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To the Point: Interview With Monika Zagrobelna

Monikas dragon ilustration

In this installment of our interview series, I had the distinct pleasure of asking one of our own Tuts+ instructors, Monika Zagrobelna, questions about her artwork, process, and experiences as an artist and instructor. You may recognize her work from the numerous animal drawing tutorials here on Tuts+. I hope you enjoy getting to know the woman behind those fantastic tutorials and exploring more of her portfolio.

Monika, thank you so much for the interview! Let's start from the top: What got you into illustration?

I can’t really remember a time when I wasn't drawing at all. It was always fun for me, though I didn't take it seriously for a long time. As a kid I used to draw my own games for my friends. I even remember I created over 100 fake Pokémon that later were drawn with colored pencils, cut out of paper and used for duels like in the anime series. I've just always been creative, and drawing is a way for me to bring my countless ideas to life, so that others can see them too.

Monika in the Natural Museum of History
Monika in the Museum of Natural History at Wroclaw University in Poland.

Who or what are your main sources of inspiration?

I can be inspired by pretty much anything: my dreams, some line heard in a movie, an interesting fact about an animal… My ideas mostly come from nowhere; usually when I’m busy and I can’t do anything about them at the moment. When it comes to the works of great artists, I’m either extremely jealous or intimidated, but then it also makes me motivated to become as good as them. My favorite artists, usually in terms of their techniques, creativity, or way of teaching, are Sam Nielson, Stanley Lau, Therese Larsson, Bobby Chiu, and Christopher Onciu.

Dragons are Monikas favorite drawing subject
"Dragons are my favorite drawing subject".

Did you study art formally, are you self taught, or both?

Formally I’m an IT specialist with specialization in graphic design, so I was taught how to program, create web pages, and occasionally design a logo. Interestingly, I’m not good at any of these things, and what I’m really good at, creating and drawing, I have taught myself in my free time. However, I still have been learning from these amazing artists who give their time to share their skills on the internet for free, so I think the line between attending a professional art course and self-learning is a bit blurred nowadays.

One of the first dragon pictures Ive ever drawn dated probably 2006-2007
"One of the first dragon pictures I've ever drawn, dated probably 2006-2007."

What is your creative process like?

Not more than two years ago I used to simply draw. There was no process, no preparation. I didn't believe I could make a living from being an artist, especially in Poland, so it didn't matter how good (or not) I was. Then there was a moment when I realized that drawing wasn't only about talent and unconscious learning. Finally I understood that all these people on art forums aren't poor untalented artists who want to learn how to draw, but that they’re actually decent artists learning how to be better. I was a decent artist too, and I wanted to be better, but I didn't know how—so I started to learn.

 My study on dragon feet based on the American rhea the T-Rex and the emu
"My study on dragon feet, based on the American rhea, the T-Rex, and the emu."

Now I’m not able to just draw anything—it’s my curse and my blessing. Before I started learning, I thought I knew probably 60–70% about drawing. Now I know it’s more like 2%, and this number actually drops when I learn new things, because with every mastered topic there come ten topics I had no idea were there to learn.

So, before I create, I analyze the topic as extensively as possible. I rarely draw fully rendered works these days—I'd rather spend my time sketching and studying. Maybe I take it too seriously, but studying is actually a lot of fun for me. I love learning new things and understanding how something works, and that applies to everything, not only drawing. I believe there will come a day when I will be able to draw anything without preparation, but I hope it will not be too soon—the journey itself is exciting enough!

My preparation before drawing a werewolf
"My preparation before drawing a werewolf."

What programs and tools do you use in creating your work? Anything you're especially fond of that you'd like to recommend to readers?

My favorite tool is a soft pencil, but these days I usually create my sketches directly in Adobe Photoshop because it makes it easier to modify the pose or fix one element. What I really love about digital painting software is I don’t need to bring all my tools to the desk and clean up afterwards. However, if I had to start my digital painting adventure now, I wouldn't choose Photoshop—it’s too big and too complicated when all an aspiring artist needs is a set of basic brushes, a color palette and a canvas that can be easily cleared. Everything else is, and was for me for a long time, an obstacle in developing your skills.

I use a Wacom Intuos Pro M tablet, but I don’t see much difference between it and my old Wacom Bamboo (now it’s Intuos, I think). When I was “tabletless”, I used to scan my sketches and edit them in Adobe Illustrator; that’s very mouse-friendly, but now I can’t imagine myself being bound by a mouse. 

After studying something I create my own reference sheet for future use
"After studying something I create my own reference sheet for future use."

For how long have you worked as an artist? Is this your main line of work?

I don’t consider myself a professional artist yet. In March last year I got my engineer degree and at that time I was already writing for Tuts+, so there was never a need for me to look for a “real” job. Since writing tutorials requires a constant development from me, I treat it as a kind of training time for some other artistic job in the future.

Illustration for tutorial How to Draw Hares and Rabbits
 How to Draw Hares and Rabbits Tutorial

 What's your typical work day like? How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work?

I get up at 7 everyday, be it a work day or weekend. I've learned it makes it easier to get up on Monday when there’s no Sunday-laziness to compare to. I sit at my computer at 8, check e-mails and social sites, reply to comments, and then get to work. I work according to the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of break. It keeps my eyes and back healthy. I’m the most productive before noon, and then my efficiency gradually drops. If everything goes according to plan, I end working about 4pm, but there are lot of days, especially right before the deadline, when I work much later than 6pm. There was one tutorial, I won’t tell you which, that required me to work 18 hours a day for some time.

My kingdom I spend most of my life here
"My kingdom—I spend most of my life here."

After I finish my work day, I take a break for 30 minutes of pilates or yoga. Pilates is awesome if you work a lot at the computer, and my body likes yoga positions too. Then it’s time for… more work. I used to play a lot of computer games—I have a full Steam library, and I was even addicted to a MMORPG called Shadowbane at one time. Now I focus completely on what I want to achieve and there’s no space for games any more. I don’t feel I’m losing anything, though. It’s just that creating has turned into my biggest passion, and nothing compares to it. Luckily, I happen to have a loving partner who understands it!

Another generic dragon Did I mention they are my favorites
"Another generic dragon. Did I mention they are my favorites?"

I work at home, which has its good and bad sides. I have a self-built PC constructed especially for Photoshop, my Intuos Pro tablet, and, more recently, two monitors—one with awesome contrast and colors, and another, normal one, to see what most other people see on their screens. The second screen is also very useful for using references or looking at a full version of the picture when I’m working on details. I also have an assistant, Kinzie, a possibly-half-Norwegian-Forest-Cat, who does her best to distract me from working.

Kinzie at work
Kinzie at work.

You write fantastic tutorials for Tuts+ on drawing animals, both real and fantastic. What's your focus when creating tutorials?

I try to convince my readers that drawing isn't really about creating lines, but about knowing where and when to place them. So instead of creating step-by-step tutorials that result in only one picture in only one style, I focus on learning about the essence of the animal. When you learn the anatomy, knowing why the animal looks the way it does, you are able to use this knowledge in any style you wish. You can also easily create new, believable creatures based on what you know about real ones.

Illustration for tutorial Create a Run Cycle Animation From Scratch
Create a Run Cycle Animation From Scratch Tutorial

Before creating a tutorial I research the animal, fix my own misconceptions, and note everything that’s important for drawing. Sometimes I’m tempted to include even totally unrelated things (did you ever wonder why kangaroos aren't as intelligent as humans, despite being born in an even earlier developmental stage than us and having “hands” that could be used for manipulating tools? No…? OK, let’s go back to drawing), because I’m so fascinated by them. I've been drawing animals longer than anything else, so you could say it’s my obsession.  

Illustration for tutorial How to Draw Deer
How to Draw Deer Tutorial

For animal references, do you primarily use photographs, or do you draw from life as well?

Unfortunately, I have to drive one hour to get to my nearest zoo, and it also happens to have the most expensive tickets in Poland, so I have to rely on photographs most of the time. It’s not really that bad, as long as I use a lot of them and don't base my observations on only one or two. I made it my goal to visit zoos as often as possible. I even visited the Czech Republic to see my favorite snow leopards, and then I learned there are two specimens in Poland, three hours from my place (I saw them last year!).

I use these visits to extend my personal stock base, to observe the animals and to feel into them—to become them for a while. There’s a lot of controversy about zoos, but I know one thing for sure: if it wasn't for them, I would have no chance to see all these majestic animals alive, and neither would the photographers who bring us references to draw.

Monika observing cougars in Zoo Opole I love being so close to them
Monika observing cougars in Zoo Opole. "I love being so close to them!"

What do you find the most difficult to draw? How about the most difficult to teach?

Generally, all the non-live things are quite hard for me. I don’t like drawing architecture; it’s not natural for me to measure and count things when creating. I use simplified perspective rules for my animal drawings, but they don’t work for buildings or cars. I also don’t like designing environment art, backgrounds, locations, all of these; that’s not my thing. And what I can’t do, I can’t teach, so these would be also the most difficult to teach for me.

I prefer to focus on the creature Heres one of rare cases with quite detailed environment added
"I prefer to focus on the creature. Here's one of the rare cases with quite detailed environment added."

What projects are you currently working on?

There’s my big, personal project about human anatomy that I’d like to turn into a course one day; it’s a huge study I've been working on for over a year and it’s still far from done. I also cooperate with my partner on creating a quite unusual web app for time management. It’s something I could make use of, but I hope I won’t be the only user! There’s my book too. I've been writing it for a few years, but it was rewritten from scratch twice as my writing and storytelling skills developed. I hope this third time will be a charm. This book makes me motivated to learn how to draw humans; I so wish to picture my characters properly one day!

I constantly experiment with style of painting and shading
"I constantly experiment with styles of painting and shading."

 What are your plans for future work?

I would love to work as a freelance concept artist or an illustrator. Creating and interpreting things is what attracts me to drawing, so that could be a nice way to live. However, I don’t want to make any definite plans. Two years ago I would not have imagined myself where I am now, so I guess there’s no way to tell what the future will bring. I would like to create a book for artists about dragon anatomy, stylized for a real anatomy book. I’d like to write and draw comics. I’d like to create a browser game about animals. I’d like to create something that people will draw fan art for… But these are only vague projects. Time will tell!

 I like creating new beasts here a dragriffin
"I like creating new beasts, here a 'dragriffin'."

What words of advice do you have for emerging illustrators or artists who wish to engage in design as you have?

There is this quote I heard some time ago, and I think it’s very true: “Find your passion, become very good at it, and finally someone will pay you to do it." Today we’re not limited by the region we were born in. If your country doesn’t have art schools, take courses online; if there’s no art industry where you live, work as a freelancer for companies abroad. Don’t get discouraged—if you’re sure that art is what you want to do in life, focus on it, and give it all your heart. It will pay off one day!

Illustration for tutorial Design a Model Sheet of a Werewolf Warrior
Design a Model Sheet of a Werewolf Warrior Tutorial

Many thanks to Monika for taking the time to chat about her artwork, process, and experiences thus far as a working artist. For more of Monika's work, you can check out some of the links below as well as her tutorials here on Tuts+.

Bonus Kinzie
Bonus Kinzie! "Aren't you supposed to work?"
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