photoshop creative

Bringing cartoons to life

Posted in:
Interviews, by Mark White
July 21, 2017

Jirka wanted to test his digital painting skills with a few paintings inspired by his favourite movies. It soon evolved into a project seen by 2,500,000 people, including Disney


“I have always been involved in creative projects, ever since I was a kid,” says Jirka Väätäinen. “But I always find time for personal projects on the side.” Jirka’s personal projects though, are perhaps a little more special than the average artist’s. ‘Envisioning Disney Girls in Real Life’ has been a worldwide hit, becoming one of the most popular projects on Behance. But how did Jirka not only bring these beloved characters to life, but retain the quintessentially Disney magic that made us all fall in love with them in the first place?

The project is an internet phenomenon. How did it begin?

The idea came out of nowhere really. Playing around in Photoshop has always been one of my favourite pastimes; one day I just wanted to challenge myself and see if I could visualise Ursula from The Little Mermaid and explore what she would look like if she was a real person. I’ve always been interested in character design and the features that make people look unique. It was a fun challenge trying to bring these characters to life, and yet keep some of the more unrealistic quirks of the original designs. And of course, there was a huge amount of nostalgia involved in creating these pieces.

Would you say you were a big Disney fan yourself?

I sure am! I grew up with Disney and still try to keep up with the latest releases. It’s the old-school, hand-drawn Disney films like The Little Mermaid that I find most fascinating, visually speaking, so I tried to find my own unique style when working on this project. I wanted the pieces to look realistic and relatable on the one hand, but to still resonate with the magical, otherworldly Disney vibe.


Were these portraits based solely on their cartoon alter egos, or was it a case of real people influencing the pieces?

Initially, they were based on the cartoon characters and the impression that the cartoon made on me. Whenever I start drawing a character though, I have a preconceived vision in my head of what they will look like. To realise that vision, I do look at a lot of real people, sometimes celebrities, for inspiration, but I tried to interpret these characters with as much of my own imagination as possible.

Were there particular Photoshop tools that you found yourself using more than others?

I used pretty much every trick and tool available, and layers – so many layers! Blending is important to me in digital painting, but unlike a lot of artists, it’s not just brushes that I depend upon, as it’s not just traditional digital painting that I do. My work is heavily based on photocompositing and manipulating as well; for me I’d say it’s more about the layers, blend modes, Eraser, Liquify, Smudge tool and playing with the colours.

Many artists have been inspired by you to turn their favourite cartoon characters into real people. What advice would you give them?

Just have fun with it; don’t get too caught up with letting the original design and feel of the characters restrict your creativity – you are looking to do your own thing with it, after all. But, of course, if you want the end result to resonate with people who are familiar with the character, make sure you pay attention to some of the most prominent features. Just play around with Photoshop and see where it takes you. I would definitely suggest using photos for references too, as that can help you to create something more realistic.


You’ve also re-imagined male Disney characters as real people, as a sequel to this project. Did you approach that project differently?

By the time I began the project on male Disney characters, I had created quite a lot of characters, so my technique was far more honed. The approach and thinking were still pretty similar. It did feel different doing this second series though: with the girls, I didn’t know when I started sketching characters that I was building a series of portraits. With the guys, I was determined to create something just as good as I had with the girls, because I had already gained a following of people who love Disney.

Are you surprised by the reaction you’ve received?

I am still overwhelmed! This series started as a personal project; I did not expect anyone to see these. But people are still finding and sharing these images, and I still get requests to create more. Millions of people have seen my work now: that’s definitely a huge surprise, and I even heard from a few people at Disney. Just to know that they like what I’m doing – that’s pretty cool!