Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants’ ethereal illustrations play with shape and shadow

Having only started freelancing in March of last year, Gullbrants explains how she balances illustration commissions with her day job as a designer at sex toy company Dame

Brooklyn-based illustrator and designer Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants describes her style as ethereal yet solid. “There’s a lot of play with how solid and heavy the objects and figures look versus how soft and intangible the space they reside in is,” she explains. “I think the real through line in my work is intimacy, between people and objects. I also love using tangents to emphasise the tension of intimate moments.” 

Often playing with light and shadow and a pleasing mix of pastel hues, Gullbrants says each illustration starts with handwritten lists and notes to help with the conceptual side of things. “When working on editorial illustrations, I read through the story pulling out different symbols or relationships and try to translate those different facets of the piece,” she says. “Then from my written notes I make a bunch of crude pencil thumbnails for general composition. From there I make the entire illustration digitally.”

Top: The Perfect Travel Buddy for the New York Times Magazine’s The Decameron Project. Above: To Sayaka Murata, Nonconformity Is a Slippery Slope for the New York Times. All images: Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants

For the past year Gullbrants has been using Photoshop to create her images, often using anywhere from 50 to over 100 clipping mask layers of shadows and highlights. “At one point I was making my illustrations entirely on the trackpad with thousands of clicks and small movements, but then I got carpal tunnel and had to retrain myself to work on a tablet like any sane person should,” she says.

Gullbrants says she fell in love with illustration after she studied with American illustrator Barron Storey one summer at California College of the Arts. “Barron is a brilliant illustrator and educator whose career includes everything from graphic novels to book covers to technical illustrations for NASA,” Gullbrants says. “I was so excited by the idea of illustration as accessible visual communication that is never bound to a specific medium or form. While my current portfolio is all digital illustration, I love working on ceramics, animations, and puppetry. I hope that one day I can build out a portfolio in all those directions that shares the same heart and voice.” 

Grounding, personal

The creative’s career in freelance illustration is relatively new, having received one of her first freelance gigs from art director Dora Godfrey at Elemental in March. That kicked off a domino effect for Gullbrants and she has now created work for clients including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Refinery29, Bloomberg Businessweek and many more. 

But this illustration work is on top of her day job as a designer for Dame Products, a women-founded company that creates well-engineered sex toys. “I’m doing the best I can to juggle both full-time design and freelance illustration work. I end up spending a lot of my nights and weekends illustrating because client work keeps coming in that I’m really passionate about,” say Gullbrants. “After almost a year of doing both, I’m just now getting better at setting boundaries for myself and trying to make space for exploring more personal work.” 

At Dame Products, Gullbrants is responsible for all the creative output of the company, working on everything from vibrator packaging design to social media graphics to managing the visuals on its sex and relationship blog, Swell. “Working on Swell is perhaps my favourite part because I am able to illustrate as well as art direct while working with freelance illustrators,” she says. “By working on both sides of the process – illustrating and art directing – I’ve gained a better understanding of what each role needs.”

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This comes in especially handy when working on editorial commissions, which Gullbrants feels removes a lot of the ego from the art process. “It becomes a collaborative form of storytelling between the writer, the art director, and the illustrator,” she says. “For me, editorial illustration is always driven by the goal of amplifying the writer’s story and using visuals to guide the reader’s emotional understanding of a written work. I get really excited about working on stories that speak to my own experience or identity as well as stories that navigate the nuances of human emotion.” 

With her rate of commissions increasing, one of Gullbrant’s concerns is not having space to grow. “I’m really grateful that the work keeps coming in, but sometimes it feels like everything is happening so fast that I keep making images in a default mode of sorts without taking risks,” she says. 

From conveying the healing practice of taking nudes to capturing how to deal with change, as well as illustrating the challenges of the Covid vaccine, Gullbrants work is varied but united in its soothing use of colour and light, allowing the viewer to become lost in her work.