I discovered Ninn Salaün’s work when a painting of a sky at dusk all in pink and purple hues popped up on my Twitter feed. The picture came from Ninn’s account Reports From Unknown Places, on which she has been posting a picture of the sky with a caption explaining the meteorological events depicted everyday since early 2020. Ninn is a French illustrator. She lives in Finistère, Brittany, and she has been fascinated by the sky since she was a child. She started this project as a personal challenge, and it is now followed by several thousands of people on social media. Ninn also makes comics, which always feature nature in one form or another, with a particular love for water and blue things : the sea, the rain, the sky again. Ninn kindly gave me a few moments of her time to talk about the books she loved when she was a child, her favorite video games, and her devotion to her project.
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you at all?
My name is Ninn, I’m 25 years old, and I’ve been drawing since as far as I can remember. I’ve been defining myself as an illustrator for a few years now. I mostly draw landscapes and skies, in a bit of a surrealistic way. I studied at the Beaux Arts for 6 months, then I studied English for a little bit, but it didn’t work out, and I went back to making art in a more committed way.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
My aesthetic exists between two specific universes, so it’s a bit hard to describe. I still struggle to define it, so I inspire myself with how other people have described it. My work has often been compared to Magritte’s, it’s a bit surrealistic, and it looks like illustrations from a children’s books. It also depends on what part of my work we’re talking about, because in addition to my landscapes and skies, I also make comics, and their aesthetic is very minimalistic.
How did you find it? Has it evolved over time or have you always drawn like that?
It got more minimalistic over time. A few years ago, I liked to draw very detailed landscapes, with houses and characters, but I simplified everything a lot since. It allows me to really focus on what I want to draw the most. I also make digital work now, and my style evolved a lot thanks to this, in comparison to when I worked with watercolors or pencils. It’s a whole new relationship to color, because the entire palette is available to me now. It changes a lot of things.
Which artists have influenced your work the most?
I’m still really inspired by illustrations from my childhood. My mom would buy us a lot of books, and I was fascinated by their illustrations. I didn’t know it was possible to draw like that, in such an aesthetic way. I probably didn’t think about it like that when I was 3 years old, but looking at these illustrations was a very powerful experience for me. I remember Blue Dog by Nadja, Le Doudou méchant [The Mean Comforter] by Claude Ponti, The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, Little Nemo in Slumberland by Windsor McCay, the Drôles de Petits bêtes [Funny Little Bugs] series by Antoon Krings,… I loved these books, I read them over and over. I don’t have a visual imagination, so I think these illustrations really shaped me, then when I grew up, children’s literature kept inspiring me, like Tove Jansson’s books, which I really admire. When I started painting clouds, I drew inspiration from classical painters’ work, like William Turner and John Constable, who both painted a lot of skies.
Do you remember what your favorite books were when you were a kid, other than the ones you already mentioned?
I loved Tobie Lolness by Timothée de Fombelle, with its little characters who live in trees. I read a lot when I was a child, I devoured one book after another. I loved fantasy : The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm, Discworld by Terry Pratchett, and Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey.
Would you like to illustrate a children’s book one day?
I would love to, if I get the opportunity to. Maybe if I meet the right person who wants to tell the right story. I’d love to illustrate a book, any book. When I was a kid, I found Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King in my mom’s bedroom. I don’t think she wanted me to find it. The illustrations gave me nightmares! There’s one in which the werewolf disfigures a character, it really stuck with me. I didn’t really like that experience back then, but since then I realized how impressive it is that an illustration can have such a strong impact on someone.
I’d like to talk about your sky illustrations, because this is how I discovered your work. What interests you so much in representing the sky?
I’ve always been fascinated by the sky. My grandfather had a telescope and when I was a child we would look at the stars from his garden. I kept looking at the sky as I grew up, but I didn’t look at it the same way anymore. We don’t always have the time to really look at it when we’re busy. A few years ago, my interest resumed and I bought books about clouds and the sky. It’s so important. We always say that we talk about the weather like it’s an easy or trivial subject, but I don’t think we take it seriously enough. It matters so much, maybe too much for us to talk about it easily. It’s really important for me to take a few moments of my day to look at the sky. It helped me get out of bed at times in my life when I didn’t want to do anything. I would tell myself that at least the sky was there, and that it always would be.
Can you tell me more about your account Reports From Unknown Places? How did you get that idea?
I started to draw the sky and to take a lot of pictures of it. It came up in a lot of my conversations. I was obsessed with it. I wanted to make something out of it, and this is how this project was born. I started thinking about it in December 2019. I like social media challenges like Inktober, but I’m always sad when they end, I want them to keep going on forever. I decided to draw a picture of the sky everyday. The subject seemed to me inexhaustible. I’ve been doing this for a year and a half now, and I don’t think it will ever end. I started during the first lockdown [in France, from March to May 2020]. We were all stuck inside, so it seemed like the perfect time to begin.
Do you find time to do it every single day? How do you make that happen?
Yes! At first I thought about making several pictures at once and posting one per day, but I lost track and I missed a few days. It took me about 10 minutes to make an illustration at first, but I never want it to end, so now I spend about one or two hours on each one. I make them before dinner so I don’t spend too much time on them. At some point I get hungry so I have to stop and post the picture. Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s so important to me and I’m really involved in this project, so I really want to continue. It’s so encouraging to know that everyday, at the same time (kind of), people stop for 5, 10, maybe even 30 seconds to look at my picture and read the caption. It means the world to me.
Thank you for taking the time to make them, it’s always a pleasure to see them!
What I really love about this project is that a lot of people keep in touch with the people around them by sending them pictures of the sky. We have such an intimate relationship to the sky, even though we’re all under the same one. This is how I connect with some of my friends. “This is the sky I saw today, what did you see?”. To me, drawing the sky represents this intimate connection.
How do you work? What are the different steps in the making of an illustration?
It depends on what I’m working on, but I often get ideas when I’m doing something else. I make vignettes to find a composition, then I start coloring on my laptop. I work in a more organized way when I collaborate with other people, but when it comes to my personal projects, I don’t overthink it, I work in a very spontaneous way. For my sky illustrations, I work faster because I make them everyday, so I don’t have that much time to plan anything. I look at the colors from the previous week’s pictures, and I try to add to that palette or to renew it. I look at the weather and see what it makes me feel. I choose the clouds I want to represent in meteorology books. I do some research so I don’t make mistakes in the caption.
You don’t always draw the sky you see?
I rarely draw the sky I saw that day. Sometimes I even draw the reverse of what it looked like. I like to idealize what I draw. If the weather was sunny, I draw a rainy sky. I draw what I’d like to see when I look out the window. I represent the sky I wish for, in a way.
Would you like to experiment with any other artistic mediums?
I don’t experiment a lot these days because I’m working on several projects at once and I don’t have enough time. I used to do embroidery and engraving. The only experimentation I’ve allowed myself lately is with comics, which I make very differently than the rest of my work. I write the text first, then I draw. I’d like to give another try to watercolor and gouache if I find the time. I also used to do some animation and I’d like to do it again. When I animate a clip I draw inspiration from a song and I see where it takes me.
What has been your favorite experience in your career so far?
This year I illustrated the cover of a book, Nos jours brûlés [Our burnt days] by Laura Nsafou, which came out September 15th! I worked with her last year when she was publishing the book’s first draft in chapters during the first lockdown. I illustrated each chapter. When she got an offer from a publisher, they also contacted me to know if I’d like to illustrate the cover. I loved the story and its universe, she created a very detailed cosmogony. The challenge of combining our aesthetics and playing with the events of the story was incredible.
What would you like people to feel through your work?
I’ve never really asked myself that. I always make art for myself, without asking myself what my art should project. I know that some people start with a feeling or an emotion they want to share, but that’s not really my case. My work exists at the edge between different universes, and it is reflected in how people interpret it. Some people will find an illustration terrifying, while others will find that same illustration comforting. I think I derive more satisfaction from this variety of interpretations than I do in the idea of sharing a specific message. Sharing an emotion from one person to another is difficult, and I struggle to do that with words. Art allows me to enter a dimension in which it is easier for me to achieve that. I think that if the idea I start with is complex, and the resulting illustration is complex, then it means that this complexity is an integral part of the illustration.
What have you been reading, listening to, and/or watching lately?
The first thing that comes to mind is a video game I played earlier last year, Kentucky Route Zero. It’s a very narrative point-and-click game with little interaction. It could be described as magical realism. The story takes place in the caves of Kentucky. It really moved me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I played a lot of video games this year, it’s probably the media that affected me the most recently. I also really liked Genesis Noir, a story about jazz, films noirs, and the Big Bang. I’m really bad at video games, I almost never finish them, but I love how they blend together music, aesthetics, and acting.
What is next for you?
I’m working on projects right now that I can’t talk about yet, but I have a lot of stories to tell.
I’d like to make more comics if I find the time to do it. I’d also like to create a fanzine of my illustrations, something that is more organized and collected than my current work, because it tends to be very scattered.
Ninn Salaün is an illustrator based in France. She likes to explore the intimate relationship between humans and nature, with a particular focus on weather phenomena and the atmospheres they create. Ninn has been working on a daily meteorological fiction project since March 2020.