Character Sketch

Why the Artist Alexandra Bowman Is All About Trying New Things

We first discovered Alexandra Bowman’s tactile, euphoric illustrations on the cover of Glory Edim’s book, Well-Read Black Girl, and once we did, we were hungry for a whole lot more of her illustrations. A California native who now lives in Oakland—after a stop at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago along the way—Alexandra uses wonderfully off-kilter colors and textured contours to bring a liveliness to everything she touches. Proof: her first mural, recently completed at UCLA. Read on for more about how she nailed her style by learning to color outside the lines.

Q. What was the path to finding your own signature approach?

“I have been drawing since before high school, but my illustrating process has steadily evolved with my perspective of the world around me. Taking figure-drawing classes in my late teens and early twenties taught me traditional drawing techniques. Eventually, I had to force myself to break the habit of drawing exactly what was in front of me in order to pursue my own artistic style. In a sense, I was expanding my way of seeing. I would ask myself, what information can I remove or skew and still visually get the point across? Would I take a second look at this piece if I saw it in a magazine?”

“In the past, I always drew figures with slender bodies to align my work with the conventional portrayal of women in art and the media. As a six-foot-tall, curvy woman, I had to step back and ask myself why I was doing that. Now, the female bodies in my art are deliberately larger than you’d expect, with exaggerated features and elongated lines. I like my female figures to take up space and fill the page. It took time and personal growth to get here, but now my style is an effortless part of my creative process.”

Q. What does a day in your life as an illustrator look like?

A. “Most mornings I wake up, make a coffee, and go straight to my email and paperwork. I respond to messages, sign contracts, send invoices, and follow up with clients from the evening before. Once I feel caffeinated enough, I hit the gym and then come home energized for the rest of the day. My late afternoon and early evening is reserved for the fun part of my job, sketching and finalizing illustrations. I don’t have a studio due to the extremely high housing costs in the Bay Area, so my apartment is my studio. Most of my editorial work is done digitally, so a lot of the time, I work at my desk in my bedroom. In terms of background noise, I love listening to podcasts like The Daily and Still Processing. Sometimes I’m guilty of listening to a cheesy lifetime movie or Law & Order: SVU (gotta love Olivia Benson). If I choose music, I tend to listen to upbeat cumbia, hip-hop, or soul music. Some of my favorite artists on my playlist right now are Megan Thee Stallion, Little Dragon, Curtis Mayfield, Anderson .Paak, Andres Landero, and Ari Lennox.”

Q. What are your favorite things to draw—and when you’re drawing yourself, what’s the key element?

A. “The human form and plant life are my favorite things to draw. I also like to play with scale, layering, and textures in my work. My tattoos are the most recognizable thing about me in the self portrait, and if you know me, you know how much I adore my orange tabby, Nebula.”

Q. When it comes to tools, what are your go-tos?

A. “I love using gouache on paper, and Acryla is my go-to brand. A combination of acrylic and gouache, it is opaque, easy to layer, and comes with some amazing colors and hues. If I’m painting large-scale, murals I will always buy acrylic paint from Nova Color in Culver City. You can buy art supplies anywhere, but it’s really important to me to support your small, local art shop. We need to keep them in business! There’s nothing more satisfying than walking through a physical art store. Creative ideas can come to me just from being in that space.”

“Most of my commissioned work is drawn digitally with my Wacom tablet due to possible revisions and tight deadlines, but I love experimenting with new materials. I recently learned how to laser-cut and create prints on a Risograph. When I travel, I bring my sketchbook, microns, and oil pastels. Neocolor II is my favorite brand at the moment. The pastels are water soluble, so they can create some pretty cool textures.”

Q. Who are a few of your favorite illustrators?

A. “That’s such a hard question because there are so many extremely talented artists out there. Some of my top favorite all-stars are Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Matisse, and David Hockney. I love following the work of contemporary artists like Jade Purple Brown, George McCalman, Loveis Wise, Tara Booth, Egle Zvirblyte, and Bill Rebholz, too.”

Q. Where do you look for outside ideas when you’re stuck?

A. “Feeling stuck is just a part of the creative process and the human experience in general. I see lack of inspiration as an opportunity to step away from my routine and do something different. I take a ton of pictures on my cell phone and constantly accumulate interesting photographs from books, postcards, magazines, newspapers, and online sources. My favorite way to collect is through tangible images. Being an artist doesn’t mean producing art 24/7. The best art comes from interesting adventures or meaningful human contact. It’s always a good idea for me to take breaks, travel, go to the library, read and research different topics, garden, be outdoors, swim, or just hang around friends. Most of my inspiration comes from memorable life experiences, and learning something new can force me to step out of my comfort zone and use my brain in a different way. I recently found myself in a creative slump and decided to sign up for salsa-dancing classes.”