Digital Designs: The Drawings of Alenka Sottler

*click each image to view full size

The winners of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award were announced yesterday, and I must say that I was very pleased with the results. Nahoko Uehashi of Japan won the writing award, while Roger Mello of Brazil took the medal for illustration. Incidentally, Mello was among my top favorites, and I saved his illustrations for last! So, look for those in the next week or so in an especially in-depth post.

But, because I got behind on my (very loose) schedule, I still have one additional illustrator to feature: the amazing Alenka Sottler, whose “drawings” (I have no idea how she makes them) are unlike any I have ever seen.

Tri Pesnitve ("Three Poems")
Tri Pesnitve (“Three Poems”)

It’s as though she wanted to transform impressionistic paintbrush dots into a digital format – her drawings are visibly pixelated, but that is precisely what makes them beautiful and unique. Consider the incredible detail and layered colors in the image from “Three Poems,” above. Sottler’s is a precise technique; even her softer drawings look slightly computerized. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Some people are of the opinion that so-called “natural” and “original” artistic techniques are inherently more valuable or truthful, that the apex of artistic production is paint and a paintbrush, or clay and a potter’s wheel. I’m not arguing that any artistic technique has any more inherent value than another, but it’s wonderful to see someone incorporate the pixelated aesthetic of the 21st century into their artwork in such a beautiful and creative way.

Sottler has said of her work:
“Essential for my creative process is the ability to use extreme simplification, which opens up surprising worlds and a space for creative play…I produce seemingly extremely complex visual forms in an astoundingly simple manner. In my drawings I behave like someone who partakes in nature’s processes. I find an interesting abstract structure. I grasp its visual essence and its hidden logic. I add to it with its own laws of growth.”

Cesar in roza, image 1
from Cesar in roža (“The Emperor and the Rose”)

Here’s an example of one of those quintessentially digital drawings. Have you ever seen such a striated rose before? Or, for that matter, a rose that blends so well with a cell phone? Sottler’s work vaguely reminds me of Andy Warhol’s; there’s a pop art element to it, a brashness of form and color.

Sottler herself stumbled across this post, and was amused by the attempts Shelley and I made to figure out how, and why, she had composed her illustrations in the way that she did. The comment she left was fascinating:

The Emperor and the Rose…is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language. It tells about the court and love troubles of princesses and kings. The troubles among kings and princesses are quite reminiscent of themes from contemporary medical novels. This is the reason why I set the illustrations into contemporary consumerist society and imitated the digital images from selling catalogues. At the same time, I wanted to express the woman’s inner world and her married life by alluding to the old-fashioned technique of knitting and homemade fabric textiles typical of households of married couples. Consequently, I made illustrations on cotton cloth with tartan pattern used in the sixties by Slovenian housewives for making bed linens. This cloth pattern is very similar to knitting. In addition, digital images of our time are ‘cubic’ as well. There is, of course, a certain degree of parody and humour in this…

You can read the rest of the conversation in the comments section below — and perhaps get a little starstruck, like I was! Suffice it to say that Sottler’s technique and nuanced sociohistorical perspective make her unique in the world of children’s literature.

Sottler’s work is all the more intriguing because her illustrations have an undeniably dark undercurrent. Here is Sottler’s take on the classic fairy tale “Cinderella”:

Pepelka, cover

The original “Cinderella” isn’t an entirely happy story, and Sottler’s illustrations are much more genuine than Disney’s watercolor-Barbie version. Here, Cinderella looks wooden, with downcast eyes; her dependence on birds and other animals for companionship, emphasized. This somber tone pervades Sottler’s illustrations in the anthology “Folk Tales from Around the World.”

Svetovne Pravljice ("Folk Tales from Around the World")
Svetovne Pravljice (“Folk Tales from Around the World”)

This book probably weighs 3 pounds – you can see that I had trouble getting it to lay flat so that I could scan it properly. But I was determined to do so, mostly because of the following image…

from "Folk Tales from Around the World"
from “Folk Tales from Around the World”

Presumably this is a particularly horrifying recounting of “The Little Red Riding Hood,” though I don’t remember the girl in that tale ever stumbling upon a seance in the woods. I wish I had specifics, but the text was all in Slovenian, and unfortunately not a single one of Sottler’s books has been translated into English as far as I know! As usual, it’s a shame, but not entirely surprising, given the gloomy undertones of her work. Don’t you know that in the United States, ALL of the children must be happy ALL of the time, and simply can’t bear to read anything bordering on pessimistic?

from Tri Pesnitve ("Three Poems")
from Tri Pesnitve (“Three Poems”)

Another thing I love about Sottler’s illustrations is that you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at. There’s always another layer to examine, another spiral or lattice to analyze, another element to fit into the story–like the newsprint in the top right corner of this image from “Three Poems,” and the birds that flutter across the shadowy boundary into the white margin. It’s what I imagine the binary code would look like if it were capable of spontaneously transforming itself into images.

I will admit that my infatuation with Sottler’s images started with her first name. “Alenka” is rather similar to “Alina,” isn’t it? And so I was pleased, in a very narcissistic way, that her drawings were outstanding even among the many, many wonderful books that arrived as part of the massive Hans Christian Andersen Award shipment. And so I have saved my favorite illustration for last…

Cesar in roza, image 2
from Cesar in roža

I haven’t provided many biographical details, but Sottler is so well-known in her native Slovenia, and has won so many prizes, that it’s quite easy to simply Google her name and find information about her. But, if you are curious,

  • you can visit her stunning website here,
  • explore a randomized index of her drawings here,
  • read the brief interview with Sottler that I quoted above, and
  • read the biographical sketch of Sottler that was published in the latest issue of Bookbird.

In addition, the Chicago-area independent bookstore Bookends and Beginnings has a small selection of Alenka Sottler’s work available for purchase, including Cesar in roža. More information on their Facebook page.

As I said, I still have one last illustrator to feature: the Hans Christian Andersen Award winner himself, Roger Mello! Check back soon for more astounding illustrations.

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16 thoughts on “Digital Designs: The Drawings of Alenka Sottler

  1. It’s interesting that you mention the 21st century digital element, which I can definitely see, but I also see something very traditional in her illustrations – have you ever seen those wheels, where “drawings” were sewn into the fabric with different coloured threads? The cat and the rose image in particular reminded me of this aesthetic. What do you think?

    1. I’m not entirely sure what you mean, but you are definitely right that they have a “knitted” look to them! Hadn’t thought of that! Makes them all the more fascinating. I also think her illustrations are traditional in the sense that they are clearly very Eastern European. I’m drawn to the artistic Eastern European aesthetic, apparently!

      1. Dear Alina!
        First and foremost, I would like to thank you for your interesting comment on illustrators and my work. I read your text and Shelly’s comment already a while ago and I wanted to add a note but it wasn’t until now that I found the time to send you a few words regarding the ‘digital illustration’ in my book The Emperor and the Rose. It took me by surprise that you and Shelly correctly interpreted both images (the digital and the knitting one) without knowing the text. The text is interpreted by these ‘digital’ illustrations created by a special technique of mine. It is worth mentioning, however, that the interaction between an illustration and a text doesn’t take place until we actually see the illustration and read the text – this is the way through which the interplay between the text and the illustration is revealed. The same holds true for my book – The Emperor and the Rose. It is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language. It tells about the court and love troubles of princesses and kings. The troubles among kings and princesses are quite reminiscent of themes from contemporary medical novels. This is the reason why I set the illustrations into contemporary consumerist society and imitated the digital images from selling catalogues. At the same time, I wanted to express the woman’s inner world and her married life by alluding to the old-fashioned technique of knitting and homemade fabric textiles typical of households of married couples. Consequently, I made illustrations on cotton cloth with tartan pattern used in the sixties by Slovenian housewives for making bed linens. This cloth pattern is very similar to knitting. In addition, digital images of our time are ‘cubic’ as well. There is, of course, a certain degree of parody and humour in this…
        Oh, by the way, the cat that you like so much is a magic animal in the book. He helps a prince to win a princess.
        If you would want to have a print of this illustration I would gladly send you one, just let me know the address.
        Kind regards from your almost a namesake,
        Alenka Sottler

        1. Dear Alenka,
          My goodness, I almost don’t know what to say! I must to admit that I’m a little bit starstruck! I am so very pleased that you stumbled across my little blog and, furthermore, that you were happy with what I had to say about your illustrations — especially since, as you pointed out, I was unfortunately unable to read the accompanying text. You are, of course, completely right that one cannot fully understand illustrations OR text if you consider them separately, especially when they are designed to be analyzed in unison as they are in picture books. The university where I work does not even offer classes in Slovene; the closest language is Czech. For that reason, the explanation you provided for your illustration technique, as well as the stylistic and sociohistorical motivation for your work, is especially precious. I am going to update this post to include some of the fascinating insights you have shared with me here.
          I would be honored to have a print of the cat illustration. I am very fond of cats, especially magic ones. I will send you an email with my address details.
          With many, many warm wishes and much admiration,
          Alina

    1. Oh, a trip to Japan! How wonderful! I visited Tokyo over Christmas break when I was very young and loved it. Have I mentioned that I lived in Okinawa for 3 years? Probably. But yes, I imagine that Uehashi’s work will be easier to find than ever!

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