About the Cover: Journeys

The artist behind our July cover on how she ended up working everywhere from Iceland to Japan.

Jovanna Tosello has had a migratory existence. After growing up in Glendale, California, the 32-year-old illustrator, animator, and designer has resided in Iceland, Shanghai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Brazil (her parents’ native country), and New York, where she now lives. Tosello’s cover image for Topic’s Journeys issue was directly inspired by those experiences: the central figure strides past Shanghai’s Peace Hotel sign, Icelandic islands, and Brazilian monstera leaves.

“When you’re removed from the comforts of normal, day-to-day life, or even your ability to communicate with other people,” she says, “you get to look around and notice things that maybe you would not have noticed if you were in your normal life.”

Aside from her regular freelance work and her day job at NBC News as an editorial graphics producer, Tosello is now working on a short animated children’s film inspired by winter in Reykjavik. Topic recently spoke to the artist about her nomadic life, how she sorts out the best ideas for illustrations, and her early childhood aversion to drawing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


You have a background in animation and television, including your current job at NBC. How did you get started in this kind of work—and were you always drawn to animation?

I feel like everyone always says, “When I was a kid, the first thing I would do is draw.” But I was pretty unartistic and uncreative—I didn't want to draw because I thought it was a waste of time. I originally wanted to be in computer science. But there was this point where I grew a little frustrated with my inability to draw. I thought people seemed to be having so much fun—they just seemed to really enjoy it. I wanted that.

I tackled it like, “I'm going to climb this mountain.” I did a lot of life-drawing classes, and I did a lot of live drawing. I would go to the zoo and draw animals. I would carry around this giant sketchbook, and I would fill it with life drawings as much as I could. I ended up going to CalArts for the character animation program, and it was kind of a happy accident. It was very much Disney-inspired—it was actually initiated by Walt Disney as an incubator program. I think I rebelled a little bit against it; I was not, you know, singing, “A Whole New World” in the studios like a lot of my classmates. But I realized that I really did enjoy using illustration to create something that had sort of the feelings I was trying to convey.

Right after I graduated from CalArts in 2008, it was during the financial crisis and there was a lot of insecurity at the time. I was dating someone who was from Iceland, and he came up with this idea: “We might not get jobs—why don’t we move to Iceland, and we can live in my mom’s basement rent-free?” I thought, Oh yeah, that sounds neat. But eventually we decided to leave Iceland and move back to L.A., and that’s where I started working for NBC on streaming animation. Then I got a job offer from the Daily Show in New York, where I started in 2017.

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One of Tosello’s initial sketches, after she settled on the theme of “journey and adventure.”
A more abstract approach that tries to capture that feeling of being transported to an exciting new realm or dimensional plane to be discovered.

How did you end up living in Shanghai and Tokyo?

I originally went to Shanghai with the Swatch Art Peace Hotel residency, and I was there long enough that I was able to pick up Mandarin and travel using this language ability.

One of my first television jobs was actually for Tokyo Broadcasting. I got hired to design an animated television show that was meant for children—we would create 2-D animated episodes, as well as mascots for puppeteers or puppeteers with live-action actors, or even mascots that someone would get to inhabit and dance around in, which was super fun.

Coming from an animated film background, I’m always sort of thinking in scenes. Sometimes I don’t know if that always helps the illustration—sometimes it can hold me back, because there are some illustrations that kind of don’t exist within a cinematic frame. I can be a little focused on depth, or producing some sort of 3-D feel.

We experimented with the idea of finally arriving somewhere, and that moment of relief to have finally made it.
A sketch that depicts feeling accomplished, looking out, and taking everything in.

What’s your process for working on an image like the one you made for Topic’s July 2019 cover?

I’ll read the briefs a few times to make sure I understand the overall feel. I want to get a pretty solid understanding of what the art director wants and how it will fit in context.

I do like to use references on occasion—usually if there’s a particular pose that I need, or if there’s a certain kind of body language, I’ll try to find an image online or just pose myself in front of a mirror. Just through my animation background, that was something really common that animators have to do: sit in front of a mirror to see how your mouth is used to express certain words, or even just the position of your hands and wrists.

Then I’ll go through several sketches—just sort of general ideation. And then I’ll step away. Usually, I’ll go for a walk. I feel like that’s important, to cleanse your palette. Usually I’ll look at my sketches with a different perspective. The process of coloring and finalizing is pretty tedious for me: I want it to be perfect. You end up making these tweaks that, in the end, may not matter. But they’re part of the process of birthing this project.

I originally illustrated in Adobe Flash—I’m sure nobody does that now, but I was coming from the animated world. But I transitioned from Flash to Photoshop. Mostly I work digitally, although sometimes I will make sketches in a sketchbook with a ballpoint pen.

“Coming from an animated film background, I’m always sort of thinking in scenes.”

Since this is Topic’s Journeys issue, do you have any upcoming trips you want to tell us about that you’re excited for?

I feel like if you had asked me ten years ago, I would have a long list of unknown places. But now that I’m a little bit older, I just miss a lot of places that I’ve lived, where I have strong connections to places and people. I would like to travel back there—to go to our old favorite coffee shops or cook dinner together, doing all the things that I now find really important. For me, travel is not always about the conquest of going to a new city. I want to enjoy the community I have in those places I used to live.

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