How did you get started in illustration? I’ve been drawing since kindergarten and have never stopped, really. I’ve finished multiple art schools—having graduated from the printmaking department at the Art Academy of Latvia—but my passion for drawing and creating drove me to spend countless hours practicing in my free time, exploring new ideas and techniques and putting my work out there for people to see. All that eventually led me to a professional career. I’ve been doing street art and graffiti for a long time; have worked as a graphic designer for a few years; cofounded Overpriced Design, the best graphic design studio in Latvia, and left it; and found my own particular style and way of working along the way.
What personal experiences have most influenced your work? In my childhood, I had a few books of local and foreign cartoon artists, like Danish illustrator Herluf Bidstrup. I scanned each newspaper I could find for the latest cartoons; I loved how they expressed wit and clever ideas in clear, amusing and visually appealing ways. When I look back over my work, I see how this has been a huge influence on me.
During my teenage years, I got into street art and graffiti, which led me to explore working on a larger scale and with different techniques. I tried working with spray paint as well as posters, stickers, self-made objects, painting with brushes and large roll-up murals with five-meter (~16.5-feet) tall paint roller sticks. Working in graphic design and my love of printmaking has also left some visual cues.
Therefore, my style or preferred aesthetic is bold and clean, yet handmade. I appreciate textures, intelligent color combinations, craftsmanship, and wit.
What intrigues you about art and illustration from the Middle Ages and modernist eras? How did you integrate these aesthetics into your personal style? I got interested in modernism because of the way it approaches form and how it challenges status quo in a lot of ways. I loved how the exaggerations and abstractions could make the image more dynamic, interesting and unexpected.
After that, I started to think about the concept of beauty a lot, which drove me to explore age when beauty and authenticity was a normal part of people’s lives. I don’t believe life was better millennia ago—that would be naive—but there’s a reason beyond mere historicity that we appreciate old towns, churches, objects and art from the Middle Ages. It’s not just visual beauty; it functions impressively as well. I started to explore illustrations from medieval illuminated manuscripts. My latest work has been very much inspired by the way the artists make their compositions, attend to details, do not shy away from decoration and just marry beauty with meaning in every image.
You exclusively use acrylic on paper as your medium, only using digital media for post-production. What do you like about acrylic on paper, and what would you say are the advantages to your medium over digital illustration? Authenticity, human touch and craftsmanship are important aspects for my choice to work by hand with traditional painting techniques. I love working on tangible things and the artistic value this method brings. It’s time consuming, but I think my clients respect and appreciate it. The result often surprises them as the final artwork looks so much more impressive than the final colored vector sketch I send them. In addition to all of this, I get to create and keep the original artwork, which I sell or give as gifts to someone later.
I love some of your projects for editorials and ad campaigns that reflect medieval art compositional techniques, such as your work for the Los Angeles Times or the Riga City Council. How do you use these techniques to enhance your client illustrations? I’ve taken some compositional principles and aesthetics, which I also interpret on my own. The main theme or idea has to be in the center and visibly more important than the secondary scenes shown in the margins. I like to use the margins for supporting or extending the main idea so that they add some kind of twist or subtle layer of meaning. Decoration makes the composition look more beautiful and unites its separate little stories. Overall, I try to structure the composition with frames, rhythm and symmetry while avoiding being too static and repetitious, as that makes it look boring. The image has to be lively and dynamic with colors that feel organic.
You’ve partnered with animator Eduards Balodis on turning your illustrations into motion animations for NATO. What was the creative process on this project like? There was actually a bigger team for the NATO animations—I worked on a script written by Overpriced and came up with the storyboards. Basically, we thought how we could tell the intergovernmental organization’s story in an interesting, coherent way. Eduards and the designers from Overpriced advised according to their expertise.
After we got approval from the client, I painted the characters and backgrounds for the animation. I cut all the moving parts digitally and gave my files to Eduards, who then worked his magic in Adobe After Effects. He then passed the baton to the sound designer, who was responsible for adding sound to everything—the final touch.
Working on a team is always great. Sometimes you have to make some compromises, but the final result always leads to something greater than what could be achievable on my own.
Tell us about some of your favorite projects. What did you learn from them? My latest favorite projects have been the editorials for the Los Angeles Times and Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine, as well as promotional illustrations for Hermès. The editorial pieces were very time consuming and elaborate, which helped me push my painting skills further and use symbols and composition to convey meaning. The work for Hermès was much more commercial, which is also great. My latest illustrations have mostly dealt with serious topics, whereas the Hermès project needed to be witty, easygoing and fun. I loved how I achieved this fun in a visually mature way.
Which illustrators do you most admire, and why? Besides ones that are long dead, I admire the work of Sophy Hollington and Max Löffler. There’s a distinctive character, craftsmanship, beauty, clever ideas and compositions in both of their work.
What would be your dream assignment? Last time I answered this question, I actually got the assignment, so fingers crossed! It would be great to make an outdoor screen ad campaign for a company like Apple, Amazon or Land Rover. Id love to make a large moving still image, where characters and elements of the painting slightly move in a looping motion. Doing album artwork for an artist such as Kanye or working on something meaningful with artist and thinker Jonathan Pageau would also be awesome.
What excites you about illustration right now, and where do you think the field of illustration is going? Advancements in the field of AI arouses both excitement and concern for many. If the world is growing increasingly digital and artificial, I’m excited for every new illustrator who decides to hone their craft and make authentic, human-made (and preferably handmade) art. I think there will also be—and already is—a global tendency to move more and more in a direction of appreciating everything human and traditional as a reaction against the rise of digital. It feels right when we make our ideas tangible, like when heaven meets earth—to put it symbolically.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Yesterday you said “tomorrow.” Don’t let dreams be dreams. Just do it. ca
Robert Rurans is represented by Closer&Closer.