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Meet the Woman Behind "Portrait of Pope Francis"

All About the Portrait of Pope Francis

Credit: Image from El Universo

The world’s first Latin American Pope returned to his home continent on the 5th of July and was presented with a number of gifts at the first stop in Ecuador. In a meeting with the President, Rafael Correa, and archbishop of Quito, Fausto Trávez Trávez, the Pope was presented with three pieces of art- two embroidered portraits and a statue. The two portraits were created with Wilcom software, by digitizer Zhanna Plaksina, and naturally we are very proud of her and her accomplishments.

About the Artist

Zhanna Plaksina worked as an engineer for years before turning to embroidery as a hobby. This hobby blossomed overtime into a career and today she is the creator of multiple stunning pieces and is embroidering for all kinds of people - including Pope Francis! Read more about Zhanna's embroidery journey and to find out about how she achieves some of her amazing visual effects. 

How did you get your start as a digitizer?

I began digitizing because it was something I could do while at home on maternity leave, it was a combination of my interest in art and my profession as an aircraft engineer. This way I got to mix my hobby with my technological background! I started by taking a three-month course, during which I completed my first design “Lord of the Taiga” (below). I finished the course and purchased Wilcom software, after contacting a number of software vendors, in 2012 and it took off from there.


When did you first start using Wilcom software and how has your experience been?

I discovered Wilcom through a number of means, firstly I searched online for recommendations and narrowed it down to a few options. My tutor, during my three month digitizing course, also used Wilcom and he recommended it so that was that! He actually taught me to digitize using Wilcom software back when I first began, I remember him telling me that he really didn’t know of a better program, simply because the software had no limits! I have since tried other software but I definitely still prefer working with Wilcom, I think my tutor hit the nail on the head! 

Do you have a signature style when digitizing and do you have any ‘go-to’ tools or elements you use?

I got to mix my artistic hobby with my technological background!


When I work, I tend to systemize everything to break down the process and make things a little more organized. However, stylistically, I am constantly looking for more ways to improve my skills, which means my style is always evolving. I believe that without this constant effort to improve and evolve, there is no creativity. Tools-wise I like "Complex Fill" and "Fusion Fill".

Where does most of your inspiration come from? 

I love classical art, music, architecture- I pull a lot of inspiration from these. I have heard the saying that “machine embroidery is not an art – it is a craft”. However I aim to make machine embroidery a real art.

Can you talk us through your process for creating the 3D, voluminous effects in "Sorrows of Quito" and "Portrait of Pope Francis"? 

For many of my works, the above two included, I use ‘Complex Fill’ and ‘Fusion Fill’ a lot. Occasionally I used different types of lines (run) to create volume. These tools give the design a pictorial-art effect, when you play around with them. To create the 3D effect in my artworks, I used different directions for the stitching and different shades of color alongside this to create texture. Sometimes, I find using these effects automatically creates a voluminous look quite effortlessly- which looks like magic in real life! For example, in the image below “Lord of the Jungle”, the jaguar appears to be separated from the background, placing it in the foreground thus making the image appear much less flat. To get this, the light needs to fall in a certain direction, which takes a little trial and error and of course texture and volume!

When creating the halo in "Sorrows of Quito" you used five layers of embroidery! How did you put this together and which tools/elements did you use?

Creating the background took a whole different approach and technique- it was definitely the most difficult part! It consisted of 5 layers which all used different tools and colors. I used ‘complex fill’ and ‘fusion fill’, then used different densities and stitch directions. Again this was a bit of trial-and-error because it gave quite an unexpected, but still pleasant, effect in certain lighting. The effect mirrors a holograph, where a flat image suddenly becomes three dimensional or has the effect of being multi-dimensional without the need for complex 3D embroidery. A lot of this work is visual rather than tangible.

Around the head of the Virgin, there appears to be a violet shine, despite the fact that I did not use any violet thread. This is effectively an optical illusion, which is definitely more apparent in real life- photos do not do this effect justice! The colors have a certain duo-chrome effect that reflects light to produce many different colors.

Was the 3D tear-drop effect hard to achieve?

While the effect itself is quite different, digitizing and embroidering the “volumetric drop of water” look was not a huge task at all! The most complex part was getting the sizing right -  3 mm.

How long did each design take to digitize? And how many stitches and colors were used in each design? 

Each design depends on a number of factors including experience, set time-frame and access to tools. I’ve previously taken up to one month to complete one portrait however for this particular project, my portrait of Pope Francis was completed in 2 weeks. However this was achieved by working 16 hours a day. It involved 30 colors, 62 color changes and 451,631 stitches all together.

For “Sorrows of Quito” the process was a little different, as the portrait was embroidered with minimum intervention of the operator. The entire thing was embroidered with 15 colors and 2 extra color changes. However the stitch-count for this project was significantly higher at 579,624 stitches. 

Did you have a set time/stitch-count for each design, or did you digitize without setting limits for yourself?

I worked 2 weeks, 16 hours a day on "Portrait of Pope Francis"


The short answer is no. I didn’t think the number of stitches per design was an important consideration when starting the project. However because there was a tight time limit I did manage to complete each design within quite a short time period. What I found most important during this project was to create a proper likeness to the subject, coupled with an adequate artistic sensibility. 

Regarding the entire finished product, we hear it was a collaborative project created by you and your husband. What was your husband’s role and did you two have any help from anyone else?  

Quite true. We were the only two involved in the project. My husband made the carved mahogany frames and the transport cases for the portraits. I made the portraits, hand-painted the frames and decorated the transport case with embroidered velvet. 



As far as job assignments go this is a pretty important one! Was this the biggest project you have worked on? What was it like creating artwork for such a large-scale event? 

This project has been the biggest one for us thus far. It was a little difficult due to the limited time frame however it is now done and dusted! We’re also currently working on another large project which is a series of 12 portraits of “the Greatest Leaders of Humanity”. It’s really exciting because we believe that this project captures a group of people who have contributed greatly to where we are at right now. This project is forecast to be done by the beginning of 2016. We’ve finished the first portrait. 

You should be doing everything for yourself, and in doing so, attempt to achieve perfection for only you


Do you have any extra tips, tricks or advice for people interested in digitizing or people who are just starting out? 

My main, and only, piece of advice I can give is based on my own principle of perfectionism for myself. This advice is: “You should be doing everything for yourself, and in doing so, attempt to achieve perfection for only you at all times”. 



Zhanna Plaksina can be contacted via her website or through the details below:

P: +593 9 8 756 9429

E: zhplax@hotmail.com

For personalized images from Zhanna, please click here.

All images are the property of Zhanna Plaksina



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