We’re excited to welcome everyone back to What’s In Your Toolbox, a favorite column of yore that explores the intimate processes by which artists and makers do their fine work. We’ll be peeking at material and digital tools, the physical studio spaces where creations come together, and tips from these very experts on how they set themselves up for creative success. Luisa Fernanda Niño, an illustrator based in Montreal, is one such authority. She creates hand-drawn artistic clipart and paints intriguing ladies in watercolor. At her blog, Je Suis Éclectique, Luisa writes about her path to art and explores the ups and downs of being an independent learner. Her watercolor portraits are drawn from imagination, and are influenced by the novels she reads depicting solitary, reflective women, as well as beloved comic books and graphic novels. Luisa claims to be a bit like writer David Foster Wallace, or “an exhibitionist who wants to hide,” which makes this glimpse into her rich, inner life all the more revealing. —Annie
Photography by Luisa Fernanda Niño
What’s in your toolbox?
First and foremost, a tattered sketchbook. It took me quite a while to understand the importance of drawing everywhere, every day, everything. You can’t do that if you’re carrying something too fancy. I usually need a lot of warm-ups — inspiration needs a little nudge — so I use and reuse my scraps of paper. My watercolors are next in order of priority. I tried several and finally settled for a Russian brand called White Nights. It is an artist-grade paint, but without the hefty price tag. My color wheel is never far away. Color is my biggest struggle. The best artists make it look effortless, despite it being the most difficult to master. For my clipart I use Micron Pens and nibs, depending on the drawing. For some of the clipart I create textures with ink splatter, photographs, watercolor washes and the Gelli plate. I draw on paper and then process everything in Illustrator.
Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel ____________.”
Like time stretches before me…
What’s on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?
I am a book collector. Recently, I purchased a book of lessons in Japanese ink painting, first published in 1959, and I found a 2001 edition here in Montreal. Also a couple of books on fashion illustration that help me understand and stretch the boundaries of figure drawing. This week, I bought the French translation of Du Spirituel dans l’art, et la peinture en particulier by Kandinsky. I’m reading a lot of graphic novels at the moment because I’m taking a comic book workshop. The last I read was Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green about her struggle with eating disorders. A masterpiece, in my eyes! And it seems I’m always reading a novel by a European author, including those by Magda Szabo, Elena Ferrante, and Anita Brookner.
How do you keep yourself organized?
It’s a battle I can’t win! I am one of those lucky people who has a room of her own, but the more space I have, the more I spread out. I have one long table where I try to separate web development work from my art practice. I’m a fan of the Passion Planner, but I also use Trello to get the big picture. I usually do a brain-dump on Trello and then I put things in columns, such as “Priorities within the month,” “Next month,” “Things to do for joy,” “Well-being,” and “Completed.”
If you could have one superhero or magical power, what would it be and why?
She’s not exactly considered a superhero, but Mary Poppins’ snap of the fingers to clean up a room — that would be so welcome. I am a messy person by nature. When I paint for hours my studio can become so chaotic. Picking up after myself is my biggest time-waster.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist, maker, or designer?
My comic book teacher told us to not waste enthusiasm and energy on the initial sketches. He said, “Save as much as possible for when it’s time to render the final piece. All the initial thumbnails, sketches, ideas — make them as ugly as possible so when you get to the real thing, you have been building up to that moment and it will be (almost) pure pleasure.” Also, if you do pencil sketches that you will later ink, don’t go over them like you’re tracing them. Keep drawing, make small variations, and don’t get stuck on the pencil. I often meet with people who want to start and keep a regular sketching practice. My advice is in two parts: Get a cheap sketchbook and don’t draw on it from beginning to end. Instead, draw in random pages. These two things are tough because going to an art supply store is a little intoxicating, and all those beautiful sketchbooks and papers are tempting, but starting out with these adds the feeling of expenditure to the practice. Also, the idea of starting a sketchbook and drawing on each page creates a “must do it like this” impulse. If you start in the middle, then jump to another random page when the sketchbook is done, each page is a surprise! Draw every day and don’t take pauses. Pauses breed inertia and it gets difficult to get going again.
How do you combat creative blocks?
I do watercolor exercises, practice gradients, and transparencies. I’ll look for a tutorial on DeviantArt and try to complete it or go outside and collect shapes, textures, patterns, head shapes, body shapes, anything! I am a firm believer in what Henry Miller said, “When you can’t create you can work.”
Where do you like to look or shop for inspiration?
My number one destination is the used book shops, and the library is a close second. Even as the stacks at the library shrink year by year, I’ve found books on art techniques that were published a long time ago. These books took years to write. I feel like there wasn’t a race to get published so quickly, and so the authors took their time and poured their hearts and knowledge into them. My husband is an outdoors type, so we go camping and walking in the forest. I’ve had some of the best ideas while walking in nature, despite my reluctance to sleep in a tent.
If you could peek inside the studio or toolbox of any artist, maker, designer, or craftsperson, whose would it be and why?
Ever since I read about Marlene Dumas, the Dutch painter, I’ve thought about how much I would love to be a ghost in her studio. Her paintings are very provocative and emotionally charged, and some are quite disturbing. I’m so interested in capturing emotion in a piece myself. I would love to see her at work, see her body move as she paints, see her think (or not) about which brush to use, which color, see how she discards and restarts, or not. She’s around 62 years old so her body, her eyes, her hands can probably anticipate what the paint will do. I find her truly fascinating. Here’s a video of Marlene Dumas in her studio.
What’s on your inspirational playlist at the moment?
My blog is called Je Suis Éclectique, and that word defines everything for me, including music. I’m a big fan of French hip hop, specifically from Marseille. I love Keny Arcana and Lady Laistee. I listened to Lana del Rey’s Honeymoon and my jaw dropped — it’s fantastic. I’m originally from Mexico and I love traditional Huapango music. When I get nostalgic I listen to Los Camperos de Valles. I also listen to Wild Nothing and Future Islands nonstop, and 2015’s biggest music gift has been Sleater Kinney’s album!