October 9, 2019

From Russia to Japan: Achieving Dreams with Ilya Kuvshinov

World-renowned Tokyo-based Russian artist Ilya Kuvshinov weighs in on his upbringing, influences, and what it means to achieve dreams.

From Russia to Japan: Achieving Dreams with Ilya Kuvshinov

Hailing from Penza, a small city in western Russia, Ilya Kuvshinov has established a name for himself within Japan’s cutthroat animation industry, now residing in Tokyo, Japan.

He has received high praise from Hideo Kojima for his work on multiple occasions, and has amassed one of the largest followings of any artist in the world, reaching millions with his artwork through social media.

Ilya Kuvshinov is a prime example of an exceptionally talented artist, who has achieved success primarily due to social media presence. In an era where society thrives on digital interaction and connection, it seemed interesting to strike upon the opportunity of how it all came together in Ilya’s case.

He’s an extremely humble and reserved person, grateful for everything he has, fame and fortune alike. I wanted to go back in time to see what made his art bug tick, and we worked our way up from there.

Follow Ilya's Twitter for more of his art and updates!

Let’s run it all the way back; what made you interested in art?

Well, I had started drawing a lot from 4 years old – both of my parents are art college graduates, so they were only supporting me in any scribbles I came up with. Then, at six years old I’ve seen Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell – I was scared, but charmed at the same time.

A hand-drawn movie of that impact and quality? Now I know what I want to do for [the rest of my] life!

Even if you aren’t akin to staples within anime, Ghost in the Shell is one of the names you may have heard of before, even if it was the more recent live action sequel from 2017. Adapted from a manga created by Masamune Shirow in 1989, it became an anime film in 1995, and penetrated into the mainstream, bringing potent influence along with the exposure.

Arguably one of the most influential films to come out of Japan during the 90’s period, not just restricted to anime. It changed the way people thought of the world at large, and changed the trajectory of science fiction, supplying Japanese cyberpunk-filled concentrate to the masses.

From its speculative storytelling roots to provoking questions about societal capability, its influence can be seen on large scales. One example is The Matrix, with Larry and Andy Wachowski emulating the anime in their film’s beginning. Praise has also been seen from industry heavyweights such as James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg.

Little did Ilya know at a young age, that this would not be his last dance with Ghost in the Shell.

Who influenced you at the time when it came to dedicating yourself to practicing art?

First, my teachers at lyceum when I was 11-17 years old. Following that, I found out about the existence of the internet. I was influenced by hundreds and hundreds of awesome artists – I wanted to draw just like them!

How about later on?

Alphonse Mucha and Bernie Fuchs are my all-time favorites!

Speak about moving to Japan and how/why Japanese culture has influenced both you as a person, and your artwork as a high tier professional artist. You mentioned before you were uncertain.

Japanese manga, anime, and games hooked me [in] seriously, starting from age 13.

For mangas, I'd say Blame!, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, and Gantz.

For animes, I'd say Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Paprika, and Shamanic Princess.

For games, I'd say Persona (the whole series) and The World Ends With You.

All of those titles resonated deeply with me and made me seriously dream about working in the industry.

At 21, I got my first ever full-time job as a concept artist for a video game development company in Russia, and then at 23 moved to another company to storyboard/direct/art-direct 24-episodes of a motion comic series called Knights of the Void.

I loved doing storyboards so much, after the series finale I decided to try and improve more and try to move to Japan to learn from industry professionals.
Hanamura Yosuke (Persona 4: Dancing All Night) fan art, 2015

When you mention moving to Japan, Keiko Kinefuchi’s name comes to mind. They played a large role in your career.

Keiko Kinefuchi, an editor from PIE International, emailed me one day proposing to publish my first personal artwork collection book.

Thanks to this book, my career in Japan was kick-started!

Keiichi Hara as well; they found your book in a bookstore?

Keiichi Hara, director of animated movies like Colorful and Miss Hokusai, found my book in the bookstore, yes.

Luckily, the book was unpacked and Hara could freely check out the contents. It seems as though he liked it, because he contacted me right away, asking if I’d like to work on his movie as a character designer.

You have an extreme precision, despite seemingly effortless, with your work. Kazuma Kaneko influences can be seen in some works of yours; would I be correct in saying he is someone you look to for art inspiration?

More of [Shigenori] Soejima actually!

You strike a unique balance between traditional manga and high tier cinematic feelings in your art; speak a little bit about that.

I can’t say I have a distinct style, more like just always trying different approaches and shadings – you can find a lot of my more manga-ish illustrations, and also a lot of realistic illustrations as well.

So, you can say I’m still searching.

You’re anonymous.

Yes, I just want (in the case of the internet) people to associate my name with my arts, not my face or body. As simple as that.
An untitled sketch, created while waiting for a flight, 2019

Art as a stable career is, at times, binary. Many people are constantly on the fence about pursuing it as a full-time career. Thoughts on that?

“Art” is too general, I think. There’s so many different professions in the industry you could call an art – comic artist, concept artist, storyboard artist, background artist, art-director, matte painter, costume designer, etc.

It’s easy to have full-time job as an artist in entertainment industry these days, and still also have art as hobby after work. That’s what I am doing (laughing).

What equipment do you use?

iMac Pro for general use, Wacom Cintiq  for Photoshop CC, and an iPad Pro along with an Apple Pencil  for Procreate and Clip Studio Paint.

Do you have a go-to palette for when you’re in a mental bind and can’t seem to select the “right” color for something?

I usually try to mix cold and warm colors to get a richer palette – for example if the light of the skin is cold, I prefer to make the shadows warm and vice versa.

Usually it works automatically in my head, but sometimes remembering about tricolor combinations helps out a lot.

At what moment did you know you “made it”, when you said to yourself “this is going to be my career”?

When I first tried storyboard[ing].

This is my favorite thing in the world – reading the text, imagining the scene in my head, then trying to find the best approach to how to show it on the screen with the movement, composition, camera cuts, etc.
An example of his storyboarding

Your personal work are, by majority, female characters which are arguably similar in nature, yet they all seem to have different vibes with each piece. Are there characters within your works you like to re-use and put into different settings? Why this specific style of character?

The goal of my personal works, the illustrations I do after the full-time job is to unwind, practice, and just enjoy the painting and drawing just for process itself.

For me, portraying female characters is the hardest, so I try to practice it more.

There’s no specific character in situations where the character in one piece could look similar to the character in other piece though, that usually happens because of my preferences in character design to portray a strong, independent, energetic female characters.

Going after the ideal image of a character which anyone from any background can appreciate; do you see that as a valid point?

There’s is this ideal image of the character in my head I always trying to catch, but I don’t think that there any goals to try and create the character that could be universally loved; my pieces is just my personal preferences and experiments.

Critics and those jealous of your achievements often come back to the “he draws the same girl 100 times over” argument. They don’t know the depth of your work; speak on that.

The thing is, my personal illustrations I upload to social networks is not even a 1% of what I do.

For example, for “The Wonderland” I’ve created more than 100 characters of all shapes and forms – big buff guys, rich girls and poor boys, kings and queens, birds and cats, and also backgrounds, cars, tanks, props and utensils.

For new Ghost in The Shell the most of the characters are male, and there are a lot of variety: black people, white people, Asian people, big people, thin people, robots and maids, old people and small children.

Most of my works are actually not the girls, and I draw my girls just for myself – on my social networks you can see only the tip of the iceberg, so please look forward to The Wonderland and the new Ghost in the Shell to check out the variety of designs I produce.

The other thing is what people are calling “same face” is just the preference in shapes of the eyes and skull structure etc, and the question of me trying to catch that perfect image in my head.
Everything came full circle; Ilya Kuvshinov, Character Designer for Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045
Trailer for The Wonderland (alternatively called Birthday Wonderland)
The work space while Ilya worked on The Wonderland, 2017
Patreon content pre-release for The Wonderland

You’ve worked as a video game concept artist. Habitually, it was influential; how about for style?

While working on the video games as a concept artist, I’ve done a lot of different things – fantasy monsters and armors and locations, realistic cars and interiors, and landscapes. Sci-fi spaceships, guns, and aliens.

Not everything was fun, so I think it really helped me with realizing what kind of designs I prefer myself.

You’ve described illustration production as “mechanical” at times — expand on that.

Basically, after finding the best idea and concept possible, you just need to produce the piece step by step.

Sometimes it’s relaxing—everything is already decided, you just need to sit and finish the illustration, but it could also be a frustrating process—you already have enough to convey the idea, but need to spend more time to just polish, when you can spend the same amount of time on producing more ideas.

Speak a little bit about how social media has influenced your achievements/success, or helped. You say you were both amused and happy to physically see your work printed within a book.

Keiko Kinefuchi would have never contacted me with the proposal of making [publishing] my book if not for my social network activity.

For the publishing company, if an artist has a substantial amount of followers on the internet, that translates into them realizing that there’s a good few people that’d buy the book.

Keep in mind that thanks to the book being published, I now have my dream job within a Japanese animation company; my social network activity played a giant role in everything I have now.

Going off the last point, I wanted to open a dialogue about textures. What are your thoughts about how textures play a role in both art on a 2D plane, and in real life, when skin meets paper?

Texture is important.

It could make the character more real. You can feel closer to the expression of the piece, and using texture wisely can help a lot.

In movies, textures are really important too—you can feel the touch of the grass on your feet by just looking at close-up scenes, the roughness of concrete wall on your fingers just by seeing its texture, even density of mud in a heavy rain just by staring at the screen.

That is, if the textures are used skillfully.

You’re among one of the most successful Patreon users in the world, on paper. Why do you think you grew so large?

I think having a following on a different social networks is the main thing in terms of letting people know that I have a page where they can support me.

I am grateful to all of my patrons, and their support is the biggest part of my motivation to produce personal illustrations.

You’ve done a large number of collaborations, perhaps the most high profile one being the Final Fantasy collaboration. Did they reach out?

Square Enix just contacted me because they found my FF fan arts I uploaded to pixiv.

That’s why I [would like to reiterate] always to draw what you love, and someday, somebody will contact you to pay you for what you’ve been doing.

Then, Ilya met Hideo Kojima.

What sets Kojima apart from many in his field, is the degree to which he uses cinematic elements to strengthen storytelling. He is among the most revered video game designers living, which also comes with one of the largest cult-like followings.

The pictures to follow are taken in Shinagawa, at Kojima’s studio. Originally established as a subsidiary outfit to Konami, Kojima Productions now stands as an independent entity. Below, Kojima’s latest project, Death Stranding.

A cinematic promotional trailer for Death Stranding, Kojima's latest work

Hideo Kojima. You like his work, he likes yours. How’d that happen?

That was a funny story!

Kojima’s personal assistant tweeted about Katsuya Terada visiting Kojima Productions, and I replied “I wanna come too!” and then Kojima tweeted “Sure, please come!”—looks like sometimes, you just need to ask.
Ilya meets Hideo

Sure, the physical meeting between the two was the result of a simple ask, but in reality, Kojima sees beyond the artwork, and can appreciate the hard work that went in to the results produced by Ilya, just as much as Ilya looks to Kojima as one of his favorite creators.

From here, I wanted to dive into Ilya’s mental space, to see what exactly was going on upstairs when creation activates.

Take me through the basic outline of creating a piece.

It starts with the emotion and idea I want to express, then it’s rough image of color and composition in my head, and after that I just try to fit the character in created limitations.

I could change something half the way to suit the idea more, but usually it’s just the producing all the way after starting to physically drawing.

Typically when you’ve spent a long time in a place you’d have some sort of imprint of that place, whether it be a mentality, or a physical trait. Does your artwork have any significant influences as a result of your upbringing in Russia?

Of all Russian things, Russian literature had the biggest influence on my artwork, especially Shishkin (Maidenhair) and Pelevin (The Sacred Book of Werewolf).

Do you associate your art with moments in life? With music? If so, expand upon that.

Yes, a lot of my art inspired with the actual tracks!

For example, my black cat portrait I use as a userpic [profile picture across socials] called “Corporation”, and directly inspired by Jack White’s “Corporation” song.

Speak on the colors you use often in your works; lots of blues, pinks, blacks, whites. What do they mean to you? Significance?

I suppose I just prefer to use those to express the strong emotional contrasts in pieces.

The way you stage composition is very powerful in your art; expand if possible.

Thank you!

After working on storyboarding I became really mindful of usage of space, silhouettes and chiaroscuro. You can say a lot just by placing shapes, and I really love creating interesting compositions out of simple shapes even without any characters or real objects.

You’re probably wondering what that long word means, right?

Chiaroscuro means light and shadow in Italian, and originated during the Renaissance with the intention of creating depth and evoking more emotions by adjusting levels between light and shadows within a portrait or picture. Artists such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn—usually just referred to as Rembrandt—and Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, known by many simply as Leonardo da Vinci, helped spearhead this; the latter especially.

Often applied with another technique known to artists as sfumato to accentuate specific parts of a painting, chiaroscuro has withstood the test of time (despite some dips throughout art history, as far as popularity goes) and is considered a pivotal technique used widely in industry-level works, still today. You can see this shown in the pictures above.

Ilya is a master of this technique. If you seek out specific works, his use of negative space is incredibly surgical. Shadows play a very important part, especially given the colors often used in personal works, to the overall composition of drawings he produces. This is why I mentioned that his composition game is strong as hell; it shows, through and through, that he’s mastered classic techniques and is able to employ them in a balanced way. Very few artists, even in similar positions, are able to achieve this at the level Ilya does.

He’s not completely satisfied with stagnation, though. A seemingly recurring theme is always taking on a new challenge and exploring new ground; perhaps collaborations are a good way to see that come to fruition.

Your goal is to become an animator; for now you are satisfied with projects you’ve got going on. What’s the move afterwards, though?

My biggest goal is to become an animation director, but I also really want to help and learn from my favorite creators, so I am really looking forward to working with Kojima.

What sort of things do you enjoy about Japan?

Japanese fashion!

Architecture, trains, food, bookstores, people!

Temples, bicycles, music, statues!

Convenience stores, parks and more!

How does the culture in Japan compare to that of your homeland’s in Russia? Does it fit your personality better, or are they both good fits?

Those are so different, and I live both for a different things. In terms of work and career, I feel that Japan is the best place for me.

Favorite food spot in Japan? Best meal you’ve had in Japan?

Hanamaru Udon! I also love yakiniku!

Anywhere you travel to for real-life inspiration as far as locations/environment goes?

Yes, Hakone and Kyoto are my favorites!

There’s a couple of my illustrations inspired by those places.

That’s a lot of exclamation points. Also, for the uninitiated, yakiniku’s similar to Korean barbeque, usually with more thin slices of meat.

It’s a happy sight to see Ilya finally come into his own, though. It’s obvious that he loves the culture of Japan, and has done it justice through his work. Following his story, it’s hard not to root for someone that has such a genuine appreciation for another culture, who has remained humble despite massive success on a global scale, a success which continues to grow annually, with each new venture.

If you’ve never been to Japan, it’s singular in its own right. Know that if you have the opportunity to visit Japan, take it; the culture shock you’ll experience will be heavy but calming, if not familiar with the way relative societies operate. Seemingly in a world of its own at times, you’ll soon see where some of the inspiration for your favorite anime draws from.

The places and facets which Ilya’s listed off are just a fragment of how deep the culture runs. Aesthetics run wild as traditional clashes with modern. It’s no surprise he sees it as a better move for his career.

Which video games do you play to draw inspiration from?

I usually play story-based ones, and there’s a lot of Playstation exclusives there.

The Last of Us, God of War, Detroit, Spider-Man... recently, I really loved CONTROL.
Showing love for CONTROL with some fan art, 2019

How is the workplace environment in Japan?

Japan respects its workforce, but sometimes the pressure is just too much.

You find enjoyment in art; if you never made it this far, would you still be drawing? What would you have been in life career-wise instead?

All I have now is thanks to my drawings, but I can’t say I enjoy drawing.

Sometimes it’s so much stress I actually start thinking about changing careers; but I could totally say that it’ll still gonna be something in entertainment industry.

The stress and pressure which he’s alluding to is all too real; the cutthroat fashion in which Asian societies thrive in can sometimes be a huge negative factor when it comes to one’s mental—often physical—condition.

Although it has gotten better over the last few decades, the salaryman archetype is still alive and well. Sometimes seeking out unrealistic dreams of hegemony, corporations push their workers to the limits. Working over 100 hours within a 5-day week is not uncommon, especially in creative-based or tech-based professionals, even more so if it has to do with video games, for reasons such as extreme milking of product for net revenue.

Of course, these are broad strokes; mileage may vary depending on whether or not you’re a foreigner, your position, company, and geographic location within whichever Asian country.

It’s my hope that Ilya maintains his passion for art, and doesn’t allow the pressure from work to wipe his penchant for drawing away. Below, his largest painting.

Lake Jump [rotated for effect], 2019

What video game collaborations do you see yourself wanting to do in the near or far future?

Totally Yoko Taro and Hideo Kojima.

Many people look up to you as an idol in the art realm, wanting to emulate your style. How has that felt?

It’s really strange for me, but I appreciate it.

Did you ever think you were going to be this large on a global scale? You have one of the largest followings of any artist in the world across each: Instagram, Twitter, and Patreon.

That was actually never the goal.

I just wanted to be in industry, and the social following helped with that, so I am really grateful to all of my fans, followers and patrons.

If you could do something over again in a different way, what would it be, and why?

Looking back, everything happened as it should have been happened. All the stress and anxiety, depression and uncertainty; taught me to be grateful for everything I have.

What’s some advice you could offer those out there who look up to you that want to take the leap of faith and become an artist and invest money and time? Is a degree necessary?

hanks to the internet, you have all the resources you need to become good at anything you want.

Don’t be scared. Just google, learn, and practice a lot.

What’s the most important message want to be heard?

Love yourself.

Never give up.

Be kind.

Ilya is of a rare breed; someone revered in both personal and professional life, as well as someone who was able to carve their own lane. Humble in nature yet hungry in approach, he continues to thrive in a home away from home. Finally happy.

Although the dream at first was to relocate to Japan and learn from the masters, it changed to achieving a slot within the animation industry at a professional level. Once achieved, it changed yet again to become a director. This speaks to Ilya’s determination to succeed and produce the best work possible.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe the dream we all constantly chase is to love ourselves, never give up, and to be kind. Sometimes harder to achieve than not, it’s an eternal struggle which we all want to conquer sooner than later. The dream Ilya speaks of, is perhaps finding himself, and being happy with that, appreciating whatever comes along with it, be it fame or fortune.

Wound, 2008
Astral Chain, 2019

However cliche it sounds, the trajectory of his career is evidence that with enough practice, nearly anything is possible, it just isn’t going to happen overnight. A testament to the idea that progression will come with dedication, and without self-discipline, it’s not a realistic goal.

Whether it’s Russia, or Japan, or some other country, Ilya’s work remains timeless.

We need not know his complete identity; his art has one all its own.

As for his next move, we sit back and wait.