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Interview with Natalya Zahn, Illustrator

Interview with Natalya Zahn, Illustrator


Recently, I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing  Natalya Zahn, an illustrator living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Natalya illustrates dogs and other animals.  Some of her work is displayed below and you can also visit her website and blog to view more of Natalya’s work.

KATHERINE CARVER: What were your beginnings as an artist and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

NATALYA ZAHN: I am very fortunate to have come from a family and community of artists.  I knew from day one that art would be an integral part of my life, and my parents happily encouraged me – I spent countless hours drawing, painting and constructing things in their studios (and anywhere around the house, really).

KATHERINE CARVER: Did you study art formally?

NATALYA ZAHN: Yes.  I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to go to college specifically for art, or whether I wanted a liberal arts background that would allow me to study the sciences (which are another major passion of mine), but upon visiting the Rhode Island School of Design during my decision process, I fell head over heels in love with the campus and energy of the place… after that, there was no question where I would attend.  I still have a serious interest in biology, zoology and anatomy, but ultimately, art school was a wise choice.


KATHERINE CARVER: How do you describe your style?

NATALYA ZAHN: My style is overarchingly realistic, but it has been shifting a bit lately.  I have found that the older I get, the more expressivity I want out of my work.  Maybe I’m getting increasingly impatient – more likely I’m just much more confident – but I have a greater and greater appreciation for spontaneity of brushwork, efficiency of line, and deliberate, bold use of color than I used to.

The ink drawings that characterize are actually a brand new direction for me that arose out of being inspired by other contemporary illustrators.  In fact, I started Oscar’s blog and developed the “brand” precisely as a creative challenge to myself – it’s my sandbox of sorts to really explore the medium of ink (which, as a style, I thought had more potential to be commercially viable than the acrylic paintings I had been focusing on previously).  It’s been a total joy, and I’ve been able to apply the techniques that I’ve learned and developed to many new, non-dog related projects.


KATHERINE CARVER: What was the impetus that inspired you to begin illustrating dogs and other animals?

NATALYA ZAHN: I grew up in rural Vermont, where both the Northeast wilderness and peaceful, bucolic farmland were in abundant supply.  For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to animals… I was always the kid who lagged behind on a walk in order to stop by a fence and entice a cow over to say hello, or pet a neighbor’s dog; I rode horses throughout my childhood and high school years; and my favorite destinations on family vacations were always zoos, aquariums or the great diorama halls of natural history museums.  To this day I find the company of animals somehow more rewarding than that of most people I encounter… As artistic subjects, I think they (referring to pretty much all animals) are head and shoulders more beautiful in form – and breathtaking in their variety – than humans, consequently, people rarely show up in my work.


KATHERINE CARVER: How have your own dog(s) influenced your artwork?

NATALYA ZAHN: For a long time after getting Oscar people would say to me, “He’s so handsome – you must draw him all the time!”, and for some reason – I didn’t! (shame on me!)  He’s always been a wonderful inspiration for my creative eye, and I have thousands of photographs of him, but it was only recently that he became the star of a whole series of artwork – I suppose I’m making up for lost time.  Since developing, I’ve made it a point of conveying his very unique personality through the illustrations – the blog is a character study of sorts – and it’s been great fun to introduce the Beast to the world, and finally give him the spotlight he deserves.



KATHERINE CARVER: When and how did you begin your blog entitled, “Oscar Ate My Muffin”?

NATALYA ZAHN: Oscar’s blog debuted on his birthday, March 27th, 2012.  I had been wanting to develop a blog solely for him, and launching it as a “gift” to him on that day seemed perfectly appropriate.  I wasn’t sure exactly what direction it would end up going in – that’s the beauty of blogs, they’re so completely organic – but I knew illustration would be a distinguishing element.  Looking back now through our posts, you can clearly see an evolution of the ink style I referenced previously… it’s quite a trip.


KATHERINE CARVER: Where do you show/exhibit your work?

NATALYA ZAHN: I actually don’t currently exhibit my work, though I wouldn’t be opposed to a gallery show.  Between commercial work, self-initiated blog projects, and my responsibilities as an adjunct faculty member at a local college of art, time is just in short supply these days…


KATHERINE CARVER: What does “being creative” mean to you?

NATALYA ZAHN: Being creative is a total state of mind for me.  More than any particular materials or mediums, it’s critical to my sanity as an artist and designer to always have the freedom to be “making”.  I’m so lucky to be able to make a living using my creativity, but outside of the paid projects, I take all kinds of opportunities to visualize ideas, be it doodling on napkins while waiting for a meal, sculpting a critter in fresh, wet snow, or collaging my own cards and envelopes for gifting to friends; there really is a way to transform just about anything into a project.


KATHERINE CARVER: What is the most challenging aspect of being an artist?

NATALYA ZAHN: From my experience, many artists struggle with being their own best representatives – we’re perfectly happy to humbly toil away all day in the studio, but when it comes to shopping our work to prospective clients, negotiating contracts and terms, and pretty much anything regarding money (all of which distinguish a successful career from merely a hobby), we tend to go into avoidance… Speaking for myself, learning and excelling at this “business” aspect has always been the very most challenging part of my job.

KATHERINE CARVER: What inspires you to keep going and what keeps you motivated?  

NATALYA ZAHN: It’s probably easier to make a list of things that DON’T inspire me … I find amazing details just about everywhere I go: neighborhood animals and wildlife; the seasonal state of surrounding plants and trees; colors and textures of the urban landscape – the world is absolutely full of beauty, you just need to remain present and aware in order to see it sometimes.  My running project “wish list” is far too long to ever be tackled in full – this can be a frustrating position, but it also means I rarely end up feeling truly “stuck”.


KATHERINE CARVER: What is the most rewarding and satisfying part about being an artist and creating art?

NATALYA ZAHN: It’s hugely satisfying to see my illustration live a life of it’s own out in the world – whether it’s printed in the pages of a magazine; repeated in a pattern on apparel; or branding a product on a grocery story shelf – that feeling of pride never gets old.  And even though there are very stressful, daunting aspects of being self-employed, I get to wake up every day actually eager to go to work… that’s pretty epic.


KATHERINE CARVER: Looking back on your accomplishments, to date, what are you the most proud of?

NATALYA ZAHN: I’m honestly just increasingly proud of having built the career path I’m currently following.  It has been an arduous, frustrating, and very challenging effort, but I’m finally feeling things solidify, and I’m so looking forward to where it all goes from here.


KATHERINE CARVER: What are you working on now?

NATALYA ZAHN: My project queues tend to be quite eclectic, but right this moment I’m actually recipe testing and gathering visual reference for a really fun illustrated dog treat feature that will be appearing in print later this summer – that is unfortunately all I can disclose!


KATHERINE CARVER: What artists inspire your work?

NATALYA ZAHN: So many favorites and influences – a few: Rein Poortvliet, Jillian Tamaki, Ping Zhu, James Gurney, William Wegman, Maira Kalman, David Downton, Tom Lovell, Walton Ford


KATHERINE CARVER: What piece(s) of your artwork is your favorite?

NATALYA ZAHN: I don’t know if I can narrow down a single piece as an all-time favorite of mine, though most recently, I had a fantastic time creating a dog-themed wrapping paper design that I had screen printed for the 2012 holiday season, shown below.  Using a black lab puppy as my inspiration, I generated a handful of small ink illustrations that I then assembled in Photoshop into a repeating pattern. The pattern was printed in one color on newsprint and I used the sheets to wrap gifts and send out promotional packages to a few lucky art directors.  It was a great success and I’m looking forward to creating more patterns in the near future.  (Here is a link to the pattern project in a New Year’s post to the Oscar blog).



KATHERINE CARVER: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

NATALYA ZAHN: It’s easy, especially when just starting out, to get hung up on what kind of work you think you ‘should’ be making, or what others tell you you’re best at – disregard this.  Your best work will happen when you focus on that which you know and love, and your most valuable audience will follow that work.  Not sure you really know how to visualize what you know and love?  Just keep ‘making’, and let each step, each project, lead to the next.  Momentum is HUGE and you never know where the sparks are hiding until you hit them.


KATHERINE CARVER: How can people view and commission your art works?

NATALYA ZAHN: I have an online portfolio of assorted work that can be viewed at – there is a dedicated “Portrait” section for those seeking a painting or drawing of their animal.  I’m currently doing commissions in both full-color acrylic style, and my newer ink drawing style.  Those interested in a portrait should feel free to email me for more information and a price list:

Please visit Natalya’s  website and blog to learn more!

*All images contained in this post are courtesy of Natalya Zahn.

You can read additional interviews here.

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