A Studio visit with Dasha Tolstikova

Interviews / Process / Studio Visit

I reached out to Dasha Tolstikova because I LOVED her illustrations for The Jacket. Her work really inspires me — so fresh and loose and graphic. I got chance to meet with her recently at her home studio in Brooklyn talk about the making of her author-illustrator debut, a fantastic, graphic novel autobiography called A Year Without Mom.

Dasha Tolstikova in her home studio in Brooklyn, NY.

Dasha Tolstikova in her home studio in Brooklyn, NY.

The Scoop on Dasha Tolstikova

Hometown: Moscow, Russia

Now lives in: Brooklyn, NY

Tools of the trade: Berol markers, a very specific Tombow pencil with 2B lead, Sumi ink washes, Winsor and Newton brushes—whatever is on sale—I beat them up pretty badly. Derwent soft lead colored pencils, St. Petersburg watercolors. (I’ve had my set since I was twelve, although my friend Elizabeth Baddeley recently introduced me to Schmincke watercolors and I am considering a switch. They truly ARE magical.)

Illustration idols: Anne Herbauts, Beatrice Allemagna, Laura Carlin, Marc SimontThe Provensens, Zach O’Hora, Isabelle ArsenaultHadley Hooper, David Roberts, Tomi UngererCarson Ellis—I can keep going for a long time…

Caffeine of choice: a single shot latte for breakfast and then A LOT of peppermint tea

Workspace: home studio & shared studio space in the Pencil Factory with Dan Salmieri, Josh Cochran and Jim Datz

Cat or dog? Definitely dog! I am looking for a poodle to adopt—if anyone out there has any leads?

Favorite children’s book
…as a child:
everything about the Moomins
…as an adult: The Philharmonic Gets Dressed

Favorite thing to read: mysteries!

Dasha Tolstikova's Brooklyn studioDasha Tolstikova's Brooklyn studioDasha Tolstikova's Brooklyn studio

Dasha works on some mice for an upcoming picture book.

Dasha works on some mice for an upcoming picture book.

Robin: How did you get started writing and illustrating for kids?

Dasha: I’ve been drawing my whole life. My mom read to me a lot and so I began making my own books before I even learned how to write. She would sew these little booklets for me and I would draw and write a story in a “foreign language.” I could tell my letters did not look like the right letters, but they felt like letters to me.

I have had a lot of formal training also. When I was little in Russia I went to a special art school for a few years where I learned the classical basics—you know those white plaster shape still lifes and perspective drawing. I have managed to forget all of this information in subsequent years. I got my undergrad degree in photography. In my twenties I tried my hand at oil painting and studied with a lovely oil painter, Elena Shakhovskaya. Eventually [in 2012] I landed at the School of Visual Arts in the Illustration as Visual Essay program. It was the best experience for me. They didn’t teach us as much HOW to do something, but more how to figure what we want to do and to trust ourselves to do it.

Dasha's copy of Harvey, written by Hervé Bouchard and illustrated by Janice Nadeau. This structure of this book inspired A Year Without Mom.

Dasha’s copy of Harvey, written by Hervé Bouchard and illustrated by Janice Nadeau. This structure of this book inspired A Year Without Mom. “I feel like everyone should read that book.”

Robin:  A Year Without Mom started out as your senior thesis project at SVA right?

Dasha: It did! It all started with Harvey! I found this book called Harvey:The Day I Became Invisible at The Strand and fell in love with it. I had recently stopped working in film and this book was the perfect mix of a book-movie and a picture book and a novel and all the things I was interested in. I knew immediately that this was the format I wanted to pursue.

The story came after. I wanted to find something that would warrant the long format, but still be young enough so that kids would want to read it. 

Some final spreads from A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova.

Some final spreads from A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova. (Click to enlarge.)

Robin: This is the first book you’ve both written and illustrated. How was the writing process for you? Did you write in conjunction with drawing or did you write the whole thing first?

The cover for Dasha's original thesis project.

The cover for Dasha’s original thesis project.

Dasha: I wrote SO MANY drafts at first. I spent the entire first semester writing and not drawing anything. Our wonderful teacher David Sandlin never batted an eye and let me work at my own pace, which I am extremely grateful for. It was really important for me to have the story before I made any images.

I always knew the book would be long and had initially thought that I would be able to finish ALL the illustrations—the book is 168 pages—before the end of the school year, which was obviously crazy. I ended up completing the first chapter and printing it as a little book by the end of the year.

You get to have an outside of school advisor and mine was Sophie Blackall. She was wonderful and super enthusiastic. She was very involved in helping me. We met every month or so.

Robin: So, did you submit it to your publisher Groundwood at some point?

Dasha: I didn’t. I had some interest in it from American publishers but no one knew what to do with it. It didn’t really fit an existing format. It is technically a graphic novel, but it doesn’t have the same visual design of a comic graphic novel with the cells. A lot of publishers really loved it but didn’t know how to market it.

And then Sheila Barry, my amazing editor at Groundwood [Ed note: the publisher of Harvey!] magically found me online and was interested in acquiring the book in its pretty unpolished state.

Robin: That’s fantastic.

Dasha: The email that she sent me was like, my name is Sheila and I’m from this publishing house in Canada, I don’t know if you’ve heard of us. I wrote her back and I was like, have I ever?  I love you, I love your books, I’m so obsessed with everything that you do. I didn’t tell her how much I loved Harvey because my interest in it bordered on the obsessive. I told her about it after we signed the contract. I was like, by the way, I’m obsessed with Harvey, I read it 35 times and I’ve typed it out so I could follow the structure.

Sheila was incredible. She loved it and signed it at a stage where nobody would touch it. 

Robin: What kind of changes did you make in order to take it from thesis project to published book?

Dasha: I changed it A LOT. I redrew the whole thing and rewrote the story. I didn’t feel that the story I had at the end of school was compelling enough. I was on draft nine by the end of grad school and after we signed the contract I maybe went through ten more drafts. We really fixed it up.

I was thinking about the visual flow while I was writing—the arch of the story tied to various elements, light and dark, colors—but did not start drawing until I had more or less a final draft.

The main character evolved from thesis to book. In the final book she's got blond curly hair, like the real Dasha.

The main character in A Year Without Mom evolved from thesis to book. In the final book she’s got blond curly hair, like the real Dasha. “I thought maybe she should have curly hair even though I hate [drawing] it. I feel like she’s pretty severe in the [first] version. I had all of these conversations with different art directors about doing picture books and them wanting things to be cuter. I was trying to figure out how to make things cuter but still retain my own way of doing them. When I sent the first sketches of the revised character to Groundwood they were like, ‘Yeah, this is great. We really love her, but she’s maybe too cute. We want to go back to the [original character].’ It ended up being sort of a medium between the two.”

Spreads from Dasha's first dummy for A Year Without Mom.

Dasha’s first dummy for A Year Without Mom. She submitted this to her editor, Sheila, at Groundwood and “miraculously she told me to go to final drawing.”


First dummy sketch—”A full spread of ghosts.”— and the final published spread. (Click to enlarge. A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova.)

Another first dummy sketch paired with the final published spread in the book. (Click to enlarge. A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova)

Another first dummy sketch paired with the final, published spread in the book. (Click to enlarge. A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova)

Additional dummies for A Year Without Mom.

Additional dummies for A Year Without Mom.

Robin: Once you figured out the text, what was the back and forth with Groundwood like from dummy to final?

Dasha: Sheila gave me so much freedom. I gave her a very rough dummy—kind of an incomprehensible doodle—of the whole book and miraculously she told me to go to final drawing. I cannot stress enough how much her trust in me finishing this project made it happen. Because she trusted me to be able to draw the final without really seeing what it would look like it let me stay fresh and excited. I did not have too much art direction, which I am extremely grateful for. This book IS pretty personal and I had very specific ideas of what I wanted to do.

Robin: That’s amazing. That sounds unusual.

Dasha: It made it possible to work on because it’s so long. When I was in the middle of it I never thought it was going to be done.

Robin: 168 pages! It must have been daunting. What was your process from dummy to final art?

Dasha:  I use copy paper, a pencil and a light boxI start with really misshapen doodles and then basically retrace for many, many versions until a final begins to form. Things fall away and get added. I move the composition around.

My finals are done in pencil and ink wash on Arches watercolor paper. I then scan them in and finish up on the computer. The color is all digital. I did some real color at first but because the book is so long I just couldn’t control it. I usually deliver digital files for my finals, mostly because I want to be able to control them up to the last moment.


Dasha had trouble executing this spread… (Click to enlarge.)


“I worked on this illustration for two days. I just couldn’t make it work to save my life. There are many sketches. Some of them are so awful. I can still feel the pain ” (Click to enlarge.)


Dasha worked on several versions for the eyes…


And here’s what the final looks like. (A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova, Click to enlarge.)


Dasha created a lot of hand-drawn type for the book. (Click to enlarge.)

Robin: You’ve drawn a lot of the type throughout which is really nice. Did you consider writing out the whole book?

Dasha: I did want to initially, and then once I finished the images, it didn’t look that nice. It’s kind of loose in its execution and when you do the hand-drawn type it looks homemade in this way that I wasn’t thrilled with.

I think the typeface, [Mrs. Eaves,] looks much more polished with my sometimes very loose drawings. I’m really happy with the design. 

Robin: I love the spare palette. Did you know pretty early on that you wanted to use a limited palette or did you do any versions with more colors?

Dasha: Thank you! That happened pretty early on. It wasn’t a difficult decision, it just felt right. I wanted the book to have this element of light to dark. [I wanted it to be] really dark in the middle because of the emotional arc and I decided that there would be a page that was going to be the darkest page in the book. Nobody will probably notice this but it was a fun thing to think about when I was working.

Robin: I loved the color palette for The Jacket also. Did you sit down at some point during the process and formally work out a palette or is it more fluid? And where do you find inspiration for your color palettes?

Dasha: I DO figure the colors out before hand. I get overwhelmed if all the colors ever are available to me, so I have these Pantone postcards. They are not real Pantone colors, but when I start a project I sit with them and shuffle through, pulling out all the colors that feel right for a project and weed it down until I have six or seven colors.

I feel very strongly about colors and emotions being tied together. In all of my work I feel strongly about emotions and emotional honesty, so it’s important to me that the colors FEEL right for whatever project I am working on.

I am inspired by the colors used by my favorite painters: Degas and Bonnard and Richard Diebenkorn and Sargent. I look at those books a lot.

The cover of The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova, shown with and without the book jacket.

The cover of The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova, shown with and without the book jacket. (Click to enlarge.)

Robin: Let’s talk more about The Jacket for a bit. Was this the first picture book that you illustrated?

Dasha: Yes. It was a great experience. I had a lot of input on that project. I suggested we make the [physical] book be the book [character in the story.] I was so excited about the inanimate object becoming an animated character. It really made it so exciting for me to work on.

Robin: It makes the book. That’s why I picked it up.

Dasha: I feel really lucky that they went with it. The publisher, Claudia Bedrick, and I talked about what the cover would be and we went through a lot of drafts. It had to look like a kid made it but it also had to be visually compelling. It’s hard to make something look chaotic but fun and pretty.

It’s just two eyes and a mouth, but it took so many drafts. We talked about whether the book would have a mouth hole, no mouth hole. Are the pupils round or oval? Are they more open, less open, is he smiling? Not smiling? Drawing and redrawing, picking the color. I felt very strongly that the book was a boy somehow. I don’t know why.

Robin: Now that you’re not in school do you have writer or illustrator friends that you show stuff to. Do you have a critique group?

Dasha: I have close friends who are illustrators and we definitely have a lot of conversations ABOUT our experience as working illustrators but I actually very rarely ask people’s opinions about the way something looks. There is so much conversation with art directors and I am also very opinionated. Having more people in the mix is not really helpful to me. 

I sometimes have crisis moments. My best friend [Kate Berube] is an illustrator. She lives in Portland and I’ll send something to her and I’ll be like, look at this, I don’t know. But, generally I don’t really. We keep talking about having a writing group.

For the first two years after I graduated, I worked in a studio with some former classmates. That was really fun and it was great to have people around who were also working everyday. I am friends with a lot of illustrators and it’s really helpful to know people that have a similar life as you.

I’ve been working at home for a while but I am about to move into a shared studio space at the Pencil Factory with Dan Salmieri, Josh Cochran and Jim Datz. I am excited to have a creative environment around me—obviously the three of them are amazing artists and I cannot wait to learn by being around them.  I will still keep my home studio for more quiet work—I really appreciate being able to wake up early and spending a couple of hours in my studio.

A few of Dasha's recent tumblr posts.

A few of Dasha’s recent tumblr posts.

Robin: You have a great internet presence. Does that come naturally for you? Do you have specific goals for your social media presence?

Dasha: When I was in school we talked a lot about what it takes to have your work be seen and how you have to be out there. You can’t just sit in your room and expect somebody to knock on your door. But I didn’t want to just be promoting myself. It feels weird to be like, oh, buy my book people on Facebook that I haven’t talked to in four years.

I try just be a human on social media. I have other interests besides illustration. Some days I will post my art and other days I will post some opinion or have an interaction with a friend having nothing to do with my work. And other days I will post nothing because I have nothing to say.

Robin: Do you ever experiment with new materials?

Dasha: I usually stick to my favorite pencil and ink wash, but I would love to experiment more. My friend Ruth Chan and I just had a play date to try new materials. We hung out all day and drew and painted. We were only allowed to use materials we did not normally use. That day, I figured out how I would create the artwork for an upcoming project, Friend or Foe.

Robin: If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

Dasha: When I was a kid I wanted to either be a lounge singer or a nun. I also wouldn’t mind going into space. But I’ve already had quite a few different jobs in my twenties—being a reporter, a photographer, a translator, driving an art department van in NYC, producing movies—and I am pretty convinced that being an artist is the best possible job for me.

Thanks Dasha! You can see more of Dasha’s work here and you can follow her on twitter and tumblr.  Her work was also featured on Jules Danielson’s blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

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