Posted 16 February 2022
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Interview by Lyla Johnston

Design, drag and “clowny” aesthetics: A window into illustrator Gem D’Souza’s world

Gem D’Souza isn’t just inspired by clowns, she often becomes one. Creating digital illustrations by day and taking to the stage for drag performances by night, Gem fell in love with clowning due to its campness, exaggeration and surrealism. A product design graduate, she initially cut her teeth within Brighton’s iconic LGBTQIA+ nightlife scene, designing posters and drawing the club kids she encountered there. And as her drag career took off, so too did her illustration practice – with clients like Sue Ryder and HarperCollins championing her “clowny” aesthetic. Here, Gem talks developing a signature style, knowing your worth and finding a balance between self-promotion and self-care.

Gem D’Souza

Gem D’Souza

Job Title

Illustrator and Designer



Selected Clients

Smiley, Sue Ryder, HarperCollins, Brownton Abbey, News UK, Global Environment Network

Previous Employment

Zebra Pen UK, Fizz Creations, Sebnini, Designate

Place of Study

BA Product Design, University of Sussex (2011–2014)

Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I’m an illustrator and designer with a love for camp, kitsch and colourful imagery. I love to create work which has a sense of whimsical magic, but sometimes includes darker or more serious undertones. I work mainly with digital methods but love to pick up a paintbrush when I have the time.

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I’m hugely inspired by old circus imagery, cats and unusual objects found in junk shops. My main influence growing up as a young artist was Pop Surrealist icon, Mark Ryden. He was my gateway into the world of unusual illustration when I was just 12, and I have been inspired by artists within this realm ever since. I’ve always been obsessed with anything a little weird and absurd.

By night I perform as a drag clown on the cabaret circuit and my obsession with clowns can be seen within my work. I have always loved the way clown faces are exaggerated and have over-the-top expressions of joy and happiness, when the real person underneath may not actually be feeling that way. A lot of the themes in my work have been about the way humans mask sadness and despair by “putting on a happy face”, and showing how things aren’t always as they seem.

Sad Clown Club
Gem the Clown
Gem the Clown

What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
My favourite project to work on from the last year was creating imagery for Brownton Abbey’s online digital shows. Brownton Abbey is an Afrofuturist collective of queer Black and Brown folks with disabilities, creating out-of-this-world performances and parties. It was such a pleasure to bring to life their vision of a neon futuristic space church, surrounded by lush foliage and stars.

“When it comes to drawing, it’s just about finding your own visual language, and telling a story using your own unique perspective.”

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I feel like my degree in design definitely helps me to think practically when navigating projects for clients. But when it comes down to actually drawing, I think it’s just about finding your own visual language; telling a story through a single image using your own unique perspective. I feel that you can only find that from really exploring what feels right for you, and developing that over time.

Space Church for Brownton Abbey

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
As a teenager I would paint realistic portraits, often inspired by all things fabulous and drag. And after studying design and graduating I began to work as a packaging designer. Within this field I developed a more creative and illustrative style, working on prints, patterns and characters. This left me wanting to explore my own illustrative style outside of my day job.

How did you go about landing your first commissions?
I started out drawing little portraits for performers and making posters for drag and cabaret events. As I was already in that world I had a network of creative people with creative ideas, and who needed an illustrator to visualise their concepts.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge has been believing in my work and my worth as an artist. I think as creatives we are often our own biggest critics and have that voice in our heads telling us we’re not good enough.

When I stopped trying to compare myself to others so much, I found that engaging with and uplifting others actually gave me a better outlook and more confidence in myself and my own work.

Valentines Dogs
2 Clowns
Mind the Gap
Happy New Year, News UK

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
My passions are illustration and creative performance, and it has always been my dream to make a living from doing what I love most. Although when I was cutting my teeth I did do a lot of work for free. As I begin to gain more experience and a reputation, I have started to feel confident that I could fully support myself from my illustration and performance work.

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Promoting yourself on social media is very vital these days to make yourself known. But it’s also important not to burn out from creating too much content for your online persona. You should find time to make work for yourself. I have fallen into this trap a few times and have had to take a step back and re-evaluate if the work I’m producing is really what I want to be making. It’s always good to take time to reflect and learn.

“It’s important not to burn out from creating content for your online persona. You should find time to make work for yourself.”

Gem D Souza illustrator creativelivesinprogress 14

Feeling Blue

Gem D Souza illustrator creativelivesinprogress 15


If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
My favourite creative podcast has to be Creative Pep Talk by Andy J. Pizza. It’s helped me to get out of a creative funk or two and the guests are always incredible.

An Instagram account I love is STILL HERE, who share a new still life image each month for people to create their own interpretations from. I have loved taking part in it, as well as just seeing everyone’s submissions each month.

Another mention for me is Juxtapoz magazine, which I subscribed to for years as a teenager. It was a constant source of inspiration, with pages and pages of beautiful underground contemporary art and interviews with artists.

Submission for STILL HERE

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
My best career advice has been to not be afraid of embracing the quirks and differences in my drawings that make them unique. My agent at Studio PI has encouraged me to keep pushing my “clowny” aesthetics in my work to cement my signature style.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Your interests and obsessions are what make you unique, so reflect your quirks through your work. Don’t try to be someone else, be yourself.

We have partnered with award-winning agency, Studio PI to highlight some of their talented roster. A photography and illustration agency set up to promote equality and celebrate diversity, see more from Studio PI here.

Mention Gem D'Souza
Mention Studio PI
Interview by Lyla Johnston