Taking a photographer's favourite hour of the day, when a golden light bathes everything in a flattering warmth, Holly Stapleton's illustrations are pleasingly soft, charming and tender. The Toronto-based artist masterfully mixes hand-painted gouache with digital art to achieve this unique style.
"I would say my style focuses on merging analogue and digital illustration in a minimalistic way," Holly tells Creative Boom. "I mainly develop figure drawings, and I like to use bright golden-hour lighting to amplify the beauty of soft and simple scenes. My work explores the complex nature of selfhood, vulnerability and loneliness."
Completely self-taught, Holly didn't undertake any formal training or higher education in illustrator or visual arts. Instead, she studied multimedia and communication studies for her undergraduate degree. During this time, she explored animation and made looping motion graphics in Photoshop for fun.
After graduation, Holly moved to Montréal and enrolled in a graphic design course at Concordia University, where she learned the basics of Adobe Creative Suite. "It was there that I discovered a whole community of editorial artists on Instagram and felt like this was something I could do and enjoy," she says. "I started to realise that illustration was more gratifying for me than animation and less tedious. So I moved back to Toronto and sent my work to a few art directors. I worked part-time as a nanny during my first year as a freelancer. I slowly transitioned to working full-time around the beginning of the pandemic."
Looking through the portfolio she's built thus far – which includes work for The New York Times and The Washington Post – there's a recurring theme of faceless characters; their features are mysteriously unknown. This is certainly deliberate. "I have never been good at drawing faces," she explains, "so facial detail is usually something I wait until the end to add, and when I do, I often feel like it flattens the piece. Sometimes I feel like faceless figures are easier to relate to and more elusive in a beautiful way, but I'm trying to challenge myself to explore drawing faces this year."
Recent projects include an animation for Mighty Oak and its Netflix docu-series, The Principles of Pleasure. "It's a three-part series exploring and debunking myths surrounding women's sexuality and pleasure," Holly says. "I was asked to develop concept art for the first episode, which touches on the pleasure gap and the barriers and shame that so many women face. I was very fortunate to have worked with such an inspiring group of creatives for my first collaborative project. I learned a lot and gained so much respect for the animators on the team and their creative process. They did such an amazing job bringing my still illustrations to life."
Like many of us, Holly has recently taken some time to rest and reflect following two years of a global pandemic. "Now that I'm back to working and making art regularly, I feel ready to challenge myself and take creative risks," she tells us. "I've been critiquing my own style and pushing myself to make something that's a little more daring and honest."