always keep growing and discovering more about myself with each illustration. Even though there are older illustrations I don’t specifically love at the moment, I know they all were part of the growing process and they are like steps on stairs. You can look back and see where you were, acknowledge it and keep going.
Your illustration named Rubix was created for the German project Kreativeshaus. It shows several aspects of life as you describe, “creativity thrives on living, exploring, new experiences, friends, games and even munchies”. I’m interested in the process of creating it — from coming up with idea to realising it. Please tell us briefly about it.
Inspiration is everywhere, not necessarily in your house, but you find it in experiences, staying true to yourself and keeping it fun. I wanted to portray most things that are part of my creative process in one piece and the Rubix was the best thing that could describe that. Even if everything is separate, it is still connected and a part of one whole thing. The first thing I did after sketching the overall shape of the cube was assigning the plain colours to each square and then sketched in all the different elements in the colour square that worked best. The technical part comes much easier for me and I usually spend more time thinking of a concept than actually doing the artwork.
You’ve designed several logos for various companies. What are the essential qualities of a great logo?
For me, a great logo is when the client feels that it describes perfectly what the brand is about and it has an impact on the consumers: they notice, feel attracted to and remember it. It can be very simple, geometric or super detailed and complex. However, if it fits what I mentioned above, it will do great.
Looking at your illustrations, one feels there is a style with some recurrent elements, but then another project comes along a bit later and the feeling is completely destroyed. This has a lot to do with the use of colours, I guess. Do you consciously try to play with your style or would you say your style unconsciously appears in every project, of course being adjusted to the particular project you’re working on?
I feel like I am still on the process of finding my voice, and the difference between some of my illustrations (apart from having to adjust to some specific client parameters) comes from this constant exploration of what new stuff I can bring to the table. I wouldn’t like to get comfortable with just developing one style and staying there, I want to explore and see what I can do.
You’ve done some lettering as part of 36 days of type initiative. Have you ever pondered on the thoughts of designing a typeface?
Yes, sure! Actually, I am making one now with this year’s 36 Days challenge. This particular alphabet is very important to me since I am trying to inform people about a serious subject, the endangerment of coral reefs. Even if only a few people get informed, it was already worth it. I did fall behind due to work, but I decided to make the complete alphabet and use it later on for different letterings instead of scattered letters to upload in time. I am already receiving e-mails from foundations focusing on coral reefs because of it. So I can’t wait to finish it!
What would be your dream project?
Currently, my dream project would be participating in mural festivals (like Pow Wow) and creating commissioned large-scale murals. This way I can meet and learn from all the amazing artists I admire. To be able to do that, I need to practise a lot, of course, but this is one of my resolutions this year.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I have several projects in progress. One is a branding of a local draft beer company; it has tons of illustration, so it’s very fun to work on. The other two are mural projects that I am about to start this week. I’m very excited to make them, since they are the ones getting me closer to my dream project.
What are your plans?
I’m planning on growing, getting better as an illustrator and making more projects that will be aligned with my personal point of view as an artist. One of my pending plans is to make a solo show that will only happen if I make the time for it. So it is definitely on the top of my to-do list.