Interview – Anna + Elena Balbusso [Atlas Shrugged] [The Folio Society]

Illustration © Anna and Elena Balbusso 2018 from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged


By Ayn Rand

Illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso | Introduced by Michael Dirda

Product Details: • Three Volumes • Bound and blocked in metallic textured paper • Set in Warnock with Birch display • Frontispiece and 4 colour illustrations per volume • Book size: 9½˝ x 6¼˝ • 1,576  pages • Blocked slipcase

The Folio Society recently celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Ayn Rand’s controversial and significant magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, with a stunning new three-volume edition of the epic 1957 novel.

Despite largely negative reviews upon its original publication, Rand’s fourth and final novel has developed a very loyal and passionate fanbase over the years, though with its controversial themes and strong statement of objectivism, it is a work that continues to divide opinion and spark heated debate to this day.

Broken down into three separate volumes (making it one of the most accessible editions of the work to date), introduced by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and literary journalist Michael Dirda, superbly illustrated by the multi-award winning Anna and Elena Balbusso, and very nicely presented in a blocked silver slipcase, The Folio Society’s new edition proves a real collector’s item, and is most definitely the one you need to have on your bookcase.

To celebrate the release, we caught up with Anna+Elena Balbusso to discuss the novel, their background and the challenges of the illustration process.

Illustration © Anna and Elena Balbusso 2018 from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Tell us a little about your background? How did you both get started in the industry?

We never attended a school of illustration as illustration as a subject did not exist at university level. Our training was more structured. We both have high school diplomas with a specialisation in graphic design and photography, but we also studied printmaking techniques such as etching, woodcut, engraving, screen-print and linocut. After the 5-year diploma we decided to move to Milan and specialise in painting and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera. Upon graduating from the Brera Academy, we continued our studies at the University of Milan in art history, modern literature, philosophy, and history for a further two years. We feel the art study has been vital in helping us in career choices.

After graduating at the end of the 1990s we never thought of becoming artists but rather graphic designers in Milan. The Italian graphic design and advertising crisis made us change direction. At that time we had separate portfolios and drawings done with various techniques: watercolour, gouache, acrylic, collage, but for the publishers our individual artworks were very similar. We have always had the same abilities and very similar tastes. We soon realised we were in competition with each other so decided to join forces and start a new career as a team with a unique signature. We were lucky! An important Italian graphic designer gave us our first assignment and introduced us to the international design world, encouraging us to define our own path in illustration. From that moment we understood that illustration would be our line of work. In 1998 we decided to pursue a full-time career as freelance illustration team.

How did your collaboration with The Folio Society come about?

At the end of 2009 The Folio Society offered us the chance to illustrate “The Song of Roland” which was our first collaboration with them. The collaboration has continued with numerous other projects and Folio have allowed us to carry out our research in a high quality perspective. We thank The Folio Society very much for this great opportunity!

Were you familiar with Ayn Rand and the novel before you began working on the project?

When The Folio Society first proposed that we illustrate Atlas Shrugged we did not know the novel. In Italy, Atlas Shrugged and the political theories and philosophy of Ayn Rand are not well-known or popular. Before accepting the assignment we had to read many articles on literary and political criticism to understand the context, the setting, and the meaning. We have dealt with the text with freedom and a detachment from the controversy and debate.

What attracted you to Atlas Shrugged?

After reading the first few pages we immediately understood that the novel was suitable for us from a visual point of view. Our task was to create engaging images that would capture the reader and excite curiosity. The atmosphere, setting, and descriptions have allowed us to create images inspired by our favourite artistic references: Bauhuas, Russian Constructivism, and Italian Futurism. We have always been fascinated by the beauty of factories, engines, gears, architecture of the city, bridges, electric pylons, trains and locomotives.

Illustration © Anna and Elena Balbusso 2018 from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

How did you decide which parts of the novel to illustrate?

It’s like making a film!

We started by reading the complete book; this step alone required over a month of daily reading to underline significant sentences and the thoughts of the author, take notes on the characters and environments, and the most interesting situations from a visual point of view. It was important to create images that intrigue the reader and compliment the text. We have focused our personal interpretation on the female figure of the novel, Dagny Taggart, a young entrepreneur and vice president of a transcontinental railroad company founded by her father. Our goal is always to create images that live without the text because they allow freedom of interpretation and imagination. We love images with strong ideas, synthesis, and strength of expression. We prefer to suggest, not to describe. We don’t like to be predictable so personal research is important. We conduct preliminary research to understand how best to create the characters and setting, then collect all of the references for each illustration. These can be artists/art, sketches, photos of people, etc, then we begin the rough drawings or digital greyscale layouts. We develop the idea through very different colour layouts and compositions until we achieve the desired effect. We work and rework the illustration until we have a detailed visual of the scene.

How would you describe your style?

Our collaborative style has developed gradually. It is a continuous investigation that evolves naturally. We work in many fields of communication and with different styles for different markets. We create tailor-made artworks designed exclusively with extreme attention to detail. Each image is tailored like an art piece. We can choose from several directions. It all depends on the individual project!

When did you first discover you had a talent for art and illustration?

We have been drawing since we were three years old. We were those children who could always be found sketching. Our passion for art was present from an early age. After secondary school we chose to follow a path of artistic studies…..

Who/what are your primary influences and how do you incorporate them into your work?

In all our work there is a clear reference to painting, sculpture and architecture. Italian art plays a key role; it is the basis of our culture and training, but not the only one. The references can always change. We look not a specific art period but fine art in general, from Ancient Roman mural painting (frescoes at Pompeii), Italian Renaissance, Romanticism, Modern Art (symbolism, surrealism, Russian constructivism, Italian Futurism) and Contemporary Art.

Do you work digitally or with traditional materials? Talk us through your set up.

We use mixed media and digital. Gradually we developed a personal style where traditional methods (acrylic, gouache, pencil, pen, collage) were combined with digital programs. The digital colouring process with photoshop is very complex and has been developed following many years of work experience. The final result is like a painting on paper or canvas, or a watercolour. During this process we test the colour many times through digital colour proofs. Our final art is in digital format.

Illustration © Anna and Elena Balbusso 2018 from The Folio Society edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

What is the hardest part of the illustration process?

At the start of each commission we receive a brief with the text of an article, a story, or a complete book to read – as well as other specific requests – but we are usually given the freedom to develop our own ideas. The beginning of any project tends to be the hardest part as we have so many ideas and possibilities and have to decide on what is right for each specific project. We need a lot of concentration and tranquility. Professionalism and experience help too!

Could you talk us through one of your Atlas Shrugged illustrations?

Here is an example of the process for the ATLAS SHRUGGED frontispiece for Vol. 2 – image “Beyond the window”:

Text: “The first think he noticed….Then he knew that it had come back because he was looking the city past the taut, slender figure of a woman…. he was looking at her as at stranger…this is what made the city….the angular shapes of the buildings and the angular line of a face…..!

We represented what Rearden is watching and thinking, his emotions, and thoughts on the city through the window. We imagined the Dagny figure fused between the straight lines of the city. We chose an aesthetic close to the Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s. We were inspired by Fritz Lang and King Vidor. The photography of The Fountainhead (1949) film (an adaptation of another novel written by Ayn Rand) is characterised by strong and clear lights and shadows, from scenes with interiors with large windows to a mix of rationalist and futuristic settings. The beautiful face and elegance of the lead actress, Patricia Neal, was a perfect inspiration for our Dagny Taggart.

What advice would you give for anyone hoping to pursue a career in illustration?

In today’s world the competition is very high. There are many opportunities but also many illusions. Our profession is a very difficult and exclusive job. Many young people aspire to do creative work and follow their passion, but only a few are able to turn their passion into a profession and earn a living from it. Talent is necessary but passion, study, commitment, tenacity, hard work, research, and courage to change and evolve are fundamental. It is important to not only think about the immediate gain. Without luck it’s impossible! The road is long and you need to make the right choices. Each artist must find their own technique through continuous research and experimentation. We think interpretation is more important than technique and special effects. It is important to study the history of art and to know the past as well as the present. Always strive to improve. It is also important to be careful in the choice of projects to keep the quality of your work growing. The comparison with other international artists makes us better understand what we can do to improve ourself.

What’s next for Anna+Elena Balbusso?

We are always looking for more and more fascinating projects to collaborate on, not only in illustration, but in design and art. We want to find an international publisher to publish a monograph on our work, and are also looking for a cultural space for our personal exhibition following twenty years in the industry.

The Folio Society three-volume edition of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, introduced by Michael Dirda and illustrated by Anna+Elena Balbusso, is available exclusively from

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