Inspired by the modernist and avant-garde art and design movements of the 20th century, Tania Yakunova's illustrations are full of high hopes and ideas of a better, reinvented future. It's an admirable approach made all the more impressive because the artist lives and works in a city plunged into despair this year, Kyiv.
With their bright colours and bold shapes, it would be easy to take Tania Yakunova's illustrations at face value. And while she is drawn to the Utopian ideals that her style suggests, a closer look reveals another side to her work. Vibrant pictures of sunflowers contain lines of rolling tanks, a summer's sky is scored with the trails of fighter jets, and even a happy family is contextualised by the war.
Given that Tania has stayed in Kyiv since the war began in February, it's to be expected that it has encroached on her work as well. What's surprising, though, is how she's adapted to the conflict and stayed motivated. "For the first one or two months, it was very challenging for me to work, I could barely concentrate on anything else but the news," she tells Creative Boom. "But if there is one discovery I've made during these dark times, it's how quickly the brain can adapt.
"I'm not too concerned about air-raid sirens or missiles anymore, and I've grown numb to the news too. Now I get back to my routines and try to live a 'normal life' as much as possible. Yes, stress still affects me, I have much less energy and concentration, but I manage to work normally and even find relief in my work. And I feel the power of art like never before."
But as attacks have intensified in recent weeks, with missile strikes damaging essential civilian facilities, Tania is aware that she occupies something of a unique position. "With the recent Russian attack on Ukrainian civil infrastructure, things have worsened for many Ukrainians. People are losing their jobs because they are sitting without electricity.
"I'm lucky not to suffer electricity cutouts in my apartment for now (probably sitting on some very important line), so unlike most of my friends, I don't have physical obstacles to work. But I do feel the consequences too. Many of my clients vanished after hearing that I was still in Kyiv. I'm getting fewer commissions and cannot support my family like I used to. For this reason (and possible blackouts), I'm considering spending winter out of Ukraine. My parents have evacuated to Germany, so I'm planning to stay there for some time."
Tania's ability to devote her life to her art in the face of such overwhelming obstacles takes on another surprising dimension when she reveals more about her background. Even though she loved drawing as a kid and used to go to evening art school, she never received a formal art or design education. "I was very much bored by my art school and all the plaster heads, so I decided to study a non-creative field at university.
"I have a degree in social sciences. But after graduation, I realised that I wanted to work somewhere in the creative industry. I had been working in advertising for four years, then I changed my career path, started studying design and then illustration."
A pivotal year in Tania's journey as an artist was 2014. Having worked as a creative copywriter in big advertising agencies, it was at this time that she decided a change was in order. "It was fun, but also sometimes very stressful and frustrating. I didn't feel fulfilled. I started drawing for myself again and decided I wanted to study design.
"I didn't think of becoming an artist at that moment. But while studying, I understood that illustration is what interests me most. In 2014 I finished the first part of my study, quit my job in advertising and became a full-time illustrator."
Upon embarking on her career as an illustrator, Tania began honing and refining her style. She has settled on a vibrant, colourful style which uses a minimalist - "but not too minimalist!" - approach to get its message across. "I use shapes and forms to convey emotions in my illustrations," she explains.
"I also focus a lot on composition as I believe it is the core of any visual communication. And I love drawing whimsical and amusing characters. I'm trying to bring a modernist perspective of picturing the world into contemporary illustration."
An artist's growth is never complete, though. Recently, Tania has branched out into ceramics by creating plates, cups and vases adorned with images of characters overcoming struggles, such as a rain cloud or a void in their heart. Speaking of what appeals to her about the medium, she explains: "I love all of it! Ceramics are very tactile and unpredictable.
"For an artist like me, who used to work mostly in digital, this is a real break out. I love bringing my illustration to a new dimension. It helps me to achieve a different perspective and a deeper meaning. I am also fascinated by the process itself – it is messy, slow, physical, has many layers, and you often don't get what you intended. For me, ceramics are pure art!"
Another recent development for Tania has been the launch of her Domestika course. Having been involved with teaching for some time by giving workshops and masterclasses in Kyiv, Tania decided to take things a step further by teaching a big online illustration course at a local design school. "I got very good feedback from my students! As I learned everything I know about illustration through continuous alternative education, I feel I need to give back too. That's why when Domestika approached me with an offer to make a course, I decided to give it a go.
"In the course, I share my perspective on illustration and how shapes can help to communicate emotions and create convincing characters. I share a lot of techniques and exercises that helped me to develop my visual aesthetic and draw more freely."
The final project in Tania's Domestika course asks students to represent their city's community. Given that the course was shot in the first week of February 2022, just two weeks before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it's eerily fitting that her hometown, Kyiv, finds itself as the focal point of the world's attention.
So how does she describe its community now? "Even before the war, the city had its unique, quite uneven and interesting community, just as any modern and fast-growing city does, but now it has changed dramatically. The war mobilised everyone, and the city became one. People gathered to help each other; it seemed like everyone was either involved in volunteering, donating money or helping others.
"In early March, when Russian troops were near Kyiv, people were spending most of their time in bomb shelters, and even there, they were preparing Molotov cocktails in advance in case they needed to fight Russians on the streets.
"And now, nine months later, everything people do is for our defenders and our chance for the future. Every cafe and every souvenir shop is working with the hope of victory and freedom."