Stephanie Orma on how drawing satirical sketches creates a universal connection

Fine arts pencil illustrator and writer Stephanie Orma can be found in the cafes of Lake Como and Bordeaux, diligently recording the people she sees with a satirical twist. Why? Because according to her, satirical art speaks universally and has the power to connect us all.

Stephanie Orma is a self-taught illustrator with a design background who is best known for her witty pencil drawings that capture amusing details of everyday life. Her artwork has appeared in the pages of NPR, Illustration Age and Entrepreneur, while her writing has been published in Forbes, Vogue, Travel+Leisure and many more.

Quirky characters are a lifelong passion for Stephanie, so it’s fitting that drawing them would turn into a career. In fact, she would find herself drawing them as a means of procrastination when working as a creative copywriter and a design and travel journalist. After the death of her cat a few years ago, Stephanie and her husband lived the ‘you only live once’ mantra and headed to Europe to see where her interests would take her.

“And we never left,” Stephanie tells Creative Boom. “We call Lake Como, Italy and Bordeaux, France home. They’re our two favourite places – the cultures, architecture, language, beauty – incomparable! Like stunning paintings come to life. You can’t help but be inspired to capture everything you see.”

Being a foreigner, though, gave Stephanie a unique perspective. And it’s this point of view that feeds into her pencil sketches. “I noticed the wonderful cultural oddities like how the French carry baguettes underarm akin to New Yorkers toting yoga mats,” she explains. “And the crazy difference in American vs Italian coffee sizes… I started drawing these idiosyncrasies at the café. And I never stopped. It’s just evolved into more detailed and imaginative works.”

This eye for detail has grown into a daily drawing habit. In fact, Stephanie is such a regular at her favourite haunts that the owners and staff all know her. “The locals at the café always peek at my progress,” she adds. “And even if they can’t understand my wonky French and Italian words, satirical art speaks universally and delightfully connects us. A few of my originals hang in my favourites, including Pasticceria Poletti in Cernobbio, Chez Fred, and Michel’s Bistro in Bordeaux.”

According to Stephanie, the key to a strong satirical sketch is the point of view. “I mash what I see in reality with what I want to see and/or how I experience the world – with a wink from the lighter side,” she reveals.

“Each day kicks off with a long walk, paying keen attention to what captivates: Italian nonnas hanging laundry from long Tuscan-style windows, the summer scene on Lake Como, etc. But I draw it all romanticised – how I emotionally live it: like how Bordeaux’s boulangeries with their irresistible perfumes beckon the nose to step right up and marvel at the circus feast of flavours turned into my illustration Le Spectacle du Matin.”

Stephanie makes sure to play it safe when she’s out sketching, though. The last thing she wants is for anyone to be offended by her work. “I rarely draw people right in front of me,” she says, “typically, my characters are a conglomeration of wonderful personas I encounter all melded together. I’ll even secretly snap pics of people in the café or on the street with a great nose or funny body position.

“But nailing that face and expression – it’s my chosen torture. I’ve nearly ruined countless illustrations, almost ripping the paper, erasing an eyebrow or nose until the character speaks to me. I won’t stop until I’m in love; I plead with them to tell me, ‘What do you want to say!?’

“That said, on the odd occasion when I’ve been caught pencil-handed drawing someone, the comment is typically, ‘Does my nose really look like that?!’ I adore big noses – they’re fascinating, endlessly challenging with all the angles and one of my favourite parts of expressing character.”

Like the people she sees around her, Stephanie is also inspired by graphite illustrations from the 1800s and early 1900s. Artists such as Norman Rockwell and Al Hirschfeld are particularly strong influences thanks to the fabulous facial expressions they bestow on their characters, while the whimsical weirdness of Edward Gorey and Ronald Searle also factor into her work.

“My work is recognised for its delicate graphite lines, full-of-life characters, eye-popping facial expressions, and detailed hand-lettering paired with a quirky wit,” she adds. “I’ve always loved pencil illustration – you can see the hand of the artist before it’s been covered up by brush and colour. It captures the detail and purity of line like no other medium. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful.”

It’s somewhat surprising then to remember that Stephanie is self-taught when it comes to illustration. However, she learned much about herself and her creativity from studying graphic design. “I studied at – and dropped out of – three of the best design schools in the U.S. (Parsons School of Design, CCA and Academy of Art) and worked for some top design firms before I finally realised that graphic design wasn’t the right fit,” she concludes.

“But it hammered in that concept is king. Plus, I have a crazy appreciation for great typography, which pops up in my love for hand-lettering wine labels (and other fun details) in my drawings.”

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