What separates illustration from art? For most emerging illustrators, the answer is complicated.
“I’m not really sure there is a major distinction—boundaries between artistic practices are increasingly and refreshingly blurry,” says Brooklyn-based illustrator and painter Sam Kalda. Milan-based Olimpia Zagnoli agrees: “I’m not really interested in dividing my work into separate boxes. I’m interested in doing good work and cultivating my curiosity for things.”
While illustration has traditionally referred to drawing commissioned for media and advertising, times are clearly changing. And no longer confined to paper sketchpads and print publications alone, contemporary illustrators are indeed expanding their toolkit, techniques, and the range of projects they’re pursuing. Some stick to pencils and paint, but others employ Photoshop brushes, the new and improved iPad Pro, and animation software.
Below, we highlight 15 young illustrators pushing the medium forward, whether through obsessive drawings of cats, anime-inspired gifs, or satirical portraits of Donald Trump.
Panteha Abareshi, It's All Excruciating, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Panteha Abareshi, Just Cut It Out, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
“My pieces are an encapsulation and depiction of my struggles and my feelings, literally inspired by my daily experiences with depression and anxiety,” Abareshi says. In one recent work, The Problem Is On The Inside!, Abareshi draws a young woman whose face is split down the middle, revealing a pink brain and bright red innards; she wears a pairs of blood-drenched scissors as an earring.
The young illustrator, who recently started her freshman year at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, began to realize she could pursue illustration as a career while receiving her GED, a path which she took “because my mental and physical health made it impossible to function in the traditional high school setting,” she says. Drawing not only provided her an emotional outlet, but also a sense of fulfillment: “I had never experienced loving the act of doing something, despite failures and disappointment with the pieces I was making,” she says of her practice.
Illustration by Daiana Ruiz. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration by Daiana Ruiz. Courtesy of the artist.
Ruiz’s muses are strong, chic, acrobatic women. In one of her graphic illustrations, her female subject dances and hoists a boa constrictor high in the air, dressed to the nines in a peach jumpsuit and sizable bronze accessories. The artist defies the tall, lanky frames which have traditionally filled fashion illustrations and magazines, rendering her figures in a vast range of skin tones and body types. In step, she has become a go-to illustrator for brands and projects looking to celebrate women, body positivity, and diversity.
This past year, Riposte Magazine commissioned Ruiz to illustrate an article titled “Self-Care as Warfare.” The digital drawings which accompany it show two bendy women who truly know how to multitask—they stare confidently at the reader while striking yoga poses and applying perfume. The Buenos Aires-based artist also recently teamed up with Cartoon Network for its PowerpuffYourself.com project, in which a number of artists around the world created their own version of the pint-sized cartoon female superheroes. As Ruiz explains, the project “demonstrates that everyone can embody the spirit of The Powerpuff Girls, regardless of gender, race, or creed.” Her own adaptation depicts a new POC member of the team—the three original Powerpuff girls are all white.
Shawna X, How Much Do I Love You. Courtesy of the artist.
Shawna X, I Still Love You. Courtesy of the artist.
Filled with rich gradients and hues borrowed from Hawaiian sunsets and heat maps, Shawna X’s illustrations look like they might burst into flames at any moment. Warmth emanates from the the artist’s work, which has recently surfaced in hypnotizing collaborations with Adidas and Samsung. For the former, she conceived banners and courts for the Adidas x USA Volleyball High Performance Championship, as well as created a “girl gang floor mural” in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park in support of women’s equality.
The Portland-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator cites a smattering of inspirations, from “the aftermath of a dimsum lunch” to “the way a shadow is cast on water” and the eccentric novelist Richard Brautigan. Sometimes, the ups and downs of the creative process itself provide fodder. The artist’s recent public mural collaboration with Portland nonprofit Forest for the Trees depicts a naked woman submerged in water on one side of the mural, and rising to her feet on the other. The figures represent “the dive into a rut/depression and a rise again to inspiration,” she explains on her website.
Sophie Koko Gate
Illustration by Sophie Koko Gate. Courtesy of the artist.
“I’ve never really seen myself as an illustrator,” notes London-based Koko Gate. “Once I was able to make my illustrations move, that’s when I knew I had found my calling!” Gate was 21 at the time. Since then, her animations—filled with figures whose googly eyes, angular bodies, and very large mouths gyrate and occasionally explode into pieces—have popped up with regularity on The Guardian, as well in special projects for Airbnb, Vox, and MTV.
In a recent collaboration with Lena Dunham, Gate brings to life a conversation between the actress-filmmaker and her father, the painter Carroll Dunham. They ponder the question: “How are you feeling about the extinction of white men?” The animation concludes when an oblivious pink man-monster is squashed by a giant high heel.
Gate often reaches outside her own field when on the hunt for inspiration. Ceramicists like Hans Coper and Lucie Rie have informed her approach to shape and form. Science, too, offers a trove of visual stimulation: “Anything under a microscope, plankton, the little mites that live in your eyelashes” have all jarred fresh ideas, she says. But the artist does concede that some animators have inspired her path, particularly Sesame Street’s Sally Cruikshank and Faith Hubley, and claymation guru Jan Švankmajer.
Illustration by Angelica Hicks. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration by Angelica Hicks. Courtesy of the artist.
Hicks’s cheeky illustrations—with their blend of no-holds-barred wit, wordplay, pop culture savvy, and art-historical innuendo—have popped up on Manhattan and Milan walls, couture t-shirts, and many an Instagram feed. The young London- and New York-based illustrator’s work has graced the pages of the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar US, and Vogue UK, but it was a 2017 collaboration with Gucci that catapulted her career. The Milan-based couture house tapped Hicks to create illustrations for a series of t-shirts that poke light fun at the fashion world—and at Gucci’s signature items, in particular. One shows three plump loaves of bread decorated with the label’s logo, rebranded as “GUCCI LOAF-ERS.”
This year also marks the publication of Hicks’s first book, Tongue in Chic. One illustration shows a half-topless Frida Kahlo, accompanied by the phrase: “FRIDA NIPPLE!” In another diptych, we see two coffee cups. One bears the likeness of a young Leonardo diCaprio with the description “LEO DECAF-RIO,” while its partner mug is labeled “ARIANA’S GRANDE.”
Jack Dylan, A Song of Love and Fire, created for the Pop Montreal Festival. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration from Jack Dylan's recent series chronicling the Trump presidency. Courtesy of the artist.
“Lately, I’m most inspired by my neighborhood of Fort Greene,” he says. “It’s cats, people, gardens, and beautiful brownstones.” One recently posted gif, captioned “Dance of the cat naps,” depicts Dylan’s own felines—one black, one orange—as they snooze in different spots on his bed.
Dylan excels at translating the scenes that surround him—whether his everyday life in Brooklyn or the political environment looming over it—into charming, sweetly humorous drawings. Like many artists, he’s also been affected by the Trump administration. One series of drawings (which Dylan is in the process of turning into a book titled I’m President and You’re Not) pokes fun at POTUS’s hubris. “I’m happy with the way I draw Trump,” Dylan says. “He’s like a fat little beetle with tiny arms and legs.”
The Canada-born creative also works extensively with publications and brands, as both an illustrator and art director (in another manifestation of his cat obsession, Dylan named his design studio Meow Magazine). Recently, he contributed an animated video for Architectural Digest in which actress Jenny Slate describes her childhood bedroom and dream home to fashion designer and man-about-town Derek Blasberg. He has also contributed illustrations to Pitchfork and art direction expertise to Esquire and Popular Mechanics.
Sam Kalda, Boyle Heights, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Sam Kalda, Illustration of Paul Klee from Of Cats and Men, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
This spring, Kalda celebrated his first book, which is about famous men who happen to share a deep love for cats. Released by Ten Speed Press, Of Cats and Men assembles detailed portraits of Nikola Tesla, Winston Churchill, Andy Warhol, and others alongside their favorite felines. These, and all of Kalda’s drawings, radiate warmth and humanity through his inclusion of intimate details: a paint-splattered coat, an open book forgotten on a coffee table, or a half-empty glass of wine. It’s an approach that has attracted an impressive range of publications and brands. He has worked extensively with the New York Times, which has published some 45 of Kalda’s animations alongside its “Meditation for Real Life” series. Lately, the South Dakota-born, Brooklyn-based artist is immersed in illustrating a children’s book about the first moon landing, slated to publish this fall.
Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli. Courtesy of the artist.
Zagnoli’s bold, Pop-inspired style stands out—even in a sea of hurried New York City commuters. “Henri Matisse is my spiritual guide when it comes to color,” the artist notes, also citing Saul Steinberg (“the Elvis of illustration”) and Pablo Picasso (the one who “really makes me cry”) as influences.
In 2014, the city’s mass transit system hired the young, Milan-based illustrator to design a poster that was showcased in subway platforms and cars across the five boroughs. Riders were treated to one of Zagnoli’s typically fabulous characters—a woman with a neon red hair wearing a bright green turtleneck and big sun-yellow hoop earrings, each bearing the words “New York.”
In May of this year, Milan’s Antonio Colombo Gallery hosted “How To Eat Spaghetti Like a Lady,” featuring a dozen illustrations responding to a series of photos from a 1942 issue of LIFE Magazine meant to instruct women how to properly eat a plate a spaghetti. (Zagnoli’s women show that “they’re free to enjoy a plate of spaghetti however the fuck they want,” she says.) This month, the artist also launches her second collaboration with the Italian fashion brand Marella, which has covered its Fall/Winter collection with patterns designed by the illustrator.
Illustration by Sara Andreasson. Courtesy of the artist.
After several years of illustration for clients like Wired, Selfridges, Nike, and Tumblr—for whom she illustrated a Drake playlist—Andreasson has lately been taking “a much needed break from commissioned work,” she says. This past summer, she focused on her personal drawing practice while traveling across the U.S. (Andreasson is Swedish and based in London). The resulting illustrations, which can be seen on her Instagram feed, depict risk-taking women and explosive, untamed house plants rendered in her signature palette of cool tangerines, hot pinks, and calming periwinkles.
In between commercial gigs and her personal drawing practice, Andreasson also makes time for a steady stream of collaborations with friends and fellow creatives. She works regularly with director-animator Anna Ginsburg on animated films; edits an independent all-female/queer magazine, BBY, with Josefine Hardstedt; and shares a studio with several of her favorite illustrators (and close friends) Hattie Stewart, Lynnie Z, and Annu Kilpeläinen.
Tomi Um, Harry’s crowd scene. Art direction by Garrett Morri. Courtesy of the artist.
Tomi Um, Harry’s studio scene. Art direction by Garrett Morri. Courtesy of the artist.
How do you convince a generation of young people to buy their beds on the internet? You enlist the vision of a creative like South Korean, Brooklyn-based Um, whose ad campaign for Casper mattresses has been an urban-commuter favorite since 2015. Her sweet, playful drawings depict all manner of creatures (mustachioed koalas, vampires, bookworms, even Bob Ross) tucking into bed.
Um originally moved to New York to pursue her BFA at Parsons, and the city has provided constant stimulation. “I like to people-watch, try to read their expressions, and see how they carry themselves,” she says. The spoils of this pastime show up across her work, which captures the chaos, energy, and diversity of busy, urban spaces. In a recent campaign for Harry’s Razors, an illustration by Um shows an aerial view of a city street packed with men—all lathered with shaving cream—who are running, cycling, surfing, directing traffic, walking dogs, and fighting fires. Um has also contributed to publications such as The Atlantic, Curbed, and FiveThirtyEight, and is currently working on a mural and a children’s picture book. (Full disclosure: Um’s illustration work was recently commissioned by Artsy as part of a partnership with Bombay Sapphire.)
Cristina Daura, Illustration for Eat Street. Courtesy of the artist.
Cristina Daura, Illustration for the project #BorraelSida with PlayGround magazine and La Fundació Lluita contra el Sida. Courtesy of the artist.
Barcelona-based Daura’s illustrations read like contemporary cautionary tales rendered in a hyper-saturated palette. Take one poster from a recent series Daura made for the Barcelona nightclub Razamatazz: A melting smiley face covers the face of a girl at its center. Below, a pair of young women play polo atop blindfolded horses, their mallets bursting into flame.
Daura isn’t always as dystopic, but her images always lean toward the surreal. One, called Cats and Plants / Plants and Cats / and a volcano, shows a smiling black feline (a recurring character across Daura’s work) holding a fern in its mouth. The creature floats next to a stoic girl whose features are shrouded by an anthropomorphic plant sprig (it, too, sports a smiley face). Behind them, a volcano erupts with a lotus blossom.
Daura’s inspirations are eclectic, from cult cartoonist R. Crumb to Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, novelist and cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner, and Catalan Romanesque art. The bold, darkly humorous style that results has led to commissions from local Barcelona music festivals, magazines, and AIDS awareness organizations, as well as international publications like the New York Times and The New Yorker, who have both commissioned her work.
Daniel Zender, Illustration for the New Yorker. Courtesy of the artist.
Daniel Zender, Illustration for the New York Times. Courtesy of the artist.
Zender’s paintings and illustrations are laced with cinematic drama: Eyes shine from behind screens of smoke, and the glow of roaring flames illuminate screaming faces. It’s no surprise, then, that the Brooklyn-based artist looks to film for inspiration: “I have always loved movies, especially horror, and a lot of my atmospheric choices and lighting comes from that,” he says. The 1977 film Suspiria, in particular, provoked Zender to use “garish and highly saturated colors to illustrate something ‘scary.’”
His unique ability to capture fear and frustration has led to a number of topical commissions. In July, The LA Times ran one of his illustrations alongside an op-ed titled “How to stop trigger-happy cops,” which explored the role of de-escalation training in reducing unnecessary shootings by police. Similarly, in early September, the New York Times paired Zender’s work with another op-ed, titled “Hands Up. It’s Showtime,” about how police militarization has been shaped by violence depicted on television and in films. Zender’s illustration for that essay depicts an armored SWAT team which blends together like an ominous black cloud.
Outside of his illustration work, Zender also maintains a painting practice. While he keeps the two mediums in separate spaces—illustration at home, painting in a studio—the two occasionally overlap. “My illustration work continues to integrate tiny innovations from my art studio, like textural solutions,” he says. And when it comes to painting: “I always return to my sketchbook to see how I can incorporate bits and pieces from my illustrations back into my art.”
Rebekka Dunlap, Illustration for short story "In Foreign Territory, Wondering: Who is the Alpha Monkey?" by Leigh Shulman. Courtesy of the artist.
When Dunlap told her family that she had decided to study art in college, her mother cried. “My teachers and family viewed it as a total black hole of a future,” she remembers. “I had to have a come-to-Jesus [moment] about the fact that drawing bootleg anime and coming up with stories made me happier than almost anything else.”
Fast forward to 2017, when Dunlap made a buzzy career of her otherworldly illustrations, inspired by sci-fi, horror comics, and Manga, from Sailor Moon to Kaito Jane to a dusty copy of 3x3 Eyes. Her fluid, brushy streaks of color and loosely cartoonish figures have caught the eye of publications from the The New Yorker and Oprah Magazine to Buzzfeed and the MIT Technology Review. The Brooklyn-based illustrator also manages to find time for non-editorial passion projects. Currently, she is collaborating with fellow illustrator Topher MacDonald on an animated short film-cum-music video, which she describes as a “surreal and cerebral adventure story.”
Jon Han, The Room. Courtesy of the artist.
Brooklyn-based Han has become a favorite illustrator of MIT’s Technology Review, Surface Mag, the New York Times, and Bleacher Report, among others. Across these publications, his work stands out for its unique blend of painting and digital drawing. The compositions that result explode with streaks and splatters of brilliant color and nebulous shapes that convey movement and volatility. Often, small, faceless figures stand within these brilliant visual tumults, looking suitably overwhelmed.
The Times, in particular, has coupled Han’s illustrations with a vast range of articles and special features. This past May, the publication ran an article penned by conceptual artist and activist Ai Weiwei titled “How Censorship Works.” Han’s accompanying illustration shows a figure in front of a dazzlingly colorful wall blocked by a barrier of dense black rectangles. For another piece (“Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions”) Han contributed an animated backdrop that, as the reader scrolls, transforms from a lush mountain landscape into a barren wasteland.
Joana Avillez, illustration from her travel diary for New York Magazine, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
As a child, Avillez fantasized about a career in illustration. But by the time she arrived at Rhode Island School of Design, she’d decided to pursue painting instead. Even so, she remembers that “the things I had always loved—magazines, books, printed anything, paper anything, comics, humor, writing, stories, typography—hovered nearby me at all times, waiting for me to catch back up.”
Indeed, they did. Today, the New York-born and -based Avillez spends her days making illustrations for the very publications that inspired her when she was young. Her drawings of sprightly, eccentric, and wildly fashionable humans (“People watching is my only hobby,” she says) regularly make their way onto the pages of The New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, ZEITmagazin, and more.
Recently, the Guggenheim Museum also tapped Avillez’s talent. A new series of illustrations reveal what happens within the spiraling walls of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in-between exhibitions. In one, several funkily-attired museumgoers hold phones above their heads, snapping pictures of the institution’s famously dizzying rotunda. Next year, look out for Avillez’s first book, D C-T!, a collaboration with writer Molly Young that brings together delightfully mischievous illustrated and coded word puzzles about New York City.
Header image: Sara Andreasson, Petite, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
A previous version of this article stated that the Guggenheim Museum was designed by Frank Gehry. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.