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Artist Sonia Hensler: ‘I tend to be surrounded by a halo of artistic detritus’

We adore Sonia Henslers expressive and decadent approach to combining hand-painted elements and photography in digital compositions. We spoke to her to better understand her processes and what inspires her work…
Tell us about yourself and how you got started as an artist and illustrator?

I was born into an artistic family and so was encouraged to be creative from a very young age—I was actually adamant from pre-school that I was going to be an artist! This is genuinely the only occupation I have ever been interested in and so I funnelled all my energy into making it happen. Following this course, I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland, which included a scholarship at Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall. I loved the pace of life in Cornwall and so moved here permanently after I graduated.

Talk us through your workflow; how do your artworks usually develop?

I work quickly. My temperament is very chaotic and so I tend to be surrounded by a halo of artistic detritus like pencils, inks, papers, paints and work-in-progress. Usually I start with a sketch, choosing one that sparks an idea or deserves to be taken further.

Everything is always hand-drawn and then I like to scan these images into my computer and work on them further to create interesting contrasts between ‘clean’ digital elements and more free, expressive drawing. I’m fond of the ‘first idea is the best idea’ philosophy and very conscious not to over-work things. I admire work where the fingerprints of the artist are still present and all the life has not been polished out.

Your work is a wonderful combination of expressive hand-drawn elements, digital textures and photographic elements. How much of what you do is ‘in-computer’ and how much is done using traditional media?

To be honest, I try and create as much by hand as possible, including taking interesting photographs and incorporating those if I feel so inclined. I work on layers a lot and draw each layer or element by hand before scanning it in. The computer is a tool that I love to use so I can quickly change colours, sizes and composition. Basically I can play about with things in a way I wouldn’t be able to on paper.

“I try and create as much by hand as possible, including taking interesting photographs and incorporating those if I feel so inclined.”

What equipment do you use in your creative workflow?

Lots of inks, pens, paints, scissors, glue, paper, cloth, camera (the list goes on) along with my trusty old Mac that is literally held together with sellotape after I dropped it once.

What were your early inspirations and what/who inspires you today?

My mother is also a painter, so she was most definitely my initial inspiration and gave me a good grounding in classical arts. Slowly, as my own interests developed I was very influenced by fashion and fashion illustration, although this is more in the sense of certain aesthetics rather than following current trends. I love Victorian fashion and design, and the more fantastical side of fashion photography such as Tim Walker, Jean-Paul Goude and David Lachapelle. I don’t try and emulate but I’m definitely inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, Mark Ryden and Daniel Egneus.

How did you discover Affinity and what appealed to you most about the apps?

I was introduced to the program by colleagues and quickly found that it was very well suited to the way in which I work. It is very intuitively designed when compared with other programs and enables quick switching between layers (something I use a lot of). I’m fairly new to Affinity so still learning all it has to offer but its accessibility and ease of use really appealed to me.

I try not to attach too much status to ‘names’ in the industry if I’m honest. If I love the brief and the work I am able to create and the client is honest, fair and straight-forward to work with then I’m happy! Ultimately, I’m grateful that there are some people that like my style and I’m honoured to be featured in all of these publications.

Tell us about your erotic colouring book Casanova—how did that come into being?

The idea was initially a collaboration between myself and a friend who is a writer. We wanted to make an erotic colouring book that had a more sophisticated edge than what was currently on the market and so decided on the historic setting of 18th Century Venice and the life of Casanova. This gave us free reign to include all sorts of period costume, naughty nuns, secret societies and Italian opulence—all right up my street!

The front cover of Casanova, Sonia’s colouring book.

It was difficult to find a publisher willing to take a chance on such a niche project and so my friend pulled out and I continued to try and find an outlet for all the drawing I had done. Eventually I found a publisher and the book is now out there without the written element.

A lot of your art is wonderfully ‘Not safe for work’. How have you balanced getting seen and issues of censorship?

I love working with fashion and editorial work but I also like to explore dark and erotic themes. I can’t pretend I’m very good at compromise but have navigated this situation by creating an erotic alter ego that operates under a pseudonym. Despite my best efforts, both sides of my work often bleed together and although it may not be the best idea in commercial terms, it is who I am!

What advice do you have for upcoming illustrators?

Draw, draw and draw some more! Allow space and time in your life to get a sense of who you are and what you want to say as an artist. Try to steer clear of social media and the bombardment of the internet as much as possible—we can all become saturated with other peoples ideas and external stimuli. This can end up with a lot of trend following, worries about ‘followers’ and popularity and ever more complex re-hashing masquerading as originality!

This is something that I am constantly wrestling with!

What are your hopes and ambitions for your future creative career?

I hope for the freedom and opportunity to be able to incorporate more and more of what I like into my work. I would like the work I produce outside the constraints of a design brief to find an audience. Other than that I try and live for the NOW—I don’t really plan for the future if I’m honest.

You can see more of Sonia’s work at and on Instagram.

Check out her ‘Not safe for work’ projects in more detail here (you have been warned!): Store, and La punani on Instagram.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images © Sonia Hensler and used with permission.