25 October 2023
Interview with Sveta Dorosheva, artist for Fantasy: Realms of Imagination
The incredible artwork for our exhibition, Fantasy: Realms of Imagination, was created by hand by illustrator Sveta Dorosheva. She seamlessly wove together the four realms of our exhibition: fairy tales and folklore, worlds and portals, epics and quests, and the weird and uncanny – each area populated with myriad characters and creatures from literature and myth across the world.
We sat down with Sveta to find out more about her, the artwork itself, and where she draws her inspiration from.
We recommend viewing the full-sized illustration here. Zoom in and explore Sveta’s universe for yourself!
You can also find a labelled guide to all the characters and creatures in Sveta's artwork near the bottom of this page.
Which fantasy universes were you most inspired by in this illustration?
Fairy tales and myths, in the first place. As a child, I had very weak health and spent many hours in bed, covered with mustard leaves or cupping-glasses, while dad read fairy tales to me.
I was so in love with this project because it kind of maps perfectly onto my obsessions with all things weird and wonderful: tales, myths, obscure science and mysterious arts like alchemy, medieval bestiaries, etc.
I think I keep returning to fairy tales because it's a way to smuggle a sense of wonder from childhood into adult life. When I was a kid and dad read those tales to me, I perceived a frog turning into a prince and day turning into night as the same type of metamorphosis that makes the world tick. Kids generally don't divide things into real and unreal.
When I wasn’t sick, I spent most of my time outdoors with other kids. The vicinities (I grew up in Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine, at that time part of the USSR) were a small forest, a city mortuary, and the Red River, complete with red fish. The river was actually red from factory waste, and back then, I used to think that all small rivers were red. It fell into a large river in beautiful red stripes at the spot of the local nudist beach, replete with brilliantly scarlet nudists. One has to admit, I grew up in a fairy tale of sorts – it was that bizarre.
So, as a kid I spent half of my time in that surreal world, and the other half in fairy tale books. I was enthralled by their murky, fickle world. Everything turned into everything else. Beasts talked and threw off their skins to turn into humans. Mysterious water revived the dead. A forest witch lived in a house on chicken legs and had a flipping bed that tossed incautious travellers into the underworld.
There was even a version of Donkeyskin, where the girl into an entangled cow’s stomach by her stepmother. She predicted that "the enchantment will be broken only if the king kisses you, ha-ha-ha!" I remember trying to imagine that, and thinking if there’s a happy ending to that story, the world might not be such a hard place to live, right?
At the time, I didn't perceive any of this as weird or unreal. These were just part of a fascinating plot. There was no division into normal and unusual. Everything was unusual, nothing was normal. That kind of perception, smuggled from childhood into adult life, is still with me when I draw: treat fantasy and reality as one and the same.
Who’s your favourite character in the illustration?
I got a kick doing every little nook of it, can't pick a favourite section! But as for characters, I guess Gregor Samsa reading Kafka is my personal favourite. I was on a surreal and absurd literature spree more than once in recent years - I take a lot of comfort in it, when I feel discombobulated and unable to make sense of the world. And each time I feel compelled to re-read Metamorphosis just for the feeling of poignant realisation that, you know, it's life - sometimes you just wake up inexplicably transformed into a huge cockroach. Despite being clueless as to what's going on and how long it will last, you still have to carry on with your life somehow.
Evidently, people have been there before - bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the rapid change or lost in the weird and incomprehensible reality around them. Kafka has diligently documented that for us to take comfort in during troubled times.
Were there any parts of the design that were particularly challenging?
The whole thing was technically challenging to put together. The task was to seamlessly weave together four realms corresponding to sections of the exhibition (fairy tales and folklore, worlds and portals, epics and quests, and weird and uncanny) into a single composition, each populated with its own characters and imbued with a relevant mood. Changing a single detail often entailed redoing half the composition.
How long did it take you to create the design?
My longest stage is always the first one - research and ideas. Coming up with the first draft. In this case, it was a very detailed draft, since with so many characters, themes and landscape elements in a black and white image, one of the key things was to figure out the tonal scheme and how all of it would work. So my first draft was basically a finished drawing in pencil, just to try and see how it comes together. That took over a month. Then there was some feedback and revisions. Mostly, the ‘portals’ part got reworked into a subterraneous library with secret passages and mysterious visitors.
The final art was larger than the draft (A1), and done with a dip drawing nib in ink, so that, too, took me about three weeks, maybe a month.
Are you a fan of fantasy, or any of its subgenres? Do you have any particular favourites?
I think my favourite type of fantasy and weird literature is when a book is full of uncanny and surreal stuff, yet it reads like a realistic novel. Ned Beauman is mind-blowing that way, everything he’s written, but especially The Teleportation Accident and Madness is Better than Defeat. John Crowley’s Aegypt series – I lived inside his books, but the odd thing is, I had a feeling that the author had lived inside my head for quite some time too. Otherwise, how would he know so much about me?
George Saunders - absolutely unique, all of his short story collections. After reading these authors I feel orphaned and forlorn, because I can't read anything else and instantly start missing the time I had spent inside their books. I owe them some of the happiest hours of my life.
Jeffrey Ford and China Miéville too. I discovered China Miéville while working on this project, and have been reading his Bas-Lag trilogy throughout the summer.
This illustration was created by hand by Sveta Dorosheva especially for the exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination. Originally from Ukraine and currently based in Israel, Sveta works in areas of narrative art and illustration. A deep fascination for myth and fairytales, among other things, finds its way into her detailed and award-winning works.
More information and examples of her work can be found at svetadorosheva.com
You can also follow Sveta on Instagram @sveta_illustrations.
Set out on a legendary quest through the impossible worlds of fantasy by visiting our new exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination, opening on Friday 27 October.