top of page

London Illustrated: In Conversation with Elisa Terranera

Image provided by Elisa Terranera

To think of the multitude of ways in which London is perceived by others is to be overwhelmed. A city with such dynamism is hard to capture through one lens, though there are certain mediums which provide clarity to this multifaceted task. A few months ago, I stumbled upon Elisa Terranera’s work through Instagram, particularly her piece titled “Notice”, with the caption: ‘Comic about conversations I overheard in London’. Instantly attention-grabbing through the array of colours used —cool blue, bright lime green, soft magenta— Elisa’s illustrations felt like a familiar sensation. As per the name of this project, the following panels featured scenes of various individuals and their interactions on the street, in cafes, in restaurants, or on buses. None of their dialogue was depicted through legible words, but through lines and scribbles, all somehow completely comprehensible and representative of recognisable tones and emotions. On an otherwise bleak winter’s day, the comic brought a form of radiance into the seemingly simple quotidien routines that we each encounter, prompting me to inquire more about Elisa’s creative process and what inspired these relatable panels. Upon speaking to her, I realised our common ground of having grown up in the same little neighbourhood within Rome, and both being relatively new to London after moving to study here, were perhaps details which attested to my gravitation towards her work.

Cover page of 'Notice' by Elisa Terranera, 2021.

Where are you from and what influence does this place have on your work?

I’m from Italy, from Rome precisely. I grew up in the neighbourhood of Trastevere and I only moved to London last year to start my studies. I think that what I gained from Rome is my love for life drawing; as a kid, my mum would take me to speed draw in Piazza di San Cosimato where I could practice with proportions or monuments, which are obviously everywhere around the city. I also drew in Gianicolo, and Villa Pamphili, which are both dynamic locations. I think what I developed was an interest in observing crowds, because Rome is constantly full of people, tourists, and everything is always happening in the squares and streets— something which I find it has in common with London, even though London doesn’t specifically have a “piazza life” as Rome has.

I grew up in Trastevere as well! As a child I also spent time in San Cosimato, and I can see how it is the ideal place to capture movement and activity— the daily produce market, kids in constant motion as they play, and the general vibrancy of the piazza. Though seeing as the two cities are quite different, what exactly inspired you to move to London?

Well, I moved to London mainly because of my studies, because I knew that here illustration is taught in a much broader and experimental way, whilst in Rome, it’s very academic and theoretical. Of course, both approaches have pros and cons, but I wanted to push myself and maybe try to get out of my comfort zone. This is mainly why I moved, but I guess I started to really enjoy London when I arrived here. The timing wasn’t the best, as I started in 2020 and everything was online due to the pandemic, but now, thanks to my university, my work is becoming more diverse. This is in the sense of materials, formats, and more.

Based on your experience, what do you think the city offers to artists?

My personal feeling is that here, exhibitions, even just interactions and events, happen with more ease than in Rome, which can sometimes feel a bit still. I don’t know if that’s just a feeling I have because I recently moved here since I have this fresh perspective on a new city, or if my impression is correct. Probably it’s due to the fact that in London, most people I’ve met are here temporarily, and it’s like they want to chase the moment and truly do what they want to do. Of course, there are things that happen in Rome, but the way in which these events occur is at a different pace.

I agree, I’ve always found my life in London to be somewhat hypersocial. If one day I have an absence of plans in London, something feels wrong, whereas in Rome I can have a completely uneventful day and still be relaxed about it. They definitely invoke a different sense of routine. What has London taught you in the short time you’ve been living here?

I’ve mastered the perfect layered outfit since I have to dress like an onion to live here! I’ve suffered from the cold a lot, but this is the most trivial thing. I guess to make a place feel truly like home you have to do the job yourself and actually take care of it, take care of the place and the people that surround you. Also, I’ve gained a lot of patience, as well as initiative.

In a place like London, patience is key. As someone who is also not from London, I am very curious about different people’s experiences in the city, and their perceptions of the lifestyle. I know how rich my experience has been as someone who views the city, as you said, with a fresh pair of eyes. So, what specifically drew me to your work was your comic about conversations you overheard in London. I really enjoyed that, because it offers a familiar perspective in such a unique way— I could relate to the way the different scenes were being observed, as if the illustrations were through my eyes. It was impressive how you could convey everything so clearly without using any words, something I admire as a writer who relies on her words immensely. I’d love for you to describe it, the process behind it, the story, and what it means to you.

Thank you, first of all! The idea came up during a commute to my university. I was on the bus, and there was a father and his child sitting in the front seats. I couldn’t really hear them, but then at some point, I understood that they were speaking in what seemed like a Slavic language. Of course, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but what I really found funny about it was how this dad was obviously trying to make the kid lower his voice by speaking to him very softly, and the kid was always responding by almost screaming, and the dad, again, would then answer very softly. I really liked this kind of exchange, and since I couldn’t make out what they were saying, I just started to record this conversation as a rhythm and automatically drew the conversation in a graphical way. This is something that happens to me most of the time when I’m in London, as English is not my first language, so I’ll catch glimpses or impressions of conversations that happen around me and in my head, I translate them and imagine a story behind that. This whole process of perceiving just a moment of an interaction oftentimes leads me to assume or speculate, maybe in a superficial way, about what people are actually saying. I suppose this is what everyone shares in London, in a way, even native English speakers, because there is so much diversity around that you kind of feel like a “foreigner” anywhere.

Page from Elisa Terranera's 'Notice' comic. Coloured pencil, A4, printed. October 2021, London, UK.

The notion of potentially feeling like a foreigner anywhere around London is something that definitely resonates, I never thought about it that way. So, aside from the city, are there any professional influences in your work?

I was very inspired by Saul Steinberg, an illustrator, comic, writer, and maker. He focused a lot on this kind of graphical way of expressing an interaction, or an exchange. He’s probably done everything. I just looked a lot at his work and tried to make it my own.

And now, moving forward in your degree, how do you wish to grow as an artist?

I think that I’d simply like to continue focusing on drawing. I am interested in doing some more comics, and incorporating a bit of writing into my practice. I’m probably going to challenge myself with bigger scales, maybe some printmaking. More than anything I’d like my next pieces to feel a bit closer to me rather than exercises in style.

Elisa, currently twenty-one years old, is now entering her final year of the BA in Illustration at Camberwell College of the Arts (UAL).

You can find more of her work on her Instagram, @elisaterranera.