Lena Vargas on bringing life, fun and adventure to her art

There’s so much life to the artwork of Lena Vargas Afanasieva – who illustrates professionally as just Lena Vargas. Her work is packed with movement and detail, with contrasting colour palettes used to hold each composition together, guiding the eye around each element to discover little visual metaphors and other delights.

We discovered her due to her illustration for a HuffPost article on how the Game of Thrones pilot could have been a terrible mess – and she’s also created work across editorial (The Washington Post and Playboy) and advertising (Johnnie Walker and Toyota). We wanted to find out more about her and her approach to her practice, so caught up with her over email.

Giacomo Lee: Hi Lena. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

Lena Vargas: "Hello everyone. My name is Lena and I’m an illustrator living ion the beautiful island of the Dominican Republic. I love looking at starry skies at night, listening to unconventional music, eating good food, hearing jokes and making some of my own, having smart conversations, getting lost at remote places and of course making art.

"I come from a background in advertising and graphic design, but I never expected that I would be calling myself an illustrator. A few years back – I think mid-2014 – I became a full-time freelancer and although I kept doing design, I finally had time to make personal projects to tap into that creativity flame that was running low after working advertising for six years.

"I made my Instagram public after making a few personal illustrations in 2016 – and to my surprise, I started to receive collaboration requests and reposts. After that my audience started to grow and by 2018 all my work commissions were illustration-oriented.

"During that period I have been lucky enough to work for brands like HuffPost, The Washington Post, Playboy, Johnnie Walker, Toyota and many more. My work has been published in several books, and I’ve been part of collective exhibitions in London, Cheltenham, Hamburg, Vienna and Barcelona. And I got the chance to travel to Dubai and Rio de Janeiro thanks to my art.

"All this happened in a three-to-four-year period and I really wasn’t thinking about my style, just focused on the task ahead. I think ‘style’ is something that happens as the result of continuous practice and it is inevitable for each person.

"Even if I would love to get influenced by someone else’s art, my version would be completely different, because I am the sum of all my past experiences."

GL: How do you create such amazing colours?

LV: "Funny you ask – I have always felt that I’m not very good with colour. I usually have no clue what would be the colour palette of my illustrations until it’s pretty much finished.

"Of course there are exceptions to some client work where the colours are already set from the beginning. But usually I just trust my intuition and just go with the flow."

GL: What tools do you use?

LV: "My must haves – basically because it’s the tools I currently own – are:

  • The iPad Pro and Pencil are where I refine all my sketches. Creating a sketch with a hand-drawn feel to it makes any illustration I make in vectors have an organic look.
  • I also use Procreate to create any illustration that is not vector based. This app gives amazing results.
  • I just love my Wacom Intuos Pro – it allows me to draw anything. It’s an extension of my hand when it comes to drawing on my iMac. I think having a Cintiq would be super awesome and it would be right here in the list if I had it.
  • I use mainly Adobe Illustrator for all my vector work. It is my go-to program – mainly because I have to deliver so many editable files to clients that it’s just easier to polish everything on a big screen. I have tons of fun on iPad with Adobe Draw, Vectornator but client work usually goes through Illustrator.
  • There are other programs that I use depending on what I want to achieve: Photoshop, Toon Boom Harmony and After Effects. I love them and would feel weird not having them on my computer.

GL: Who are your influences? Do you feel any affinity with the Surrealists?

LV: "I do love surrealism – it always surprises me. In my illustrations, I love making juxtapositions with shapes and concepts. For me it creates so many unexpected results.

"This may be where I would connect with Surrealist art. In my personal work is where I most feel it.

"Recently I have been more influenced by current artists. Every week I stumble upon someone that just makes me stare at their art wowed. The diversity and richness in art right now is really unbelievable.

"Here are a few I admire – all different and special with a unique style: Gaston Pacheco, DXTR the Weird , Saddo, Shyama Golden, Lili des Bellons, Xoana Herrera, Lisk Feng, Andrea Wan, Rune Fisker, Jisu Choi, Marija Turina, Alexandra Zutto, Yukai Du, Gabriel Silveira, Gemma O’Brien, Brosmind brothers, Aitch. The art, concept and techniques of Waone and Aec Interesnikazki just blows my mind.

"Besides them, so many animators, photographers and designers. This list can go on an on."

GL: Your art has an aquatic feel, like everything is under water and slowly falling apart due to the water pressure. How do you create this style?

LV: "Living on an island, I feel very connected to the sea and ocean (we have both). Being underwater makes me feel like I’m visiting another world – floating around as a spectator and discoverer of hidden wonders that many people are oblivious to – even if they are also islanders like me. I think the influence definitely has started to show in my art."

GL: You are also great at creating 'faces' out of your space between shapes, or making objects appear like something else (eg letters or the pizzas that are also vinyl records). Does this style come naturally to you?

LV: "Making these connections with shapes and having unexpected results is the way I have fun with my art.

"Sure, some concepts are easier to work with than others but for me it’s inevitable to end up with something like that because I focus a lot on the brainstorming, research and sketching phases. For me it’s the most important part of the process and the idea is the one that will determine the quality of the result."

NB: You seem to enjoy the 36 Days of Type challenge – why is that?

LV: "The 36 days of Type challenge has been a game changer for me. I have participated twice. The first time was when I was discovering that I could actually illustrate and make illustrated typography. That project made me better at what I do and brought so much attention to my work.

"With this first alphabet I got to be part of two collective exhibitions that they made in Barcelona, and I was an invited artist to create a number (Lucky 7) for last year’s edition.

"This year I participated again and created an alphabet inspired by coral as a way of sharing some light on these amazing invertebrate creatures and their importance to the health of our planet.

"This alphabet is having an awesome ‘afterlife’ because this summer it became my first solo show in the biggest aquarium in Latin America: AquaRio in Rio de Janeiro. They got very interested in the alphabet and invited me to have it shown there as part of the education program from July to October.

"I got to visit Brazil and see their research in coral bleaching and all the developments they are making to strengthen coral’s resistance to the harsh environmental conditions they are currently living in worldwide.

"I would encourage everyone to do this challenge even once. It is a huge sacrifice of time and energy but creating new concepts/graphics every day while being fueled with positive energy of artists around the world is priceless and will only make you better at what you do, no matter your style.

"There are a lot of other similar challenges: Inktober, Sketchtember. Just find the one that you could enjoy more and go for it."

GL: Congrats on your Game of Thrones project. Was it challenging to create more 'static' images based around people as opposed to nature and objects?

LV: "It was a challenge for sure but I had so much fun with this project. When I got (pun intended) the email for this commission I was super excited because I was a fan of the show and understood well who each character was (this helped a lot). Plus it was for HuffPost, so it was awesome news.

"The scary part was that I had to make five illustrations in less than a week and making human characters was definitely out of my comfort zone. There was no time for polishing and overthinking – just doing. Thankfully everything flowed and I delivered it all in time without changes from the client.

"With this commission, I discovered that I could illustrate people. I guess just going for it despite your fears or comfort always makes you learn something about yourself."

GL: What are your latest projects and future plans?

LV: "I am very much feeling the calling of making hand-drawn paintings and murals. I want to explore more my vision without any client briefs and just create.

"I would love to have a solo show in the near future and it is always in the back of my mind – but then reality hits and everyday work gets in the way. Where are the sponsors when you need them?

"I love doing my work also. There are a few projects coming that I can’t talk about still but during the next few months hopefully I will able to share on my social accounts. One collab has me super excited: I will be making textile illustrations for a local brand Ozeano Swimwear.

"The two girl bosses behind this brand are creating textiles from recycled plastic and this new collection of swimwear will be about the endangered species on our island. I’ll be creating something I’ve never done before and at the same time I feel humbled that the message will be so powerful and special.

"I have also received an offer to teach a digital illustration course for four months. This is something I also hadn’t considered before, primarily because I feel there is so much I still don’t know and have to learn. But then I remember that trying out new things is how I grow, so maybe – just maybe – I’ll be adding that to my list."

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