Illustrator Martina Paukova is strikingly elegant, with bluish-green eyes, deep chestnut hair, and a proud stance, an inch just shy of six feet. Nothing, therefore, like the characters she portrays in her amusing scenes of home, office, and street life. Those illustrations—for clients as varied as Converse, WeTransfer, Lexus, Refinery 29, and her beloved newspaper The Guardian—depict gangly millennials folded over computers or crumpled around fast-food dinners, splayed over pool loungers, or plodding around town. They may seem happy, but we don’t feel happy for them. They just look so darned uncomfortable.
Clearly, Paukova has captured something of the zeitgeist in her work. “My characters relate to our own awkward personas,” she tells me over a flat white outside her office at London’s Central Saint Martins. “They’re trying to get through banal, everyday situations, but they’re in such clumsy poses. Something about that awkwardness speaks to people.”
Paukova says her style evolved naturally, yet that hardly explains her geeky appeal. Perhaps it was born in her teenage years in Slovakia, where she was one of few girls in the computer-programming stream. Her uniform of jeans, sneakers, and oversized sweaters carried over into college, where she earned a degree in political science. “I don’t like being overly feminine. I’m not a flowery person.”
An old programmer boyfriend pushed her into playing around with Photoshop. “I entered a competition on a Czech blog,” she says. “It was absolutely horrible stuff, but something in me switched on in the process.”
Graphic design remained a pastime, not a career prospect. In the summertime, Paukova and her school friends would rent a house in London and work in cafés. “By the end of the summer we’d be rich, by Slovakian standards,” she says. Yet eventually, “something got tickled in London.” At the relatively advanced age of 26, Paukova enrolled in a graphic design course at Kensington and Chelsea College. “I was the only foreigner in the class, and I was the best,” she says. “It just clicked.” Further studies at the London College of Communication helped her refine her gawky style and punchy color palette. This summer she completed a Masters degree at Camberwell College of Arts.
After school, she got herself two agents who netted her a single job: for a dentist in Bratislava, “and he was my most demanding client.” Meanwhile, Paukova made a conscious decision to draw more human figures, using a stack of catering catalogues for guidance. Gradually, she progressed to different subjects, like yoga poses, which she says “are the hardest to draw.” And six months ago she joined Instagram and unleashed her characters on the world.
Her subtle humor appealed to editors. The New York Times and ICON came calling. The journal Protein, her personal Holy Grail, commissioned a series of contemporary scenes.
“Seeing my work next to other illustrators I admire made me realize I really can do this,” she says.
This summer she was taken on by the Dutch-Finnish illustration agency Pekka, which means that at 32, when most of her friends are quitting work to have babies, Paukova is becoming an international concern. Yet she has no plans to leave London. “This is home,” she says. “I like it here. I like not having to look further than the next corner. I like not having to defend what I do.”
She explains: “Try speaking to your Slovakian mother that you’ve moved to London to draw pictures.”
Sounds awkward. Expect to see it in print soon.
This post originally appeared at AIGA Eye on Design.