Tallulah Fontaine’s charming editorial illustrations

From cowboys to orcas, Tallulah Fontaine’s commissions vary in subject but she manages to inject warmth and tenderness into everything she does

Tallulah Fontaine works as an illustrator and has an array of big, shiny clients including The New York Times, New Yorker, Pitchfork, Teen Vogue, Vice and more, but it’s a career path she fell into rather than sought out. Originally from Alberta, USA she moved to Montreal, Canada after high school. “For a few years I was pretty aimless while I worked in a bunch of coffee shops and restaurants,” she explains. “I always really enjoyed drawing and I made zines and collages on my off hours.” 

Fontaine’s friends noticed her talent and began commissioning her to design tattoos and illustrate band posters so much that she decided to share her work online. It was only when she started to work for a brand called Stay Home Club, which sells T-shirts, accessories and stationery and is run by Olivia Mew that Fontaine started to gain real industry experience.

“I didn’t really know what an illustrator was until I started working for one,” she says. “Olivia taught me how to use a tablet and would put me up for jobs. Eventually I grew a bit of an online following and built up a portfolio that I would email to any art directors I could get hold of.” After a few years, Fontaine’s persistence paid off as she’d built a solid enough client list to take the leap into freelance illustration full time.

The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness, commissioned by The New York Times

These days the illustrator splits her time between Montreal and Los Angeles, and her aesthetic is often inspired by the colours she sees in LA. “I have a hard time describing my own work, but someone described my illustrations as cast in warm watercolours and soft pencils, which seems to fit,” says Fontaine.

A mix of smooth shapes and cool tones, there’s a charming quality about her work, which always lands on the right side of sweet. For her editorial commissions, Fontaine illustrates a huge variety of subjects and topics including cowboys, grief, spirituality and orcas. “I really enjoy getting the chance to explore different subjects that I wouldn’t necessarily illustrate in my personal work,” she says.

Away from editorial work, Fontaine enjoys going back to comics whenever she has the chance. “It’s really meditative and helps me slow down, and also process some of what I am feeling since most of my stories are really personal,” she explains. “It’s been a while since I finished one, but I hope to have a few new comics out in the spring and summer.”

I Talked to my Deceased Brother Through a Spiritualist, commissioned by Buzzfeed News

Fontaine’s creative process typically starts out as a series of rough sketches to help with composition before she cracks on with a final sketch. “I’ll paint everything by hand with watercolour or gouache, which I then scan into Photoshop,” explains the illustrator. “Then I’ll colour everything digitally and overlap hand-drawn linework and any final touches.” 

The illustrator finds briefs helpful when she doesn’t know the client that well, but loves being “able to run with my own ideas” and this flexibility is just one of the joys of being freelance. Of course getting this balance takes time and patience. “I think freelancing in general can be really challenging no matter what field you are in,” says Fontaine. “Managing my time, prioritising my own work and budgeting for the ebbs and flows of when jobs come in are my main challenges. There’s definitely a learning curve when working for yourself.”

Be the cowboy

Despite these challenges, being your own boss has given the illustrator a sense of how much her time is worth. “It’s been really important for me to learn how to advocate for myself and my time,” Fontaine says. “When I started out, I did a lot of illustration for free or for too little because I had a hard time seeing my value. I think it’s really important not to undervalue your skills and the time you put into the work.” 

With a strong sense of who she is as a creative now, Fontaine’s advice to any fellow illustrators is to make connections wherever you can. “So much of what I learned was from the people who I reached out to, and were kind enough to share their knowledge with me,” she says. “I’m always afraid of bothering people, but I think it’s important to build a community among other artists.”