In Conversation: Alena Sevastsyanava

“… when I saw the mountains for the first time… such a concentration of saturated colours: those alpine meadows with their variety of greens, bright wild flowers, graphite rocky peaks, cerulean blue glaciers.” Watercolourist Alena Sevastsyanava describes her medium to Libby O’Loghlin.

Welcome, Alena. Please tell us about where you’re from and when you first became interested in becoming an artist and illustrator.

I am a Zürich-based artist and illustrator, originally from Minsk, Belarus. I don’t think there was ever a single particular moment when I decided to become an artist. From an early age I felt compelled to create and have always enjoyed drawing and painting. I got my university degree in visual arts and worked as a graphic designer for different companies for about six years before I quit and made the switch to full-time freelancer back in 2011.

I fell in love with watercolour in 2014, and since then I’ve taken three different watercolour painting courses and visited a lot of workshops and masterclasses. I spend about 80% of my time on watercolour and 20% on graphic design; although I am planning to eventually stop doing graphics and focus on my career as an illustrator instead.

Watercolour painting has a special quality unlike any other. What is it you especially like about the medium?

Watercolour has a unique beauty that you can’t replicate with any other medium. For me it’s all about the transparency, the luminosity, the ease and the spontaneity. What fascinates me the most is that it’s not a medium to be totally controlled—sometimes you just need to make a brushstroke and then watch the magic happen.

Image courtesy Alena Sevastsyanava

What are your favourite subjects to paint, and why?

I mostly paint nature, landscapes, water and flowers, but to be honest I love painting anything I am given the opportunity to paint. Nature is a constant source of inspiration for my work. When I paint scenery, the most important thing is to feel the moment, the surrounding atmosphere, the air and the light—all these things bring the work to life. I always try to ask myself: What do I see that I love about this scene? Do I love the light, the colours, the reflections, the shadows? It is very important for me to connect emotionally with the subject, to find the inspiration in it.

Some might argue that the creative process when making ‘art for art’s sake’ is a different process than creating graphics to fit a client’s brief, for example. Would you agree? In what ways do they differ (or not)?

To be honest, I am the kind of person who doesn’t believe in ‘art for art’s sake’. Well, at least not in the context of illustration. If you truly love what you do, even when you work on a project for a client, you’ll always find a way to express yourself and stay true to your own style. The only difference that I see here is that you also have to meet the deadline!

Image courtesy Alena Sevastsyanava

With your artist’s lens, what did you notice when you first saw Switzerland, as compared with your home country?

I can’t say that I’ve noticed a huge difference in terms of light and colour when I first landed in Zürich. But I do vividly remember the moment when I saw the mountains for the first time. There was such a concentration of saturated colours: those alpine meadows with their variety of greens, bright wild flowers, graphite rocky peaks, cerulean blue glaciers.

Which artists or teachers have influenced your work over the years?

Back in 2014 a friend of mine gave me a Natalie Ratkovski book for my birthday. Natalie Ratkovski is an artist, illustrator and author, her book Draw every day: A year with an artist is about daily drawing and what effect it has on one as an artist. I decided to try and sketch every day for one month due to that book and chose watercolour as my medium because it’s portable and easy to clean. Then it all started, I fell in love.

I had a lot of amazing teachers on my way to becoming an artist, but I especially want to mention Sergey Kurbatov. His unique style, incredible use of colour, teaching approach and great sense of humour gave me a lot in terms of understanding watercolour.

Two other artists who have always been a massive inspiration for me are Joseph Zbukvic and Alvaro Castagnet. I can admire a single piece of their work for hours.

How do you approach the blank page? Do you usually have an idea of how the image will look before you start? Or do you let things evolve?

Once an idea is formed, I play around with composition. Most of the time I start with a quick thumbnail sketch, then work on a colour scheme. Usually this is the most difficult part, to understand how a particular colour will look in the shade or in the light. This process of preparation sometimes may last longer than completing the actual work on canvas. It may seem boring, but I find this process very important, and as I said before there is always place for many spontaneous moments when you work with watercolour. Watercolour works best when it is allowed to flow freely and sometimes it does something very different than you expected. I love this unpredictability.

Image courtesy Alena Sevastsyanava

What projects are you currently working on?

Currently I am working on commission paintings and also collaborating with a friend, who is an aspiring author, to create illustrations for her future children’s book. My big dream is to illustrate books so I hope this can lay the foundation for the future! Being new to Switzerland, I think it is difficult to find a point of entry into a career so I’m always in search of interesting collaborations and opportunities.

Besides all that, my friend (who is also a talented calligrapher) and I decided to combine our passions and created a project called Wink (Watercolour+Ink). We offer personalised design for wedding invitations and other special celebrations.

And finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction (book or film) and why?

In my personal hierarchy of books Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita ranks first. It’s beautifully written, it’s bizarre and hilarious, and still it raises very serious topics. The characters absolutely amaze me. A masterpiece. Cannot recommend enough.

See the full Gallery of Alena’s work here.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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