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Illustrating the World We Project

By Jenny Carless

From a reticent beginning—posting anonymously on Instagram—to becoming an Adobe Stock premium contributor, illustrator and designer Sarah Hasenmaile has developed a distinctive style, defined by a bold three-color palette and inspired by everyday life.

Hasenmaile’s interest in illustration began while she was studying information design in Germany and the United States. The Berlin-based designer has degrees in communications design and visual systems/information design, but illustration has become her passion.

“I was attracted to the idea of combining fine illustrations with information, because information graphics tend to be really boring,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to make information an experience of visual information.”

Particularly interesting for Hasenmaile was the idea of finding a path between art and icon—to represent many individual facts in an illustration. “You might call it art with a purpose,” she says.

Hasenmaile is often inspired by social media; her portraits explore the tensions between self-projection and emotional authenticity in our Instagram culture.

A HESITANT START

Hasenmaile’s foray into the field of illustration began quite timidly.

“As is probably true for every creative, I loved drawing as a child, but design is not art—so my illustration skills faded until I realized that I really like illustrating,” she explains. “And even though I didn’t develop those skills at university, I thought I could make it professionally with a lot of practice.”

So the Berlin-based illustrator created an Instagram account—but anonymously, because she didn’t want her friends to realize that it was her. Initially, she says, many viewers assumed she was male, as nothing in her profile betrayed her gender. “It turned out pretty well, because as everyone began to learn that it was my account, they wanted to know more,” she says. “That really helped keep me going.” Today, she uses the pseudonym Sarah Alice Rabbit for her illustration work.

With no formal training in illustration, Hasenmaile turned to online tutorials to learn the various styles she discovered and took a fancy to. “There are plenty of tutorials available—you just have to find the right ones,” she says.

“Many artists and illustrators prepare their work as time-lapse videos. That helped me to deal with my creative process confidently and to realize that good work is based on development and variation,” she says. “Typically, an illustration is not immediately perfect. I find it reassuring to see that even illustrators with much greater success and reach go through this process themselves.”

A THREE-COLOR PALETTE

“Loud and distinctive” is how Hasenmaile describes her style—"probably due to the color spectrum I use,” she says.

She adheres largely to a palette of red, pink, and blue tones (which evolved from an earlier palette of purple, red, and mint). She occasionally adds a chrome yellow. The combination is so specific that people often recognize it immediately.

Hasenmaile’s style is recognizable for its palette of red, pink, and blue, with occasional chrome yellow for contrast or emphasis.

“I also focus on drawing people in portraits,” she says. “Some of them are reminiscent of modern still life, characterized by Instagram and self-expression.” The contrast between her self-limited color palette and the broad emotional range of her portraits is one of the hallmarks of Hasenmaile’s work.

Here, Hasenmaile demonstrates the progression of a low-poly illustration, building a kingfisher illustration using only triangles.

Hasenmaile’s distinctive graphic style has developed over time. She began with low-poly illustrations—often copying other artists’ styles as a way to practice and become more confident. The low-poly pieces served as good exercises, too: “Rebuilding a drawing in Adobe Illustrator using only triangles was good technical training for that program,” she explains.

“The more I worked in the style of others, the more I realized that I would never work how they do, and I began to discover my own style,” she says.

Over time, her style has become more detailed and complex. She began working with white or solid backgrounds, but her work has evolved to include graphic elements—often plants—as “stages” for her illustrations, to give them more personality.

Hasenmaile’s early work used stark solid backgrounds. As her style evolved, she began to add graphic background elements as “stages” for her illustrations, to give them more narrative personality.

Hasenmaile starts her projects on paper and then digitizes them. “I move to digital quite early in the process, because I don’t think I’m very good at drawing by hand; I think my drawings look like a child has done them,” she explains. “I’m better at digital work, so I just make short sketches on paper and then switch to my MacBook.”

She draws on her MacBook’s trackpad, with her fingers—or sometimes she uses Adobe Photoshop to make a collage of images, as a reference. She relies on Illustrator’s tools to refine her work.

Hasenmaile says she draws her inspiration from “the aesthetics of everyday life.”

INSPIRED BY THE MUNDANE

Hasenmaile finds inspiration in the world around her. “Sometimes it’s through political incidents, but mostly I’m drawn to the aesthetics of everyday life—interesting people in the subway, advertising that just seems absurd, relationships of people to objects, home, or trends.” She tends to focus on people and animals for her subject matter.

At home, for example, she will discover inspiration in certain photographs and collages. From there, she combines the individual parts and then makes an illustration out of them.

A self-portrait of Hasenmaile at work.

She is frequently inspired by posts on Pinterest and Instagram. “I find those sites interesting precisely because people present themselves so differently in their digital lives,” she says. “It’s a huge difference from the natural behavior of the individual people, when they are unobserved,” she says.

Exploring that dissonance between self-projection and self-perception is a theme Hassenmaile returns to often. By rendering it in a graphical style with a few strong colors, she has found a way to give her portraits an added emotional depth. 

Find more of Sarah Hasenmaile’s work on Instagram, Dribble, and Adobe Stock, where she is a premium contributor.