Josephine Rais’ illustrations are a colourful take on everyday life

We chat to Josephine Rais about designing characters for a book cover, life as a creative in Berlin, and why there needs to be more discussion about the pressure on artists to constantly deliver work

“Most of my work focuses on people and their actions,” Josephine Rais tells us. A quick look over her portfolio confirms her penchant for human observation, seen in the way she tells visual stories through everyday scenes peopled with vibrant characters.

Characterised by fluid shapes, block tones and shades of pastel, Rais evidently doesn’t strive for visual realism. Yet her subjects feel decidedly candid and representative, zeroing in on forms of womanhood and identity with a light-hearted nature.

Emotion underpins her work, influencing the subjects she chooses to recreate and in turn inspiring her creations in the hope they trigger emotions in the viewer. Her ideal outcome would be for viewers to not only feel an emotional response to her work, but be moved by it to the degree that they examine their own perspectives and actions.

“I’m particularly driven to use my work to talk about my experiences and beliefs around diversity and feminism,” she says. “I want to use my voice to fight for more equality and equal rights. Illustrations and images can convey strong messages – my hope is that my work encourages the viewer to change the way they think or even how they act.”

While Rais is reluctant to adopt a creative idol (“you quickly run the risk of copying instead of being inspired”), she is naturally influenced by the images that crop up on her news feed. “I believe that there is an exchange inherent in social media and this more or less subconsciously leads to us being constantly inspired by other artists.” Instead, she predominantly looks to outside sources of inspiration, like past eras of music, fashion and film, with a particular affinity for motifs from the 80s and 90s.

Rais has applied her joyful aesthetic to numerous projects for Nike, Fendi, Eastpak, Cosmopolitan and a collaboration between Stylist and Adidas. More recently, she worked on illustrating Yeast, a fiction story by author Lisa Taddeo for Playboy Magazine, which has had an overhaul of sorts over the last two years. “The development that Playboy has made is, for me, a sign of social change,” Rais says. “The magazine has greatly altered both in content and appearance and it can no longer be compared with the magazine for men from the past decades.”

Rais has also just completed her first book cover illustration for Penguin Random House, an experience she welcomed for the impact a book cover can have compared to the magazine editorials she’s used to. “It was very exciting to give face to a complete story, to design the characters and to create a mood that can accompany the reader through the whole book,” she reflects.

With more commissions coming her way, Rais inevitably has to grapple with the issue of balance faced by many artists straddling commercial work and personal passion projects. On top of this, she’s a co-founder of The Boys Club, a studio/design collective that she got involved with at the start of the year. Together with the other co-founders, Rais runs events like sketching nights and book and magazine launches, and the collective hosted its first group exhibition and panel discussion earlier this year.

However, though life might sometimes feel like a juggling act, when it comes to her personal work, she doesn’t hold back. “I put all my energy into my own projects. These are so important to me because they give me leeway to try out, reinvent and fail. I have to say though that in general I work a lot and these personal projects often happen late in the evenings and on my weekends.”

These working patterns aren’t uncommon in the arts. These days, many creatives across various disciplines are having to maintain a constant work flow (or at least the appearance of one) to satisfy the demands of the public and seemingly stay afloat alongside the competition.

It’s a hefty issue, but Rais is taking a small stand with her newly launched painting series. Writing in a recent Instagram post, she described the initiative as a “personal, experimental project in which I want to slow down my usual process, choose colours and composition more consciously and counteract the self-imposed pressure created by the speed and variety of digital drawing tools.”

While the speed of fashion and the toll of the music industry are much talked about, it seems the conversations regarding pressures in the visual arts have slipped by the wayside. “I think there’s far too little discussion about that,” Rais agrees. “To deliver work quickly and above all continuously has become essential for many artists. On social media I often read artists apologising for not publishing any new work at the moment. There is a great pressure not to disappear from the scene. Personally, I’ve noticed that I lose my ambition and depth if I don’t take some rest from time to time.”

Thankfully, Rais is part of a supportive community of creators, both within The Boys Club and the wider scene in Berlin. Although the city has begun to face criticism from arts communities for a lack of support and growing financial burdens, it’s been fruitful for her on an artistic level.

“From a commercial project point of view, I have to say that so far I have mainly worked for foreign clients abroad. Only in the coming weeks will there be two big projects taking place in Berlin,” she concedes. “Nevertheless, I believe that Berlin is a great place for artists. I’ve got to know the city as one big community for design and art. There is a lot of exchange and, compared to other German cities, Berlin is much louder, more colourful and freer. Berlin inspires me and my work like no other city.”; @josephinerais