Koschei the Deathless, a figure from Slavic mythology. Bilibin would gain international reputation for his beautiful illustrations of Eastern European folk tales. He often incorporates these decorative borders that I just love, they have this lovely quality that you can also find in Ukrainian folk art (poppy motifs, wildflowers and herbs).

I first came across Ivan Bilibin’s work a couple of years ago through one of my favorite contemporary illustrators who goes by Sin Eater. He cited him as a powerful influence and ended up showing a number of beautiful pieces by him when he was invited as a guest curator on Den of Ink, a sort of showcase project on Instagram run by fellow illustrator Richey Beckett. If you ever get a chance to check that out by the way, some of the curators have pulled some wonderful and obscure pieces to showcase for their guest spots. Very much worth a look!

An illustration from Ruslan and Ludmilla, this one in particular went unpublished but documents the moment Ruslan finds a colossal head in the hills laying atop the sword that beheaded him. Bilibin’s eye for costume design shines here, the helm and stars are ornate and beautiful in a way I find very unique. The way he’s drawn the chainmail and facial features are flat and very stylized but in a way I adore, there’s just something about this image that I personally love. The starbursts lend this fantastic otherworldly magic to the scene, I seem to use a lot of these as well in my more fantasy influenced work and they just really do it for me.

This illustration from Ruslan and Ludmilla was of of the first things I had seen from his body of work, and the sumptuous dress and ethereal, cosmic quality it had captivated me. His other works in colour quickly became favorites as well, and though limited in palette they have a charming folk quality to them, much like many of the stories they illuminate.

Another plate from his series of fairytale illustrations. The colours have a flatness to them, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, they make his work instantly recognizable and charming, I think. The background here is lovely, I think’s he’s done an excellent job capturing recognizable silhouettes without having to commit to heavily detailing everything.

This is a plate from Vasiliya the Beautiful, perhaps one of his most famous illustrations. Again, so many wonderful touches of Slavic motifs, the border is simple but lovely and there’s a softness to this image I quite admire, very much at odds with the heavy atmosphere of the dark woods as Vasiliya travels to Baba Yaga’s hut.

I’d like to try some watercolor work of this nature at some point, and may in fact do this for the next project if I have the chance to. I’ve been collecting books of folk tales for some time and would love to try illustrating some of them in a more colorful style when I have an opportunity.

I wasn’t able to find the origin of this one, but again it shows much attention to lush patterning and costume. There’s a wealth of traditional dress on display here that I find incredibly captivating, particularly because traditional dress of this nature seems to be so underrepresented in much of the illustration world, it retains a power to surprise with how much it stands out

On a sad note, after a long career of illustration and stage design for theatre Ivan pined to return home to Russia from his apartment in Paris and did so, just in time to experience the Nazi invasion of Russia. He and 1,500,000 others perished of starvation in the siege of Leningrad, dying in obscurity at the hands of man-made famine.

A final piece by him showing a depiction of a Vodyanoy, a baleful Slavic water spirit said to be responsible for drownings, tearing fishing nets and spiriting the unlucky down to their underwater lairs. Similar to a rusalka, but more toady and withered, they’re usually depicted as muck-covered old men with toad-like faces, dripping with algae as they lurk in waterways creating a burbling racket.

Bibliography and Sources