If you’ve come across Olimpia Zagnoli’s artwork, it’s undoubtedly left a delightful impression.
Her illustrations show her mastery of colors, shapes, and subtle observations of the world around her. They allude the curious, artistic, and insightful person behind the screen, using inventive ways to share her creative perspective.
Olimpia Zagnoli’s fascination with art dates back to kindergarten. She grew up in a town about two hours outside of Milan, and from a young age, attended schools that fostered a more tactile, curious approach to learning and art. This approach became the springboard for Olimpia’s career, which started in school, blossomed into commercial work in the United States, and is nurtured now in her hometown of Milan.
We caught up with Olimpia to discuss her creative upbringing, her most rewarding work, and the story behind her Moleskine Studio Notebook.
Where are you from? How did you get started in your field?
I was born in Reggio Emilia, a city not too far from Milan, about 2 hours away. We moved to Milan because my dad is a photographer, and he mostly worked there. I attended classical high school here – we call it liceo classico – where I studied History, Greek, Latin, Philosophy.
Afterwards, I attended art school in Milan, where I applied to a 3 year illustration course. I didn’t really know what illustration was, but I knew it had to do with drawing. Drawing was just so much of my existence to date. I used to draw when I was a kid, and then when I was an angry teenager. It was a way to escape. So it seemed like the most logical choice was to keep doing that.
After those 3 years, which weren’t that exciting to be honest, I really felt like I needed to go away and explore life on my own. I wanted a chance to work outside of a school environment, and see the world for myself, and to see if my work would interest anybody, if I was able to provide some visual commentary on the world. I went to New York, where I stayed for a few months. Coming from Italy, I knew the big names (The New Yorker, The New York Times), so I just went straight to those names, and unexpectedly was received by them for appointments, and that led to my first assignments. I’d worked in Italy a little bit before, but New York really gave me more exposure.
When was the first time you remember feeling inspired by art?
I attended this public kindergarten, with a teaching method called the Reggio Emilia approach that was created in my hometown after World War II. It’s like a Montessori, but not private, so you get all kinds of kids. The program is very focused on letting the kids explore their 5 senses, so you go to cooking classes, you visit farms. At the time, this was very experimental. There was a person called the atelierist who was in charge of the art. They would introduce kids to techniques, experiments, collage, painting, weaving, all sorts of things. So I had this chance to experiment with a lot of different techniques and touch new materials that I never would have had access to.
The process isn’t designed to make kids feel like they have to make a copy of Matisse’s work, for example. Rather, it’s designed to make you learn Matisse’s method without even quoting his name, so you don’t distinguish between genius and normal people. It’s getting in touch with the way he dealt with light and with colors, and inspiring kids to do the same. I don’t think I recognized it as a specific artist or artwork, but the first time I came in contact with the power of art was in kindergarten.
Imagine you could time travel and give yourself one piece of advice when you were just starting out. What would you say?
Now more than ever, especially with the exposure that we have through social media, it’s very important to have a vision and be protective of that vision, and to try not to follow only what feels glamorous or fashionable in the moment.
If you choose to do this job or follow this passion, there’s a reason why you’re doing it. And it’s very important to stick to this reason or fire you find, and that you feel inside of you. Sometimes things can get distracting especially when you start working; the more you get swept away by emails and clients and all those things you have to follow for one reason or another. In this environment, it’s very important to be honest with what you do. Protect your fire.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I don’t remember who said it or where I read it, or I don’t remember if it was said to me directly or I caught it somewhere. But I remember hearing this sentence: remember that your life is yours. Meaning that you are in charge of where you want to take it, what your choices are. It’s very simple, and not particularly enlighted, but remembering that our lives are ours. In artistic terms, that’s knowing that we have the power to direct it wherever we want, or we can die trying. Your art and your talent is not exclusively for others and doesn’t have to impress others, it has to grow in a very organic way.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Museums. What I try to remember and remind myself is it doesn’t have to be The Met or MoMA or the National Gallery, it can be the smallest museum in the lousiest city on the planet, but there’s always design behind it, or at least one item that’s interesting. Museums are such great places for so many reasons, but one of them is time. When you enter a museum, time stops. You can be in it for 3 or 4 hours, or 20 minutes, it doesn’t really matter. I think silence and time being surrounded by good things seems like such a good idea it’s almost stupid, but we really lack this combination of elements in our day-to-day lives. I think that’s why everyone was so excited about making bread during lockdown because it requires time, space, and good things, or rather, good ingredients. So you know it’s going to be interesting.
What do you do to work through a creative block?
In general, I try to step away from the work. I take days off or go for a walk if I don’t have a lot of time. I like to be surrounded by different forms of art, not only visual art. I read a couple of pages from a book or listen to a record. It’s very important to detach yourself, at least for me working visually. It can be overwhelming sometimes. Let another part of your brain work, and let it inspire you from a different angle.
What are your favorite tools?
I work mostly digitally for my professional work. I use Adobe Illustrator, and I like to sketch in my sketchbook before I go digital. And I use my sketchbook for a lot of other things when I’m thinking and brainstorming. Occasionally I use an iPad for sketching.
Walk us through the process of creating your Moleskine Studio Notebook.
The idea was to use the entire cover and leave a black frame around it. I wanted the colors to match with the frame, and to have something that was bi-dimensional. I ended up experimenting with a lot of different things. I decided to cut my illustration into stripes. Sometimes I do this very manually as I work. I print an illustration and cut it with scissors, and make stripes out of it, reassemble it, and give it a sort of movement. Even if the end result is a flat illustration, it’s a way to keep it dynamic. The idea here was to find a very simple subject, a profile of a person. Not a woman, not a man, just a person, and to give it life through colors, movement, through those broken stripes.
The idea also is also about the personality of this person. It’s made of several pieces; we’re very fragmented. Sometimes our sketchbooks reflect that fragmented reality. And if you go through my sketchbook, you’ll see notes, bills that I have to pay, nicely done drawings and terribly sketched drawings, tickets, stickers, receipts. It’s a trip into someone’s mind. It’s you, but you contain multitudes, as Bob Dylan said.
What are you using your Moleskine Studio Notebook for today?
It’s very important for me to have a place where I can write or sketch if I need to. I’ll draw things I see in front of me when I’m waiting for a cab or write down an idea for a thing. I use it as a way to make plans, remember things I want to check out or people I need to call. It’s actually so important for me to have it, not just for organization, but as an outlet for my thoughts. I feel like I physically need it, like it’s an assistant or a friend that you could ask questions to.
What has been your most rewarding moment as a designer?
The times I’ve worked with organizations where I could not only create artwork, but also be in touch with people, are the most rewarding ones for me. I work alone most of the time from my studio. The idea that one drawing can interact with people – kids in Cambodia or the commuters on the subway in New York, or a hospital for mothers and kids in Italy. It helps me see why I do this work.
Illustration has great potential because it doesn’t need to be translated, and it speaks directly to people. It can be used for information design and just to instill joy and inspiration. It’s not the most important thing, but at the same time I think people need to be surrounded by beauty, by color, by nicely designed shapes.
You play with shapes in such a delightful and thoughtful way. I’m curious if as you’re out in the world, are you constantly observing the shape of objects/things?
I’m a very curious person. I like to spend time watching things. I’m usually always too much for my friends and my boyfriend. I’m constantly pointing and directing their attention towards something. I like to watch street signs and the architecture around me, windows, plants, small details that surround me. And sometimes I take notes of them mentally, sometimes I take pictures or bring a sketchbook with me and take notes. They never translate directly to what I do. I never walk around and see an art deco detail and it goes directly in my work, but maybe 5-6 years later, that element might come back to me. In a way, little by little, every day I’m building a portfolio of things that get in my brain and then I pull them out, and make different shapes originally inspired by them.
Why did you decide to work on this project with Moleskine?
I’ve always used their notebooks and sketchbooks. I felt cool having one in my pocket, but I could never get to the end of it. Every time I bought one, I would go through 10, 20, 30 pages and then leave it. I think that really reflects my teenage years. I felt like I had to escape from one place to another, and never commit. But when I started working professionally, I started using them because I just like the feel of the paper and the way they collect and protect my work, and now I easily fill them in one or two months.
Can you provide a creative prompt to our audience? What’s one thing you’d like to see them use their Moleskine Studio Notebooks for?
Don’t feel afraid of destroying it in one way or the other. Sometimes the container influences the contents, and so most of the time, we feel constrained by the situation we are in, the place we’re in, the clothes we’re in. When you open a sketchbook for the first time, it’s scary and at some point you have to make the first trace. I would encourage you to make many first lines, make many first moments in which you break the page with what you have to write, to draw, what you have to say. Know that it’s not dangerous, you can jump in and try, and there’s never a good or bad page, and there’s always another page after that. It doesn’t have to look perfect. It’s actually quite opposite.
You can find more of Olimpia’s work on her website and Instagram, and her Moleskine Studio Notebook is available here. Take her Skillshare class, “Graphic Illustration: Boldly Design with Color and Shape” here.