Attempting to Capture the Soul of a Female Athlete Would Be Risky, Thinks Illustrator Bára Balgová

Attempting to Capture the Soul of a Female Athlete Would Be Risky, Thinks Illustrator Bára Balgová

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Her illustrations are satirical, often controversial, and spark discussions. They can be found in fashion magazines, on book covers, and in advertising campaigns for various brands, from jewelry and watchmakers to snowboard companies and the summer scene at the Kampa Museum. In recent years, Barbora Balgová has shifted her focus from primarily female-centric themes to more commercial projects. She is fascinated by experimenting with materials and working on large-scale projects like Lobby Art. What draws her to sports illustration, and why does she sometimes feel like a dinosaur?

Bára Balgová, photo: Martin Lavický

Bára, the term "digital illustration" might lead some to think that the computer does all the work for you. Can you dispel this myth?

I do encounter this opinion, though fortunately, it's rare. While I use a tablet, I still paint. I still hold a pencil, in this case, an electronic one. So, I still have to spend the time creating the artwork. One hour, five, ten, even more. The computer makes it easier in the sense that I don't need twenty different brushes. Recoloring is obviously easier too. This is great for clients who want to change labels or prepare various versions. It's advantageous for them as well since they still pay for one piece of work, not three.

What path led you to this field?

I studied animation, where I first encountered drawing on a tablet. After hundreds of hours of traditional hand drawing, it was a complete "wow" moment for me! This was followed by studies in visual communication and product design, from which I smoothly transitioned into advertising. Clients started reaching out to me, interested in digital artwork. Now I feel a bit like a dinosaur (laughs). I feel that digital illustration is gradually becoming a classic form of art and that, compared to artificial intelligence, it's like drawing with charcoal on paper.

Bára Balgová, Serena Williams, Nike, Harper's Bazaar

Could this trend soon put you out of work?

Fortunately, clients come to me because they want original artwork. They know my brand and don't ask me for something like an image for an e-shop, where I believe AI can handle the job. I have never done those smaller images anyway. Even those would take me, let's say, twenty hours of work, which the client wouldn't pay for. For every trend, there is a counter-trend. As AI is on the rise, so is the demand for original works.

The topic of the female athlete's soul would be really interesting. In recent years, these topics have been opening up a lot, which is great because it's necessary to talk about them. But it has also attracted many people who are more focused on boosting their marketing.

Can AI replicate your work?

I tried it once. It happened by accident because a client forgot to confirm that they wanted the illustration. They confirmed the order three days before the deadline. With the drawing style I do and other clients I had at the time, it was impossible for me to create the illustration in three days. So, I needed AI to create an illustration in my style. I asked two friends who are experts. One came quite close, about sixty percent. Maybe if you spend a lot of time on it, say a week, it might produce something. But at that point, it's better to spend those hours drawing rather than generating.

One thing AI definitely couldn't handle is the female soul that inspired you at the beginning of your career. Why this theme?

I was young, single, and surrounded by a bubble of similar friends. We were the "young professionals," "yuppies." We lived for our work and socializing over drinks, where we had our women's talks. I worked with what women feel, what they have inside. Whether it’s some anger, frustration, or defiance, but always with a positive twist. The first clients started to come in. Many of them, from magazines to books to brands, most often targeted a female audience. So I stayed within the women's theme box. In recent years, I've delved even more into commercial work. The topics are diverse and very interesting. Women will probably never disappear from my work, but the core is no longer just women and their feelings. It's more universal.

Bára Balgová, Bad Boys, ilustrated specifically for Sport in Art

You often depicted unspoken, even shocking truths that a woman might admit to herself at most, but certainly not to her surroundings. However, you seemed to avoid athletes, who surely have a lot to offer in this regard. Why is that?

I think the topic of the female athlete's soul would be really interesting. However, it's a double-edged sword. In recent years, these topics have been opening up a lot, which is great because it's necessary to talk about them. But it has also attracted many people who are more focused on boosting their marketing. Women, women's feelings, the suppression of women, it's everywhere. And suddenly there's a backlash. Instead of listening, people perceive it negatively. The injustices against women in sports and beyond should not be silenced. But if they dominate, they can easily overshadow great, inspiring achievements. Balancing this topic is immensely difficult. That's why I decided to take a slightly different path.

But you have had a few purely sports illustration projects.

My work depends on the clients who approach me. Sometimes clients from the sports world come to me. For example, I illustrated hockey players as comic book heroes for the Třinec hockey club. Last year, I illustrated tennis player Serena Williams for an article about Nike in Harper's Bazaar magazine. I also did a portrait of cyclist Chris Froome for Hospodářské noviny. I also contributed to Adidas' campaign to support women's football, sponsoring Sparta players. We created illustrated motivational scarves, which were then used in social activation. That was a very nice project. And I'm also happy about the snowboard design for the Beany brand. It's a snowboard for kids, especially girls around twelve years old.

It seems like your enthusiasm for sports illustration won't leave you anytime soon.

Indeed, there's another very current project. During this spring, my friend and I plan to make an art bike. Together with my husband, we're building the perfect urban e-bike, the E-CAFE BIKE. We joined forces for a contest and prepared an illustrated bike. We didn't win the contest, but we decided to make it anyway. Just with slightly different illustrations.

Speaking of sports, how are you personally with physical activity?

When I was young, my mom forced me to ski, and of course, I hated it because I wanted to sit at home and draw, not climb hills. But now I see sports as an integral part of the work process. After all, drawing, graphics, design, and art are very sedentary occupations, and one needs movement, both for health reasons and to refresh the mind, to think better. It reflects a lot in my work. So, I go to fitness training, add cardio and swimming, and on weekends, I take longer hikes in the mountains. Plus, my boyfriend is a hockey coach. So, we can't avoid sports; we're always on the move.

Bára Balgová, Art Bike

Do you collect art?

In the beginning, I lived in really small apartments in Prague. I didn't have space or a sense of something of my own, so I naturally wasn't inclined to accumulate more than I could pack into three bags when moving. I'm getting into it now, starting with pieces from friends or artists I've met in recent years. The last time I treated myself to art was with drawings by Jiří Grus from fine arts and a chair from Vrtiška and Žák in product design. I prefer to go for interesting pieces that I come across, maybe at Designblok.

What do you think of contemporary Czech illustration, and who has impressed you recently?

We have a great many talented people here in the Czech Republic. Some top designers from the current scene are even my former classmates. Of course, I also follow other names, but I focus more on other fields than illustration. Photography, product design, glass, fashion, jewelry. I think it's much better for inspiration to have a broader perspective and open eyes. People who only follow their field tend to have a narrower view, and it shows in their work. They progress less, which I see, for example, in my students from the digital illustration course. They develop their own original style more slowly.

Bára Balgová, campaign for Sparta and the Adidas brand, Team Spirit

When it comes to digital art, what's your approach to the phenomenon of NFTs? Do you plan to venture into this direction as well?

I feel like this overhyped trend left the mainstream as quickly as it came. I have the impression that NFTs now mostly live within the gaming community, computer enthusiasts, and people interested in the crypto scene. When I think back to that rocket start, it seems to me that the enthusiasm around it quickly subsided, and today, only a few pieces from the golden beginnings hold real value. But maybe it's just my lack of knowledge and the fact that I don't have people around me who talk about it intensively.

You've been involved in illustration for over ten years. What's your greatest accomplishment?

That's hard to say. I probably can't pinpoint which project was the best. Each had something great about it, something I'm grateful for and that made me happy. But to avoid being just a sunny optimist who thinks positively and then everything good comes naturally, it's necessary to work hard for clients to come and pay you well for your work. Just having a positive attitude really isn't enough (laughs).

What is your dream?

My dream is definitely to maintain diversity in collaborations and connect with people who excel in quality craftsmanship in different fields. In the Czech Republic, I collaborate, for example, with precision jewelry making, top-notch surgery, and talented designers. I enjoy connecting with people from other fields and bridging our worlds. My dream is to continue this, also on the international stage.

A Czech illustrator with Slovak roots. She studied Footwear Design at the Secondary School of Applied Arts in Uherské Hradiště, Animated Film, and Visual Communication with Product Design in Zlín. In the early days of Barbora Balgová's digital illustration career, the main distinguishing feature was women and their often shocking thoughts. She also painted significant Czech personalities, such as Olga Havlová and Marta Kubišová. In recent years, Barbora has shifted into the purely commercial sphere. For the second year, she's preparing covers for the magazine Amazing. From illustrations for last year's editions, a three-meter painting was created, and exhibited in the lobby of the Emblem design hotel in Prague's Old Town Square, serving as a springboard for the illustrator's Lobby Art style. In the future, the author would like to focus on larger, luxurious projects utilizing printing on various materials.

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Published 28.05.2024

Svět umění ji lákal od dětství, kdy se toužila stát sochařkou, designérkou nebo módní návrhářkou. Vrcholový sport ji ale určil jiný směr. Pod dívčím jménem Sudová reprezentovala Česko v akrobatickém lyžování na třech světových šampionátech a olympiádách v Turíně a Vancouveru. Během sportovní kariéry vystudovala ekonomii a podlehla kouzlu psaní. Je autorkou mnoha úspěšných fejetonů, podílela se na knihách Zlatý a bronzový Vancouver a Naše hory, lyže a sníh a v roce 2015 napsala společně s manželem – bývalým běžcem na lyžích Alešem Razýmem, fejetonistický cestopis Lyžníci v Karibiku. Miluje běhání po horách, přírodu, svou rodinu a sklářské řemeslo rodných Jizerek. V současné době je PR manažerkou Olymp Centra sportu Ministerstva vnitra.

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