Illustration is an incredible skill. It’s the first creative discipline introduced to toddlers and it’s an art form many adults envy. It can make you weep with laughter or provoke deep thoughts. Illustrators quite literally bring to life what words or photographs can’t describe.
There are countless illustrators who draw the many moods, shapes and general brilliance that women encompass. But it isn’t that often that the women who draw these illustrations, which often fill others with encouragement, get to speak about how they navigate their own industry.
For International Women’s Day this year, I put a group together of very different female illustrators to share their experiences. To gather as wide a perspective as possible, the group includes four illustrators from around the world — Ram Han, Martina Paukova, Malika Favre and Miranda Tacchia — who agreed to meet on WhatsApp, have a chat and get to know each other. Some got up exceptionally early, others stayed up late due to time difference. The conversation below shows what happened next.
It’s Nice That: To begin, I’d love to hear about how each of you choose to represent women in your work.
Martina: I think in my case it’s definitely a certain kind of de-feminised woman. Lanky and awkward, not sending out any mating signals really. Girl next door type? Librarian? Oh dear, (not to mention that those little breasts I used to draw on them got repeatedly cancelled by clients, so now my girls are even less girly! :))
Malika: For me, it is both about drawing strong independent and beautiful women but also to explore themes around female sensuality and with a feminine eye.
Martina: You’ve got that sophistication going on Malika, which is great.
Malika: Ahahah thanks! Love your drawings too. Quirky and fun!
Miranda: In general I tend to approach my depiction of women from the notion that they are allowing you to look at them, but not without a slight hostility, almost as though the woman is getting more out of your reaction to her body then you are from seeing it. They are never passive.
Martina: Something almost like they are enjoying men or men’s awkward/perplexed reaction?
Miranda: Exactly. Enjoying a man’s discomfort!
Martina: Ahaha, love that. It’s almost like they are stepping out of their prescribed pretty roles and are showing the flesh and sweat and gravity.
Malika: I am always curious to see a woman’s take on the female body. As women we look at it in a different way, one that can be sexualised or desexualised, funny or glamorous or both, but always deprived of the idea of a “fantasised” woman.
Ram: For me, drawing women is just like I’m writing in a journal every day. Even when the women in my illustrations are adorned or seem decorative, or whether they seem casual and plain. I always want them to be considered as they really exist in real world. It is also the reason I draw the pimples and dots of the faces.
Martina: When I see your girls Ram the words coming to my mind are touch, squeeze, adore, idolise, protect. They are so otherworldly, miles away from how I draw girls.
Malika: I agree there is a real softness to them. And strength.
Ram: Thanks a lot! First of all I really love all yours works. It’s interesting how different we see women and I also have strong empathy from your perspective to women even more because it’s different!
It’s Nice That: Continuing on from this, how do you think illustration can be used as a visual tool to voice the independence and multiple personalities of women around the world?
Martina: Especially after this initial chit-chat, I think it’s super important to keep showing those different perspectives.
Malika: I think the scale is playing a big role in their power too. The surrealism of the composition. I think that our role as creative women is definitely to question things and to share our point of view. Some will identify to it, some will disagree but what matters is to keep doing it.
Miranda: Illustration is limitless. The more we pull from personal experiences the greater the impact our work has.
Malika: For me, it took me years to realise I could really say important things with illustration. Working with The New Yorker really pushed my work and depth of storytelling. I think any artist is saying something, even if it’s subconsciously, but when it becomes a deliberate decision it can be a lot stronger.
Martina: I guess being at certain point of one’s career enables one to connect the work to bigger topics, it’s more visible. I mean bigger client names, a stronger voice, almost a bigger social responsibility. And you’re doing such a great job there M.
Malika: Agreed. But somehow I think anyone can do that, no matter the point in their career. Even if it has less impact it will strengthen over time.
Miranda: When you make something personal that only you have the ability to make, that’s when people notice.
Martina: Yup, good point Miranda. Also, with ‘the persona’, you are almost enabling the audience to enter. Journey of an illustrator haha.
Malika: Of course I felt the pressure as well to create more meaningful things which pushed me ;), but I think it was always where I would end up by drawing what I was drawing.
Miranda: I agree Malika. This is definitely a skill that can be honed over time… and with age, haha!
Martina: I’m being chosen by clients for the opposite purpose — to lighten up heavy topics!
Miranda: Humour is definitely a powerful tool.
It’s Nice That: As you’ve each touched on working with clients, I was wondering if you’ve experienced a gender divide within the illustration industry?
Malika: I have been extremely lucky and never felt it. My boss at Airside was a woman, Nat Hunter, so I never felt it was an issue. But I grew up being told I was very “masculine” I used to be proud of it but in retrospect it pisses me off…
Martina: Yeah, I am not sure I have a fully clear opinion on this! The illustration field, as I understand it, is happening on the freelance, e-mail based, non face to face basis. I kinda feel that this sort of setup almost leaves no space for the old school gender biased inequality. I have just scrolled through some major visual culture blogs to see if male illustrators prevail the female, and I’m not sure, it seems to be fairly even! Haha you should hear my mom constantly telling me I dress like a man.
Malika: Hahaha. I think a lot illustrators are women. But at least in the previous generation a lot of “successful” contemporary illustrators are men. Next generation will be different I think.
Ram: The culture where I belong has the idea that cute and commercial illustrations are more feminine so many clients have preference for this. They take women as their target in the market, and it’s not a bad thing, but the thing is that the way women are objectified from companies is quite conservative. I felt inequality immediately after getting into college until I graduated. Ironically after I started to work as a freelancer, I rarely felt inequality.
Miranda: Yes. I’d say of the productions I’ve worked on, about half of them were dominated by men and the other half were more inclusive.
Malika: I feel the gender bias is probably stronger in graphic design. But is it simply because more men are graphic designers? Like Martina, I am not sure the bias is even present in our industry. But curious to be convinced otherwise. How was it expressed in college Ram? Just more praise for guys? Or else?
Ram: Back in the days in I was in college, two years ago, there was similar situation with the “me too" campaign these days.
Malika: Really? Crazy that it was only two years ago.
Ram: Yes, it was crazy. Those who were accused by victims, were mostly male professors, and the thing is all of my professors in my major were all men.
Martina: Oh dear.
Malika: I am not sure if I am a strong optimist, but I really think that the men of my generation won’t behave the same. When I look at my friends, colleagues…I have hope that this “invincible” stance is over. Fingers crossed. Or will die slowly overtime…
Malika: I think the more role models little girls have the more diversity we will get in the future. It starts there after all.
Ram: It’s definitely different from older generations, but still in my culture as there’s a strong bonding feeling about ’politeness’ and guys are used to following their family members, and mostly their fathers. It means the process of finding balance I guess is more slow in Korea.
Malika: It’s true, I am looking at it from a French and UK perspective! Things are totally different depending on the country.
Martina: I think if an older Korean man got to spend a day with me, he’d get a heart attack. Or me.
Ram: Or both. Lol.
Miranda: I remember an experience with a colleague I had when I started on a new show. He rattled off the names of a bunch of female illustrators who have a very specific aesthetic in their work and I didn’t respond. He said something like “isn’t that the type of stuff all you lady designers like?”
Malika: Miranda. Yes, that’s a classic ;). But again it depends on company culture. If we react strongly to these types of comments it will change.
Martina: But the stereotype exists with girls illustrators right? Soft pencilly flowery intricate stuff, that is what we girls like, right? Loads of feminine shapes and stroke light as feather.
Miranda: Yes, our art must match our appearance…Pretty.
Malika: I don’t know if the divide is that strong today. Personally I never felt I had to draw girly stuff but then my work is very feminine.
Martina: Sometimes I feel we are way braver at drawing out the gritty stuff than men. Your girls grew up Malika :P
Malika: Today I am not sure I could guess the gender of an illustrator by looking at images. A lot of people think I am a guy for example. I thought Noma Bar was a girl ;)
Ram: Oh same here. I sometimes hear from my clients that they assumed that I would be a guy.
Martina: Yes Ram I can imagine! Actually come to think of it, your picture sometimes feel like they are result of a male gaze, a particular phantasy of sort.
Ram: Ironically, I’m somewhat exploiting the method of misogynic media I’ve been fascinated by since childhood. I tend to furtively use what I feel uncomfortable about society as a subject. My intention about this is to bring people to feel brief emotion, not by telling specific messages. There will be a diverse way to speak up for this topic, but what I take for priority is more leaning to express the emotion that I felt from irrationalities of the society to pulling out empathy from the audience.
Martina: Ram — I totally hear you, and that is a genius method!
It’s Nice That: Moving away from men, I was interested to know if each of you had particular female role models in your life? Creative or otherwise?
Malika: Definitely Nat Hunter for me. And my mum. And my french teacher when I was 14…Nat was an incredible creative director, but also very strong and not afraid of saying what she felt. She was one of the three founders of Airside and had a huge impact on me and my work!
Martina: In my case it was very coincidentally you Malika! You guys from Airside came to my university to run a workshop, it was one of my first dabs with illustration! I made this character – Jozef the lonely wigmaker. After that me and Malika met once or twice more for a portfolio review kind of thingy. And Malika was sooo super encouraging and it was definitely one of those ego building exchanges that made me think of illustration as a definite path to follow ;)
Malika: Ahah I remember Jozef!!!! Didn’t know it was you :))) I loved him. Hairy Jozef. That was a great project!
Miranda: My mom has always been a tremendous influence for me. She’s a musician – a cellist – so it wasn’t hard for her to get behind me in my pursuit of an artistic career. She may not always understand the things I do necessarily, but there has never been a time when she didn’t support and encourage me.
Ram: It’s hard to think of a role model in Korea for me. But there are colleagues and friends encouraging me, rather than well-known people. The fact that established female artists are around has encouraged me a lot. I’ve been meeting with comic artists and illustrators who were sharing similar goals with me but in their scene. In my case, my sister is one of my role models. She’s my age and working as an animation director.
Malika: Yes. I think mentors don’t have to be in exactly the same fields.
Martina: Actually sometimes any voice of support and encouragement can do a miracle.
Miranda: Since humour is important in my work, I also pull a lot of inspiration from female comedians, particularly Kristen Wiig. I love the fearlessness of her physical comedy and I admire any woman who isn’t afraid to grotesquely contort her face to make people laugh because it goes against everything we are taught to be.
Malika: Just admiring other women and seeing that they get to succeed at what they do is a boost. But I also had a lot of male mentors in my life, and I thank them equally.
It’s Nice That: It’s great to hear you speak so enthusiastically about one another’s work and other creatives too. Do you ever find the industry quite isolating when working alone though?
Martina: Well kind of! 90% of my work happens through e-mail. Every now and then there’s a blurry Skype call with an American client.
Malika: I love working alone and I meet more people freelance than when I was working in an agency. But I love getting involved in conferences and this is a great example too. I think there is a special bond between the freelancers out there ;).
Ram: Same here. I imagined that freelancers would be more isolated, as they are working by themselves. But in my case, I found my self associated to many group of people. For example these days it’s curators as I’m preparing exhibition, and a few groups of other illustrators and comic artists.
Malika: I guess it depends where you live as well and on your personality. Some might find it isolating and others will thrive.
Miranda: I really admire everyone in this group for their enthusiasm toward freelancing because I personally have a hard time with it! I mostly work in-house for animation studios going from project to project and I find that it helps break up the monotony of being at home all day, getting cabin-fever and trying to keep my cats off the desk.
Martina: But sometimes as a foreigner in a country, I had this dreamy notion of colleagues as a second family. Naive, I know! With the freelancers that I am in a studio now, everybody just got this crazy organic schedule, sometimes you don’t see each other for weeks. I love the combination of both, half the week I work from home and half I am in my studio with people.
Miranda: To backup what Malika was saying, I agree that location and personality have a lot to do with the way one handles the isolation of freelancing. I find it comforting to be around other people sometimes, even if it is just in an office building, but I know a lot of other artists who would find this kind of environment a little restrictive.
Ram: Talking about personality, I’m actually an introverted type of person. Even this kind of situation is a bit challenging for me. After I choose to be a freelancer, I had to force myself to go out and to be exposed to many opportunities. It turned out to help get over my shyness at least a little, which was good thing.
Miranda: I’m with you on this Ram! I’m not much of a talker most of the time and unless I’m particularly eager to share a thought, I prefer to silently observe and digest conversations around me.
Martina: Oh yeah, shyness, we’ve all been there I guess.
Malika: It pays off Ram no?
Ram: It helps me a lot yeah.
It’s Nice That: Is there anything you had wish you’d known when you started your creative career?
Malika: The more you draw the better you get. I think hard work and perseverance is the secret. Not that fun, but I feel that some people think it’s just about being connected and lucky. It’s not ;).
Martina: Yeah, put the hours in. The advice I’d give myself would be a gentle tap on the shoulder and a soft, non-gendered voice saying into my rear saying It’s okay not to have concrete goals, or not to think whether your work will make it or not. Just keep on creating. No need to look left or right. And too much looking forward and backwards definitely doesn’t help either.
Malika: Very true. Not everything needs immediate approval. It s a difficult thing today with people chasing “likes” but if you don’t listen to yourself and step back you will end up creating “crowd pleasing” work.
Ram: I guess my advice would be similar with all you guys. I want to say don’t worry to much in advance, and don’t worry too much about not being at a certain point of success. There’s no such thing like good period of time to making art. It’s sometimes better when you can get mad in front of the people who are imposing you to be docile.
Miranda: Wow, all of the advice given on this is solid and I stand behind it, particularly the bits about putting in the effort and time. I spent many, many hours and late nights outside of my day job just creating personal work. To others, it may look like what we do is easy but that’s because we’ve sacrificed sleep to perfect our craft. Success does not happen overnight.
It’s Nice That: Considering this is for International Women’s Day I was wondering what your individual thoughts are on the importance of the day itself?
Malika: I hope that one day we won’t need to set a day to celebrate what should be celebrated everyday of the year. Or that it will turn into international human day. Today we absolutely need it.
Martina: International Women’s Day – super important! Especially for the generation of women now. We are so used to the topic of gender equality and levelled voices and all. But this hasn’t been always so! And 8th of March is great reminder to us of a journey women had to walk (and are still walking) and the attention and respect we deserve.
Ram: I’ve got an advantage from many brave people those who have been spoke out and facing the difficulties by their own. I always feel thankful about it and appreciate it. I’m happy to have a chance to speak my opinion.I really hope what we think it is “obvious” could become obvious in real life. As a woman living in Korea I still feel there is conflict about what this.
Miranda: I second what Malika said… I wish this kind of day weren’t necessary!