There’s an old advertising slogan that gets recycled endlessly in American movie high-school elections, online ads and articles about venereal disease. ‘SEX!’ it proclaims, before continuing, ‘Now we’ve got your attention...’. 

Titillating studies of the human form have been a potent force in art since long before Michaelangelo chiselled the buttocks on his David statue, and in the digital age this shows no sign of slowing – quite the reverse. Sexualised images abound in advertising but in illustration, too, plenty of artists instinctively know this simple rule: people like sex, and they like to look at pictures that make them think about sex.

There’s no getting round the fact that most of the time when we talk about sex in contemporary illustration, we’re talking about images of women. This is partly because of the rich tradition of using women to sell products, and also no doubt partly because digital illustration remains a male-dominated field. Artist Derek Santiago (riceandbeanz.net) adds: “Throughout the history of art there is one artform that stops men and women in their tracks: sensual feminine beauty in all its varying forms shapes and sizes. Nothing compares and it will never get old.”

Playfully exploring the kitschiness of the roller disco scene allows Arn0 to tease the viewer with little more than a glimpse of lace and a pert, flirtatious pose.

However, sex in art requires a delicate touch: explicit depictions of people’s sex bits rarely make for seductive viewing. Artists who want to create an erotic frisson in their images must work harder than that. Sexiness is a slippery, elusive quality: it often relies on gesture, suggestion and tone far more than on acres of flesh. 

“Sex means different things for different people, just like taste. For me, it’s the contrast between dynamism and restraint, glee and elegance, hot and cold. It’s all about friction,” says Riviera-chic French illustrator Arn0 (arn0.com).

Sometimes sexiness needs no skin at all – for example, in his cover proposal for gay magazine Butt, Arn0 creates a highly suggestive, erotically charged atmosphere using just fruit and doughnuts. 

A handful of suggestively shaped snacks and a saturated, candy colour scheme makes Arn0's cover proposal for Butt raunchy without a single pixel of exposed flesh.

The art of seduction
When evoking sex, artists walk a tightrope: the very same things that might be sensual when used in one way can suddenly become obscene in a different context; an image that seems to one person to be a celebration of the female figure can seem grossly exploitative and offputting to another. To make matters more complicated, by their very nature sexual images are provocative and a tiny bit subversive – but where’s the line between provoking pleasure and outrage?