In Conversation With Duda Oliva
last updated 07 December 2023
Interview by Rachel Moffat
We recently sat down with Duda Oliva, a Latin-American illustrator from Brazil. Read our conversation below.
Duda Oliva is deeply inspired by magical realism and the visual imagery from South and Central America. His work emphasises contemporary themes - like nature, climate, racial and social issues - through emotional and often fantastical pieces, working mainly on traditional techniques like gouache, soft pastels, charcoal, and colour pencils on creating visual narratives and stories that hope to empower, comfort and surprise people.
Here’s what Duda’s Agent Susan Penny had to say about working so closely with him:
“Duda and I first connected at the book fair in Bologna — on the floor of the crowded Illustrator’s Survival Corner - for an impromptu portfolio review. I was immediately captured by the rich warmth of his scenes and the influence of impressionism in his work. Working with him since then on pitches and live projects has been a joy and I’m certain his curiosity and commitment to his craft will lead to an exceptional picture book career.”
What are your first memories of art?
I remember visiting the zoo with my family once when I was very very little, and I was absolutely amazed with all the animals I met there! When I got home, I was so excited with everything I’d seen that I dismantled some packages, took some crayons, and started drawing lions, giraffes, elephants, and monkeys all over the place. In the following years, I became a huge fan of The Lion King. Animals and nature have been a favourite theme of mine throughout my childhood.
What brought you too Bright?
I discovered Bright by following one of my favourite artists - Yas Imamura. At first sight I was amazed by the art community brought together by the Agency. I’ve come to love and be inspired by so many more artists since then! It’s just marvellous how Bright artists emphasise storytelling and characters in their work, and how the Agency hosts a huge diversity of artistic styles, from flat and vector art to painted and textured pieces. It’s an environment that both supports your artistic voice while also inspiring further development of your craft and it’s been a pleasure and an adventure being here.
Illustrations by Yas Imamura
Where are you from and how does that affect your work?
I’m from Brazil and in recent years I started learning and exploring more from Latin American culture, imagery and storytelling. I’m deeply inspired by environmental themes and literature from there, so my personal work often references people, fauna, flora and sustainability.
How do you translate your ideas to the page?
It all starts with a small idea that pops up from something I’ve seen, heard, read or felt. Most of the time a lot of visual alternatives come to mind even before any first sketches. While these ideas exist only in my imagination, I try to filter which alternatives are actually feasible (in terms of deadline, scope, materials, dimensions) and which one of them better relates to that first idea or inspiration I’ve received: does it enhance, reimagine, subvert or expand the initial concept? What and how do I expect to learn from this piece? Am I telling a story and/or sharing a message with it?
What is your favourite part of the illustration process?
That’s a very hard choice! I feel each stage has its merits and which part is my favourite depends heavily on the piece. I’m still developing a process I’m completely comfortable with, but currently I work in four phases: Sketching, Experimentation, Painting and Refinement.
Sketching: After I’ve played a little with the concept in my head (or written down some initial roughs on my notebook). I start to make some loose sketches to feel what the project can be, usually working with charcoal or ProCreate. I always make several options for each image I’m working on, giving us plenty of options to find our story.
Experimentation: Once we decide which way (or ways) to go, I bring in colours, textures, and design. That’s where I’ll try colour palettes, define characters, set mood, plan the perspective and environment, and decide techniques and materials to use in the final piece. In case I’ve got a longer deadline and plenty of time to work on a single project I really like taking this step to study something I’ve been wanting to learn. For example: If I want to improve my character design skills, I’ll take some time to study artbooks from animation movies I love; if I’d like to improve my gesture or anatomy skills, I’ll take some time to make live drawings.
Painting: That’s when I transfer the final concept to the canvas and paint my first layers of colour. I use different mediums in a very loose way, just defining the main areas of colour, light and shadow. Since my drawings are very planned, I feel the need to have a phase where I can work more freely (and even have some small ‘accidents’), while still having some kind of guide for where I’m going to.
Refinement: After the experimentation phase I start refining the piece. I also review or change anything we need and start working on small details and adjustments. Once here I prefer working only on techniques I’m more comfortable with, like soft pastels or Gouache (or Illustrator and Procreate for digital works). I’ll keep on rendering my images until everyone is satisfied and we feel that our story is ready to go!
How do you develop your art skills?
I try to learn something with every project, and when I’ve got longer deadlines I try to set specific times to study something inspired by the current project. I feel studying art fundamentals can sometimes be very boring, so linking them with a project makes them fun! Aside from that, I’m always enrolling in workshops and art courses, meeting new artists and going out to draw with my friends in parks, cafes and museums.
Your work is so full of vivid colours, what does colour mean to you and how do you use it to convey different emotions?
I feel colours are some of the strongest tools we have to create mood and set an atmosphere. For a long time, people told me my illustrations felt “warm” and I believe a lot of that comes from my colour palletes (yellows, reds, browns and greens). Today I’m starting to play with a more diversified colour pallette, in search of other emotions and stories waiting to be told! I think colours are paramount to how people feel about the world.
What is an average day in the studio like for you at the moment?
I’m an early bird, so I prefer taking more creative tasks in the morning, around 7AM . I usually start from something I’ve left open the day before and work on it until lunch. I really like having my Sketching and Experimentation phase at this moment, having no distractions to deal with and only a cup of tea nearby. At 1PM I’ll have lunch and check my emails. I’ll also plan what I’ll do for the afternoon (keep working on what’s I’ve been working or something else). I’ll then procced to the Painting and Refinement phases until the sun sets. Around 6PM I’ll have another cup of tea and prepare where I’ll continue to work the next day. Around 7PM I’ll update my agent and clients about current projects and have a last look at my emails, messages, and social media before turning it all off.
What has been your favourite piece of art you’ve ever created, what inspired it and why do you love it so much?
That’s a tricky question! There are different things I admire in each piece I think… currently I’m very proud of pictures I feel I developed something new. These are not necessarily my best pieces, but they are the pieces from which I learnt more from. My paintings for The Button Tree and my last seaside scene are very dear to me since they taught me how to balance my planned approach with something looser.
Who/What have been your key influences?
I’m deeply interested in art history, especially by movements from 19th and 20th century like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Realism and the Ashcan School. I’m inspired by the works of Edgar Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Burrows, Hopper and Gauguin and deeply love the books and stories by Shaun Tan, Manuel Marsol, Isabelle Arsenault and Beatrice Alemagna. I plan on dedicating more time to study storytelling next year, so I’ll be diving deeper on these picture book makers work soon!
What was it like seeing your work out in the world for the first time?
I need to confess it felt really strange! I felt happy but also very anxious about what people would think about it. I have a bad tendency to overthink and diminish my work while comparing myself to others, so I’m still trying to find a balance on that matter. I feel I could have dealt with my first book very differently, with less pressure and celebrating what I’ve accomplished.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
Find out what you want to talk about and be true to what moves and touches you. I feel a lot of us artists struggle a lot trying to find our “style”, when instead we should be looking for our “voice”. For me a voice is not defined by which technique you use or how you draw hands, but by what themes inspire you and how you personally feel and read the world around you. I truly believe this is the true signature of an artist, it’s what distinguishes their work in whatever way they express themselves, on whatever technique or medium they intend to use.
Do you have any ‘dream projects’ that you’d like to work on someday?
I’d love to work on projects that connects readers to the planet we live in, that engage people on observing, protecting, and understanding their environment, that makes people see nature - and Earth - in a new light. I’d love to create things that inspire people to go out, to meet others and to develop new relationships with what (and who) is around them.
Explore more of Duda’s work in his portfolio here.
To work with Duda, get in contact here.