Documenting Life Through Illustration a 1 on 1 with Diane Roka

Hey everyone sorry I am late, the Save the Charms team had a outing tonight! Nevertheless, I got a chance to talk to someone that calls them self a drawtographer. I know you are probably thinking that is not a work, but we need to add it to the dictionary because it is someone who creates a documentary through illustration. With this interview we hope that it tells a story, so here it goes. 

Q: Can you please give use your name, background, business name, and business background?


  •  Name: Diane Roka. 
  •  Background: Artist/Writer/Illustrator. Documentary-style Drawtographer.  
  • Business Name: Diane Roka 
  • Business Background: Visual Artist — exhibit at B Square Gallery. Journalist — long-form music interviews with artists such as John Doe, The Long Ryders, Jon Spencer, The Dream Syndicate, Jon Langford, Marah. Illustrator for clients such as Boyds, Nicole Miller, GoRed, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Project Sloopy, PAWS, and the band Kopecky.

Q: What is the difference between an artist and an illustrator to you?

A: I think you can be both, it really just depends where the finished product will end up. Maira Kalman and Jean-Philippe Delhomme are good examples — their illustrations are found in The New Yorker or a campaign for Barneys, but they also exhibit their work in galleries. I think that artists like Yoshitomo Nara and Thomas Campbell helped to blur the artist/illustrator lines by creating darkly funny, unpretentious art. I’ve always loved the art of illustrators, though — Peter Max, Ezra Jack Keats, Saul Steinberg, Ludwig Bemelmans, Laurent de Brunhoff, Annie Morris, Serge Bloch — you get the idea.
Q: Documentaries tell a story, what story do you want people to take from your illustrations? 
A: With my doc-style drawtography work, I try to be a fly on the wall, unnoticed, capturing the scene. I try to work really quickly, and only draw the most essential lines. I try to capture the mood of the room, the vibe of the people. I want the viewer to feel like they were there.
Q: What is your definition of a draw-tographer?
A: That’s a name that one of my friends made up to describe what I do, but I liked it, so it stuck! For me, it’s trying to work like a doc-style photographer: fast, live and in the moment. And fading into the background, so people are being themselves. Sometimes I feel like a cultural anthropologist, documenting a tribe. Mary Ellen Mark was a big inspiration for me, and Annie Liebowitz back when she used to travel with bands on tour for Rolling Stone in the 70’s.
Q: Does traveling give you inspiration to create? What place sparks your greatest creativity?

A: I love to travel. For example, I spent a month in Greece last year, and documented artists in their studios, the offices of an indie online magazine, a band in a recording studio — I was even on-set drawing at the filming of a cooking show! The key was my Greek friend George, an artist and musician with a great creative network of friends, who acted like my agent, connecting me with people.  
But, I don’t think you have to get on a plane, necessarily. I’ve been working on a book project for the last two years with photographer Janell Wysock called “Sesh”, where I draw and she shoots inspiring people in their homes or workspaces. We’ve taken road trips to places like Montauk or upstate NY, but we’ve also done plenty of sessions right here in Philly. I think what sparks my creativity the most is feeling inspired by my subject, and being trusted enough to really enter their world. I joke that my sketchbook is like my passport, but it really is.
Q: You mentioned you are a writer, what genre or style do you most commonly write in?
A: I was a contributor to an online music magazine called Perfect Sound Forever for years, and I would do long-form interviews with musicians or people who work behind the scenes in the music industry. Then I started drawing musicians live in concert to illustrate my interviews. And In the last few years I stopped doing the interviews altogether and only did the drawings. But I’m starting to get back into interviewing again, and writing about my experiences documenting people, memoir-style. The “Sesh” book will have a lot of that.
Q: When did you discover you were artistically gifted?
A: My mom is an artist, so I think that I inherited a certain amount of hand-to-eye coordination. The kids in grade school would ask me to draw them pictures, so that became a part of my identity pretty early on. Then I was introduced to the book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by my art teacher in high school, and I’ve been using those tools for a long time, over 30 years. And I draw A LOT. So, I think it’s less about being artistically gifted, and more about the Malcolm Gladwell “Outliers” theory. I’ve definitely put in my 10,000 hours!

Q: What message do you want your art to reflect?

A: Truth. I had great art professors at Rutgers like artists Lloyd McNeil and Emma Amos, and they showed me that there was great beauty in a strong, bold, unapologetic line. They taught me that it was okay to make mistakes, and that sometimes leaving them in would make the work more interesting. And that it’s not just about drawing what you see — it’s about drawing what you feel. It’s nice to get a good likeness, and I like to challenge myself by getting the likeness in as few lines as possible, but if the viewer can really feel how I felt about my subject through the quality of my line — then I’ve been successful.
Q: Where can you purchase your artwork? Do you have sales or promotions?

A: It’s best to either reach me through the email link on my website, or to DM me on Instagram. Sometimes people will see one of my drawings on IG, and they will contact me to purchase it, but I typically get contacted to do a specific commission for an individual, an editorial piece for a publication, or a project for an organization’s marketing campaign. I’ve been working on putting together an online store, and it hope to have something up by the end of the year. I also let people know on IG when I have an upcoming exhibit.
I hope you enjoyed our interview with Diane. I also hoped you realize through illustration you can tell a story, and through stories people can save lives. Keep up with Diane on Instagram @dianeroka because it’s the perfect place for a visual person. Please tune in tomorrow for our movie review on Straight Out of Compton! I’m going to end with words and illustrations from the artist.

                        A Day in the Life

Here are some good ones that photographer Janell Wysock took for our upcoming book “Sesh”. The red- haired glass artist is Kevin Smolark of TriSymbolize in his studio in Philly. The woman with the bun is Emma Rochester, an Australian artist at her residency at the Crane Studios in Phila. (These first two sessions were on the same day in the summer if 2014.) 

The photo of me in the zebra print chair is at the Phila. department store Boyds, as part of a collaboration called “Proper & Correct”(Feb. 2014). Artist Mark Wilson posed for me in the boutique called Lazy Point that he co-owns with his wife Clauja Bicalho in Amagansett, NY, that features clothing and textiles from their travels around the world (Summer 2013). The last photos are of artist Don Nice’s studio in Garrison, NY. (Fall, 2013)






One response to “Documenting Life Through Illustration a 1 on 1 with Diane Roka

  1. Diane has indeed done great interviews! Good to see her still active.


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