Cleonique Hilsaca: inspiring kindness through illustration

Creating fantastical worlds and delight through the art of illustration, Cleonique was one of our selected 100 commissions artists at the start of the global pandemic. We caught up with her to hear more about the skill, passion and motivations behind her work.
Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am Cleonique, a Honduran illustrator based in the United States. I initially studied painting but graduated with a B.F.A. in illustration and a minor in graphic design from The Savannah College of Art and Design. Since my graduation, I have worked as a designer for licensing and pattern design while slowly building the freelance career I now have as an illustrator. You can find my artwork in books, newspapers, magazines, and gallery shows.

What’s your first memory of illustration?

I’ve always been an avid reader and loved the artwork that graced my comics and the covers of my books, but I didn’t feel the thrill of what being an artist could be like until I started collecting Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose magazines. My earliest memory of being excited by illustration as a whole started by learning about the work and process of professional illustrators, painters and muralists.

‘Empathy’ by Cleonique Hilsaca - part of Affinity’s 100 Days. 100 Commissions.
Your selected 100 commissions piece, named ‘Empathy’ has a beautiful meaning behind it. Can you tell us a little more about this artwork and the inspiration behind it?

Times have been especially rough for us all around the world, and in this piece, I wished to inspire kindness, love and empathy. To do so, I chose to depict three different monkeys, caring for each other and setting an example for others; for us, as caring starts with empathy. This piece came from a place of hope; hope that we may care for animals, the world we live in, and our fellow human beings.

Your artwork is so intriguing and full of life, how would you describe your illustration style personally?

In my work, I seek to create new worlds and exciting characters that convey a story through interesting forms, bright and surreal colours and sweet light-hearted messages in magical settings. I hope to achieve this through detailed pencil line work and soft watercolour washes that make every piece feel like a little dream that people can immerse themselves in.

“In my work, I seek to create new worlds and exciting characters that convey a story through interesting forms, bright and surreal colours and sweet light-hearted messages in magical settings.”

Where does your inspiration for new artwork come from?

I find inspiration in books, comics, animated movies and video games, but I also look for inspiration in who I am and where I come from. Inspiration usually hits through a feeling, a moment, or an amazing story, that drives me to bring my own ideas to life. But before creating a new piece, I try to resolve the feeling and story I wish to convey and find through my research the elements that could best achieve this and make them my own.

Do you have a favourite piece you have created over the years? Why is this a favourite?

My piece Starry Night is very dear to me, as I created it inspired by my home. It’s the piece that drives me to create work inspired by Honduras, its people, folklore and culture. Following this piece, I created a small series of Mayan Gods as well as the story of Xareni. Starry Night reminds me of where I come from, the dreams I brought with me and stories I want to tell.

‘Starry night’ by Cleonique Hilsaca
You’re currently working on your first children’s book and graphic novel. Can you tell us a little more about these?

My first picture book Rat Fair, written by Leah Rose Kessler, is my first time delving into children’s publishing and it is coming out this summer by Pow Kids Books! It is a wordless picture book about the sweetest little boy and a group of incredibly creative rats.

Xareni is a children’s graphic novel, written and illustrated by me. This pitch came to fruition during a Comic Book Pitch Workshop with Emmett Helen and Justin Jordan, this past summer. The story follows Xareni, a little puppy eager to learn her family’s legacy of goat herding; but finds herself on a treacherous journey into the enchanted forest, to find the baby goat she lost.

You’ve received many awards and honours over the years for your work, what would say your key to success is?

I have been very fortunate to have my work recognised so far, and even though I think it’s hard to pinpoint what has worked, I believe that seeking to be true to myself, and exploring this through my work, has helped it be more memorable. I also put myself out there constantly, even when I don’t feel ready, or good enough, as I seek to try my shot at every opportunity I can. As idealistic as it may sound, I believe success comes from believing in yourself, working hard and never giving up!

What is the best advice you’ve been given? And similarly, what is the advice you’d give to someone new to the industry?

Ironically, the best advice I was given was a negative critique. I was told many times that my work was too soft, too sweet, too fantastical and childish. Once I left college and relied only on my own taste and vision, I leaned heavily on everything that was “wrong”. These are now particular features that my audience and clients appreciate in my work. So, the best advice I can give to others is to listen to your heart and stay true to yourself. Only then will original work that only you could make will come forth, making your work as unique as you are. In the end, we’re creating art, which is absolutely magical, and we should enjoy every second of it.

“The best advice I can give to others is to listen to your heart and stay true to yourself. Only then will original work that only you could make will come forth, making your work as unique as you are.”

What’s your ultimate ambition?

My ultimate ambition, as simple as it may be, is to keep making art until the day I’m gone.

How do you see your work evolving over the next 10 years?

I am excited to let myself experiment more as well as further polishing my skills in drawing and painting, both digitally and traditionally. I also hope to write and illustrate many more books, but I also want to translate my work into other media like pottery, murals and textiles. Ten years is not a long time for everything I wish to create, but I’ll try.


You can see more of Cleonique’s work on her website, Instagram and Behance.