Louisa Cannell '09
What happened next is any artist’s dream. The poster went viral and was shared by social media users around the world, including Hillary Clinton and Alicia Keys. “I was pleasantly surprised and so grateful for the response I received,” Louisa says. “I had women sending me messages from all over the country about how my illustration had touched them. It was such a moving experience.” Struck by the response to her work, Louisa was inspired to continue focusing her creative attention on diversity, women’s rights, and social causes. She aims to use her talents as an artist to make women and non-gender- binary people feel beautiful and empowered. “I believe that I have the opportunity to make all types of people feel represented, especially in media,” she observes. “Let’s be honest – we most commonly see slender white women and men in illustrations, and I’d like to change that. I want to show normal, everyday people of all kinds in my work.
“I believe that I have the opportunity to make all types of people feel represented, especially in media,” she observes. “Let’s be honest – we most commonly see slender white women and men in illustrations, and I’d like to change that. I want to show normal, everyday people of all kinds in my work. Real bodies are real bodies. And we cannot deny that people are influenced by what they see in the media.”
She adds, “The title ‘artist’ can mean many things. As an illustrator, I see my role as taking an idea and making it more compelling to the audience. My goal is to draw viewers in and guide them to see the whole picture.”
In 2019, Louisa left Refinery29 to start her own freelance business. The past two years have been a rewarding period of growth, but she concedes that the journey hasn’t always been easy. “When I started out on my own, growing my client base was tough; I was reaching out to potential clients all over social media. In fact, I think my Instagram account was even suspended for a few days because I was contacting so many people,” she confesses with a laugh.
But that persistence paid off, as a quick glance through Louisa’s portfolio reveals. She has produced work for a wide range of A-list clients, from Apple and American Express to Bloomberg and The Body Shop. Yet despite this success, Louisa, who holds a degree in art history and visual arts from Bowdoin College, admits that early in her professional life, she didn’t realize that a career in illustration was possible. “I had no idea you could make a full-time job of illustration,” she admits.
Today Louisa cannot imagine doing anything else and is particularly happy to be setting her own course. “I love the creative flexibility that freelancing allows,” she observes. “At Refinery29, I was illustrating mainly for their brand, so my focus was primarily on fashion and beauty. But now that I’m on my own, I’m able to tackle lots of different topics.” And while some clients request that she hew tightly to their creative brief, Louisa says that others leave her room for interpretation, which she eagerly embraces. She observes, “I love it when clients allow me to conceptualize more.”
Asked where she finds inspiration for her art, Louisa pauses briefly then begins to reel off a list of sources. “My phone is filled with a wide collection of references from the web – images from Instagram, photographs, architecture, fashion, and the wider illustration community. I also enjoy going to museums – I love studying the color palettes that various artists use.” Additionally, she notes that her Brooklyn location is a tremendous source of inspiration: “I take lots of photos of people and things in the streets. I’ll see something or someone really interesting and snap a quick shot. You never know what’s going to spark your imagination.”
During their two-month stint, Louisa introduces her interns to an array of professional illustration avenues, including portrait illustration, narrative illustration, and activist illustration. She also arranges for the students to conduct informational interviews with other professional artists.
This willingness to keep an open mind – whether conceiving a design or taking that next career step – is critical, Louisa believes. And it’s a lesson she hopes to impart to the next generation through an eight-week paid summer internship that she offers to high school students. Louisa says, “It goes back to the fact that I didn’t know that a career in illustration existed when I was in high school. Many of today’s talented students are proficient in technology, which is used frequently in illustration. I want them to understand that creative opportunities abound.”
Louisa is especially keen for women to receive the message. She says, “I strongly believe in giving young women the tools to achieve financial freedom. Illustration is a lot of fun. It’s hard work, but you can make a good living. For me, it was initially a side gig, but it became a full-time job that’s very rewarding.” And students are listening. So far, Louisa’s summer program has hosted two Potomac students, Kennedy Ferguson ’22 and Grace Davidson ’22. She notes, “Both of them were terrific. They are gifted artists and such poised young women. My colleagues were really impressed by them.”
For Kennedy, the internship illustrated how creativity can be harnessed in a meaningful way. She says, “I accepted Ms. Louisa’s internship in the summer of 2020 because I had been creating a lot during the previous months, when Potomac’s campus was closed, and we all were learning virtually. I suddenly had all this time, so I was painting and drawing and embroidering, taking pictures, crocheting, the list goes on. The internship gave me the structure and extra guidance I needed to focus and channel my creativity. It was inspiring to learn from other artists, and it totally opened my eyes to new career directions.” She concludes, “I discovered that art doesn’t have to be just a hobby. I definitely want to pursue art in college, even if it’s as a minor.”
Given her commitment to enlightening high school students, it comes as little surprise that Louisa received her own initial glimpse into the joys of creative design when she was a student at Potomac. She recalls, “As a senior, I worked on the yearbook and learned to use Adobe InDesign. That experience gave me a peek into how I could express my creativity in the digital world.”
It’s an avenue that Louisa continues to explore. She notes, “The trend these days is moving more toward motion and video. For example, I’m currently doing some stop-frame animation on my iPad, but I’d like to do more. Moving images are appealing to clients because they increase view counts and engagement, which is the name of the game.” Adding movement to images makes them more labor intensive to execute and requires a new skill set, Louisa admits, but she isn’t daunted. “I’ll always need to keep learning, but it’s super exciting.”
She reflects, “I thought that my career would follow a straight upward line where I continually grew and moved forward, but instead it’s been more of a rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs. Fortunately, Potomac taught me to work hard, and that’s been a tremendous asset. I learned that you must practice continuously and be open to trying new things…it’s the only way you get better.”
“I am incredibly lucky to do my favorite thing in the world every day as my job,” Louisa adds. “You never know how your career is going to develop, and it’s important to not lose sight of that joy and passion for the work.”