January 16, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #275: David Dolenský

We're back with our first interview of the year, a conversation with Czech tattoo artist, graphic designer, and illustrator of Tibbles the Cat David Dolenský. Written by Michal Šanda, Tibbles the Cat is a story as unique and fascinating as its illustrator, and I hope you enjoy a peek behind the curtain when it comes to how David created the illustrations. Happy New Year!

About the book:
When a curious cat named Tibbles and her owner move across the world from England to a new home on a small island off the coast of New Zealand in 1894, everything seems idyllic at first. Then things go horribly wrong. In this charming little story, the oblivious, amusing hero, Tibbles, discovers a rare species of flightless bird that had never previously been described - the Stephens Island wren. Unfortunately, Tibbles also becomes the cause of the bird's extinction by preying on them.

Check out the endpapers:

Let's talk David Dolenský!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Tibbles the Cat? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Michal Šanda’s text?

DD: I already worked for Meander publishing house on another project before and when they shared the story of Tibbles the Cat with me, I immediately felt a strong connection to the project. Throughout my childhood, my fascination with nature was evident—I often borrowed glass jars from my mother to collect insects, constructing miniature terrariums. This allowed me to feel like a true biologist, meticulously labeling each jar with the species' names. My love for old fashioned equipment and bird atlases with hand drawn pictures easily brings me to the imagery of Victorian gentlemen exploring small island and discovering new bird species.

Moreover, my affection for cats heightened my anticipation to bring Tibbles' character to life.

LTPB: This story is based on real life! What kind of research did you do on Tibbles and her journey for this book? Were you already familiar with Tibble’s story? What did you find most surprising?

DD: I didn't know much about Tibbles before researching for this book. But even when I came across various articles about Tibbles I stayed primarily focused on Michal Šanda's original text for the story's essence. Prior to this project, I did my research centered on specific visual elements, such as the attire for the characters, the appearance of the ships, the depiction of the lighthouse on Stephens Island etc. As an illustrator, I find it important to conduct this kind of research beforehand by creating mood boards, especially when you are depicting different times.

Regarding the storyline, I didn't find anything particularly surprising. Cats, being natural predators, exhibit these instincts, even in urban settings where street cats fulfill their predatory roles. What did surprise me was discovering article on the internet, saying it wasn't just about one cat hunting birds but whole cat generation.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

DD: The most challenging aspect of creating this book was its format. I was approached to produce a comic book, a style I hadn't fully immersed myself in previously. While I had some experience with comics in the past, my preference leaned towards picture books with less emphasis on sequential storytelling and fewer repeating images. Consequently, this project deviated from the typical comic style. However, I'm genuinely pleased with the outcome. Breaking some pages into smaller, interconnected images complemented the overall page illustrations, ensuring that readers remained engaged without feeling overwhelmed by layout repetition.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

DD: For the illustrations in this book, I relied on soft pencils for sketching and outlining. Pencil remains my preferred tool as it feels most natural to me. Although I experimented with digital methods using an iPad, I always found myself coming back to the traditional pencil and paper. There's a certain organic quality to working on paper; it offers surface resistance that I feel contributes to imparting a more significant character to my illustrations. Each drawing was scanned and slightly edited before being colored digitally on the computer.

I'm always on the lookout for new techniques to entertain myself for my work. However, pencils and paper remains my comfort zone, and I find solace and satisfaction in this approach.

I also have a favorite mechanical pencil that allows for interchangeable graphite sticks—an old Czechoslovakian production. It's become a bit of a fascination for me, as I seek and purchase these from antique stores. I once compared these vintage pencils with newer productions to a colleague and he didn't see any difference between them. It's maybe just my weird obsession of getting these tools.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

DD: A few years ago, I created a book featuring a character named Rufus going on wild camping adventure in nature. Presently, I've been creating a second book involving this guy. In this new story, Rufus explores not just forests but also rivers and becomes a fisherman. The book has just been released. 

Additionally, tattooing has become a passion for me lately, occupying a majority of my time. Tattooing and illustrating books have a symbiotic relationship, mutually benefiting and influencing each other. I believe it is also visible in Tibbles little bit.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

DD: If given the opportunity to create my own picture book autobiography, I would prefer to collaborate with some of my talented friends. There's a unique authenticity when you illustrate experiences you've lived through, and I'm fortunate to have many gifted friends, from my school days and beyond. While having my book illustrated by some of my all-time favorite illustrators would be fantastic, having my friends contribute would hold a much deeper significance for me. And I'm certain they would enjoy incorporating plenty of hidden inside jokes and memories.

A million thanks to David for taking time to answer questions about this fantastic book! Tibbles the Cat published last December from Albatros Media!

Special thanks to David and Albatros for use of these images!

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