Creativity Is the Freest Form of Self-Expression: An Interview with Illustrator Marianna Gefen

Illustration by Marianna Gefen

Marianna Gefen is a multi-dimensional artist and illustrator whose works employ different mediums such as watercolour, collage, ink, vintage paper, various textures and layers. Her subject matters range from psychology to fashion, and I find that her singular mixed media art subtly yet thoroughly captures the complexity of our present-day world in a celebration of beauty diversity and human form. But, even more importantly, her illustrations are charged with emotion and energy, with the craftsmanship promise of the classic and the intriguing appeal of the modern, and with that inherent quality of a timeless piece of art: it moves you without requiring or demanding an explanation.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Marianna Gefen is currently based in Berlin, having previously lived in Madrid and different cities of Germany, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Architectural Review, Felony & Mayhem Press and Psychologie Heute, among many others. In my interview with the illustrator, we are talking about the inspiration and process behind her art, how to foster creativity in children, about why new is not necessarily better and about the German silent cinema.


Illustration experiments by Marianna Gefen


”The fact that you can never fully
control the outcome inspires me a lot.”

What is your earliest drawing memory?

My earliest memory is my first “St. Petersburg White Nights” watercolor palette box, which I used as a child to replicate the old Masters’ works and paint fruit arrangements. In fact, I still have it around somewhere for old time’s sake.

Speaking of childhood drawing, what do you think is the biggest mistake parents are prone to making when it comes to the creativity of their children?

I think it’s important to stimulate creativity in children without pushing too much. Parents should present their children with a wide variety of choices, but in the end, it’s the kids who will decide what they want to do. This way they naturally explore what they are passionate about. Creativity is the freest form of self-expression.

Illustration in general is a beautiful art form that grabs the subject matter entirely differently than photography. Do you also see it as a much needed response to this age of overly digitized photography? And what qualities separate illustration from photography?

I’ve always preferred analog to digital photography. For me, there is some kind of magic and mystery behind it. When I come across a good illustration inside a magazine or newspaper next to several photographs, it always stands out and feels like a breath of fresh air. I find that they serve the same purpose while using a different approach. Normally, illustration attempts to explain a topic or an article to the reader in a couple of seconds. Photography, on the other hand, captures the moment.

I see your illustration as intuitive and eclectic in the use of different mediums. Is there a specific medium you prefer, and why?

I always love to combine watercolor and ink as a basis for my illustrations. The fact that you can never fully control the outcome inspires me a lot. You need to embrace the results together with inherent mistakes. With watercolor, mistakes are natural. I also collage various elements and experiment with layers as well as pieces of vintage paper which I get from flea markets or online auctions. I really enjoy to bring all these pieces together to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a bit like building a puzzle or solving a riddle. My favorite part of the process!

Illustration by Marianna Gefen


”If you pay attention to things around you,
you can actually find inspiration in almost anything.”

How would you describe your illustration style? Has anyone in particular influenced it and how did you develop your style?

I would describe my style as colourful mixed media art which includes watercolor, collage, ink, various textures and layers. I love to use watercolor with ink on old yellowed paper or transparent paper. Usually I combine realistic-looking elements with abstract pieces. I was influenced by the bold look of vintage fashion illustrations and analog documentary photography. My style has been shaped through trial and error and has gotten more complex over the years as I try to evolve and add new things.

Where do you seek out inspiration?

I collect vintage books, documents, magazines and get inspired by their patterns, colours or designs which I sometimes include in my illustrations. I have archives of decades-old paper and photos as well as brightly coloured transparent paper. Also, I enjoy contemporary fashion photography, movies and theatre. If you pay attention to things around you, you can actually find inspiration in almost anything.

You have lived and worked in different parts of the world. Has your multicultural background left a mark on your illustrations?

Definitely. I regularly buy old books, documents and patterned pieces of paper from the parts of the world I live in or visit. I then scan these and incorporate into my art one way or the other. Moreover, I keep a journal. I make notes about my impressions when I get acquainted with new cultures and their art scenes. Different places leave a different mark on my illustrations as I adapt myself quite fast.

How big a part does hand- and digital-drawing, respectively, play in your work? Would you ever consider traditional drawing exclusively?

All elements of my illustrations are handmade, just like the textures. To speed up the workflow, I collage and finalize some works digitally. For my personal projects, I prefer to paint and collage exclusively the traditional way. Having said this, I am interested in new technologies and new ways of doing art. For example, I have been experimenting with time-lapse videos and will be exploring this direction further with great interest.

You have illustrated a few book covers for L.R. Wright’s novels, for Felony & Mayhem Press. What makes a good book cover design in your opinion?

It was a really fun commission to illustrate 10 book covers for L.R. Wright’s series of mystery novels. From the publisher I only received short descriptions and the titles. So I didn’t actually read the books. In that project, the key for a good cover was to give a hint at the content without revealing too much. The concept was supposed to be not too complicated while the colours had to pop. A good book cover stands out from the competition on the shelf.

How challenging is for an artist to do commissioned work? How does it relate to your personal, freelance work?

It’s important to keep a balance between commissioned work and personal projects. You need the latter as a playground for art experiments and an opportunity to improve your style. Commissioned work can be quite challenging as the client always has the last say. The freedom you have in your personal projects is very exciting and can in fact influence your commissioned work, so that it doesn’t get repetitive.

Illustrations by Marianna Gefen


”New isn’t always better.”

One thing you can not start the day without:

Where would we find you when not working?

In restaurants, cafés, cinemas, attending exhibitions, antique stores… always around dogs.

What do you wish people appreciated more in this day and age?

The significance and value of art, craft and design. There are so many brilliant artists with small businesses who offer beautiful items. It is important to support them.
I am also a big admirer of vintage architecture and furniture which I like to collect. It has a particular charm generated by its history. New isn’t always better. Surrounding yourself with unique things instead of mass-produced design creates a special vibe.

What is one favourite thing to do in Berlin and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?

Berlin has some of the best art-house cinemas in Europe. Many of them are really petite with fascinating architecture and interiors. There’s nothing better than watching a silent classic accompanied by a live organ in one of these places.

The Germans had an impressive silent cinema. Any favourites?

Recently I’ve watched Diary of a Lost Girl by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and was really impressed. I must also mention The Adventures of Prince Achmed, by Lotte Reiniger, which is the oldest surviving animated feature. It’s made of silhouette animation. I liked it to the extent that right after watching it, I put a framed picture of Lotte Reiniger in my studio.

Illustration by Marianna Gefen | Instagram: @marianna_gefen


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