Artist Shonagh Rae on her poignant editorial illustrations & politics

From the Chinese Revolution to George Orwell, Shonagh explains how she strips down complex ideas into conceptual, simple artworks.

Scotland-born artist Shonagh Rae has been busy designing two separate identities for hotels in Switzerland, as well as a regular turnaround of politically-charged editorial illustrations for nationals such as The Financial Times, The Guardian and The New York Times.

Now working from her garden studio designed by her partner in London, Shonagh’s style incorporates a range of mediums, giving her work vibrancy and texture unattainable from purely digital work.

She describes her style as rooted in a passion for drawing, printmaking, photography and collecting. Shonagh uses simple tools such as ink, scrap paper and a scanner, as well as her camera and Photoshop. She's represented by Heart Agency here in the UK. 

"I love the process of developing conceptual images and paring down complex ideas into simple graphic solutions," she says.

Image: Editorial illustration for The Telegraph

After studying illustration at the Royal College of Art during "pre-internet days", Shonagh worked for many years in a shared studio in Shoreditch called the Big Orange. One of the studio’s founding members, Darrel Rees went on to form Heart Agency, who now represents her work.

She says always has about 10 completely different projects on the go at once, including a series of mono prints and nighttime photographs.

Shonagh has finished designing the artwork for the marketing and identity of Castello del Sole hotel (seen here) and Hotel Storchen in Switzerland.

"I was commissioned with three other illustrators from Heart to create a set of artworks inspired by the location, history and atmosphere of the three recently refurbished hotels," says Shonagh.

"We all individually visited one of the hotels to draw and research the building and local area; working with a team of designers and stylists."

Image: Shonagh's final work for Hotel Storchen.

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Alongside designing hotel identities, Shonagh has illustrated for The Financial Times and The New York Times’ economic, social and political coverage.

"As a child of the Cold War brought up in Constable country, I had Peter Kennard’s iconic Haywain poster on my wall and I think art and politics were hardwired from that point in," says Shonagh.

Image: Cover artwork for The Economist

"I have been illustrating Gillian Tett’s column (in The Financial Times) for many years," says Shonagh.

"Her anthropologist's interpretation of economics always produces a rich source of material to illustrate. The deadline is very short, varying from a day to just a few hours, which I thrive on."

Image: Books with Bite, for Gillian Tett's column

The New York Times illustrations offer a different challenge for Shonagh.

"The stories I have been given are often very dark, shocking personal accounts from people living in extreme situations. They have been a diverse range of narratives but always need to be treated with sensitivity," she says. 

Image: Chinese Cultural Hires for The New York Times

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"As an illustrator you are always representing the ideas of the writer but I can’t imagine being an artist and not having a strong interest in politics, and I wouldn’t be able to work with a writer or magazine whose political philosophy was at odds with my own."

Image:  In Richmond magazine, the account of a PhD student studying medieval Islam being wrongly accused of espionage by the Syrian government

Image: Myself magazine

Image: Artwork from Beat # 6, an excerpt from 'Chantemesle: A Normandy Childhood' by Robin Fedden

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Image: The Financial Times book review of The New Republic by Lionel Shriver