Two Artists Built a Website to Help Women Illustrators Get More Work

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 11, 2017 10:11PM

Work by Alexandra Bowman.

When the website Women Who Draw launched last December, it crashed within several hours. Curious visitors had inundated the first online directory dedicated to female illustrators.  

After the site was back up and running, it received more than 6 million page views in its first three days—and over 1,200 submissions from illustrators hoping to be added to the database. The excitement confirmed founders Julia Rothman and Wendy MacNaughton’s instinct: It was high time that women illustrators received more exposure—and, most importantly, more jobs.

Now, as Women Who Draw approaches its first birthday, the inclusive directory boasts over 3,000 women, trans, and gender-nonconforming illustrators—many of whom, since joining the site, have received first-time assignments from art directors, magazine editors, and publishers. According Rothman and MacNaughton, however, their work is far from done.

Work by Ellie Ji Yang.

Work by Alice Yang.


Like many game-changing ideas, Women Who Draw started in a bathroom. “I was literally sitting on the toilet, looking through a stack of a well-known magazine that uses illustration on the cover,” Rothman, an illustrator based in Brooklyn, remembers. “That’s when I realized: I recognized most of the cover illustrators—but none of them were women.”

The experience sent Rothman down a research rabbit hole: deep into the archives of said magazine (which she prefers not to name). Among her findings, she discovered that of the publication’s 55 covers published in 2015, only four had been created by women. The information didn’t sit well with her, so Rothman called her friend MacNaughton, a fellow illustrator based in San Francisco, to discuss the problem.

Their first thought was to organize “some kind of protest or announcement about the discrepancy,” Rothman explains. But as they continued to chew on the chronic gender bias in their industry, they decided to take a more generative approach: “To create something that would be useful; that would actually help companies find and hire women,” she continues.

Work by Fanny Roos.

Work by Kelsey Wroten.

Indeed, a tagline for the website could easily be “No more excuses.” Women Who Draw brings together so many illustrators, with such a breadth of styles, subject matter, and personal experiences, that it’s hard to imagine an editor not finding a fitting artist on Women Who Draw.

The database itself is built from artist submissions, which are added to the site as long as they meet several requirements. These include identifying as a female, trans, or gender non-conforming individual, as well as being a professional, working illustrator, which according to McNaughton, “means having a professional website and active clients.”

Rothman and MacNaughton also ask artists to submit an illustration of a woman. These are used as icons to identify each illustrator’s work amongst the sprawling directory. A visit to the homepage of Women Who Draw reveals a delightful matrix of illustrated portraits of strong, unique, and diverse women. (These are re-randomized each day, so all artists get their front-page moment.)

One illustration, from Kathryn Rust, shows a young woman in shortalls and large headphones sitting on the floor; her unshaven legs are akimbo, framing a coffee-stained piece of writing she’s working on. Another, by Fabi Santiago, shows a small girl sitting on a stack of books, daydreaming.

Work by Daiana Ruiz.

Work by Dan-ah Kim.

The artist’s name and (if they choose) location, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation appear under each drawing. Rothman and MacNaughton added these categories in order to guide “art directors looking to hire an artist with a certain life experience or perspective,” MacNaughton explains. “Women can choose to identify amongst the options, or not. It’s totally up to the artist.” A sidebar allows visitors to easily filter the database according to these identity groups.

In this way, Rothman and MacNaughton have built a platform that brings real visibility to underexposed female illustrators. One of their earliest successes was connecting Los Angeles-based illustrator Fin Lee to their first major editorial job. When Lee first joined Women Who Draw, they were still working in a coffee shop, with a side hustle of illustration jobs. “But since the launch, they’ve gotten a ton of exposure, an assignment for the New York Times, left the coffee shop, and now they’re drawing full time,” MacNaughton explains, with pride.

The founders note that they’ve received countless emails recounting similar success stories from Women Who Draw artists. Rothman herself has even secured a gig through the site, and just last month illustrator Jenny Kroik, who is listed on Women Who Draw, received her first New Yorker cover.

Work by Sarah Krzyzek.

Work by Anjini Maxwell.

Even so, Rothman and MacNaughton continue to optimize the site, with an aim to drive even more jobs to illustrators. In the past several months, they introduced a tool through which art directors and editors can create accounts on Women Who Draw. By signing in, they have the option of  “saving” their favorite artists, creating an easy-to-reference log as new illustration needs arise.

Rothman and MacNaughton have also begun to publish interviews with editors and art directors who are using the site for hiring. MacNaughton describes the feature as an “attempt to add an educational dimension to the site.” In a recent interview, they ask Bridget Watson Payne, the senior editor of art publishing at Chronicle Books, “Do you have any advice for illustrators who want to get a book deal?”

Her answer is refreshingly accessible, and actionable: “I love it when illustrators come to me with big, fully realized ideas that they’re excited about making happen in book form (as opposed to the more traditional illustration industry here’s-my-portfolio-let’s-work-together type pitch).”

This is the type of guidance Rothman and MacNaughton hope to produce more of on Women Who Draw, knowing it can only strengthen their primary objective: “The whole purpose of the site is to gain visibility for less visible illustrators and artists,” MacNaughton explains. “But it’s also to empower them, and help them get jobs. That’s the biggest goal: to get women jobs—and we’re going to help do that in any way we can.”

Alexxa Gotthardt