Ara Villena works as a freelance illustrator and art director, and is also a member of Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK), which is an organization of children’s book illustrators in the Philippines. Her work has received a number of awards, including the 2017 PBBY-Alcala Prize Honorable Mention and the 2018 PBBY Alcala Prize Grand Prize Winner for her work on Becky Bravo’s story, “May Alaga Kong Bakulaw”. She enjoys reading manga, going on Netflix, and (when she REALLY has time), playing video games. She also loves watching a lot of films, both local and foreign. You can find more of Ara and her work on Instagram, and her website.
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?
I actually had an on and off relationship with art.
I thought being able to create art was just something like an “add-on” to life, a little bonus, a hobby to enjoy and maybe show-off to my classmates, but never really to be pursued as a career. I remember, as a kid, I used to say I wanted to be a fashion designer, because that’s the only career I knew back then that’s related to drawing, because my tita is one. I would also offhandedly state that I want to take Fine Arts in college.
But I never really took it seriously. I even came to dislike being assigned to tasks related to drawing.
I enjoyed a bunch of other things: reading, writing, playing video games, participating in various activities in school like theater, taking on leadership roles, and a lot of extracurriculars. I even had interest in music and dance (no, those didn’t lead anywhere). In fact, at some point, I’d say my dream was to become a novelist!
So more than drawing, I actually wrote a lot more. I wrote short stories, finished one novel that only close high school friends know about, and a lot of unfinished concepts and countless chapter 1’s. I did used to create comics too though: three of them being about me and my group of friends gaining superpowers, as well as a couple of manga-inspired comics I began and never finished.
Going into college, I went with my default answer which was Painting, Fine Arts, but, after a year, I shifted to the College of Mass Communication in UP Diliman, because I was interested in media and video production. Just like in high school, I was still interested in other activities: took classes in acting and writing, took on leadership roles, and other extracurriculars.
So, needless to say, I didn’t do a lot of art during that period. But at some point in the summer of 2013, I discovered a deep interest in children’s book illustration, and since then, took on deliberate actions to discover more about it.
I still didn’t consider it to be a full- time career, which was why, after graduation, I worked for a below-the-line agency as a writer. This took a lot of time off my hands, and it was then that I realized I didn’t like the feeling of being completely detached from creating art. I realized it was a huge part of my life, it was ingrained in me. After getting a couple of side-projects on illustration, I decided to quit my full-time job, and try becoming a freelancer in illustration.
So, I guess that was the moment? Pretty recent: it’s only been more than a year since then!
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
I guess my biggest struggle has been re-establishing myself as an illustrator. I could draw and paint but I didn’t have much to show for it: I had a very limited portfolio apart from my participation in Ang INK’s annual exhibits, and a few projects here and there, but they weren’t enough to showcase what I could do.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
Padayon lang! [Just carry on!] I just kept working and working hard, taking on projects thrown at me, grabbing on to opportunities, and not backing down from challenges. I always try to learn as much as I can, both in work and in my free time.
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
Exposure to lots of different artists and lots of different styles. It helped train my eye and aesthetic, as well as opened up my mind to various ideas, techniques and visual cues to try out.
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I guess I kind of wish I’d known a biiiiit sooner that I would eventually end up on this path. Haha! If I did, I think that even as a Maskom student, I would dedicate more of my free time to improving my skills and studying more about art.
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making your art?
I suppose I am driven by my love for art and telling stories, as well as my desire to improve and learn. My personal exposure to media, art, and books have heavily contributed to or influenced how I think, who I am, and the things that I believe in. In effect, I hope that my art and stories may be able to do the same for others, and impact their lives in a positive way.
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
To be honest, for the past year, my average day has been full of work, work, work. As a freelancer, even though “my time is in my own hands”, I’ve been rather busy with just work, from the moment I wake up to the moments before I sleep. That isn’t as bad as it sounds (well, sometimes it is) because I insert social media, coffee breaks, and random things in between.
It was only in the past month that my workload lightened up a bit, and so I’ve had time to create personal art, try new things and study techniques. With that said, my everyday is now made up of creating personal art, eating, lurking on Instagram, enjoying my cups of coffee, and doing work towards the end of the day!
If that sounds like I rarely leave my apartment, then… yes, that’s exactly it.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
Deal with distractions? I can’t. Haha! But the thing with me is that I can get quite focused when I have my mind set on accomplishing something within the day. When I allow myself to get distracted, that usually means my schedule is pretty lax.
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
Whenever that happens, I look at other art, especially on Instagram and Arstation. I also take out my Shaun Tan books, or watch Studio Ghibli films, or just listen to Studio Ghibli soundtracks. Listening to podcasts or interviews of my favorite artists also work. They never fail to kickstart my inspiration, although this is for personal art.
As for work: the greatest motivation are deadlines! I’ve always been very strict with myself when it comes to deadlines, so I’m constantly motivated to avoid the consequences of being / submitting late.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
Back when I first released my “Buhay” artwork, an artwork I created for the Buhay Movement, an anti-suicide campaign, a lot of people messaged me to show their appreciation. Someone even told me it made them want to cry, and others who said it made them feel warm and light.
I have some very personal artworks that I pour my heart into, and my greatest achievement is when someone feels that, and appreciates it. Being able to successfully communicate the idea, the vision, or the feelings that I want to convey is always a win.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
I’m not sure! I’m not usually the type to dwell on regrets or failures, but when I do, I try my best to highlight insights and take on different perspectives of the experience instead. So, by now, rather than failures, I just look at them as necessary contributions to who I am today.
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
I’m not sure about fans, but as for the rest:
1. Having a website that showcases the kind of work you want to do really helps. If you have work you’re not allowed to post, have a digital file of your portfolio prepared to send to potential clients.
2. Do good, quality work. Personally, return clients sustain me more than gaining new clients.
3. Communicate well. By this, I don’t mean you have to be sociable or friendly (although that helps too). Make sure you keep your communication lines open; meet your deadlines, but if you can’t, tell them ahead of time; don’t disappear, seriously. In short, build trust, and make them feel that they can rely on you to get the job done.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
I don’t exactly have grand dreams, but I do want to become financially capable of fully supporting my parents, maybe afford them a new house where they can retire peacefully, and then afford a nice place of my own. All these I hope to achieve through my art.
One day, I hope to release books and comics of my own creation. I also want to do community work and research, and merge these with my art.
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
Apart from other art, media, and the world around us, the love and support of my family and friends have also been a source of my strength.
Q: What is your big “WHY”? Why do you feel the need to make art? Who are you doing it for? What’s the hidden reason behind your big dream?
I think we all have our own stories to tell. It’s just that my way of doing so is through art (and words too, sometimes!).
Using creativity and illustration to make others feel love and support, like what I’ve been given, woven along with my own personal experiences through the years, I hope to reach the hearts of people who need a little light in their hearts.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the
Ang hirap naman nito! [This is really hard!] I am constantly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s films, Shaun Tan’s books, and, Fullmetal Alchemist (manga and/or Brotherhood). Sorry if that’s cheating! Haha!
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills?
Mindset is everything! Lately, I’ve been obsessed with listening to Chris Oatley’s podcasts on YouTube. They’re very motivational, and they really get me in the mood of working.
I’ve also been watching some episodes of FZD School here and there (on YouTube as well). But, apart from mindset, I think research does the trick. When you’re interested in something (a style, method, how someone does something, etc), research, research, and research! Then practice, of course.
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
Definitely still in the Philippines, but I’d love to be based somewhere in a mountain where it’s cold, in something like a hobbit house, except with large windows and full of sunlight, and preferably with a beautiful view. Somewhere by the sea would also be nice, but maybe the house would still be in the forest area. Haha!
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills? (Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art has inspired you to get better, over the years.)
Life is my biggest mentor. No kidding.
Also, my parents, for their love and support, for trusting and believing in me. My father is a great communicator and he works as a consultant, so he has taught me a lot of things. He encouraged me endlessly, listened to my voice and opinions, and became my own personal consultant as well.
As for my mother, she has always been strong (both mentally and physically, really), sturdy, and able to stand up for herself, even in the face of various challenges. She is a true haligi ng tahanan [pillar of the home], so she was simply the perfect role model for a daughter like me.