Two Twins, One Design Career

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Identical illustrators Anna and Elena Balbusso are winning praise by working together.

Those of a certain age might recall the fictional Cathy and Patty Lane, identical cousins on The Patty Duke Show, and Hayley Mills as Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, identical twins separated at birth in The Parent Trap. Two generations later, Lindsay Lohan portrayed Hallie and Annie in The Parent Trap remake (could the judicial system handle two Lindsays today?). Jeremy Irons played Beverly and Elliot Mantle, evil twin gynecologists, in Dead Ringers. And there's, of course, the Olsen Twins making movies as well. Identical twins, in other words, have long provided a rich vein of entertainment.

The art world also has some famous monozygotic duos, like Doug and Mike Starn of Starn Studio. Right now, another pair of twins are taking the illustration world by storm. Anna and Elena Balbusso from Milan, Italy, who call themselves Anna+Elena=Balbusso, have garnered some of this year's top honors at the Society of Illustrators and elsewhere for images that are enticingly Renaissance and eerily new wave. Their award-winning illustrations for an edition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are darkly luminescent.

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Twins are known to finish each other's sentences and, some say, even read each other's minds. But how can two individuals produce one piece of expressive art? I asked Anna and Elena to explain their similarities and differences as individually as possible, which, given that they finish each other's thoughts, is not as easy as it sounds.


When and where you born and how long after did you decide to become illustrators?

Anna: Sorry, we are women! We prefer not tell our date of birth [laughs]. However, we have been working for 16 years, and full-time with the same signature since 1998. Before moving to Milan to study painting at the Brera Academy, we studied graphic design and photography in high school at the Istituto D'arte G.Sello in our birthplace, Udine in the Friuli Region (in northeast Italy).

Elena: We also studied printmaking techniques such as etching, woodcut, engraving, screenprint, and linocut.

Anna: During the summer holidays in Udine, while we were still studying drawing and painting at The Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan, we worked separately as graphic designers with studios and advertising agencies. Upon graduating, we had intended to work as graphic designers in Milan, but in the mid '90s, advertising and graphics were in crisis so we decided to join the Italian Illustrators Association (as separate illustrators) because drawing has always been our passion since we were three years old.

Elena: We were lucky enough to find an important Italian graphic designer, Angelo Sganzerla, who believed in us and gave us our first commission. From that moment, illustration was our life's work.

Anna: At that time we had separate portfolios and drawings done with various techniques: watercolor, gouache, acrylic, collage. For a couple of years we worked almost exclusively doing packaging with Angelo Sganzerla. At the same time, we were making appointments with publishers and ad agencies to start careers as freelancers.

Elena: Often one of us would get an appointment to show our portfolio. An hour later, the other one would have an appointment with the same person. This didn't help us, there was too much confusion. That's when we created a single identity, but our style still wasn't clear. Our style and our signature began to form in 1999-2000 with the creation of our first website.

There is no mistaking that you are identical twins. Do you work identically too?

Anna: Yes, we are monozygotic twins. But our personalities are not identical even though we have the same genes! We work together concurrently on many projects with different styles and content. Our personalities complement each other.

Elena: We can divide the tasks without difficulty. If we disagree about something, we can discuss and mediate. At the end of each project we must be agreed and convinced of what we did.

Did your illustration style come naturally to you both at the same time?

Elena: Our style continuously and naturally evolves. We prefer to be free to develop ideas. Interpretation is more important than technique and special effects.

Anna: To improve, it is necessary to experiment and take risks. When we visit an art exhibition that suggests changes in our work, we try to do it at the first opportunity. We do not have a preconceived idea of how we will evolve our work in the next years, but we know that will change.

Your work has a Renaissance sensibility. Does this come from your Italian education?

Anna: Yes it does. We never took illustration classes. Our training is more structured. Upon graduation from the Brera Academy, for two years we continued our studies at the University of Milan in art history, modern literature, philosophy, history...

Elena: I think the study of aesthetics, philosophy and art history, not only ancient but also modern and contemporary art, have been vital in helping us in career choices. In all our work there is a clear reference to artists and paintings.

Anna: It is important to study the history of art and to know the past as well as the present. At the same time it is important to know about new trends and tastes. It is also important be careful in projects choice to keep quality of your work keeps growing.

In your work, who leads and who follows?

Anna: Our style has developed from our collaboration. It is not possible to quantify what Anna has given from what Elena has. It would not be possible to work together if one dominates the other.

Elena: If we are doing many different assignments, one of us usually starts to think how to develop a new project. There is no rule. In all cases we decide together the best route to take.

Anna: Making a book is like making a film. It's a team work. We always start by talking and imagining what we want the project to be. The choice of scenes we want to illustrate is very important because it allows us to give our own interpretation. Then we conduct preliminary historical research to understand how best to create the characters and setting. There are many steps to arrive at the end, and the work can be divided.

In addition to illustration, do you each of you have other creative releases, something that belongs to only one of you?

Elena: We have very little free time. I love working as a web and graphic designer. I design our promotional image and website.

Anna: I would like to resume my old passion for photography. I'd like to develop a fine art artistic production.

Do you find being twins and partners easy or difficult?

Elena: We think we are lucky, there is no competition between us.

Anna: For us it is as natural as drinking a glass of water. We share the successes but also the difficulties and fatigue.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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