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When Graphics Get Graphic (NSFW)

Illustrator Noma Bar is known for his clever use of negative space. When it comes to illustrating sexuality, that space takes on a whole new meaning.

Noma Bar‘s graphic illustrations are chock full of negative space. The Israel-born, London-based graphic designer became a regular at publications like The EconomistThe Guardian, GQ, Esquire, and The Times with his clever use of nothingness—a method that tends to strike a cord when addressing sticky issues. For this very reason, he also unwittingly became the go-to artist for illustrating sex.

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Noma Bar: Graphic Story Telling. [Photo: Courtesy Thames & Hudson]
“I don’t choose the subjects I work on for magazines and newspapers; they come to me,” Bar writes in Graphic Story Telling, a new book of his works out from Thames & Hudson in October. And yet, somewhere along the way he found himself doing a lot of editorial work for pieces that cover sex and sexuality. “I think perhaps the editors choose me for these topics because as well as being quite sensitive, my work is fairly abstract. It’s a way of getting at a subject like sex without being too literal,” he writes.

Bar grew up during the 1970s, and like many kids of that era, he came across his first sexually explicit images in the pages of erotic magazines. Twenty-five years later, when he was getting his start as a professional illustrator, the web had changed things: pornographic imagery was now accessible to everyone, and perhaps as a result, those images were more hyper-realistic and extreme than they tended to be in print. Illustration, it seemed to Bar, was a good medium to bring some nuance, complexity, and sensitivity back into sexual imagery.

Vocal Fry, for The Guardian, 24 July 2015. From Noma Bar: Graphic Story Telling. [Illustration: © 2017 Noma Bar/Courtesy Thames & Hudson]
Bar found that his abstract treatment of sex—in articles that deal with everything from personal experience to medical phenomena to broader themes, like infertility and homophobia—seemed to resonate with both readers and editors. He was asked to do more and more in a similar vein.

In Graphic Story Telling, a whole section called “In/Out” is dedicated to this category of illustrations. In an illustration for the Modern Romance column in the Sunday Times, for exampleBar rendered two hearts that double as cupids bow and arrow and triple as two pairs of lips coming in for a kiss. In another example, Bar created illustrations for Lutyens restaurant in London that played with the idea of “full bodied” wine. One image shows a woman’s profile and a glass of wine when you look at it one way; on next glance, Bar has subtly incorporated the female form. The surprise is part of the sexiness.

Bittersweet: Noma Bar. [Photo: Courtesy Thames & Hudson]
As the section name, “In/Out,” alludes to, sex is an ideal topic for an illustrator adept at negative space. “Women have nine body openings, men eight, and we grow in our mother’s biggest negative space, the womb,” Bar writes. In a broader sense, negative space allows Bar the room to address one of the most basic and beautiful aspects of life, rebutting “negative attitudes to what should be positive experiences.”

We pulled out a selection of images from Noma Bar: Graphic Story Telling, as well as from Bittersweet: Noma Bar, a new limited edition set of five hardcover volumes of Bar’s work, for the slide show above.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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