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Interview with Artist Magdalena Pągowska

November 30, 2021

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Russell Dickerson has been a published illustrator and designer since the previous millennium, creating works for many genre publications and authors. He has also written many articles for various organizations in that time including Apex.

This month’s cover artist is Magdalena Pagowska, whose work has evolved from drawing as a child through her current role as a Senior Concept Artist at Techland. As a freelance illustrator working on cross-cultural projects, Pagowska brings a fascinating worldview to her work.

APEX MAGAZINE:   Your cover piece for this month’s issue, “Identity,” pairs well with Carl Sagan’s “We are made of starstuff” quote on your DeviantArt page. What are the challenges as an artist to bring both a sense of intimacy and immensity to the same image? Or humanity versus the expanse of the universe?

Magdalena Pagowska: I have been fascinated by space and our place in the universe from a young age, and Carl Sagan’s quote has been very inspiring to me. It’s quite amazing and somewhat poetic to realize many of the particles that our bodies are made of have been born in the process of the death of a star. I have always wanted to draw something around that concept, but for many years I lacked the skill and courage to take on such an ambitious theme. I’m not sure if I was quite ready for it when I painted “Identity,” but it felt really good to finally get it out of my system.

When it comes to personal illustration, I tend to work on instinct, without much planning or initial analysis, and just paint and overpaint until my mind comes up with something that resonates with me. So I can’t say I’ve put a lot of conscious thought into visualizing the abstract concepts you are talking about. What I do like is to focus on the human subject and search for subtleties in the expression. I like giving my works a touch of mystery with smoke or fog, as well as partly covering up the face, and I thought using a nebula for that would work nicely. I think it helped to create a visual connection between the dispersing (or maybe materializing) character and the supernova in his hand.

Tackling space-themed concepts while being mainly a character artist can be a little challenging, but it gives me a lot of satisfaction. I’m hoping to paint more pieces around similar concepts soon.

AM: You have a long-running, yearly “Summary of Art” series on your DeviantArt that seems to be both a wrap-up to the year and a look back. How do these summaries affect your art or your outlook each coming year?

MP: It’s an interesting coincidence that I’m being asked about the annual summaries now when I finally broke my flow after ten years of not missing a month (well, there was one cheat month back in 2012, fine). I work full-time as a character concept artist, do freelance illustration, and just started teaching a university class. I’ve finally reached the moment where personal work had to be put aside for a while. It’s difficult not having the time to just draw what I want and having to break my goal of one personal illustration a month. But I’ll make up for it once I’m done with deadlines.

That being said, I do have a couple of insights regarding this challenge, and as everything in life, it has both pros and cons. The good thing was, it definitely helped me be more consistent and actually finish pieces that I start. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so for a long time I had a problem dropping the ones I wasn’t happy with. It is true however that a finished work is better than a perfect one, so breaking out of the eternal fix-or-scrap circle was a big improvement. On the other hand, during the times I was very busy this challenge put extra pressure on me and would force me to draw even when I had absolutely no ideas that I’d be satisfied with. Sometimes it made personal work feel just like an extra chore, and I don’t think that’s what it should be like. Still, I’m happy that I’ve committed to the annual summaries for this long. It’s a shame I won’t be able to make it this year, but maybe it’s time to move on. I’ll find myself a different challenge to try.

AM:  Your piece “Swan Song” seems to lead viewers in a few directions, and features a “rest” note near the top. Do you find that people interpret the symbol or the art first? How might one or the other influence their perception of it?

MP: “Swan Song” is another picture that I’ve carried in the back of my mind for many years before I felt ready to put it on canvas. The idea of using the “rest” note didn’t come to me until I was almost done with it, but it felt like just the right detail to complete the image. I think there’s a lot of potential in shifting the message when you use a well-matched symbol, a telling detail, or if you give your work a certain title. It can add another layer of depth that your viewer might not think of at first glance.

I think it’s a very individual matter of what people interpret first, but if I were to guess, I’d say most of them probably look at the whole thing before diving into details. We live in a world where there are thousands of images readily available on the internet and we consume them in bulk, often just glancing at the thumbnails, only taking a closer look at the ones that catch our interest. Symbolism and double meanings are a nice treat for those who decide to spend a bit longer with your work.

AM: Following on a similar thread, when you look at other artists’ works, are you typically drawn to or influenced by specific parts of an image or the whole canvas? Or does that depend on the piece or artist?

MP: Like I’ve mentioned, the internet is brimming with wonderful works of many artists and I too end up glancing at the thumbnails before choosing the ones I want to have a closer look at. I tend to take in the whole of the canvas first, but I like to appreciate the detail an artist has put in their work as well. Whether it’s the entire image or the detail that makes me stay with certain pieces for longer or add them to my favorites depends on the artwork itself. Sometimes it’s the general mood that attracts me, sometimes a small part of the image.

AM: A number of your pieces, such as “poise”, have been featured on DeviantArt as Daily Deviations. How does the extra attention affect your work, or your business, as an artist? How does that compare with the attention you might get from social media or other avenues?

MP: I’ve been using DeviantArt for over 17 years and have witnessed the community go through different stages. There was a time when it was the main place where I showcased my works and got feedback. Nowadays, there are many online communities, as well as social media, where an artist can share their work. DeviantArt was definitely the place that helped me build my online presence, and it’s also the place where I first started receiving commissions. During that time, having your work featured as a Daily Deviation brought you a lot of attention. Now the impact of Daily Deviations, as well as DeviantArt itself, seems to be smaller, but it still makes me happy to be featured and it helps in bringing new viewers to my gallery.

Currently, it seems like the large social media platforms, such as Instagram or Twitter, generate more interest. It makes sense: DeviantArt or ArtStation are communities focused on artists, while Instagram and Twitter are used by all kinds of people. It’s easier to reach a wider range of viewers there. Still, the impact of art communities should not be underestimated. In this day and age, and with how easily you can find good art online, it’s important to stay visible. Online presence is crucial for good business as an artist, so you can’t go wrong with showcasing your work both on art communities and social media.

At the same time, I feel like focusing solely on the amount of attention you receive online is a double-edged sword. You end up scrutinizing what kind of artwork generates the best response and it’s easy to bend under the pressure and just draw what you think people want to see the most. That in turn naturally brings you projects that match this kind of theme or style. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that if it works for someone, but I prefer to draw what I like, not what people expect me to. I get to follow the expectations at work, so personal pieces are just for myself, and I try not to let social media or art communities influence me too much. It’s also good to be invited for freelance projects that are similar to my personal interests.

AM: Thank you, Magdalena, for such an intricate look at your art and process!

Follow Magdalena’s beautiful work at art communities DeviantArt and ArtStation as len-yan, lenyan.art on Instagram, or lenyan_art on Twitter.

© Russell Dickerson