People: Sveta Dorosheva

By Payal Khandelwal

A deep fascination for fairytales, mythology and medieval scripts, among other things, finds its way into Sveta Dorosheva’s absolutely enchanting works. Sveta is a freelance illustrator and artist based in Rehevot, Israel.  

After living in Ukraine for most of her life, she decided to move in with her parents in Israel to be able to pursue arts wholeheartedly. She evolved as an artist by self-training, and by employing her practical experiences in the advertising industry. She mostly creates hand drawn illustrations on paper, and has primarily worked on book illustrations so far. She merges a lot of traditional/mythical motifs with her own interesting contemporary ideas. In a lot of her work, including her series ‘My Childhood’, past is often juxtaposed with the present.

In this extensive conversation, we speak to Sveta about growing up in Ukraine, life in Israel, her fascination for all things “strange”, her inspirations, her current dilemmas and more.

Tell us something about your childhood.

I grew up in an industrial city called Zaporozhye in Ukraine (at that time it was still USSR). I had a very happy childhood. I grew up in a yard with many kids, and we spent most of the days outdoors. The vicinity included a small forest, the city mortuary, the red river with red fish (It was actually the factory waste sewer which fell into Dnieper river in beautiful red stripes. As a child, I used to think that all small rivers were red), and the nudist beach with red-colored nudists. I have to admit that I grew up in a fairy tale – it all sounds bizarre now.

My school years were also quite ordinary for a Soviet kid. I was rather ambitious and studied well in school, which basically means I do not remember school years so well. It was all a big monotonous phase of studies.

What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?

I guess I could pick some bits and pieces, but it wasn’t really anything in particular. I grew up in a family which was not quite clued into the arts. My dad is an engineer and my mom is a programmer.

We did have one art book at home though, which I discovered under the debris in a cupboard when I was about four, and I do remember spending hours reading it. It was a book of photographed antique sculptures. I was in love with Apollo. I was sure that Apollo was the most beautiful creature I’ll ever see in my life.

Fairytales made a huge impact on me while growing up. I was read to a lot. I was a very unhealthy child and stayed in bed rather often, and my dad would read to me a lot of fairy tales. I think I knew most of them by heart.


Sveta Dorosheva

When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

Rather late. Probably, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to treat drawing as something more than a pastime if it hadn’t been forced upon me. At first I wasn’t even remotely close to being an illustrator. I worked as an interpreter, assistant, designer, and then went on to work in an ad agency – as an art director and then as a creative director. I’ve worked in advertising for about seven years, and by that time, I was married and had a son. And it turned out that drawing was no longer possible – my family and career ate up all of my time.

But I gradually realized that that I wasn’t ready to sacrifice drawing for either. That was the time I first admitted to myself that it might be more than just a pleasurable couple of hours from time to time. The next steps weren’t easy, but evident. If all three (family, work, drawing) couldn’t fit into one life, I had to let one go. Obviously, it couldn’t be my family so I decided to quit my job with the intention of somehow making it in the illustration field.

When and why did you move from Ukraine to Israel?

It was right about that time – seven years ago. I had quit my advertising career, was pregnant with my second son, and I was clueless as to what exactly the next steps should be. So I thought of moving in with my parents who had lived in Israel for over ten years by that time.  And that really helped. Starting something new is always easier when the environment is completely new as well.

Did you have a formal training in art?

Regrettably, I don’t have an academic training in art, although I have been trying to fill this gap in many ways. I still keep discovering things that are probably considered basics for a sophomore art student.

I had a crooked way of becoming an artist, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I started out with copying works of the artists I liked. That way, I was able to somehow understand how the lines and patterns work. I learned to stylize by copying as well. Those were nice skills, but the problem was that I couldn’t really deliver what I wanted because there was no freedom of drawing – I just didn’t know enough to be able to draw what I had in mind.

I’ve never had a problem with ideas, thanks to my ad agency experience, but I was very limited by what I could actually implement. I lacked (and still lack) knowledge in composition, anatomy, color, perspective, and techniques. I kept hitting the wall. So, I started to fill in the gaps with short-term training and self-education. And I am still doing that.

How was your experience in the advertising industry?

Well, I went into advertising because I thought it was a “creative” job. Well, it is, but it is also many other things I wouldn’t want to dwell upon. I remember the last couple of years as a rather tiresome experience, overloaded with social contact and cynicism towards the industry. But overall, I am grateful for my experience in advertising. It taught me everything I needed to know about working with clients, which turned out to be rather valuable in illustration. After all, technically it’s the same thing – briefs, deadlines, feedback, presentation, etc. That experience allows me to make quick guesses whether a project is worth my effort even at the stage of the briefing. So seven years in advertising gave me an almost magic eyesight – the ability to spot a crazy client or a futile brief right from the start. That saved a lot of time and gray hair.

Also, as I was saying, advertising is a nice training in terms of generating ideas. One just develops it as a knack, a skill. It has got nothing to do with the muses and inspiration – it’s just work. I still keep the same routine that I used to as an art director: I first write all the ideas for the illustration and then describe them with words, just like I used to do for a TV commercial or a print ad. I love this practice because writing is ruthless. I can always estimate whether I really understand the idea myself and therefore, if it can be implemented or not. Only then I do the sketches and so on. I am never calm until this idea-writing stage is complete, because only then I know whether I have something or if I am just deceiving myself with the beautiful fog that’s actually concealing the absence of a clear and implementable idea.

I had a crooked way of becoming an artist, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I started out with copying works of the artists I liked. That way, I was able to somehow understand how the lines and patterns work.



Weird Anatomy

How do you balance between personal projects and commercial work?

I am still trying to figure out this balance. I’d say the balance is rather off at the moment because most of my work is personal. My book illustrations are always personal. As for commissions, I am rather particular about picking only those that I am instantly interested in, or inclined to develop an interest in. Frankly speaking, even with commissions that I take up strictly for money – and that does happen – I end up taking a personal interest in them as the work progresses. I think that is a common human trait – one gets attached to the work one is doing at the moment because it’s a large time and effort investment, and that way any work is personal. Well, almost.

If you mean that question money-wise, you’ve caught me at a turning point. Basically, that is the essence of the question, isn’t it? How to balance between what you love doing and what the market expects you to do and is ready to pay for. Otherwise it’s a hobby. And this is why many book illustrators are currently at the crossroads, because books are evidently dying. Unless one is working for a very young age group (small kids that are being read to by their parents), one cannot ignore the fact that illustrated literature is giving way to more contemporary entertainments for teenagers and young adults. A printed book just cannot compete any more, and it’s being squeezed out of the mass market. That’s just a fact of modern life.

So, I guess this ‘balance question’ is actually something I keep trying to figure out in these new circumstances. Illustrating books is fascinating, but one can hardly afford it anymore. I am trying to shift from book illustration at the moment, but so far the effort has been futile. Compared to other commissioned work, book illustration is too seductive. So far, I am drifting with the tide (books + large commissions + regular clients like magazines), but I do feel the decision has ripened to move on to something new.

I am particularly fascinated with your current series on Facebook – My Childhood. Can you talk about that project?  

‘My Childhood’ is a series of illustrations for a new book. It started out from a completely unexpected perspective. I have three kids, all boys- aged 3, 7 and 11. Several years ago, I started keeping something like a journal about them on my Facebook page – different stories, fun incidents and observations about how kids perceive life and things. Surprisingly, these stories became rather popular and gathered quite an audience. I was offered to write a book based on these stories. It’s a fake ‘how to’ book, embracing most arguable questions of parenthood, but never really yielding a single sober advice. People shouldn’t be taught how to handle their kids. They should in fact be comforted with the fact that parenthood is the most perplexing task in the universe, and so whatever they are doing, they are doing a great job. Mistakes and failures are inevitable. Joys and rewards are sporadic. But with a little humor and philosophy, the whole parenting business is a priceless way of observing life.

It was my editor’s idea to illustrate the text about my kids with scenes from my own childhood. I found a subtle twist to that. After all, if adults clearly remembered themselves as kids, there would have been much less anxiety about their own kids’ future. Memory tends to erase all the weird, strange, adventurous, dangerous, crazy, lazy and plain stupid things and ideas that one used to have as a kid, because now you are “a normal adult”. Evidently, you couldn’t have grown into such a cute member of society, if you didn’t study well and behave and gather wisdom from every word that left your parents’ mouth. I am simplifying, but that’s the way memory works – it substitutes things.

Also, as I was drawing this series, I couldn’t help but notice how dramatically different my childhood was from that of my kids, and yet the core things that make up a childhood are the same – the freshness of perception, the agony of growing up, the mischief, and the absence of lines between what’s real and what’s not.


My Childhood

Also, as I was drawing this series, I couldn’t help but notice how dramatically different my childhood was from that of my kids, and yet the core things that make up a childhood are the same – the freshness of perception, the agony of growing up, the mischief, and the absence of lines between what’s real and what’s not.

Tell me a bit about the making of the project.

As for the ‘making of’, the initial concept is always the most painful thing.  It takes forever, and is completely out of control. The only reason I don’t give up on things at that torturous stage is that by now I know that being clueless doesn’t mean anything. I have been completely clueless at the start of each project, and that is the only part of my work that I do consider a miracle – somehow nothing always turns into something.

Finally, I arrived at the concept that it should be 22 incidents from my childhood, loosely related to the topics of the 22 texts. The illustrations should balance between the ‘child’s eyesight perception’ (magic, unreal, enchanted, yet taken for granted as solid facts of life – just as kids do) and brutal truth (things that did actually take place and were actually the way they are depicted in the illustration. The trick is – the reality is often way wilder that anything I could invent).

It took me about two weeks to choose the technique, find the combination of matching paper, nibs and inks. Then I laid out the book and drafted about half the drawings, hoping that the other half will come easy when I gain speed in the middle of the project (which is exactly how it happened). The rest of it is fast and easy, because it’s the fun and rewarding part of the job – drawing.

If you had to describe your work to someone who has never seen it, how will you describe it?

I don’t know. It probably depends on which particular work I have to describe. Also, I’ve noticed that my own perception and that of the audience are quite different. People usually mention (Aubrey) Beardsley as reference to my work, so I guess that is how it is generally perceived. Ironically, Beardsley is probably the only artist whom I have never copied and never really studied in detail. I saw his work when I was a teenager and he scared me to death. I’ve never really taken a close look at his work ever since.

How does Israel inspire you and your work?

I like Israel. I often have a feeling that I live in some type of a parallel world – it’s so different from everything I’m used to. I like just about everything in Israel – cities, people, culture (incredible mix of cultures, to be more exact), values, attitudes, and lifestyle. I don’t like the war, but that’s obvious.

In terms of my illustrations, surprisingly, I don’t work in the local market. I have clients all over the world, including Russia, Ukraine, Great Britain, USA, India, Azerbaijan, China and other countries, except Israel. Of course, that can be explained but that’s a lot of nuisance.

Again, this is a question of current importance to me. I don’t know why, but only recently have I realized that Israel is a huge resource for an artist. It has everything – the locations, the people, the cultures – all coming together in an unimaginable mix of east and west, modern and ancient and whatnot. I started to draw quick sketches in the streets and it struck me (again) how helpless imagination is compared to real life. You see, life is so rich and versatile and moody that rendering what you actually see is way more difficult than making something up. I don’t know where these sketches of local life will lead me, maybe nowhere, but they have given me a better knack for observing life and people. I am also starting to understand the ukiyo-e artists way better than I used to.


Life in Israel

You have done extensive research on medieval scripts. When did that start?

It started around ten years ago when the first large digital libraries started to appear. It wasn’t really research. I’ve just spent a lot of time looking through various medieval manuscripts and wondering about things. Nothing serious, just bewilderment. You know (Hieronymus) Bosch? Until one has taken a close look at the medieval manuscripts, one might think he was an alien or something. But after reading those scripts you understand that he was a true son of his epoch; it was just the way people perceived life, religion and morals at that time. And what’s more, we are just as strange, if not stranger. It’s just that we live inside the current situation, current beliefs and knowledge, and take it for granted.

What are some of things/observations that have deeply inspired you over the years?

I like strange things. Strange people, odd science, mysterious phenomena, kooky facts of life and historic events, weird nature, impossible creatures, bizarre rituals, etc. Basically, I am deeply influenced by how incredible the world actually is. I am convinced that actual life is way more imaginative than anything an artist could ever conceive. Music is an exception. That art is unique in terms of its own language and its own creative force nurtured by and nurturing the soul directly, bypassing reality.

From time to time, I also get interested in something absolutely absurd, yet real – I mean, the most astonishing thing is that it really existed or exists. It can be a historic period, a phenomenon (hairstyles of the 18th century, sideshow circus, witchcraft, etc.), a beautiful or mysterious science (alchemy, botany, ritual gardens’ design, antique maps, sky atlases, bestiaries), or delve into the debris of another art (B-movies, film noir, music, dance, weird books etc.)

I have a blast looking though say six gigantic volumes depicting flowers of the lily family. Just because I can’t help thinking ‘There was this artist who drew all of these beautifully rendered flowers, page by page, thousands of them! He picked a ‘pose’ for each flower, engraved carefully the seed, the stem, the stages of bloom – each a work of art on its own. How much of his life did he dedicate to these lily flowers?’

Another example: one of the first manuscripts that I happened to see was about an enormous two-volume manuscript on fighting from around 1500, each page depicting a pair of gentlemen in different positions, with or without swords or sticks or other weapons, and some text was scribbled underneath. All the gentlemen were dressed according to the fashion of the period – puffy sleeves and flamboyant pantaloons, very ostentatious attire in fact – and the artist dressed them all differently! I understand there was no television, games or Facebook at that time but still, how much time did he spend on this artbook? A lifetime? How passionate can one get about illustrating a book!

You see, I am fascinated by people who dedicate their lives to something very trivial, yet do so with such majestic renunciation and produce something stupid, volatile and astonishing. It is about passion. I love passion in people.


History Through the Eyes of KROKODIL magazine, XX century

I like strange things. Strange people, odd science, mysterious phenomena, kooky facts of life and historic events, weird nature, impossible creatures, bizarre rituals, etc. Basically, I am deeply influenced by how incredible the world actually is.

You have illustrated for so many books. What kind of books do you personally enjoy reading?

I like novels – long solid classical (in terms of the genre, not epoch) novels. I still like fairy tales and mythical stories. And I like mock and fake books. Like Gorey’s ‘The Recently Deflowered Girl’. From time to time, I take a round on books whose sole merit is simply the fact that they were actually published. For example, ‘An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin’, ‘Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan’, ‘A Popular History of British Seaweeds’, ‘How People Who Don’t Know They Are Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What To Do About It’, etc. These books actually exist. These are real titles. They are not much of a read, but just knowing that they exist makes me wonder. I have also included some of them on the bookshelves in the ‘My childhood’ illustration about reading along with the actual books from my Soviet childhood.

Who are the artists around the world that you really admire?

Oh, many. I admire such living masters of illustration as Kirill Chelushkin, Lev Kaplan, Olga Dugina and Andrei Dugin, Gennady Spirin, Shaun Tan, Lisbeth Zwerger, Rebecca Dautremer, to name a few.

What are you currently working on?

I have just finished the childhood series book, and am currently working on a coloring book for a British publisher and on playing cards. I am now also thinking whether to take on a new book or to try and move on from book illustration to something different.


What is a man?

Ferocious Holyman

Psychedelic Maps


History Through the Eyes of KROKODIL magazine, XX century


All the images are artworks by Sveta Dorosheva.© 

Sveta’s photograph is provided by her.©  


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