In our conversation about Regarding the Sea this past summer, Mikaela Kristianous and I discussed, among other things: The Handmaiden, our mutual love for fan art, and the process behind designing her art piece.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Mikaela Kristianous hails from Northern California and is currently attending college as a Studio Art major, hoping to eventually become a professional illustrator or art teacher. She has participated in a number of charity magazines including Melting Pot, Crescendo of the Night, and Flowers for the Seasons, whose donations went towards the Flint Michigan Water Fund, trans activist Miss Major’s retirement fund, and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, respectively. Currently, she is managing Celestial Style, a fashion zine. She specializes in portraits and enjoys experimenting with colorful paintings.
Berkeley Fiction Review: How did you start brainstorming ideas for Regarding the Sea?Were there any elements of the story in particular that inspired you?
Mikaela Kristianous: For this piece specifically, I was thinking of Haiyang’s name translating to the sea. I actually read the story last night, so it’d be fresh for the interview, and there are so many references to water. The story somewhat revolves around Haiyang learning how to swim…that’s part of the story, so I wanted something that captured that overarching theme from the story.
BFR: One thing I noticed was that in our contributor questionnaire that you sent in, you listed the movie The Handmaiden as a source of inspiration. I’ve also seen that movie, and I really loved it. Can you talk a little bit about that source of inspiration?
Mikaela Kristianous: It was mainly for the pose. There’s a really iconic part where basically Sookee is standing in front of…Hideko, I think that was her name. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Sookee is standing in front of Hideko and her back is bare, and it just reminded me of a lot of the themes in the story, where it’s about vulnerability and baring yourself open to the one, the person you love, and all that. And so I just thought it would be a really fitting [film] still to base the composition of the piece on.
BFR: It’s great to hear where you gained the source of inspiration for the composition of the piece. In terms of mood and feelings, what emotion were you trying to evoke when you created your piece?
Mikaela Kristianous: The expressions on their faces, to me, are somewhat melancholic. While there are definitely happy moments in the story, I feel like it also left me with somewhat of a sad feeling. I think that’s because of all the memories that are touched upon in the story; it discusses Haiyang’s grandmother and her death and her funeral.
Basically, to me, memories, which are often touched upon in the story, evoke kind of a melancholic feeling because they’re stuff in the past, things you might not be able to bring back again—like Haiyang’s grandmother. She’s gone, and she won’t be brought back, just like with people you’ve met [in passing] and everything. Even though it brings happiness because it happened, it’s also like sadness or regret when you reflect back on all those memories. Another specific scene that evoked melancholy was all the discussions of the girl who died in the pool from the fall. All the instances where they touch on that [was] inspiring that kind of feeling in me.
BFR: I think one thing I really loved about your piece was: you can definitely notice that sense of sadness and pain on their faces, but you can also feel that vulnerability and intimacy there, like you said, just from the way the hand is on the shoulder and the hair is falling down. Were there any details that you put into this piece that you use to convey that sense of emotion?
Mikaela Kristianous: For the sad feeling, it was more so their distant expressions. But then, for the intimacy angle, it’s the hands, like you mentioned, and the fact that they’re nude. I feel like that in itself conveys that feeling of intimacy, and also the warm colors. There’s a lot of warm colors in that piece, and I also associate those with love and intimacy, and then the hints of cooler colors like purples or blues are for bringing that sadness back in.
BFR: Can you walk me through the process you would normally go through, or say, the process for this piece that you went through, in brainstorming and then creating a singular piece for one story?
Mikaela Kristianous: Originally how I went about it was, after I finished reading the story, I marked different parts that stood out to me. Some scenes, for example, were: the ants covering the wet lime rind on the kitchen floor, Haiyang and the main character sitting on the floor of the kitchen with the fishnet hanging above them, Haiyang and the main character laying in the cement bed of the old pool, and the last one was a song that Haiyang relates to the main character about the boat and the moon and them fusing together. And then there was this idea, which is completely [original]—not necessarily seen in the story. I sent all the ideas to one of the editors, Maddy, and then she came back to me and was like, “Everybody really likes this idea,” so I wound up going for that one.
I actually struggled a lot with this piece because the pose wasn’t coming out like how I’d envisioned in my mind, and I was struggling with anatomy, so I started over a few times. Eventually, I just decided, “Okay, let’s just actually start working on it,” because before it was just the sketch. So I was like, “Let’s actually start working on it, and maybe you’ll start to like it.” And so that’s what I did.
Basically what I started with was laying down the base colors for the characters. And then I started layering on top: painting, blending, and everything. At the very end, I added different brushes that imitated watercolor because, again, the huge theme in the story that stood out to me was water. I wanted to try to fit that into the piece somehow.
BFR: I love how all of the examples of scenes or moments that you took from the story for inspiration were very visual moments, like the net on the window. I feel like, as a reader who maybe isn’t looking at moments to illustrate, it’s more in terms of plot or emotion. But I noticed that the moments you picked out are something you can see in your mind very well.
Mikaela Kristianous: Yeah.
BFR: Apart from this one piece that you did end up making, out of the examples that you gave earlier, which one would you have most loved to create an art piece for, and why that scene?
Mikaela Kristianous: I would have really liked to do the scene where they’re sitting on the kitchen floor together with the net hanging above them, just because I think it would be really cool compositionally. Also, for the final piece, it had profiles—like the side of the face. And in that piece, I would envision a view of the frontal view. Personally, I’m more comfortable drawing frontal views, and so this piece is also definitely going out of my comfort zone, but it turned out okay in the end, so I’m not too broken up about it. That idea would have definitely been more my speed, like, traditionally, but yeah, I think that would’ve been the one I would have gone for.
BFR: When you were making this piece, Regarding the Sea, did you face any challenges in trying to create it? Or, did you struggle in any way with designing it or drawing it?
Mikaela Kristianous: Mainly, I was just figuring out the pose. That gave me the most trouble. Also, remembering how anatomy works, because I was like, “Where does the shoulder line go? Would you see a nose from here?” …That kind of stuff. I would say that’s what I struggled with the most on those ones.
BFR: I was also curious about the design choice to have them both be nude. Can you maybe talk a little bit about why that decision was made and what it added to the piece?
Mikaela Kristianous: Again, it’s a callback to the whole idea of vulnerability and intimacy. Specifically, I noticed there’s a lot of sexual scenes within the story itself. But beyond that, it’s just the couple baring themselves open to each other, because they live together and so, you know, you really get to know this person. They’re kind of an open book. And when I think of basically like laying yourself all open, I think of a nude body, because it’s just become such a symbol of becoming really close to that person. And so that’s basically why they were nude. I feel like it really embodied those themes.
BFR: I also really liked the detail of water rippling on the hair. I noticed you talked before about the theme of water in the story. How did you come up with adding that detail to the hair and to the drawing?
Mikaela Kristianous: That also kind of goes back into how I came up with the pose. I was like: “How can I show us Haiyang’s hair while maintaining the pose that they’re standing [in], back to back with each other?”
For the water being the hair, I always think of hair like water, because when you’re doing it metaphorically, I think of a rushing river to make waves, and then waves themselves doing the curls. I was just like, “You know, if I gave Haiyang really long hair, we could really see that idea come through.” That’s basically where it came from, and then instead of traditional waves…like, tidal waves. I wanted it to be still somewhat realistic, and so I decided instead to have reflections that you would see in a pool in the hair itself.
BFR: Yeah, I noticed it looked like kind of the pattern you would see when you’re swimming underwater in a pool, and you look up and you see it rippling. I thought that was a really awesome effect.
Moving on to your artwork in general, and your work as an artist, you mentioned using that [film] still from The Handmaiden as inspiration for the composition of the piece. But what do you draw inspiration from for your other artwork? Do you also look at film stills, or do you take it from daily life? Where does your inspiration come from?
Mikaela Kristianous: I usually like to draw fan art and stuff. Whatever I’m into at the time, I create art for or based on that. Otherwise, I like to draw things I think look pretty. I like to do background studies, and so imagine a pretty sunset sky—I like to incorporate those kinds of colors or scenery in my art. And then in a lot of my art, I use a lot of those warm tones and everything. I definitely take inspiration from the skies, like I mentioned, flowers, even food: strawberries, raspberries, those kinds of things. In general, like most of the time, I’m usually inspired by whatever show or movie I’m interested in at the time.
BFR: Yeah, I could relate to that. When you’re loving a TV show that you’re watching, you just want to draw the characters and stuff. But, more specifically to you–what do you love about fan art? Why do you enjoy creating it, based on whatever you might be reading or watching?
Mikaela Kristianous: It just stokes my imagination, because I have a very hard time coming up with original ideas. I can do it; it’s just something that is challenging for me. So when I see ideas that are really interesting to me, I’m like, “Wow, someone was able to put it into words, or make it come to life.” It’s really nice to have that base. Then you create something with it. Even though the characters are based on whatever the story is, it’s also a way for me to get my own creativity going, because I’m inspired by this piece.
BFR: I think there’s something so fun about taking characters that you have seen and love, in a way, and putting them into your own story or own situation. Is there any work in particular that you are making fan art for right now? Are there any books or TV shows that have particularly given you inspiration for making art?
Mikaela Kristianous: Currently, I like to watch a lot of cartoons because it’s art itself, and so it’s especially inspiring to me because it’s also a field I eventually want to work in. I’m always super interested in what cartoons have to offer. Recently, I watched a show called Infinity Train, which is very interesting and has a lot of interesting compositional shots and character designs and development.
BFR: Moving back to your other work as an artist…how long have you been making art for and what is your preferred medium?
Mikaela Kristianous: I’ve been making art, technically, since I was four or five years old, but I didn’t actually start taking it seriously until I was eleven or twelve. From when I was four to eleven or twelve, I was just creating art for fun and not necessarily thinking of it as a potential career. But when I was eleven or twelve, that’s when I was like, “Oh, I actually want to do this for my future.” Around that time, I started actually working really hard to try to improve my art and do a lot of studies. And then, I reached the point that, in college, I’m a Studio Art major. I’ve actually been able to get professional input and advice on my work to get better.
And then, my preferred medium…I like to work digitally most of the time. Lately, I’ve been using the program Procreate, which is really nice. I used to work on super janky programs because I couldn’t afford tablets or really fancy hardware. Only recently have I been able to afford something like an iPad. It’s really nice.
As far as traditional mediums go—I’ve learned [a traditional medium] recently. Last fall, I took a class on oil painting, and I used to hate oil painting, but ever since taking that class, I like it so much better now. I think I’d say that’s my favorite traditional medium, too.
BFR: What do you like about oil painting?
Mikaela Kristianous: I just like how easy it is to blend. And I didn’t realize it, because acrylic paint used to be my favorite traditional medium. After I took that class, and I tried using acrylic paints, I realized how difficult they are to use, because—at least in my opinion—they dry really quickly. With oil painting, I got used to the drying time because it takes forever to dry. And it’s much easier to blend with oil paint, especially if you take your time and everything. I also like the look it gives off more; I feel like acrylic painting gives off a rougher appearance, whereas oil painting is very soft and smooth.
BFR: I guess I’m curious…do you find it difficult at all to shift between traditional and digital art, or is it a pretty smooth switch between the two for you?
Mikaela Kristianous: At times, it’s really difficult, because…[with] digital, it’s like you have everything out there. Whereas, with traditional, I feel like personally, I have to work a lot harder to get the impression that I want to have. It eventually happens; it just takes a much longer time, whereas digital’s much more streamlined and you could get the effects that you want much easier. There’s always just such a nice look to traditional art that you can’t quite achieve with digital. But they are starting to do that—there’s actually watercolor brushes and watercolor paper on digital art. They’re starting to make ways into making it have the same effect. So basically, I’d say, digital: easier. Traditional: harder, but you can still manage to get the same effect.
BFR: Sometimes when I’m looking at pieces, like just on Instagram or whatever, it’s hard for me to tell whether it’s been done digitally or traditionally, because I think they blend the traditional style really well into digital art.
Mikaela Kristianous: Yeah.
BFR: As someone who’s studying art in school, do you still have time to make art for yourself? If you do, what’s your preferred method of doing it? Do you tend to do it at night, or in the morning…how do you find time to make art for yourself?
Mikaela Kristianous: Actually, last semester, I had no time to draw at all. I was completely exhausted all the time. That was because I was doing [school] full-time. When I have fewer classes, it’s easier. I’ve definitely had a lot more time to draw during the break. During the semester, I usually am unable to draw, because I’m too tired. But I usually work best at night. I started to try drawing during the day, because what happens when I draw at night is, I wind up staying up all night trying to finish the piece. [During the] break, I technically have the time to just pace myself, but if I get going, I don’t stop. But yeah, I would say nighttime is usually the best time for me to draw. And then, regarding school, I usually don’t have time unless I’m taking not that many classes.