five female illustrators exploring the female form

Meet five pioneering women – all members of the online sisterhood of illustration –using their talent to explore the female form.

Polly Nor
Polly Nor

Polly Nor

London-based Polly Nor draws women and their demons – which is a pretty concise summation of her work – but the subject matters she deals with have a lot more depth to them.  Her satirical take on female sexuality upsets conventional notions and highlights issues of insecurity, supposed flaws and societal pressures. “I’m bored of looking at objectifying images of women where their sole purpose is to look attractive to the viewer,” Nor explains. “I want to offer an alternative view through my illustrations and focus on how my characters feel and what they think rather than focusing on how attractive they are.”

It’s a rebellious take on the female experience, with a behind-closed-doors feel, that often finds Nor pushing her point to grotesque extremes, her demons sit at home, cigarette lit, unzipping their human skin, done for the day.

These characters aren’t just Nor’s imagination run wild, they set viewers minds racing to fill in the blanks and expand on their narratives. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if the demons in Nor’s work are friend or foe, leaving us to debate whether they’re a comforting presence or menace.

“I draw them as part of the female character’s imagination,” Nor says of her demon figures, “A grotesque and unstable part of herself that she keeps from the rest of the world, a devilish manifestation of her anxieties, frustrations and desires. Sometimes they’re dark, sometimes they’re sexual, sometimes they’re sad. It depends how I’m feeling at the time.”

Laura Callaghan
Laura Callaghan

Laura Callaghan

Callaghan’s girls aim to capture the reality of being female in today’s world, taking on modern life’s trials and tribulations while delivering some serious side-eye à la Rizzo from Grease: her girls have attitude by the bucket-load.

Irish-born Callaghan first got her break working in fashion illustration where her experience in drawing the female form was constrained to the single body type that’s overwhelmingly favoured in the fashion industry. Wanting to break out and explore her skills, Callaghan began focusing on her own work.

“Once I started to draw purely for pleasure I found the characters whose stories I was interested in telling were female. I want my characters to be diverse, to use their bodies for many things, to lounge hungover on a filthy carpet, to cradle a houseplant, to propel themselves up a cliff face, to play a competitive game of tug of war with a sweatshirt. I'd like to capture something real and relatable about living in this sack of flesh and bones.” Her women come from different parts of the world, they’re smart and cool, displaying curved and strong bodies that aren’t over sexualised but remain sexy.

Having amassed over 180k Instagram followers Callaghan’s started to feel guilty if she doesn’t post something every couple of days on social media – with great internet popularity comes great responsibility as they say – and that there’s now an added responsibility to be socially aware with what she posts. “You have a platform to say something meaningful with your work and if you don't it feels like a waste,” that said Callaghan laughs that some days she just wants “to draw something stupid for the sake of drawing something stupid.”

So what’s to explain the growing number of female illustrators on instagram? “Female illustrators tend to champion each other’s work and lift each other up,” she says. Amen to that.

Sara Andreasson
Sara Andreasson

Sara Andreasson

“I’m tired of seeing the exact same body ideal being promoted over and over again,” says Swedish illustrator Sara Andreasson, “It’s refreshing to draw something different to that. Also, having spent a good amount of my teenage years struggling with an eating disorder I do have a very personal account of how damaging that type of imagery can be.”

After six years studying product design and engineering at Gothenburg’s Academy of Design and Crafts, Andreasson put aside her former focus in furniture design to try her hand at illustration. Recently relocated to London, Andreasson’s distinct colour palette (check those those blues and mustard tones, set off with a peachy-orange), focus on norm-criticism, women’s issues and equality have set her bold and unapologetic work apart from the crowd. Most recently Andreasson has found a passion for female bodybuilders, but you’ll find all kinds of bodies challenging physical norms in her work.

“I try to make careful decisions in my work and strive to create images that aren’t reinforcing stereotypes… I identify as a feminist and I do consider some – but not all – of my work a form of low-key activism. This isn’t always too obvious in the outcome though, because a major part of it is just about standing up for my beliefs when working with clients. Often it’s just really simple things like disagreeing when being told – for no apparent reason – to ‘slim down’ a female-coded body or change the colour of the skin into ‘something lighter’.”

Along with best pal Josefine Hardstedt, Andreasson publishes her own zine BBY, that’s dedicated to celebrating the work of other female identifying and queer creatives. “I wish to contribute to this sense of sisterhood,” Andreasson declares, “I can’t stress enough how important I think is that we keep having each other’s back."

Carly Jean Andrews
Carly Jean Andrews

Carly Jean Andrews

“Sometimes there is a voice in my head that’s like, you could draw a, b and c, and all these people would love it and you'd get attention, but that’s a kind of gross way to make art,” says controversial Portland-based illustrator Carly Jean Andrews. “If there was a scenario in which no one could see my personal work ever again, nothing would really change for me, I’d keep drawing like I always have been.”

What Andrews can generally be found drawing are cartoony, semi-erotic (mostly) female characters in scenarios that incorporate the bizarre –  think clown face paint and Furby hugging. Not shy to tackle topics of female sexuality, Andrews’ work has previously found it’s way into exhibitions centred on female sexuality and often features naked females whose real world body shapes are used as a blank canvas to express her ideas. The sexual nature of her work is however, met with a serious sense of humour.

“Sex and being sexy are really funny. People think I’m this sex crazed illustrator because my girls are sometimes naked, I just like drawing bodies, they are blank slates, their nakedness doesn't make me think of sex. Robert Crumb does it best and his work makes me ‘get’ myself/my body.  It would be cool if people ‘got’ themselves when they looked at my work.”

The best thing about Andrews is surely that not only does her work walk the walk but she also has a knack for talking the talk. Andrews says she misses “that kind of silly, funny, powerful, smart cuteness, like Barbara Benton/Streisand, Scary Spice, Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man. You will be “hot” if you are your best self.” She’s right.  It’s all about confidence at the end of the day.

Panteha Abareshi
Panteha Abareshi

Panteha Abareshi

Seventeen year old Panteher Abareshi doesn’t deal with the female form in the traditional sense: combining a sense of dry whimsy and bright colours, she does most definitely deal with the manifestations of emotion in outward appearance.

“I draw women of colour only,” Abareshi elaborates: “The female form most commonly depicted in contemporary graphic arts is still the female form that conforms to the Eurocentric standard of beauty. I am hoping to convey that there is no one definition for what exactly the female form is.”

Hailing from Montreal but now based in Tucson AZ, Abareshi has mixed heritage with her father immigrating from Iran and her mother from Jamaica. As a sickle cel zero beta thalassemia sufferer – the condition causes constant intense chronic pain – and also as someone dealing with mental health issues, it’s no surprise that Abareshi’s work reflects these struggles. Harnessing illustration’s accessibility to navigate and escape complex emotions, Abareshi rebels against stereotypes of mental illness and women of colour. “I personally struggled with severe depression and anxiety, so I often find myself unable to explain how I feel, or why I’m “sad” to those around me. Through my work I’m able to draw the embodiments of the emotions I experience and the nuanced thoughts and sensations that I’m otherwise unable to verbalise.”

That said Abareshi’s work comes with a wry sense of humour that aligns somewhere in the realm of Winona Ryder circa Heathers. Currently deciding which school to start in the fall to gain a BFA in illustration and textile design, Abareshi just won the 2017 National YoungArts award, believes crying is highly underrated, is a proud anti-romantic and is an avid existentialist.

“I want young female-identifiers to know that it is more than ok to have no interest in dating, no interest in sex. We are taught from a young age to pine after male attention. We are made to feel that men art the only ones who can validate our self worth. That is complete and utter bullshit.”

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