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Bonnie Brown says her bright, bold work doesn’t take itself too seriously. “I love playing around with illustrated still-lifes, inspired by fashion, beauty and strong women.” Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

A Wellington illustrator's Instagram success story

For illustrator Bonnie Brown, it all began when she started posting doodles on Instagram.

Just above Bonnie Brown’s left elbow, in cursive lettering, are the words “be kind”. The Wellington illustrator paid a tattooist to etch them into her forearm three years ago as a reminder, she says, that kindness is the only option. “You don’t have to be ruthless to succeed in business or life. There’s no point in being anything other than kind.”

It’s a philosophy that’s found its way into Brown’s bright, bold illustrations, which grace social media, advertising campaigns, magazines, even shopping malls and coffee cups, from New York to Singapore. Her colourful work helps pay the rent on the home/office she shares with partner Zach Holmes in the inner-city suburb of Mt Victoria.

“I use illustrations to tell a story, whether that’s about a fashion brand, a non-profit or a start-up,” she says. “My work is largely influenced by fashion and the female form, and includes a diverse range of women, body types and skin tones.” That diversity, she believes, is why her work resonates so strongly with people. “They can see themselves reflected in it.”

Last year, Brown won out over more than 200 competitors to create a design that reflected modern New Zealand, for a limited-edition umbrella for Kiwi firm Blunt. Her illustration cleverly weaves elements of history – including waka, a suffragette and a same-sex couple – into a simple floral pattern.

A selection of Bonnie Brown’s illustrations.

A year interning at an architecture firm confirmed what Brown had long suspected: designing houses wasn’t for her. Then the doodles she’d been posting for months on Instagram attracted the attention of an Australian handbag manufacturer who asked her to design banners for their launch into a major Singaporean department store. “I suppose that was my ‘a-ha!’ moment, realising my illustrations could be more than just a hobby.” Raised by a single mother in Queenstown, the 24-year-old admits “growing up poor” shaped her initial decision to study architecture over art. “I thought there was no income in art, so I did an architecture degree at Victoria University instead.”

Brown went back to study, this time graphic design at Massey University. Since graduating in 2017, she’s never had to pitch for work – it’s found her, mainly through social media. “In the current climate, when design budgets are being slashed, it’s pretty amazing that I haven’t had to actively look for work,” says Brown, who’s inspired by Kiwi artists such as Gina Kiel and Kelly Thompson.

An increasing amount of time is also spent on Counter Journal, the independent magazine she and Holmes, a photographer and editorial production manager, established from their second-floor apartment last year. Brown describes the quarterly lifestyle publication, which features her illustrations, as “an editorial version of a coffee date with a stylish friend”.

“I suppose we went into this with naive optimism because although we both love magazines, we aren’t journalists or editors. So it’s been a huge learning curve starting a publication from scratch and funding it ourselves. But we’re passionate about doing this and putting a bit of kindness out into the world.”

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.