Estonian illustrator Eiko Ojala is a master of deception. At first glance, his portfolio appears to be a series of artfully minimalist paper-cut compositions. But look closer and you’ll discover that nearly every shadow and highlight has been digitally rendered, minus a few carefully integrated photographic elements. “I really enjoy producing the real world on my computer screen,” Ojala says. “It’s a bit like painting.”
His unique brand of digital trompe l’oeil has put him in high demand for work as an editorial illustrator, and with an ever-expanding roster of clients like the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and Wired, Ojala continues to experiment with depth of space and illusion to produce compelling work.
With no formal training in illustration (he holds a degree in something called nature guiding) Ojala’s visual style developed from years of refining his drawing skills and finding inspiration in the natural environment and local traditions of his surroundings. I spoke with him about his personal project, Myths, and how the process for that series differs from his approach to client-based work.
“I started the project while living in New Zealand. For me, the main question was about the importance of a country or a place, and all its history and old stories. It’s about how easily I relate to these stories, and when I can call a place home. Editorial work, on the other hand, is totally different. It’s about thinking fast and coming up with ideas that everybody understands. So it’s a lot more about the audience and the world around me.”
While his work has been retweeted like crazy, my first introduction to Ojala’s work was through his illustrations for the New York Times. He earned several awards for his recent series on gun violence, and his animated GIFs for stories like “Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe” adds another level of interest to reading the Times across its digital and mobile platforms. “I always keep in mind while sketching how these ideas would work as animated,” he says. “I think the animation has to give something extra. It’s not really working when it’s made just for animation’s sake. But it’s always amazing to see how much effect a small animation can give.”
That said, animation doesn’t factor at all into his favorite client project thus far. He says the cover for Taschen’s Illustration Now! 5 has been the most rewarding because it allowed him to execute a design concept that he had yet to find an appropriate format. “It was a pitch, and a totally open brief. So I decided to skip all sketching, showing ideas before and explaining what I was about to do. I just decided to go for it to make the final illustration. The idea for the textile parrot was with me a while before the opportunity came. This happens quite a lot—that the idea is with me long before the projects come.”