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Sella Molenaar,

December, 14th 2020

She’s the Dutch illustrator renowned for drawing the female figure and has worked with clients such as Dolce & Gabbana, L’Officiel and H&M. Here, Sella Molenaar talks to Staiy about her transition from fast fashion brands to sustainable labels, and working with clients who are on the same mission – to empower women.

Words By Jen McDonald

The female figure is complex and beautiful and comes in infinite shapes and sizes. Some of us are tall, some of us are petite. Some of us are curvier, and some of us have broader shoulders. These differences are part of what make us unique and wonderful! 

For Sella Molenaar, every woman is a walking source of inspiration. Fascinated by the female body, by femininity and by sensuality, Molenaar loves to draw women who embrace their bodies, who are confident and empowering. A self-taught illustrator, Molenaar has taken pencil to page since a young age. Drawing has always been a part of her life and through the years, she has developed her own characteristic style. The lines, the colours and the use of her materials in her illustrations create a unique signature. Drawn to the feminine form in her work, both in subject as execution, Molenaar loves the diversity in women and in the full spectrum of what it means to identify as a woman in this masculine world. Incorporating feminine qualities in the making process of her work, she does not focus too much on the end result, instead she is carefree and captures the moment.

Molenaar originally saw a future in fashion, but after trying out fashion design at university, she realised this particular creative endeavour was not her forte. “I realised that its harsh industry was not going to make me happy,” she tells us. “I was only eighteen when I tried out as a designer. I had this very unrealistic image of the fashion world and my role in it. I’ve accepted that I can enjoy fashion, but from a distance.” Instead, Molenaar turned to art history, going on to study a master’s in contemporary art. 

Whilst studying her master’s, rather than getting a regular bar or café job, she decided to use her artistic talent to support herself. “Looking back, it was quite a bold move, but in that moment it felt like the only logical thing to do,” shares the Dutch artist. “I was always drawing, everywhere I went, on the train, with my friends. When I moved to Amsterdam, I applied to bar and cafe jobs but they always turned me down. When I was turned down for low paying jobs, I thought, what can I do? I can draw.” It was through this leap of faith that cemented her passion for visual aesthetics and imagery.

The young Dutch artist took to the streets of Amsterdam, doing live sketches and illustrations. She went on to do illustrations at festivals and fashion events. Recognised for her talent, she was quickly snapped up by big fish clients, her first client being H&M. Drawing freely with no eraser to rely on, Molenaar captures each moment through her illustrations. At the beginning, her style was very fluid and unrestricted. “I think it’s part of how I drew. Sketching people super fast on trains before it got creepy!” she explains. “I don’t know, when I look at those drawings now I hate them. You’re supposed to get better over time and I think I did, so when I look back at those drawings from seven years ago, I’m like, oh gosh this is not good. But I guess that’s normal!”

MFW by Sella Molenaar,

Molenaar turned her love for drawing into a successful freelance career working with some of the biggest global fashion labels. “I think the big names feed your ego. It’s very flattering that brands like that want to work with you but I don’t think those are the projects that I’m most proud of,” she tells us. 

Over the last few years, the type of work Molenaar does has evolved. She has moved away from doing live sketches and working with big fashion brands to focus on doing more meaningful collaborations in the sustainability arena. “I now work with clients that mostly want to empower women or who are feminist activists,” she says. The projects she is most proud of are the ones with lingerie brands that are produced for women, by women. “I worked with a global feminist fund called Mama Cash, where we did a campaign called My Body is Mine. Those projects actually have a positive impact on people, on women particularly. It’s really close to my heart.”

Molenaar herself is down to earth and passionate about what she does. This feminist is true to herself and her beliefs. “The one thing I found really important is the people you work with. I want to work with people who are kind and genuine. I have come across so many people who are so arrogant, they expect you to do whatever they want. I decided for myself that whenever I have a meeting, I don’t care how big the bag of money is or who they are, I’m not working with them if they don’t treat me well.” 

The illustrator loves the freedom that comes with her job and enjoys traveling when she can. Although stuck in the middle of this world-wide pandemic, her travels have been put on hold. Instead, she has invested her time in developing her illustrations, seeing her style slowly evolving. “I used to draw very fast and my drawings were very line based. During lockdown, all I really did was go to my studio and paint. I started painting more female figures, all very minimalistic with very clear outlines, very structured. I found my way in this new reality, looking for new ways to incorporate my own signature in my paintings.” 

Despite the current restrictions, Molenaar has been extremely active during lockdown. She recently launched her own shop selling limited prints on recycled paper and created a new workshop program for 2021. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she is currently planning on creating a “creative flow” card deck to help people connect more to their creativity in the new year. “I absolutely love it when I can help people ignite their own creative fire within.” she explains. The artist is also working on a variety of different projects with a lot of sustainable lingerie brands lately such as Closely Official and Semi/Romantic. As well as these projects she did an exciting commission for an impressive Dutch furniture company HK Living which involved making two big tapestries that will be sold worldwide in the new year. “I’m very positive about the new year and can’t wait to see what 2021 will bring.”

One good thing that has come out of this pandemic is that she has realised her love for teaching and inspiring people to get more creative. Molenaar is no stranger when it comes to teaching. Having taught numerous workshops and life drawing classes pre COVID-19, she explains to us that she can’t wait to get back to it. “I developed a workshop with a yoga studio. It’s about femininity as well and celebrating those qualities. There’s a female model so all those aspects are there with technique, mindset and meditation. I hope we can still do it, it’s in 2 weeks, but we also have a stricter lockdown”.

Every one of Molenaar’s portraits blazes with incredible talent. Soft and evocative with defined, intuitive lines characterize this artist’s work. In her hands, women’s bodies are sweet yet intense.

Celebrating femininity, sensuality and aesthetics, Molenaar uses her work to empower women. But it’s not just the female figure that feeds into her work: “In a way, everything inspires me. Two days ago, I was walking through the canals and saw people taking photos of litter next to a garbage can. It really made me laugh because it was absurd. I made an art video in my head from it of a group of tourists taking photos of garbage in the beautiful canals of Amsterdam. I don’t know if I’ll do anything with it though. My mind just marvels at anything!” The human body is thought to be one of the most complex shapes to capture and an artist’s biggest challenge. Yet, Molenaar nails it every time!