Boris was born in Russia, and graduated from The Institute of Theater, Music and Cinema in St. Petersburg. He emigrated to the United States in 1997 and his career there began as an illustrator for the New York Times Book Review. Boris currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife Yelena Romanova, who is an author and two sons Max and Andre.
How did you go about developing your unique style?
It’s always difficult to answer such questions, because there are so many things. It starts with my artistic family, both of my parents are artists and set designers. Then it’s the provincial theater in an ancient city where I literally grew up amongst actors, directors and another artists. After that it’s the Art School in St. Petersburg where I was living and studying for five years in a very tiny, family like circle of classmates and two great art teachers who were like second parents to us. It’s also the city of St. Petersburg itself with it’s great history and art traditions, museums, parks, rivers, canals and monuments. And finally another great city - the city of New York and totally new world, new people, new traditions. And it’s still going on. I think my style is still developing in some way.
There were some differences in the approaches to art education in Russia in those days and here in America, but that could be a big subject for separate discussion. For now maybe it is more important to mention that I was trained not as an illustrator, but as a set and costume designer. This is what really impacted my illustration career. I look at a story I have to illustrate as if it is a play and I’m working on a theatrical stage. I’m kind of imagining everything in 3D and in time. I create an outfit, a silhouette and the look of a book character as if I have an actor in front of me and I have to dress him or her up. And then I build an environment, a set design, where this character lives or acts. What makes illustration more interesting for me than being a set designer is that in illustration I can be both a set designer and a theater director. I make the decision in which part of a stage/page to place a character, whether she or he must smile or be sad, how to light a character and many other various decisions. So, I can say I’m enjoying being an illustrator with a theatrical background more than if I was just an illustrator or just a set designer.
Back in Russia I illustrated a children’s book, a copy of Mary Poppins. The book never came out because the publishing house was crushed as everything was being crushed those days in Russia, but I kept the originals. When I came to the U.S. I decided to continue as an illustrator. I had a few random jobs like an electrician and art restorator until one of my very few friends Ingo Fast gave me a list of art directors to whom I could show my portfolio in a hope to get some illustration assignment. I was strolling from one address to another until I came to Steve Heller at The New York Times Book Review. He was the only art director who did not ask me whether I had been published in U.S. and in a week I was working on my very first b/w illustration in America and it was for the Book Review. After that for many years I was a regular contributor for the paper. In a few years I got some courage and said to Steve that I would like to illustrate books and asked him if he could give me some contacts in the business. He asked me whether I had some experience in that field and here my illustrations for Mary Poppins played their role. Steve gave me a phone number of Frances Foster, who was a publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG). When I called her, Frances told me she knew me by the Book Review and in few weeks I was working on my very first American book project. I consider myself very lucky and I’m forever grateful to Steve Heller and Frances Foster.
As I’ve said the first book was done for FSG. It was Morris the Artist by Lore Segal - the story was about a boy who went to a birthday party, but loved the present he bought for his friend so much, that he could not part with it. Finally he did and it appeared to be a set of paints. All the guests were involved in painting on wrapping paper and on themselves. I had to imitate children’s paintings and I was afraid I would not be able to do it as brilliant as kids do. I got an idea to use a real child's art for it and Frances and I went to a daycare, where her friend taught art to kids. Unfortunately we could not find the exact images which required the text and I had to raise myself up to a kid’s level and paint the pictures my own.
In short it’s a mixed media. At different stages I was using different techniques. In early days it was acryla gouache, watercolor, ink, pen and brush on paper. Actually I like to experiment, so later I also was using graphite pencil, colored pencils, oil pastels, digitally generated parts and even black tea.
For instance, in Max’s Castle you can see many parts (especially b/w parts) which were done separately. I was drawing scaled down parts in graphite pencil after that I was scanning them, manipulating them in Photoshop, enlarging them two or more times, printing them, cutting them out and pasting them into a certain spot of a painted illustration. With this long process I could reach the desired effects and textures which could not be reached in an ordinary way.
After Morris the Artist was published, Frances Foster asked me whether I would be willing to write and illustrate my own story. I was afraid I did not have good enough literary ideas and said no, but my wife was more brave and said she did have such an idea. She got the idea based on our family story, so, the story and all the characters were real. Unfortunately she did not have any literary experience and the first variant she wrote was returned with a lot of comments and suggestions. Yelena was a little discouraged and wanted to quit, but I could see interesting potentials in those comments and together we improved the story.
I wake up at 5-6 a.m. Reading, answering e-mails. Bike ride. Working on a book or teaching art to kids at Bridgeview Art School. Evening work out and a walk in a park before going to sleep.
To me the most compelling is Kate’s poetic style. To an illustrator her stories open a wide field for imagination. Her texts are an inspiration for me to create my own story in parallel with hers only in images, not in words. It is especially clear in our latest book How to Find an Elephant. The story is poetry to me, and my illustrations do not necessary depict the words literally, rather they complement her words.
In my younger age it was Winnie-the-Pooh, Mary Poppins, Alice in WonderLand. And of course the Russian poets and writers for children: Pushkin, Marshak, Chukovski, etc. I especially loved when my parents read me Winnie-the-Pooh. They would read and we could not stop laughing.
If I’m in a bad mood, I’m riding my bicycle. If my mood is OK, but still no inspiration - a cup of coffee and something delicious might help. And might not. Who knows? And of course I look to my favorite artists.