“Visuals are political”: the Women Who Draw founders on diversity and empowerment

8 March 2017

Illustration directory Women Who Draw almost accidentally spearheaded a movement when it launched, going viral and getting coverage in Vogue and BBC News, but it began purely as an initiative to get more female artists on magazine covers. Here we talk to the founders Wendy MacNaughton and Julia Rothman about the site and its meaning.

What inspired you to start Women Who Draw? 

It all started in the bathroom. Julia was sitting and thumbing through back issues of a prominent magazine, when she noticed that most – in fact ALL – of its covers had been illustrated by men. She went through their issues over the course of a year and found that out of 55 magazine covers done in 2015, only four had been created by women. She called me (Wendy) and together we agreed something had to be done. At first we were going to go to the press, but after talking to a group of illustrators and some advisors, we instead decided what we really needed to do was solve the problem instead – to make it impossible for any publication, art director or editor to ever again say “I’d hire more women, women of colour, or other minority groups of women if i only knew where to find them.” Now they know where to find them. 

Do you think there’s a gender divide in the creative industries, and why do you think that is?

In most fields there is a gender pay gap and a gender bias, and the creative industries is not immune to this. In illustration, when we look at who is winning the awards and who gets a lot of the bigger opportunities and then compare that to the ratio of female to male in the field (and especially in the classroom) there’s a bias. Moreover, there is a disproportionately low number or women of colour and queer women represented in the field. And we believe that in part this is due to visibility. People work with people they know or have heard of, that they are familiar with, that they’ve seen work from before. By increasing visibility of women, women of colour and queer women (including trans and gender non-conforming) we hope to help change the ratio.


Aya Kakeda


Violeta Noy

Why is Women Who Draw so important, now more than ever?

In our image-heavy, digitally-driven world, visuals are powerful. Visuals are political. Visuals can challenge beliefs, create empathy, motivate action. The United States just elected a president with a history of racism and sexism. He is surrounding himself with almost entirely white men. It’s up to us to keep pushing forward, to resist sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other dividing forces. Now more than ever, we need to support and amplify the voices of women and women of colour. When an art director works with a female illustrator, they amplify her voice, support her professionally, and increase her visibility. Hopefully Women Who Draw can help more and more women illustrators get the opportunities they deserve. 

Tell us about the reaction to your initiative, and what you have planned for it?

When we first launched, we received 1200 submissions in the first 24 hours and had to halt temporarily. We rebuilt the site and added a bunch of features. We started with about 50 women illustrators on WWD not even three months after we re-launched, we have about 2900 women on there. We also have features that help art directors build personal stables of artists; interviews with top art directors, editors and designers who discuss how they work with illustrators, and curated lists of their faves; community projects called WWD_Together where we draw around a specific theme then we host the best of the work on the site. 

We have big plans for Women Who Draw. Clearly there is a real need both on the side of artists and the people who hire them. Artists want a vehicle to get their work in front of people, and people who hire artists are really interested in finding unique and diverse talent. There is also a real call for community within these groups. That’s something Women Who Draw is really well positioned to do. We have some exciting partnerships coming up in the next couple of months, some exceptional opportunities for our members. We have a lot of companies or publications asking if we can help identify artists for them, so that is a service we are toying with offering – a great way to bring work to our members, and help support WWD in the long term. When we started it, we knew there was a need for Women Who Draw, we just had no idea how useful it could really be. 

"Visuals are political. Visuals can challenge beliefs, create empathy, motivate action."

Wendy MacNaughton, Women Who Draw

Shannon Wright

The artists submit work and tag themselves as part of each category: Race/Ethnicity, Location, Orientation and Religion. Can you choose five illustrators from the directory that demonstrate its diversity and tell us why you like their work?

Shannon Wright’s illustrations and comics are smart, fun and accessible. We also love comics, like 8 ways to resist Donald Trump. (African American, Virginia-based)

Violeta Noy’s work uses bold colour and graphic shapes. It really captures your attention in a playful way. Her characters live in a world we wouldn’t mind spending a weekend in. (Hispanic, Latina, Barcelona-based, LGBT)

LA Johnson’s illustrations not only have insightful conceptual ideas but they are rendered in a beautiful, handmade seeming way with texture and a variety of marks. The series for NPR is especially wonderful. (DC based LGBT)

Daiana Ruiz’s portraits of women are bold and striking. She depicts women of all ethnicities and body types in a fresh stylistic way amongst vibrating pattern. Even better: the animations on her tumblr bring her work to life. (Multiracial)

Aya Kakeda’s work is magical. Her creatures are adorable and their surroundings, a surreal wonderland. Aya works in a range of media, from traditional paintings to embroideries to comics. She makes handmade books and gets her drawings on a range of surfaces from apparel to stationery. Most exciting are her ceramics in which her creations come to 3D life! These small sculptures get photographed and used as unique illustrations! (Asian American)


Daiana Ruiz

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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