American illustrator Allison Filice has a rule when drawing faces: no teeth. “Teeth in a portrait can often look weird,” she explains. “I guess I prefer smirks.” Allison has a talent for capturing facial expressions in just a few simple lines. Drawn in a ligne claire style inspired by cartoonists like Moebius and Hergé, the famous people she illustrates are instantly recognisable.
Beyond Rihanna’s lips or Lorde’s cheekbones, Allison aims to capture something deeper about her subjects. “I like to know who they are and what they’re all about,” she says. “Maybe I can help support their message if I connect with it.”
Her recent editorial commissions have called for portraits of powerful women: the Knowles sisters and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. When Wrap Magazine asked her to illustrate a portrait for this year’s International Women’s Day for which she chose jazz artist Alice Coltrane. Her images reflect the current drive to tell more women’s stories. “I hope this is just the beginning,” Allison says, “We have so far to go.”
Allison’s portraits begin with an in-depth search for the right photograph to recreate. She looks for an image that captures who a person is when they’re calm and confident. “It’s almost a peaceful meditative state that I look for,” she says. “Nothing too emotional, unless the brief calls for that.”
As she illustrates, she strips away any details that aren’t absolutely necessary to portray the personality of her subject, until she’s left with a few defining lines. “Simplicity and personality need to both live in the image, so I’m usually increasing one and subtracting the other until it feels right. It’s a super-intuitive balancing process,” she says.
In 2017, Allison began a weekly portrait series drawing great artists and thinkers like Picasso, Aristotle, Yayoi Kusama and Miffy creator Dick Bruna. She shared them on Instagram quoting a few lines of their wisdom.
Allison names the intellectual Noam Chomsky as her favorite of the series, and as her ultimate dinner companion, seated at the table alongside Carl Sagan, just across from Alice Coltrane. “I chose him because he’s been a source of honesty and courage for so many for so long,” she says. When she emailed him the portrait he responded to say thanks the very same day – “he’s a treasure.”
Interestingly for a portrait series, Allison went beyond just depicting people. Among the famous faces are an illustration of a buckeye butterfly and a passenger pigeon. “I saw the buckeye butterfly at the Conservatory of Flowers here in San Francisco and thought it was so beautiful that I had to illustrate it,” she says. “The species evolved to have an eye-shaped pattern on its wings to ward off predators. It also has a psychedelic-looking metallic sheen to it that’s incredibly beautiful.”
Extinct due to hunting, the passenger pigeon may be the first animal brought back to de-extinction through The Long Now Foundation’s Revive & Restore genetic rescue toolkit.
Another interesting addition to Allison’s weekly illustrations is a portrait of a room: the final scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I love how absurd, mysterious, and empty it all feels – and that it leaves you with more questions than answers,” she says.
“To me this scene represents both the outward and inward journey we must take in order to evolve as humans. It’s about having faith in the unknown and not letting fear hold us back. It’s about exploring the hidden corners of our minds and coming to terms with what we find.”
This hints at Allison’s curiosity about the world. She takes time to read up on a broad range of topics and then brings these new concepts back into her creative work.
For example, Allison’s recent personal work Strange Universe was inspired by philosophical science fiction and quantum physics. And so even though the ideas she illustrates might be hard to grasp, her images give a friendly face to abstract concepts about space and time.
Words by Alix–Rose Cowie