Alexandra Bowman on making her soft and painterly illustrations fill up the page
The California-based illustrator starts each of her projects with research and a pencil sketch, before balancing careful composition with exaggerated scale.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 13 January 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Illustrator Alexandra Bowman’s images often appear soft and painterly. There is a flow to them, outlines wiggling around the frame as they trace boldly around her subjects. Part of this has to do with her careful eye for composition. A balancing act of figures and visual treats, effortlessly guiding the viewer’s eyes like water down a spiral shell. She leaves her figures featureless, hoping that viewers can connect deeper and see themselves in the work.
Alexandra grew up in Northern Los Angeles and has resided in California since she graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014. “Even as a child, I always knew I would pursue visual art as a career. No matter what stage of life I was in, I was drawing,” she tells It’s Nice That. After a short stint as a waitress and as a printer’s assistant in a letterpress studio, Alexandra started working as a full time graphic designer in Oakland. “At first, illustrating as a full time career seemed impossible. I started designing and illustrating posters for local musicians in exchange for drink tickets and free admission to their shows. Slowly, folks around the bay started recognising my style and I began to gain more clients,” Alexandra adds. Over the span of four years, developing these small relationships, she was eventually able to leave her corporate job and pursue a full-time illustration practice.
In terms of process, Alexandra starts every piece with research, followed by writing down thoughts on paper to organise her ideas before sketching in pencil. Then, she looks at how she can exaggerate scale in her work, finding ways for her figures or lines to take up as much space on the page as possible. Her final medium depends on the requirements of the assignment. For fast-paced editorial jobs, working digitally speeds up her process. While painting, she prefers gouache on paper or acrylic on primed walls. To work on her large-scale projects, Alexandra projects a sketch onto a larger surface, followed by colour blocking and finishing with a thick outline.
A cover for Whetstone Magazine is an example of this process in action, and one the illustrator notes as one of her favourite projects. In an issue focusing on themes of diaspora and displacement, she wanted to come up with an image that contained both subtle forward and backward movement along with elements of being held close and transported. “Migration, forced or willing, often deals with issues of agriculture and memory, which has a huge impact on our foodways as individuals and as a community. Plants, recipes, seeds, or more abstract elements like tradition and ritual can be carried, moved, traded, and sold,” she notes. “I used saturated earth-tones for the earth and sky, and a true black to silhouette the figures as a high contrast design choice while simultaneously giving a nod to the African diaspora.”
Another recent highlight are the illustrations she did for the LA Times to accompany the coverage of George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed. “Having a familial connection to the Black Panther Party and living in the Bay Area where it was founded, I wanted to depict the animalistic pain I felt during this time, as a mother panther trying to protect her own. The BPP logo was the inspiration behind my minimal black and white graphic mocking a woodblock print, something being reduced or cut away to reveal its essence,” she says. “The smoke and helicopters frame the panther, adding to the anxiety around the historical moment.”
Going through her illustrative inspirations, she cites Jacob Lawrence as a favourite. Alexandra says that there is inspiration to be found in the stories that each of his paintings hold. Another source are Renaissance paintings. “ My ethnic background is both European and African, so I am especially drawn to paintings depicting people of color in European Art History. There aren’t many examples, but it’s a reminder of the importance of representation and the impact art can have on the present and future.”
Finally, Alexandra attributes her growth as an artist to her local community. “The Bay Area creative community not only influences my work, but encourages my growth as an artist. I am grateful to be surrounded by so many intelligent, talented people who focus on ways to give-back, educate and heal through art and storytelling,” she says.
Alexandra Bowman: Environment (Copyright © Alexandra Bowman, 2020)