“My perfectionism used to really inhibit my creative process.”

Janelle Retka, a Phnom Penh-based illustrator and journalist from Seattle, talks to Splice about her process, her influences, and her dreams.

By Rishad Patel
Splice Design
Janelle Retka: illustrator, journalist.
Janelle Retka: illustrator, journalist. "Before I began drawing as an editorial illustrator, my work was really for me, so a lot of what I drew was in lieu of a diary and was very text-heavy." (Photo provided)

Janelle Retka has a great line. The quality of her singular, spare, muscular line is the hero of much of her work — unwavering, strong, and quiet.

Her pen-and-ink drawings are self-reflective; they tend to look inward, like a visual diary. But a wry humor populates everything, in her play on language, in the little details at the edge of the frame, and in the observations on life beyond her sketchbook.

Janelle and I hung out when she came to Singapore, and we conducted much of the interview over email. Follow her on Instagram.

As an editorial illustrator, how do you approach a job? Tell me about your process.

After reading the article or writing that the illustration is meant to pair with, I start by doing some research online. This isn’t very sophisticated. Sometimes it’s reading other articles on the topic to get a better grasp of the issue. But for example, if I’m commissioned to do a portrait I’ll Facebook/Google stalk the person I’m meant to draw. I like to see their different demeanours, even if there is a specific image I already know I’m supposed to draw them from. It helps me home in on features that can’t be left out or accenting props/potential colours for the background that speak to who they are.

Then I sit on my tile living room floor and take a Micron pen to paper. I don’t like to sketch things out before I draw them in ink because it takes away the spontaneity—but this means I throw out drafts and start over quite a few times before I feel like I’ve nailed what I’m going for.

Who — or what — are your greatest influences?

My high school art teacher and dear friend Cindra Avery has definitely had the greatest influence, not necessarily because of her style (she tends towards acrylics) but because she helped me get over my perfectionism, which used to really inhibit my creative process. Pen and ink scared me and I avoided it for years because of its permanence. Now, that’s one of my favourite things about working with this medium and being an illustrator. I love making a mistake and deciding whether to incorporate that into the work or start fresh. It’s led to some of my favourite illustrations.

Beyond that, daily life in Phnom Penh features heavily in my work and Laura Callaghan’s illustrations inspired me to tamper with water colour—something I’m still reluctant with but that can transform a piece.

You have a very specific, very spare style. How did that voice emerge?

Before I began drawing as an editorial illustrator, my work was really for me, so a lot of what I drew was in lieu of a diary and was very text-heavy. Slowly I started drawing more imagery with the text, but I didn’t want it to be overbearing or take away from the very raw meaning of each piece. I tend to include a lot more detail now with editorial work, but I like the realism that evolved in my work from my attachment to simplicity, so I don’t think I’ve swayed too far away from my original style.

Tell me about the media you use.

I am obsessed with Micron pens, and specifically size 01, which is a 0.25mm line. It’s delicate and gorgeous—but being so fine, they are fragile and dry out incredibly quickly in Phnom Penh heat, so I fly through these. Generally, I use unbound sketch paper that is watercolour friendly, but I don’t have a specific brand. The most important thing is that the arches that make the paper work with watercolour are not too pronounced so that it doesn’t cause unwanted shakiness in the line work. If I use colour, it’s watercolour.

Tell me about media you want to start using, subjects you want to start drawing.

I’ve recently begun tampering with embroidery and it’s magnificent. I’m keen to work more with it and see how different thickness of threads will influence my pieces. I also just took a fabric block printing course, which I can see becoming a new hobby. But the thing I’m most excited about are these Uni Posca paint markers I’m about to get my hands on. You can layer colours without the one behind bleeding through. UM, YES. This could potentially mean a lot more colour in both my editorial and personal work—and maybe thicker line work? That might be a bit much, but we’ll see.

Subject-wise, I’ve just begun a partnership with Mekong Review drawing portraits of contributors to their poetry page as well as more in depth portraits with backgrounds for a segment on bookstores around Southeast Asia in their quarterly print edition. Diversifying these will be a really fun challenge.

Something I would love to do more of are series of drawings to pair with current affairs articles, bringing issues to life through illustrations rather than photographs.

What’s the deal with that stencil typography that is such a theme in your work?

About nine years ago, I became obsessed with typefaces and started creating different ones freehand. Maybe two years ago, this stencil typeface appeared and I loved it. It just felt like me. It was a lot sloppier at the time and grew into those diary entries I mentioned before. As my work developed, the typeface became more defined and consistent and I can’t part with it for the life of me. Nor do I really want to.

When you draw without a commission, say for art, are you looking to depict beauty with your work, or is that not a consideration?

Generally not. When I’m drawing for myself it’s to process life—joys, frustrations and the things that fall somewhere in between. It’s a bit gruesome, but I really enjoy drawing the poor critters my dog catches while running around the courtyard. This all started with a dead rat he presented proudly to me, which later became my logo—a smoking rat next to a pack of cigarettes that reads “RATKA,” playing off my surname Retka. Sometimes things turn out pretty, though, which I’m not opposed to.

What’s next for you as an illustrator? Where do you want to take this?

I’m starting to pick up speed as an editorial illustrator, which is an absolute dream. Right now I really just want to continue expanding my portfolio and the range of publications I work for. Journalism is a passion of mine, and I’m thoroughly enjoying exploring it through illustrations at the moment. Where do I want to take this? The pipe dream is definitely The New Yorker, but I’m not trying to get ahead of myself. I’m also starting to do some collaborations with other artists, which is something I plan to pursue more in the future.

Rishad Patel is a product and design professional. He is the co-founder of Splice Media. Follow Rishad Patel on Twitter.

more about us

Our mission is to drive radical change by supporting bold, forward-looking media startups in Asia. In order to do this, we report on, teach, transform, and fund newsrooms in Asia.

Our newsletters are read by some of the smartest people in global media.

We’re Alan Soon and Rishad Patel, and there’s more about us here.

The Splice Beta Fund is a prototyping grant that helps news and media entrepreneurs in Asia to quickly ideate, launch, test, and iterate products and services for audiences and customers. Here’s how it works.

Splice Low-Res is our virtual community check-in for media startups. See videos, sponsor, or stay in the loop here.

Splice Beta will be back September 22-24 in Chiang Mai. Get your tickets here.

Splice is available for speaking engagements, to run workshops, product sponsorships, research, design audits, and consulting. Email us.

We also have a Telegram group. Come say hi.

Subscribe to the Splice YouTube channel.

Thanks for subscribing!