Tell us where you are from, the early years of your childhood and what influenced your direction towards the arts?
I’m from Annapolis Maryland. I started watercolor classes at 9, but with family full of math and science nerds (sorry mom and dad) I never really thought of it as a career. At 9, I was obsessed with Van Gogh and Disney. Which I guess still makes sense given my color obsession.
Your first memory or interpretation of visual art
Disney, I drew every Disney character. I loved Disney princesses.
Were your family and friends always supportive of your work?
I think every artist growing up gets “draw me, draw me” constantly so yes, in that sense my friends have always been supportive. My parents, bless them, are the best ever, but they had no idea what to do with my interests. I really had to fight my dad to go to art school once he realized that I was abandoning the law school track. I had to do a lot of research on my own to figure out how to turn my art into a lucrative career.
How many man hours do your pieces average and which piece took the longest to date?
That really depends. On my watercolors I spend about 2-3 hours. On my digitals, I try not to spend more than 45 min. I like to just do quick pieces everyday to play with composition and keep my creativity fresh. I have oils that I am 30 hours into that I still have to finish.
How long are your working intervals before you need a break?
Oh that completely depends on deadlines. I can easily log 8 hours straight, eating out of a peanut butter jar with candles burning and soul music playing. I love for it to be all consuming. Obviously, my short pieces don’t need a break, I’m done in a few hours.
How do you determine what will be your next piece or any practices, rituals or a process that inspires the direction of future work?
I’m inspired by articles I read. I work at people.com and I’m shamelessly into celebrity gossip, so I might see a dress I love and need to paint it, or hear about a love story and paint my own rendition. Sometimes I get upset at the entire homepage being covered with blondes and go to paint their dresses on natural hair women of color. A couple of times I’ve done social commentary watercolors to get out emotions on race relations. It may sound selfish but I just do work that inspires me, of people and feelings that I find beautiful. It’s great when other people like it too.
What would you say to those who don’t have the positive reinforcement of family or friends when pursuing a passion?
To call me! No, honestly, it’s rough. I think my family came from a place of knowing nothing about the industry. I did a lot of internships until I ran into people that could guide me. I also follow the careers of those that inspire me. Also, don’t listen to family members, or even friends if they aren’t in the field. A lot of times they are well-meaning but will often discourage or blow your head up. Find people in the industry and ask questions; they will keep you focused. Most people love to help give advice. Your passion will keep you working at it everyday.
If you could could spend the weekend with any artist (past or present) who would it be and why?
Wow, um Kehinde Wiley. He just seems unreal. I’ve been to his shows and seen him walking around, even introduced myself but I’m honestly pretty shy…what he’s doing is just timeless and awesome. I love seeing black people uplifted in regal depictions. We get such a bad rap in the media, I do everything I can to portray the vulnerability and beauty of us. He’s such an inspiration.
If you could only rework one of your pieces for the rest of your life or chose a subject you have yet to attempt, what piece or subject would it be?
This is going to sound vain but, myself. I mean, Frida did how many self portraits? I feel like the subject that will always be interesting, that I will always know the most about, that will always be changing, is me. I feel that every illustration is an aspect of my personality already.
Most humorous or strangest reaction/story regarding your work
Most people just wonderfully say “that’s me!” I don’t know them but, I’m happy they see themselves!
Set the mood of your work space; do you listen to music, enjoy silence, turn off your phone etc…
Yes, I burn SO many candles, turn off overhead lighting and turn on Anita Baker radio. My roommate is probably so sick of Anita Baker.
Sources of Inspiration
Black people, our hair, our history, Harlem, social awareness, social media, media in general
Cipriana Quann (R) TK Quann (L)
Biggest obstacle to date
Committing myself to painting everyday. Sometimes you just want to watch a marathon of Law and Order, but I can feel when I haven’t practiced.
Current music playlist
I’m terrible with music; it’s embarrassing. I only listen to late 80s, 90s R&B. I’ve been listening to a lot of SZA lately though. She’s amazing! (I’m always late to the game)
What is the best piece of advice or life lesson you have learned?
To question authority. My dad taught me that. I don’t think he meant to, as it’s caused him some headache, but it’s most certainly got me to the place I am now.
This is a secret but it will be out in a week so whatever! I’m working on the McDonalds sponsored illustrations for Essence Music Festival. Can’t wait to see my stuff on the convention walls!
More of Debra Cartwright's work here