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TNC Classic 2018

Anna & Elena Balbusso

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

All Illustration ©2018 Anna and Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for the first time was an experience, to say the least. The majesty of this book is stunningly complemented by Anna & Elena Balbusso's breathtaking illustrations that capture the reader in such a powerful and, I dare say, mesmerizing way. You can read the full review here.


Hi Anna & Elena, thanks for talking to TNC. Do you get nerves ahead of a project being released?


We always wait for the release of our new project with great curiosity and excitement. We are calm because we know that we have given our best, we believe that we can always improve but we work with a lot of passion, commitment following our personal research without being conditioned by the trendy illustration style of the moment. We are interested in high quality, we try to propose an artistic interpretation addressed to a non-mass transversal audience. For almost twenty years we have been following this personal path and we are always moving forward. For Atlas Shrugged, obviously, we hope that our work is appreciated by readers but we also know that it is a very polarizing novel so the challenge is difficult. 


What was it about Atlas Shrugged that interested you so much?


When The Folio Society proposed we illustrate Atlas Shrugged, we did not know the novel. In Italy, Atlas Shrugged and the political theories and philosophy of Ayn Rand are not well-known or popular. Before accepting the assignment, we did research on the internet, we read many articles of literary and political criticism to understand the context, the setting, the meaning. The philosophical aspect has not scared us, philosophy is a long-standing passion, we studied history of philosophy at university. 


To understand the author, we needed an idea of the context in which the book was written.  Before reading the novel, we immediately understood that, beyond the plot and controversial ideas of the author, the subject allowed us to create images inspired by our favourite artistic references, the Bauhaus, Russian constructivism, Italian Futurism. We have always been fascinated by the beauty of the factories, engines, gears, the architecture of the city, bridges, electric pylons, trains and locomotives. We have dealt with the text with great freedom and with a detachment from the controversy and debate. Since illustrating The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Folio edition 2012), we have been looking for a more contemporary project in order to create synthetic, graphic images, inspired by the black and white Hollywood cinema. We thank The Folio Society very much for this great opportunity!


What was the inspiration behind your illustrations for Atlas Shrugged?


We chose an aesthetic close to the Hollywood movie of the 30s and 40s. We were inspired by Fritz Lang and King Vidor. The photography of The Fountainhead (1949) film (an adaptation of another novel written by Ayn Rand) is characterized by strong and clear lights and shadows, from scenes with interiors with large windows and minimalist design furniture, a mix of rationalist and futuristic settings. The beautiful face and elegance of the lead actress, Patricia Neal, was a perfect inspiration for our Dagny Taggart. In all our work there is a clear reference to artists and paintings. Bauhaus art, Russian constructivism, Italian Futurism have been our art references for this complex project. Before starting an assignment, it is very important to do the research and create an archive of sources. We collect all of the references for each illustration; these can be artists/art, sketches, photographs of people, movies. Only after the documentation stage do we start working on the project.  

Atlas Shrugged Vol 1 vase.jpg
©2018 Anna and Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Can you talk me through your creative process for this project?


We started by reading the complete book, this step alone required over a month of daily reading to underline, the sentences, the thoughts of the author, to take notes on the characters, environments and the most interesting situations from the visual point of view of the narration. It was important to create images to intrigue the reader by adding to the reading of the text. We have focused our personal interpretation on the female figure of the novel, Dagny Taggart, a young entrepreneur, vice president of a transcontinental railroad company founded by her father. She is a heroine, she constantly fights against many crises to keep her father's company alive.

As women, we think she is a fascinating female character because she is unconventional, she believes in the individual as a complete owner of their abilities and is against all forms of totalitarianism. After the research stage, we started making many digital layouts. When we found a compelling proposition, we started studying the individual elements of the image. We submitted to the client very detailed digital grey scale layouts. After approval, the last stage of the process is to make the final colour art. We love this step! We developed a personal style where traditional methods were combined with digital programs without virtual paint brushes. The colouring process with Photoshop is very complex and has been developed after many years of work experience. The final result is like a painting. Our final art is in digital format.  


Have you always had a passion for illustration?


Surely! We have been drawing since we were three years old. We were those children who could always be found sketching. Our passion for art was present from an early age, from elementary schools.  After secondary school, we chose to follow a path of artistic studies. We haven't attended a school of illustration. Illustration as a subject didn’t exist at the university level at that time. Our training is more structured. We have a high school diploma with a specialization in graphic design and photography. We also studied printmaking techniques such as etching, woodcut, engraving, screen-print and linocut. We specialised in painting and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan and for two years we continued our studies at the University of Milan in art history, modern literature, philosophy, history...    


How much has Italian art influenced your work?


We think Fine Art study has been vital in helping us in career choices. Both of us love all periods of art. In all our work there is a clear reference to painting, sculpture, architecture. Most projects require a strong knowledge of art history. Italian art plays a key role in our work, it has been natural to have the art of Renaissance as a reference because it is the basis of our culture and training, it is an important source of inspiration but not the only one. We do not work in a single style, each project is different and unique. The references always change. We do not look at a specific art period, but art in general, from Ancient Rome mural painting (frescoes at Pompeii), Italian Renaissance, Romanticism (prelude of modern art) Modern Art (symbolism, surrealism, Russian constructivism, Italian Futurism) and Contemporary Art. We can choose from several directions, it depends upon the project!      

Atlas Shrugged Vol 2 fire .jpg
©2018 Anna and Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Being twins does this make the collaborative process easier?


Yes of course! We think it is a great fortune to be professional twins. It's beautiful and natural as drinking a glass of water! There is no competition between us. There is a continuous interaction between us, at the end of the work the contribution is from both. We work together on all projects, even when we divide the tasks. There are no precise rules. There are many phases of a project and the work can easily be divided between them. The constant search for quality is our strong suit― we take into consideration even the smallest details. Our personalities complement each other. The comparison is key to improving. In all phases of the work, we consult between ourselves. The comments of one of us on the process work of the other one are fundamental to achieving the best result. If we disagree about something, we can discuss and mediate. At the end of each project, we must be agreed and convinced of what we did. 


How much has your process/style evolved since you started out?


Our style has developed gradually from our collaboration. It is a continuing investigation and naturally evolves. To improve, it is necessary to experiment and take risks. We do not have a preconceived idea of how we will evolve our work over the coming years but we know that will change! We keep informed on new trends and market tastes but we do not follow the fashions of the moment. If we think we need to make a change to improve our work we do it without fear. We prefer to be free to develop ideas. Each artist must find their own technique through continuous research and experimentation. We have developed our own style by mixing traditional media with digital. We use pen, pencil, acrylic, watercolours, gauche, Photoshop and Illustrator. We chose not to use the virtual paint brushes instead of relying on doing all our paintings by hand. We think the interpretation is more important than technique and special effects. It is important to study the history of art and to know the past as well as the present. It is also important to be careful in your choice of projects to keep the quality of your work growing.

"[Dagny Taggart​] is a heroine, she constantly fights against many crises to keep her father's company alive.

Do you have a favourite illustration you have worked on?


We do not have a favourite image in particular, in general, we prefer images where we have had maximum freedom of creation. The Folio Society allows us to develop a project knowing it will be reproduced to the highest quality. We always want to improve and give our best, so we always think about the next image we will make. What will be the next assignment? We love change and experimentation. We carefully select our projects. We only accept an assignment if it meets our conditions, if it is suited to our style and if there is enough time for us to give our best, otherwise we prefer not to take it on and continue with our personal projects. 


Has it gotten easier to let go of your work and hand it over to audiences?


Today it is much easier than at the beginning of our career to present our work to audiences because we use social media, but this additional work takes a lot of time and effort...


Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your work? 


It's important to excite curiosity, capture the reader-viewer, creating questions, strong feelings and emotions. Our goal is to create images that live without the text because they allow freedom of interpretation and imagination. We love images with strong ideas, synthesis, the strength of expression. We prefer to suggest, not to describe. It is necessary to be unpredictable, so personal research is important. It is not easy to get this, it's a challenge but we try!

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