Rovina Cai (SVA MFAI ‘13) made the below video of one of her experiments - one of the many ways she explores the things that fascinate her.
Click on image immediately below to see video:
Can you talk a bit about your interests?
I have so many! Most of them related to mythology, history and fantasy, which is basically what I paint.
Have you always been into fantasy?
I think that’s how I started drawing in the first place. I was obsessed with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as a teenager and that kind of got me into art. But I feel like I’m slowly getting away from the fantasy genre and trying out different things.
Like the portrait of Dorian Gray video?
Yeah that was a spontaneous experiment I decided to do one day. I tend to like experiments. Sometimes a random idea will just pop into my head - the crazier the better!
What other kinds of experiments do you do?
Let’s see … I like to make things. Since most of my art is done on a computer, sometimes I feel a need to make tangible things, to have something “real” in front of me. So I make costumes, props, and recently I’m slightly obsessed with bookbinding. The internet helps a lot with that. If I wanted to make, I don’t know, a Mad Hatter hat, I could just google it and there’d be thousands of tutorials telling me how to do it. It’s almost like a puzzle or a problem that has to be solved.
Are you part of a lot of internet communities?
Not so much anymore, but in the past I’ve spent a lot of time just hanging out on the internet and posting on message boards. I used to think it was a waste of time, but looking back now, art communities on the internet were a big influence on me. None of my close friends or family are artists, so these communities were my only link to other people who shared my passion for art.
Can you describe your process?
Well, it’s a little random. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a great image idea in my head and it’s just a matter of trying to figure out if this image means anything or is worthy of carrying into a final piece. For these images, I just open up Photoshop and start painting. But for larger projects, I do a lot of planning. I do a bunch of thumbnails on paper to work out the overall composition, and once I get the general sense of it, I switch over to the computer … it’s all very messy. In Photoshop I move things around and resize things until something works, and from then on, it’s time for a little trip to “rendersville” - endless hours of rendering details! I like this part a lot.
How long does it take you to make one piece?
That really depends on how well it’s going. If it’s not going so well, it can take weeks. But I’ve also had those freakish painting sessions where I sit down and do almost everything in one go.
I suppose the way I work is little bit like traditional painting. I paint in Photoshop but I don’t really use layers. I start a new layer when I feel like I have something good and I don’t want to ruin it, and I just keep merging down once the file gets too big. Some people are very organized with their layers; separating painting elements like the background etc. This probably saves a bit of time, but my brain just doesn’t work that way. Photoshop is good for hiding the chaos and messiness, you can do endless revisions of things… but that could also be bad I guess.
That’s why you prefer Photoshop to other media?
I prefer Photoshop because it’s flexible. It’s easy to make changes to an image, you don’t have to commit to anything; if you make something a certain color, you can always change it later. It allows you to be more fearless.
In any way you want, can you talk about the things that excite you or the things that make you want to make an image.
I think things that appeal to me are things that are a little outside of reality, you know what I mean? The other day, I was talking to Federico, and he very dramatically said, “we’re both old souls, Rovina,” but that’s kind of true. I like to paint things that have this sort of nostalgic feel to them, but it’s a longing for things that never really existed, or familiar things that are just out of reach. For example we recently went to see Sleep No More, and I loved it. I loved that there were these rooms and little shops that couldn’t exist in reality, yet we get to walk through them. These kind of things inspire me, and I get those random image ideas that pop into my head. After Sleep No More it was like a party of images in my head!
Like world creating?
I guess, I think it probably goes back to my teenage obsession with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Sometimes I feel like I’ve moved on from those stories, but once in a while the inner geek comes out again.
Who are your favorite characters from Lord of the Rings?
I love all the Elvish characters, the mythological elements in the story really appeal to me. Recently I’ve been looking into Icelandic sagas and epic poetry, some of which inspired Tolkien’s writings. It’s so interesting to trace the origins or inspiration behind some of my favourite books.
Can you talk a bit about your Iceland book?
In May 2011, a friend and I found ourselves in Europe for various reasons and we decided to meet up in Iceland. Both of us are huge fans of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, we’d seen music videos of these surreal, magical looking landscapes and that was the motivation for us to visit. We didn’t have much of a plan, so we rented a car and made it up as we went along. We couch-surfed with local people and every day we did something crazy and out of the ordinary like climbing volcano craters.
I took a whole bunch of photos and I didn’t really know what to do with them. I kept telling people about how “awesome!!” and “amazing!!!” my trip was, but that was basically it, the end of the conversation. So when the opportunity came up to do a book project, I thought Iceland would be the perfect subject matter - it was a great excuse for me to keep rambling on about Iceland. The book turned out to be a really interesting process. I worked in a method that isn’t what I usually do, it was pencil sketches edited & coloured in Photoshop. The idea was to make a sketchbook & travel journal, since I didn’t get the chance to sketch during the trip. It was frustrating in the beginning because I didn’t know what I wanted the book to be, but it worked out well in the end.
Speaking of Sigur Rós, can you talk about music’s role in your art?
I love listening to music, and matching songs to whatever I’m painting, since it helps me figure out the mood or tone I’m trying to create within an image. Lately I’ve been making specific playlists for each painting I’m doing, and all of the songs would be related to the painting in some way. For an obvious example, last year I was auditing a fantasy illustration class and I was doing this painting related to Harry Potter, so I made a playlist with all the Harry Potter soundtracks, and a good dose of other nerdy music - I don’t know if you know this, but there are bands that perform songs with Harry Potter lyrics. It’s called “wizard rock.”
Wait, that’s not just a band, that’s a genre?
Oh yeah, it’s a whole genre. I don’t why I know this! Or rather, why I’m telling you that I know this!
Can you describe your thesis?
I’m making books based on transformation myths & stories. It involves illustration, book design, and book binding, it may also involve “making random crafty things”… I haven’t decided on exactly what yet.
You’re combining all of your talents!
Well, it’s a little ambitious now that I think about it.
When you work, do you concentrate on one thing or take breaks and work on other stuff?
Definitely take breaks, especially with the longer projects. To keep myself interested in the larger project, I go off on tangents and do side projects, almost as a distraction, and after I finish a side project I come back to the larger project feeling refreshed. I have a million things going on at once. This is why I practically live in the studio! Sometimes the side projects feed into the larger projects but most of the time, they’re just fun little things that I like to do.
It was an exhibition of a large group of fantasy illustrators, some of which I have looked up to for many years. They combined these works with historical illustrators like Rackham and Pyle. It was a great survey of contemporary fantasy/scfi illustration and it’s roots.
You’d said something really interesting – that you’d made this pilgrimage to see other people in your community because fantasy isn’t very widespread, but it’s very much loved, so…
That’s true. I feel like, especially being here, you really have to seek out the fantasy stuff. Sometimes in class, I’d sit there and think “wow I don’t know any of these [illustrators being discussed], what am I doing with my time?” Then I went to At The Edge, and it was like, “oh! I know people here! I know things about illustration!” I didn’t realise until recently how attached I am to this realm of fantasy art. When I came into the program, I had a hard time accepting fantasy art or categorizing my own illustrations as fantasy. Sometimes there’s a stigma attached to the genre. Whenever you say fantasy, people tend to think, “oh, wizards!” or “giant cats with glowing eyes!” I mean, I love that stuff too, but that’s not quite what I do. It’s a difficult area to define.
It’s how people encounter fantasy in their lives, through book covers or production design, but there might be more crossover now.
Yeah, definitely, I think it’s becoming a lot more accepted. But there’s still a core community of fantasy illustrators that is very small and very specific in terms of content.
So the program is different things for different people. I’m curious what it is for you.
It’s a chance to reflect on what I want to do as an illustrator. When I first came into the program, the assumption was that I’d get out of here with a very specific “style”. Since I do a lot of things that are not very related, I thought by the time I graduate, it would be consolidated into one thing, one style. But now that we’re almost done, it’s more like I’m just choosing to focus on one thing for a while, and all the other things can be explored later. Before I came here, I didn’t realize that I liked design or book binding. It was just something I did, but I didn’t consciously recognize it as a creative outlet.
That’s interesting, because it’s so obvious to the rest of us…
Yeah, it’s totally obvious now, but before starting the program I had no idea about what I did and wanted to do.
Can you talk about Australia?
I’m from Melbourne, it’s very artsy, but quite small in comparison to New York. I like to get lost in one of our many parks or lane ways filled with coffee shops. Illustration doesn’t seem to be a big thing in Australia; it’s definitely not as big as here. We don’t have specific programs for illustration.
And you went to college for graphic design?
Well, communication design, which included one single elective class for illustration. The rest of the time you’re designing stuff. Some of it was not that interesting, but the design skills have come in handy at times. Though I’ve always wanted to have a regular art school experience, where you do painting 101, etc.
Other mediums you’re interested in? Film? Interactive books?
All of those! I think I just like new things and finding different creative outlets. I’m really enjoying the digital book class, especially seeing things move and animating things. I’m also loving oil painting. I think I’m finally getting the hang of it now. It’s taken a couple weeks just to get used to the transition between digital and oil painting. Sometimes I’ll be working on an oil painting and I’ll think, “undo undo! New layer!”
Images courtesy of Rovina Cai & Andrea Tsurumi