For Israeli Illustrator, Instagram Art Imitates Life

Geffen Rafaeli is realizing a dream that breaks new artistic ground, basing her illustrations on motifs from photos posted on the popular photography social network.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

More than 5,000 users of the Instagram photography social networking website are regular followers of the work of Israeli illustrator Geffen Refaeli and the original artwork that she posts every day or two – based on other people's photos. Her work projects a sense of simplicity in subdued black and white, but the situations portrayed in the work are more complex, strange, surprising and a bit surreal.

One item shows two cats rubbing against each other in a human skeleton that is wrapped in a dress and a hijab – a Muslim woman's veil – against the backdrop of mushrooms and a prickly cactus. Another shows a headless man dressed in a three-piece suit and a bowtie. He is holding a particularly large pineapple. And then there's the old man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper. Behind him a long-necked dinosaur looks at him. And another shows a group of naked women holding hands and dancing around a miniature electric pole.

The reaction to the Tel Aviv artist's work is generally enthusiastic. Instagram users express their fascination with her unconventional combination of elements in her illustrations, posting their online reactions, compliments and sometime not-so-subtle hints ranging from friendly requests to desperate pleas in an effort to prod Refaeli to base her next illustration on the photos they have posted on Instagram. All of Refaeli's illustrations on her Instagram account, which is called "dailydoodlegram," are based on elements from photos posted the same day by the social networking site's other users. Refaeli says her stable of Instagram followers is growing quickly.

A daily dose of art

Her followers owe their daily dose of original art to a strong sense of boredom that Refaeli felt less than a year ago while attending make-up classes toward her art degree in illustration at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design in Jerusalem. "They were theoretical make-up classes. All the other students around me were young and I was just totally bored," she recalled. "I was sitting in class with my iPhone. I took a look at Instagram, which was a lot more popular and new then, and I started drawing things in my sketchbook from the photos I saw there. What came out looked really cool to me, so I posted the illustrations to my Instagram profile and people loved them."

Due to the response, Refaeli, 28, began posting a different illustration based on the photos she saw on Instagram every day and instead of limiting her audience to anyone who happened to look at her personal profile, she opened a separate account, dailydoodlegram. At first, she says, her illustration of the day was based on one photo she had found somewhere on Instagram. She soon discovered, however, that it would be more interesting to base her illustrations on a combination of elements from a number of photos posted by other people, a kind of collage that would create its own alternate reality.

But this project featuring seemingly small simple illustrations in fact is a monster undertaking that demands a lot of time and energy. Refaeli acknowledges that seemingly simple sketching involves hours of work, including a daily search for appropriate photos. "I sit and waste untold amounts of time every day looking at Instagram pictures," she says. "It's really a crazy amount of time. I would really prefer not even to say how much," she offers. "But I can say that over the past year my eyesight has gotten worse and it's clear to me that it's because of the long hours I sit with my iPhone. I do it all day and of course no one can stand me anymore."

Cake, shoes and children

In contrast to her declining communication with the real world, in the virtual world, one might be led to believe that her love of people is exceptional. She follows the photos that about a thousand people post on their Instagram accounts, but says even that is not enough: It's too limited a circle of people and doesn't provide her what she wants.

"Even though Instagram feels unlimited, ultimately you see that people take pictures of the same thing all the time—a plant, a cake, shoes, their children. It's always the same thing. So it's rather hard to find new interesting objects every day." When asked which pictures usually manage to capture her attention among the hundreds that she skims on a daily basis, Refaeli replies: "I almost always look for pictures with objects rather than landscapes, something with a focus rather than a panorama. Usually I choose pictures of an object or animal or a figure that can be removed from its context."

Her illustrations are made with a black pen on white paper. She takes a picture of the final product with her iPhone's camera and posts it on Instagram. She includes links under each picture so that her followers can look at the original photos upon which she based her work of the day. Within hours, her illustrations generate hundred of "likes" as well as comments, the vast majority of which are complimentary.

But not all of the responses are positive. "There have been people who have said they don't like photo filters on Instagram," she says. "Since then I post the illustrations, some of them, as they really appear, without filters, and it really looks better to me." She says some people liked her illustrations so much they converted them into body tattoos. "That's crazy and cool," she adds with a smile.

One of the primary benefits of the unique format that she had chosen for her art, she says, is the direct communication she has with her followers, immediate feedback. "It's hard for me to think of other places where illustrators can get that kind of feedback and direct connection with their audience," she adds. "Illustrators usually sit at home and work alone." Beyond that, she says, in her case the artist and the audience cooperate.

Refaeli recently opened an online store where prints are available of the entire collection of illustrations that she has posted on dailydoodlegram. Prints the size of a Polaroid picture are available at NIS 20 each and frames are available for an extra charge. In the future, she plans to sell larger prints, too.

Apart from her dailydoodlegram career, Refaeli has illustrated three children's books, one of which, the Hebrew edition of "The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant," by American author Michelle Cuevas, is especially dear to her heart. The pictures are big in a format that is not constrained by the size of the dailydoodlegrams. They are colorful and rich in detail. But like her work on Instagram, they also reflect creativity and humor. Now Refaeli has taken on the challenge of creating her own children's book alone, writing and illustrating it. "Hopefully that's the next stage. That's the dream," she says. "I really hope I'll succeed."

Illustration of Geffen Refaeli.
Illustrator Geffen Refaeli.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Refaeli's sketches, based on Instagram photos.

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