Denis Zilber Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

I was born in Minsk (former Soviet Union), at age 15 I moved to Israel with my family. My both parents are professional artists so I can say my future profession was more or less predetermined. I knew I was going to be an artist since I was 6 years old. Of course I couldn't imagine I was going to be a digital illustrator ( I was sure I had to be a sculptor just like my dad ) but the main direction was pretty obvious to me. It was always an art. I grew up in my father's studio, among his fellow artists, art books, art related talks and exhibitions. So I guess I had not much of a choice. I've never attended any art school or college though. I am autodidact, everything I know came with experience.

How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

It can vary from project to project. First of all I need to know what is the main purpose of the character, or, in other words, how far can I push it style-wise, how exaggerated this character can be. For instance if I need to create an editorial illustration, I can't push my character too far, it will draw unnecessary attention to illustration away from initial text, making the image too dominant. So in that case character design should stay within some reasonable proportions. Besides some articles can very very serious or even sad, so character with too much grotesque just won't fit the main idea. On the other hand, if my goal is to create a character for animation movie I can push it as much as I want, or to be precise, as much as director/art director wants. Animated character has to be very expressive, he has to contain his whole life story within, while in editorial or book illustration I can use additional tools like composition or lighting to tell my story, in fact I can use the whole frame for the purpose of storytelling. So let's say my future character is supposed to be animated one. I start with basic shapes, trying to keep them as simple and clear as possible. The more simple is the shape, the better it reads, the faster it delivers the idea to the viewer. I play around with shapes trying to make as many different characters (simplified of course) as I can.

I try to add contrast to the shapes, making small things smaller and big things bigger. I also give them some flow using S and C curves, so the characters will have more natural look. Then I pick few of them and start breaking them down, creating interesting poses, adding facial and body details, adding some expression to hands and especially fingers. I always check my shapes in terms of silhouette. If your character works in silhouette it will work in full color just as well. After I have few pretty simple characters with nice silhouettes and good shapes I pick one which I consider the best and from now on I concentrate on him. At this point I add clothing details and props. The main principle here would be that every little detail in my character should help him tell his story.

On the other hand the character should not be over-detailed. I always try to keep things simple but clear. Another thing I am always thinking about is the audience perception. Who is going to see my design? It's very important. Who am I talking to here? Basically creating a character is not just creating an image of some living creature but creating a complex idea, a graphical symbol containing very particular concept, almost hieroglyph. I am using some kind of visual language to reach my viewer and in terms of language I believe that my character should speak to as many people as possible, my visual language should be be very clear, precise and easily understandable for people of different cultures and of different languages. I always keep this aspect in mind. Finally, after I am done with all details in black and white sketch I move on to color. That is all.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?

I am a freelance illustrator so I usually work alone from home. So I wake up, make myself a coffee, check my emails, answer my students questions in Skype if they have some and then after all “paperwork” is done I can get to painting/designing/illustrating. If I have commissioned job, I do it first, but if that day I don't have any urgent job to do I can allow myself to paint something just for fun and my personal study. I believe if you do illustration for living you should paint everyday just to keep your hand and brain busy, just to stay in shape. Even if it's simple sketch, or even if you're just playing around with shapes and lines it's always good.

What are some of the things that you have worked on?

Luckily I had an opportunity to work on many different things. I've worked with magazines like FHM, Russian GQ and Playboy, Blazer and Yedioth (local Israeli magazines). My major occupation is editorial illustration, but I also do children books, character design for advertising and animation, backgrounds for animation projects. I did storyboards, packaging, flash games, theatrical posters and greeting cards, a lot of greeting cards . I also have some animation and directing experience. Basically almost everywhere drawing skills could be used I happened to do some work. I always try to change styles and techniques, always try different approaches and try to do new things I've never done before.

Is there a design you have done that you are most happy with?

A good friend of mine, a street performer once when I asked him if he liked his own performance told me “ I am not an audience for my own show”. I must say, I feel the very same way. I can't really judge my own work because every time I see it I see things I could improve. I love my new work while it's still fresh, something about a day or two but then I start thinking “I could do it better”. Though I always do my very best, there is no limit for perfection. I can hardly name few of my artworks that I wouldn't change now if I could. Maybe the sepia guy with a typewriter, I love him as he is, wouldn't change a single pixel:)

What projects are you working on now? (if you can tell us)

I am working on few things right now. It's Christmas calendar for Zurich based broker company, character design for Israeli feature animation project and children book for some NY publisher. I also teach my own online illustration class.

Who are some of your favorite artists out there?

Oh, it would be a really huge list. To make it short I can name few of them. It's Poly Bernatene, Wouter Tulp, Shaun Tan, Rebecca Dautremer, Jean-Baptiste Monge, Sebastian Kruger, Tadahiro Uesugi, Nicolas Marlet, Norman Rockwell, Gil Elvgren, Sergio Toppi, Artur De Pins, Alberto Mielgo. All these amazing artists are very different, they work in different styles and techniques, they are even of different generations but nevertheless they provide me with endless source of inspiration.

Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?

Sure. I paint in Photoshop from the scratch, which means I don't scan my sketches as many artists do. When I start coloring and if this is supposed to be a realistic image first of all I think of diffused fill light in my scene. It determines the whole color palette. Then I paint all of my objects with their basic colors, as though there is no light at all, only dark ambient lighting. Then I add deep shadows i.e. ambient occlusion. It gives my image a depth. I fact you can create an illustration using only diffused light, without any particular light source, that will be enough for basic volume. After the deep shadows I paint main lighting and shadows. Basically shadows are all there already, so I need only to add lighting. The most important thing here is to know exactly the amount of light in every part of the image.

To make it easy I think of light as of photons, trying to imagine how they bounce against surfaces, how they are being diffused and absorbed by objects in my scene. Then I add highlights, back light ( if needed ) and reflected lights. That is all, pretty simple. Good, physically correct lighting is very important in illustration in my opinion. It helps composition keep things together; it doesn't let your scene fall apart to pieces. Of course if I need to paint something more flat in less realistic style, color palette would be the first thing to pay attention to. I tend to make color as saturated and as clean as possible, it makes images more appealing and expressive.

By the way I've made couple of videos showing the whole coloring process: and

What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most difficult?

The easiest and the most fun part is sketching, when you generate idea fast, throw it on paper and move to another one. I love this process, its pure creation. The most difficult part is coloring. And the difficulty here is not the process itself but the fact that’s very technical and sometimes a little bit boring. As soon as character's sketch is done I usually have a very clear image in my head and the only thing left to do is just to transfer this mental image into pixels. This process is fun, but not as creative as sketching.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

I watch movies, animation and of course browse the web searching for new interesting artists. I also buy “The Art of..” books of my favorite moves, to see the creation process.

What are some of your favorite designs which you have seen?

“The Incredibles”, “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Cloudy with chance of meatballs”. I am also a huge fan of everything Gobelins students do. It's always a pleasure to watch their shorts and to see their designs. They are unbelievable creative.

What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why?

People. Ordinary people with their characters and emotions. I believe that interesting stories can be easily found even in most ordinary and boring places, it's just matter of point of view. In terms of illustration it's all about good composition, nice color and expressive characters.

What inspired you to become an Artist?

My parents, of course, and … “The Incredibles”. When I first saw this movie I thought “Oh boy, it's so colorful and expressive! It's so beautiful! I have to learn to create things like that”

What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?

The most successful artists I've ever seen or heard about were workaholics. I believe there is direct connection between the amount of time and effort you put into your work and the result you get at the very end. Art doesn't come easy. It demands very hard work and great deal of patience. So I believe the most important thing I've learned from other artists, the most professional and successful ones is to be crazy about my work. To put all other things aside and to dive into the work, think it, breathe it, dream it. I know it doesn't sound like healthy thing but I honestly believe it's the only way to move forward.

What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

Frankly I am not sure I am in position to share some wisdom, I am not old and not experienced enough, but if I could give some little piece of advice to young artists it would be: “Stay frosty guys. It's highly competitive business, we can't afford to be “just fine” we should always aim high, that's why we have to keep learning every day and every minute”
Oh, and one more thing. Learn human anatomy, it's crucial.

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

My working email is, my blog

Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?

No, unfortunately I don't sell my artwork. At least not now.

Denis Zilber Gallery