Ryan interviews Danielle Otrakji, artist and illustrator. Danielle speaks about her creative process, her inspirations, and the turbulent life of a progressive artist in today's ever-evolving industries.
When did you first discover your talents as an artist?
Early on, I knew this was where I would want to be, in some way or another. I knew I would be an adult, still drawing and painting. I don’t think I thought about the financial aspect of it until much later on. Everyone always says “I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember”, and really, I have. It never had a ‘starting point’, it was just always for me. I never thought I was very good or “talented” growing up, but I won many awards (small, silly, insignificant awards, but awards nonetheless), and I think that gave me the confidence and encouragement to continue to move forward with it and to grow as an artist.
Did you train or go to school for art? What did you study? Where?
I have been fortunate enough to have some serious training in art since high-school. I focused on fine art and primarily painted on wood and canvas. I had figure drawing classes early on and had the chance to dabble with a lot of mediums and techniques most ‘highschoolers’ did not have. My instructor and friend, Mary Abreu, played such a huge role in my development as an artist. Some of the most important concepts I refer to until this point come from her lessons and instruction. I am currently a student in my final year at Ringling College of Art and Design, and throughout my course at Ringling, have majored in both Computer Animation and Illustration.
Did it begin with illustration, or did you dabble in other mediums before deciding that this was a specialty?
It has taken quite a bit of experimentation and exploration in different mediums, projects, jobs, and majors to finally figure out where I am going, and even still, I can’t say I’ve totally narrowed myself down to one specific ‘career’ or ‘specialty’. I love animation. I love editorial illustration. I love storyboarding. I love painting. I love comics and narratives.
I needed to experience my time studying animation to learn that I may not enjoy working in that field as an animator. There is a great sense of patience and time that an animator is demanded of to create each individual course of action. I may not possess that level of patience, but I do have imaginative and intelligent ideas, and cinematic visions for those ideas. By implementing the principles and fundamentals of animation within my illustration work, I have found a great passion for comic book illustration and graphic novels.
Similar to animation, comic books are visual narratives and through panels, they create movement from one page to another. I can dedicate more time illustrating key frames and interesting compositions without the in-betweens animation requires.
As I mentioned previously, illustration was not where I technically began. I primarily enjoyed painting in large scale and produced a lot of personal work. I studied fine art in high school and produced more conceptual pieces than ‘illustrations’. I continue to do so, especially with monotyping and roller painting. Both are very expressive techniques and require very little control or limitation. It is an intuitive process, contrary to that of my illustration work.
Who would you consider your biggest inspirations in your artistic pursuits?
I am most inspired by Jean Giraud, also known as, “Moebius”. My father introduced me to his comic book series titled, Lieutenant Mike Blueberry, a western comic written in French. As I grew older and more intrigued by his western illustrations, I discovered so much life and variety in his collection of other works. He never limited himself to one specific genre or medium, and had no ends to the subject matter or content he included in his work.
Another illustrator, writer, character designer/visual developer I have always been greatly influenced by is the creator of Hellboy, and comic book artist, Mike Mignola. From his very early works, to his current work, he has been most recognized for his simplified shapes, heavy ‘blocky’ inking, and exceptionally effective compositions.
Another huge inspiration, is one of my instructors and good friends, George Pratt. His war related artwork has greatly influenced my work, and his covers and interiors for DC in both the Batman comics and Enemy Ace are visually unforgettable. I am most motivated by his process and the amount of work he puts out on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. For a long time I would panic before producing anything and wouldn’t draw for days and weeks at a time. It was George Pratt who encouraged me to produce as much as possible without hesitation. Since then, I draw or paint several times a day and have improved tremendously because of it.
Is there a certain style, genre, or medium that you favor over others?
I can’t say I favor one genre over another. It is totally dependent on the project at hand and my mood. I have the tendency to gravitate most towards the horror genre, though I go to the Fantasy, Fairytale, and Science Fiction genres often as well. The mediums I most enjoy working with are ink, graphite, watercolor, and I especially enjoy using rollers either directly onto board, or in the process of monotyping. I enjoy painting digitally, but rely on it as little as possible. Not for any particular reason, other than the fact that I enjoy working traditionally more than digitally. It feels more natural to me.
I also have a passion for sculpting and 3D illustration. I don’t do it as often as I would like to, but the few times I have, it has been one of the most enjoyable processes, from the designs, to the sculpts, to the final stages of setting up and photographing it.
What inspires you to draw?
Everything … and sometimes nothing at all. I am inspired when I am overwhelmed, and I also produce when I have absolutely nothing going on. I am inspired by love, heartbreak, my friends, my family members, the war in my country, wars from a time when I hadn’t even existed yet, my cats, ravens, my dreams, my nightmares, the behavior of children, aggressive music, soft whimsical music, old films, photography, other artists, the bible and religion, the circus, death, birth… and the list goes on, and on, and on. In fact, I have created a long list of almost every single thing that inspires me, and refer to that list whenever I have trouble starting something. I add to that list every time something new comes to mind.
Sometimes, I have ideas brewing and generating uncontrollably, because I’ve just witnessed or experienced something emotional and evocative. Sometimes I could be sitting around, looking at a wall, thinking about absolutely nothing, run my pencil over a white paper, and somehow construct a drawing from start to finish that way.
What is your process? Does it differ with each piece?
It definitely differs with every piece. There are some illustrations I can produce in a rather formulaic manner, in that I have an idea or a prompt, go into it with a solid plan, and execute everything as intended from beginning to end. Others are created with a completely emotionally and intuitively driven process with no time constraints and with little planning or strategy involved. Both processes work for me in different ways. The formulaic pieces, typically made up of a solid pencil drawing, large areas blocked in with ink, and monochromatic coloring in photoshop, are best for deadlines and editorial pieces. The other method is good for personal work and exploratory pieces.
Some of your pieces seem to be comic-book oriented. What is your interest in the world of comic books? Any certain super hero, villain, company, or story that speaks to you more than others?
Getting into American comics, I was first introduced to a lot of Marvel characters, like Spiderman, Wolverine, and Iron Man. Those were my first favorites as an adolescent. Overtime, I grew to appreciate characters like Hellboy and Batman a lot more for various reasons. Hellboy is such a well developed character, not only in his backstory, but in the way he was designed aesthetically. The red skin, the big bulky physique, the tail, the massive stone fist, and of course, the signature horn stumps on his forehead. There is something so exciting and refreshing about his design. I especially appreciate the concept of Hellboy and his purpose. The story consists of WWII elements, Gregori Rasputin, nazis, and so many other concrete, historical themes. He is the ultimate ‘anti-hero’ in that he defied his demon nature, fights for good and not for reward or recognition, and all throughout, carries a strong, sometimes sarcastic and dry sense of humor.
I also love Batman, for obvious reasons, he has a batcave, is equipped with all of the cool gadgets, and has one of my favorite superhero costumes ever designed (all throughout it’s progression and reinventions). I have also always liked that he has a simple back story, dark enough to have driven him to be ‘the Batman’. He has been illustrated in several issues by some of my favorite artists of all time. Most importantly, I love Batman because without Batman there would be no Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Bane or The Riddler. Half of the reason I enjoy comics is because of the villains, and some of my favorite villains exist because they feud with DC’s Batman.
You've done some print magazine work as well as both an illustrator and model. What was this experience like?
Both experiences modeling for, and illustrating for, magazines are very different but equally gratifying. In many cases, my modeling experiences have opened doors to illustration jobs with those publications. I modeled for Inked Magazine several times, and in introducing myself and my work through that experience, I managed to be one of the only two illustrators they have ever had. Another one I have modeled and illustrated for is VNDL magazine, and twice, they have featured my artwork at the same time as a modeling spread, paired with an interview all photographed and edited by creator, Gavin Thomas. They are both opportunities for me to not only be represented or introduced to readers as an artist, but to also be exposed physically, as a person, and that has given me a great sense of confidence in my work and in myself. I’ve also really enjoyed modeling for designers, primarily because I love the pieces and garments I get to wear. I have had the opportunity to work with many photographers whom I respect and look up to artistically, and for that I am very grateful.
You also are a musician. What instrument do you play? How long have you been playing?
I have played guitar since I was about 8 years old, and started with classical, Spanish style guitar. As I grew older, my taste in music geared mostly toward punk rock, and I played electric guitar in a few bands between the ages of 13-17 in Miami. At the time I played a Fender Stratocaster, and currently I switch between classical guitar, and electric guitar when I produce solo music. I have a Gibson SG and hope to play with a band again some day. I also play the accordion. One of my accordions was passed down to me from my uncle, and ever since, I’ve loved playing it and integrating the accordion sounds in the music I record.
What advice would you give a young artist just starting out in their career?
First and foremost, I would advise any artist to draw as often and as consistently as possible. Worry less about the financial benefits or outcome of your work, and just focus on becoming a better, more well-rounded artist. The more drawing and painting one does, both from observation and from memory/imagination, the more comfortable and confident they can become, and the more comfortable one is while drawing and painting, the more enjoyable the process will be. With that being said, if this is a career you plan on pursuing, make it as enjoyable for yourself as possible. it is hard work, and long hours spent on the work that we do, but at the end of the day, we are doing what we naturally love, and being comfortable in your process is crucial for production. Most importantly, learn to accept failure and rejection. Not everyone in the world will like what you do, and that’s alright. Move on, move forward.
What, in your opinion, is success, when dealing with what you do?
There are different levels of success in dealing with what I do. There are the small successes, like finishing and illustration in one day, being paid on time, with a couple of hours left to spare for sleep. Or trying a new medium and actually using it properly and achieving really great results in the end, like my experience with gold-leaf. There are also the longterm, big successes, like having an idea or a book I’ve worked on, getting recognition from a company, and either have it published by that company or readapted into a film. A really big dream of mine is to create a comic or a graphic novel, and have the opportunity to turn it into a film while working with some of my favorite directors and producers, playing a role in choosing the cast, and accompanying the film with music composed and orchestrated by my favorite composer. Whether success is defined by monetary gains, or feeling like you have made some kind of a change or an impact on someone’s life, or even in your own, it is important, in my opinion, to measure success in having a goal, or a purpose, and accomplishing it. Whether it’s a small one, or a totally ‘impossible’ dream goal, working hard, everyday and accomplishing it is success in my opinion.
What has been your most rewarding experience in your artistic endeavors?
I used to think that seeing my work in print, in a book or magazine, was the greatest achievement. Or that receiving an award, or showing work in an exhibition was the highest experience one could have in this field. The most rewarding experience, without a doubt, is receiving feedback from someone who has in some way been affected by a specific piece I have done or a concept I have communicated through a drawing or a painting. I also relish being positively critiqued by a colleague or professor who is known to be harsh and direct.
What are you working on right now?
Currently I am working on a Graphic Novel based on my father’s retelling of the war in Lebanon, where I am originally from. It will be based on both true and fictional events depicted with dark, realistic war imagery, as well as fantastical, dream-like imagery. I won’t expose much of the story or plans for this graphic novel quite yet, but it is definitely something to look forward to and one of the more ambitious projects I’ve worked on yet.
Any upcoming exhibits, showings, or cons?
I will be attending Magic City Comic Con in Miami , January 16th – 18th. I have a few other conventions planned throughout the year in New York, Orlando, and several others on the East Coast.
Where can we find out more about what you do?
Currently, I post a lot of my work and events on facebook and instagram. I also use Tumblr.