Illustrator and riso queen Ashley Ronning talks to Outlier about the upside of self-doubt, the downside of working on movie sets, and why navigating mates’ rates is one the biggest challenges she faces.
Ashley Ronning didn’t always set out to be an illustrator.
“I honestly didn’t know it was a job ‘til I was in design school!” she says.
“I always thought it was either just straight fine art or graphic design with a bit of drawing. When I realised it was a career, I could see it everywhere.”
Somewhat poetically, Ronning’s work is the kind of stuff that’s now visible, well, kind of everywhere. Playful, bright and explorative, her illustrations are the fruit of her intense curiosity of the world, and of science in particular: galaxies, plants, galaxies with plants in them.
Using a range of media to create her work, Ronning is perhaps best known for her tactile risograph illustrations and zines, an extension of her risograph printing and publishing project Helio Press, which is itself a continuation of sorts of the now-defunct Caldera Press.
With work frequently appearing in publications like Frankie—and with a strong presence in the Melbourne gallery scene, most recently with her 2017 exhibition No Place Like Space—it’s somewhat surprising that it’s only been in the past 18 months that Ronning’s ditched the hospitality jobs that have supported her creative career since she was 16.
Growing up in Canberra, Ronning harboured dreams of pursuing the kinds of vocations kids often do: doctor, scientist, teacher.
“‘Artist’ came up a lot, but adults insisted—with the best intentions—that I best go for something else, too,” she says.
So she enrolled in politics at the Australian National University. But she soon realised it wasn’t for her, quitting both the degree and Canberra itself in one fell swoop to pursue graphic design in Melbourne.
“It was wonderful. I grew up a lot in that year and learnt skills I now use every day,” she says.
In that space between her education in design and her current illustration career, Ronning worked in film production design, counting Kate Winslet vehicle The Dressmaker among her credits.
Though it sounds glamorous, Ronning insists it was anything but.
“I’d be hand-writing documents, designing and folding prop packaging, braiding lollies into hair, framing pictures… it was fun sometimes but really hard work and the long hours really got to me,” Ronning says.
“I also got a bad case of carpal tunnel from a particularly intense grocery store scene with hundreds of boxes.”
So she focused on honing her illustration career, but not without pushing through some very real fears—mostly that she’d lose her love for it.
“It has definitely changed,” she admits. “I don’t draw as much in my down time anymore, but I love it more than ever.”
That sidestep into illustration also brought with it the not-unexpected money worries—and explains why Ronning stuck with her hospitality jobs for as long as she did. But now that she relies entirely on her illustration work to pay the bills, how does she deal with the fear?
“I’ve learnt that having a nice savings buffer saves a lot of stress,” she says.
“Planning where money goes helps, and I often have to change my spending when I’m low on income.
“I’m always worried about money but as long as I’m careful I’ll be OK. I’ve become a flexible lady.”
It’s money issues that have also served as one of Ronning’s biggest career challenges, and one that many creative people with a close-knit creative community also struggle to navigate: mates’ rates.
“I’ve got a lot of talented mates and I want to make work for them, but I’ve gotta pay rent, too!” Ronning says.
“I think I’ve just gotta limit those jobs or be honest with [my friends] about how much this stuff usually costs. It’s a tricky one.”
Also tricky? Dealing with that other common bedfellow of most every creative: self-doubt. Ronning is unbridled when it comes to the topic.
“At times [my self-doubt] comes out in a sequence of bad dreams. The other night I dreamt I was publicly shamed in a magazine about my image resolutions!” she says.
“But luckily I’m surrounded by supportive people—a great friendship group and a wonderful creative community.
“The only way to move forward really is to just keep working at it, and when you emerge from self-doubt you’ll feel amazing for overcoming it.”
Happily, that self-doubt doesn’t extend to Ronning’s assessment of where her work fits in the world of illustration and art.
“I’m in a good place at the moment in terms of originality. I’m pretty happy with the work I’m doing right now and not too distracted by other people’s work,” she says.
“But there are moments where I’m like, ‘Woah, I love this person’s work so much—I’ve gotta make sure I steer my brain away from here!’”
And procrastination? Ronning says, yes, she deals with it—and, in turn, deals with it by limiting both the games on her computer and social media access during work hours (hello, browser extensions!).
“Working out a solid routine has also helped heaps, especially because my boyfriend mostly works evenings,” she says.
“So if I didn’t have the willpower to work I’d sleep in and then hang out with him all day.”
When asked about her goals for the future, Ronning is pragmatic, determined and focused on the short-term.
“This year I want have a holiday! And approach magazines I love about working for them.”
Ones that don’t shame her about image resolutions, no doubt.
Virtual pep talk
“Get onto social media, share your work, trade with people, talk to people, make what you love, have fun!”