For Oliwia Bober, settling on illustration as a creative profession wasn’t a particularly straightforward route to take. No matter how winding the journey has been, however, her portfolio of work to date proves she’s arrived at a destination well worth the journey.
Born in Poland, Oliwia moved to the UK when she was 11. The illustrator’s relationship with creativity at school is one many who studied art in the English education system will know well, finding that creating work was much more about ticking boxes rather than creative expression. While at school maths and art appeared to be her strongest subjects, but it was art that offered something she couldn’t quite put her finger on: “an element of satisfaction to it that I never felt after solving an equation and that was enough encouragement to continue doing it,” she tells It’s Nice That, “throughout education I did things that made me both happy and sad, and I guess art was the one thing that always won by at least a little.”
Choosing to continue with art by studying a foundation course and then joining Brighton’s illustration BA, Oliwia still found herself unable to fully throw herself into the thralls of art education. “I appreciated that I was attending a highly renowned course under the eyes of accomplished professionals, but despite this, I could not find my feet.” Deciding to take a year out before completing her third year due to mental health reasons, the illustrator found herself creating work just because she simply wanted to, painting and drawing daily “despite not having any set briefs and not working towards set deadlines,” she explains. “I wouldn’t say that illustration is the only thing I can do, but it is the only thing I want to be doing.” Returning to her course she admits, though critical of how her own experience at Brighton was, “it would be unwise to dismiss the way it has moulded and encouraged the way that I work, not to mention the support and dedication of the tutors that helped me in doing so.”
Despite all this, looking at Oliwia’s work from the outside, it appears that the illustrator has a succinct style. This is largely down to the personal themes in her work decoratively tackling “love interests and relationships” in particular. Personally feeling “things very strongly and often reacting emotionally, which if you are a woman is frequently dismissed in favour of the ‘rational’ approach,” Oliwia has created a method and output of work that is refreshingly honest. “I suppose over time, my interest in illustration became the healthiest and most harmless of coping mechanisms and a way for me to express and navigate the feelings I had for things and people around me.”
Although personal, Oliwia’s works are also pleasing on the eye, an element of the work developed through her colour palette choices: “at first glance, it is obvious enough that I like delicate, pastel colours and plants,” she points out. These elements are used as decoration rather than a focal point, instead, placing her figures or characters centre stage, and often in “intimate or vulnerable positions”. Balancing these together is a method of illustrational juxtaposition, and an element she is always toying with, explaining how “I am still learning how to balance decorative elements and those that are essential to understanding meaning so that the latter is not obstructed.”
The second key theme in Oliwia’s work is the influence of Polish folklore. Rather than folk art’s aesthetics, it is more the ideas conveyed that the illustrator “appreciates deeply”. Initially drawn to folklore for its “subconscious familiarity” it has since become a “more conscious form of expression” for the illustrator, particularly because of its “effortless preservation of culture, language and traditions,” and due to her parents’ “considerable care into nurturing”.
At this point in Oliwia’s work, this element of Polish ancestry has particular relevance for the illustrator, noting how when moving to the UK in 2006, “I found it incredibly difficult to reconcile being an economic migrant and being proud of my heritage,” she explains. In turn, it wasn’t actually until the “first major debates for the UK to leave the EU started hitting the headlines that I became very comfortable expressing my ‘Polishness’”, marking the start of Oliwia making work “based on my experiences as an immigrant.”
Each of these varying elements to date came together in Oliwia’s final piece at university – a large painting. “I had finally come to terms with moving to this country, the imprint that that had left on me, and the way it had shaped me as a person needed to be unpacked and acknowledged,” she says.
How Oliwia actually unpacks each of these themes and feelings, personally and globally, into an illustrative process is surprisingly self-described as “quite uniform”. The illustrator begins by making stacks of lists debating possible visual responses before whittling down a final list of ideas. She then works on loose copies of A4 paper – “I have always envied those who utilised sketchbooks in their work,” she says – saving a meticulous approach for the final pieces. Once working on a final design, Oliwia then works and reworks her creations “until I feel like the colours are right, until I am satisfied,” zooming in on her own details. “Nevertheless, there is always an element of surprise involved, as I never have a clear idea of what the illustration will look like when finished.”
For someone so meticulous in her process, and with a large backstory of themes which filter into her work, the fact that the final product still has a surprise to it isn’t what you’d expect from Oliwia’s work. But although there may be “a disconnect between my initial sketches and the finished paintings, as if they were completed by two different people,” Oliwia knows that “working like this suits me best and I am trying to be okay with that”.
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