Welcome to our brand new series, Hello Denver, My Name is… where we profile different people in Denver you probably don’t know, but should. Get ready to meet painters, dancers, comedians, musicians, designers and just generally fascinating people that help make Denver awesome.
Nestled in the small, quaint kitchen nook in her vintage Colorado apartment, illustrator and graphic design artist Sofie Birkin sat smiling, as she frequently glanced out her second story window into Cheeseman Park. Birkin, in her bright orange midi length dress paired with a silver snake-embellished necklace and black velvet smoking slippers, rested her drawing cursor in the grooves of one hand and wine glass in the other as she discussed upcoming art projects, color selection and inspiration – all the while captivating us with an engaging personality, loving spirit and extreme talent.
Birkin has been involved in hand-crafted designs for noteworthy organizations and publications including The Denver Zoo, Cosmopolitan UK and Playboy Magazine. As a sex illustrator for the prominent Cosmopolitan UK publication, Birkin routinely creates forward-thinking sex illustrations depicting all genders and sexualities. Previously, Birkin interned at the iconic Dr. Martens and Topshop and currently works at Grit in Denver. In addition to her ongoing projects, she is scheduled to illustrate designs for a new book called The Art of Drag published by London publisher Nobrow. Through these defining experiences, Birkin has come to be a testament of a dream followed with success emerging from her pores. Through her work ethic and brilliant mind, Birkin is a rare and unique artist to find and here, we celebrate her.
Denver, meet Sofie Birkin.
303 Magazine: When did you realize you wanted a full-time position in art?
Sofie Birkin: I always have in some way or another (apart from a brief stint of listlessness when I decided I was going to be a historian). I just wasn’t sure if it was really possible. I spent my first year in the US bouncing between odd jobs and side gigs, including a memorable experience making a six-foot papier maché sculpture of a dolphin for an elementary school which collapsed in my living room. I went back to London for a visit and a very old friend said, “you know, I really thought you would be the successful one.” Harsh, but I needed it. I came home and spent every spare minute of the next six weeks creating a graphic design and illustration portfolio, and a few weeks later landed my job as an illustrator at Grit.
303: You attended the London College of Fashion where you ultimately received your Bachelor’s Degree. Can you describe what you learned there that has stuck with you throughout your career?
SB: I went to school for footwear design and production, which is about as niche as it sounds. I realized how much more design appeals to me. Fine art is such a blank canvas, which can be dreadfully intimidating. I love how design gives you parameters to work within. That problem-solving aspect of it can really push your creativity. The main thing I learned, though, was that you really have to trust your gut on your own work sometimes. Taking direction and criticism is important of course, but if you spend too much time trying to be someone else you’ll never make the work you really want to.
303: As noted on your resume, you worked at many notable brands such as Topshop and Dr. Martens in the footwear department. Do you have a love for footwear design in addition to your creative illustration?
SB: I do! It was my life for such a long time. I thought I would always stay in the fashion industry. I actually chose to pursue footwear because I was very into making hats for a while, and my millinery teacher told me you couldn’t really make a living in hats, but you could in shoes, and shoes were just hats for your feet. Turns out that wasn’t a totally fair assessment as they also have to bear the weight of your entire body. The signs were there though — most of my work for Dr. Martens involved illustrative surface design.
303: You describe yourself as a “professional doodler.” What exactly inspires you to craft those hand-drawn illustrations?
SB: They’re all digital! I’m permanently attached to my Wacom tablet and mostly work in Photoshop. I find digital illustration gives me a lot more freedom and makes me more confident. Visually I get a lot of inspiration from current graphic design trends, fashion photography and marginalia. Conceptually, I love 19th-century aestheticism and subverting traditional ideas of femininity. It’s also really important to me to create joyful, powerful images of people who have historically been excluded or pilloried in popular illustration.
303: Cosmopolitan and Cosmopolitan UK showcases your sex illustrations in their print and online magazines to millions of readers. Can you tell us about how that collaboration began and exactly what it entails?
SB: This is going to sound like nepotism but I think it’s important to be open and honest about how much your network affects your success as an artist. One of my closest friends from school achieved her dream of becoming a journalist, and we made a pact as children that if she managed that first she would help me in any way she could, and vice versa. I really wanted to get into editorial illustration and she gave me the email address of a couple of writers at Cosmopolitan that she knew through work. I sent over a portfolio and they put me in touch with Paisley Gilmour, the sex and relationships editor. She said she was looking for a new sex position illustrator and was very open that they should be as inclusive as possible. Drawing queer sex for Cosmo is a dream job, obviously, so I was over the moon. They send over the written positions first and then I draw them. I need to use references — those positions are wild — so my browser history is 99% porn at any given time!
303: Can you describe your favorite illustration you have designed and tell us why it’s special to you?
SB: This changes all the time honestly. I have a bad habit of spontaneously starting to loathe my illustrations about a week after I’ve done them. A few months ago I did a ‘draw this in your style’ challenge, and I’m still really proud of that. There’s a compositional balance I’m always striving for between heavy detail and minimalism, and that one strikes it for me. I also have a fondness for it because seeing other people bring my character to life with their own incredible art was so much fun.
303: What is your process when producing an illustration?
SB: I usually have a vague idea in my head of something I want to draw. Lately, it’s a girl with loads of chia pets, they’re not always the most lofty ideas. I’ll usually spend a bit of time online looking for a pose reference (online figure drawing websites are great for that) and then start sketching in photoshop. When I’m happy with the line art I decide on a limited color palette and will ‘ink’ it in photoshop. Sometimes I’ll add some shading with a digital watercolor brush, but not always. Then I inevitably end up changing the color palette a few times and playing around with the composition. The earrings always come last for some reason.
303: Why did you move to Denver, and what is an experience you still remember when you first arrived?
SB: I moved for love! A grand romantic gesture that surprised absolutely no one, including my parents. My now-wife, Erika, was more than worth dealing with US immigration services for. When I first came it was to visit, and Erika was living off South Broadway. In my jet-lagged stupor, we walked past the punk kids hanging out outside the Hi-Dive, took a detour into Mutiny, watched skateboarders cruise past us, and by the time I was playing Ms. Pacman in Pie Hole I was convinced I’d stepped into every American ’90s movie I grew up with and was immediately obsessed. I sound so cheesy, but though I love London, it’s a hard city to live in, and Denver’s laid-back charm won me over immediately.
303: What types of creative artists would you like to see more of in Denver?
SB: I would love to see more illustrators, honestly! There’s some incredible fine art and installation artists here, and amazing designers too (especially my coworkers, but I’m biased), but I would love to meet some more illustrators. It would be great to have a local group for feedback and support. If you’re out there, message me!
303: What advice would you provide to up and coming artists that have a love for illustration?
SB: Practice constantly, use cheap sketchbooks (the good ones are too intimidating), and draw out of your comfort zone even if you think it sucks. The best way to get better is to take all the pressure off yourself. Also, share it! Even if it’s not perfect or finished. Having an audience will make you hold yourself accountable for producing work regularly. Don’t force yourself to develop a style, just experiment and it will come naturally.
303: You have the chance to illustrate a portrait of one person, alive or dead — who would it be and why?
SB: I think it would have to be someone from long enough ago that I might find myself surprised by how they truly look. Can I say Sappho? I’m going with Sappho. With a lyre and a wreath of violets, naturally.
303: What is your favorite sex position to illustrate?
SB: The weirder and more contorted the position, the more fun it is to draw. I like the ones where I can have both people looking at each other the best since you can say a lot about what kind of time they’re having with their expressions!
303: Are there any other publications or situations you’d want to illustrate for that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
SB: The New Yorker is the ultimate dream. That’s one of my lifetime ambitions!
303: And our final question, from our previous interviewee: What made you happy today?
SB: The same thing that makes me happy most days; walking my puppy with my wife around Cheeseman Park. Also, enjoying this unseasonal cold snap, which makes me nostalgic for terrible British weather.
All photography by Madison McMullen, unless otherwise noted.