The work of illustrator Danii Pollehn is bold, unmissable and amazing. But the journey to her current destination as a freelance artist is a somewhat winding one. We caught up with her to learn how she made the leap during the pandemic, why feeling lost proved useful, and why taking your career at your own speed is good.
Based in Lisbon, Portugal, Danii Pollehn is a German artist who specialises in creating vibrant, eye-catching work that combines playful shapes and a modern style. Her goal is to create artwork that stands out, whether in a mural, graphics, packaging design or an illustration.
It’s safe to say Danii has achieved these goals. Her incredible work has already caught the attention of such illustrious clients as Adobe, Lavazza and UPS, to name a few. Having worked with agencies including Serviceplan, Jack Morton and Parasol Island, it’s clear that her work is in demand.
It’s something of a surprise then to learn that Danii only truly embraced full-time freelance life fairly recently. To learn more about her career and what aspiring artists can learn from her, we sat down with Danii to hear the full story.
Danii has always wanted to be an artist and have a creative job, but, for a long time, she did not think this was a viable option. She would eventually study fashion design, which at the time felt like the most acceptably out-of-the-ordinary route open to her. From there, she worked as a stylist for photo and film productions plus magazines before realising a few years later that she needed pens, paper and colour in her life.
Building a career as a freelancer takes time, though, not to mention tons of dedication and the eternal fighting off of impostor syndrome. Additionally, the prospect of months without commissions is always on the horizon. To combat this, Danii would work as a freelance textile designer and product photographer on the side in order to be able to show her work in New York and Paris for a couple of seasons. But then, just as she had decided to become a full-time freelance illustrator, the pandemic hit.
“The previous months, I had been posting on Instagram almost every day, and commissions started to come in more frequently, which felt amazing,” she reveals. “Then, at 36, I took the leap without a safety net or much in the way of funds. It was quite risky and left me with a bunch of scares fighting through the lockdowns and Covid-19, but somehow, when I wanted to give up, everything magically turned around, and I was back in the game!
“From graduating to where I am today, it took me around 15 years just to inspire anyone who still thinks about doing something else a little later than society tells us is still appropriate. I felt lost and alone most of the time, and actually still do to some degree, but looking back, I know all the steps and setbacks were great lessons that gave me the tools to create a better life for myself.”
Danii’s art is characterised by strong colours and even stronger women. But as for where these signature traits come from, she’s at something of a loss when it comes to inspiration. “Many artists have not aged well, and other interests don’t feel relatable. Hence, they are not very inspiring in the end,” she reveals.
“I love going to museums and art galleries but have not yet found my ultimate artistic inspiration. However, I love Tina Touli’s work; how she mixes different media is amazing and always inspires me. On the other hand, I love seeing Ananya Rao-Middleton’s work thrive; she brilliantly puts her experiences with chronic illness into pictures and creates awareness for herself and the community. Being a part of it myself makes me incredibly happy and proud!”
These depictions play into Danii’s desire to create playful and empowering art. Which also ties into her favourite subject when it comes to illustration. “At the moment, my favourite thing to illustrate is definitely women in more powerful and energetic poses!” she enthuses.
“Also, I love to let loose and go abstract a lot, actually. Starting a painting or illustration without a plan and having it evolve intuitively while I’m working on it is my jam. I also love mixing these two sides of my practice. Integrating abstract elements into my illustrations gives them a more personal touch and extra life.”
As for how she refines her eye for colour, Danii says this is a constant, almost habitual process. “I’m always searching for bold and vibrant palettes and take pictures of combinations when I’m out for a walk or travelling. Often, though, I choose them completely intuitively while working on a piece, starting with one colour that feels right and going from there.
“Obviously, that isn’t what I do when working on client projects, but when working on something for myself, I love to let loose, explore all the options, and go with a gut feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it must feel right!
“It is also very important to me to switch things up occasionally. I cannot imagine limiting myself to one palette because not every palette feels like home right away, or even for a very long time. As I’m changing and growing as a person, so are the colours I like to use and my style. Sometimes it’s just nuances, and then it’s a complete change and feels a little like a puzzle every time, which for me is exciting!”
Interestingly enough, Danii’s graduation collection was as far from colour as possible, as it was rendered entirely in black. She would not go on to explore colour until she had travelled to North America, South East Asia and Mexico. “During that year and a half of travelling alone, I grew out of old patterns and realised the world is much bigger and there is much more to learn and to experience than I thought or imagined there ever would be.
“Using lots of bright, loud and vibrant colours felt more like me and a little act of rebellion against not hiding anymore. Choosing combinations that aren’t the obvious choice or feel a little funky and weird felt like a subtle way to question the norm and the acceptable. I was tired of hearing that I was too much, my laugh too loud, and my feelings were invalid. So I wanted to create my own little pocket where I could present something different but equally great.”
Making an impression
With her bold colours and empowering message, Danii wants to display the strength that allowed her to get up again after setbacks. “Sometimes we need a reminder that it is all worth it in the end, which I’m trying to convey with the poses and vibrant colour choices. We can all learn and grow even though life is not always easy.”
She adds: “Growing up, I experienced epileptic seizures that later turned out were caused by a brain tumour. I also had to deal with an incredible amount of medical gaslighting, which unfortunately continues up to this day. The same year, I finally received the surgery to get the tumour removed; my father died after a long period of suffering due to a motorbike accident.
“It was a very painful couple of years in which many times I felt hopeless and completely dishevelled. I was facing isolation from society and friends as my experience wasn’t something people wanted to talk about, and therapy wasn’t really available back in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
“I could have really used someone with the wisdom and empathy that would rip me out of a dark place and show me that there is more to life. That pain is often temporary, and we can learn to process uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Even though I might not always present this so obviously in my illustrations, I hope the hunger for life and never-ending hope transmits!”
Another key component of Danii’s approach is to have conversations that make the world a better place. These touch on important topics such as mental health, isolation, and the stigmas surrounding chronic illness, grief and women’s health.
“They’re all topics that most of us might have to deal with at some point in our lives, and we would all greatly benefit from more openness and honesty,” she says. “Due to all my past experiences, I was isolated and stigmatised a lot in the past, but even though I’m not ‘perfect’ by society’s standards, that doesn’t mean I’m broken. In my opinion, we can only gain by accepting minority groups and otherness into the concept of society, making room for everyone and growing together.”
In 2022, Danii worked on an extensive project for Adobe Stock as one of the Adobe Stock Development Fund recipients. It was while working on this project that her feelings for authentic and empathetic representation of women and disabled people really emerged.
“I created illustrations that are understanding and contain empowering messages for those who live with conditions,” she explains. “I wanted them to feel understood and not alone and for the illustrations to understand their struggles without pity. Sometimes, they just need an extra minute to accomplish the same thing.
“Also especially important to me was bringing awareness to conditions that are not visible. Those more about energy levels have to do with illnesses such as ME/CFS, etc. There is still not much research done in this area, and people who suffer from these illnesses are victims of medical gaslighting and receive almost no help!”
This year has been busy for Danii as she moved to Portugal in February and started indulging in new hobbies like surfing. Professionally, she’s also been busy, with 2023 seeing her land her first speaker engagements. According to her, 2023 was all about managing resources and settling in, while 2024 already promises to offer much.
“I hope for the world to become a better place for everyone!” she says. “For myself, I hope to be able to continue to do what I love and keep evolving. I want to do lots of great client work with some of my dream clients and maybe even start getting into textiles again. I’m constantly thinking about drawing on fabric and having my sewing machine shipped to Portugal these days!
“Also, I hope to be able to speak at more events and conferences and prepare and organise exhibitions again. And, of course, getting involved more and building a community here in Portugal!”