Seizing the Moment: The Art of Marianna Tomaselli

By Jenny Carless

Marianna Tomaselli’s artwork frequently has a strong sense of place—using color and light in her character-focused images, she tells evocative stories about specific locales. So it’s not surprising to learn that travel is one of her favorite pastimes—and subjects.

“It’s one of the most important topics in my work—and in my life,” the Milan-based illustrator ad animator says. “It has an inestimable richness, because it’s unique and different to everyone: lights, clothes, colors, smells, and culture—especially if a place is far from your comfort zone—are one of the most fascinating things about life…. It’s from these personal perceptions that I gain inspiration for my illustrations.”

Using light and human gestures, Tomaselli gives her illustrations a strong sense of place. She makes some illustrations available as a premium contributor to Adobe Stock

No matter what the subject matter, Tomaselli aims to “seize the moment” in her work. “I want to show the emotion of a common gesture—one that appears distant but at the same time so familiar,” she says. “It’s from these feelings that my work is born.”

When Tomaselli finished school (at IED Milan, in Visual Communication and Course Illustration/ Animation), she began working for a fashion company as a designer and a pattern and textile developer.

“Fashion gave me a sense of elegance, balance, and attention to detail, which are crucial elements in my illustrations,” she explains.

Tomaselli says she has drawn since childhood: “It was an instinct for me, to draw all the time. I couldn’t really control it—to the point that my teachers would get really angry!” she says.

She enjoys both illustration and animation.

“With illustration, you bring the viewer into a specific place, in a specific moment—that can be very powerful,” she says. “In animation, of course, you have time to say more to the viewer. I love these two very different approaches.”


Several of Tomaselli’s personal projects address social issues—past and present. A documentary about Nina Simone inspired one of her most recent projects.

Tomaselli was recently inspired by a documentary about legendary musician Nina Simone. 

“I was really struck by how passion and music can defeat cultural barriers,” she says. “Nina Simone was a great woman who fought for black rights with music. Jazz music was a first meeting point between black and white people during and after segregation.

“In these drawings, I wanted to show the passion for music, but at the same time the suffering and loneliness of this condition,” she continues. “I like this project because it has meaning, and as an illustrator, I want to deliver a message through my art.”

Another personal project, Not Asking for It, has a very different style but also sends a message.

Tomaselli says, “So often we hear things like ‘If a woman dresses up in a certain way, she deserves to be raped’ or ‘She’s provoking us.’ These kinds of things make me crazy!”

In very simple terms, she illustrated six completely different female typologies for this project.

“I wanted to demonstrate that whether you wear a burka or you go naked down the street, no one is allowed to say, ‘But she was asking for it’ or ‘She deserved it,’” Tomaselli says. “I consider myself a strong feminist, and I will always fight to tear down any kind of cliché and closed mentality about women. Luckily, our society is making progress on this issue, and I’m happy to contribute to it.” 

The illustrations in Not Asking for It are intended to make a statement against rape culture and sexual harassment. 


Tomaselli’s approaches to personal projects and assigned projects are quite different. (She also makes some personal illustrations available on Adobe Stock as a premium contributor.)

“In the first case, everything is very spontaneous. Ideas come to me quickly, from emotions or situations I’ve experienced. Unfortunately, they all come at night—so sometimes I don’t get much sleep. I start sketching in bed, hoping to capture everything running through my mind. Everything always seems like the best idea ever,” she says. “I reevaluate in the morning and, of course, some ideas don’t seem as great the next day. But with the ones I like, I begin to develop them with a mood board—researching images, articles, and photos about the topic I want to illustrate.

She follows a more formal process, beginning with mood boards and research, when working with clients.

“Typically, a client gives me a brief about a specific topic,” she says. “I’ll highlight the key words and everything I think is necessary to show in the illustration. Then I’ll research images and photos, to create the mood board for myself and for the client. Most of the time, I have a lot of freedom on composition and colors.”

Tomaselli recently completed this comission for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Royal Ascot. See more of this project on her Behance page

After that, Tomaselli creates “small and messy postcards” with different ideas for the composition. She chooses one or two to move forward with.

“Usually, my sketches are very detailed—to give the client a clear idea of what the final product will look like; that saves me having to re-work very much in the final illustration,” she explains.

For Tomaselli, the first step is always with paper, but for the second sketch, she moves to digital.

“Some years ago, I started using oil paint, but now I mostly use Adobe Photoshop,” she explains. “I try to apply the technique of oil painting to digital illustration—building several layers of colors, and mixing shapes and forms. To me, digital painting with Photoshop is the medium that feels closest to drawing by hand.”

Although much of her illustration work is solo, she works with others on animation and live-action projects, and she values collaboration.

“It’s a great opportunity to grow your capacity and creativity. Usually, more people working on a project means that something great comes out of it—because two brains are better than one,” she says. “Even when I work on my own, I ask my colleagues for feedback. I really value hearing new ideas and points of view.”

Tomaselli recently worked on this animated short, part of the CNN series Love in Conflict (click on the image to watch). 

Tomaselli enjoys a wide range of work (her bio says she’s “always looking for something new”), and she enjoys the challenges that come with that.

“I’m open to most things—but when someone asks me to draw plants, cities, and beaches, I’m especially happy to do it,” she says. It seems that she always has her eye out for anything that hints at travel.

Find more of Tomaselli’s work on her website, Adobe Stock, and Behance.

June 25, 2018