"Ghosts of Japan"
The watercolor and ink illustration you see above this text is incredible, don’t you agree? The composition is sophisticated, the colors are vibrant, and every physical detail is just how it needs to be. Now take a deeper look and allow the details to settle in your mind. There is an untold story collecting momentum the longer you analyze this picture, and it’s a trait which seems to pertain to Ellen Crenshaw‘s illustrations. She is a talented artist who creates artwork rich in narration, movement and context, and has a body of work that has caught the eye of companies like Beer Advocate Magazine, The Weekly Dig and FableVision. The day Pearle Vision lost an employee was the day the art world gained brilliant illustrator, and thank goodness for that!
ArtVenue approached Ellen through the “mysterious ways of the internet,” aka. Gmail, and threw her some meaty questions. She diced them up and served us some tasty insight!
“Interestingly enough, most of my projects that I’ve been happiest with are the most difficult–it’s through the struggle that I find satisfaction, even if I’m grinding my teeth every step of the way.”
Home is where the heart is-where is home for you?
This may sound incredibly cheesy, but home is where my family is. My husband in particular; if we’re together, I’m at home. Literally, my place of residence is in East Boston.
How and when did you discover yourself to be an artist?
When I was a kid, I was enamored with cartoons, stories, and characters and I drew what inspired me. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t do that. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t tell people that I was going to be an “artist” when I grew up, even if I didn’t know what that meant. It was always a single track for me, I never seriously considered anything else.
"BYOB, Beer Advocate Issue #42"
When you’re not working or illustrating and have some free time, what do you like to do?
When I’m not drawing, I’m feeling guilty about not drawing. But I am a child of the screen, I love movies and TV, and in the winter there’s nothing better than cozying up with hot tea and a good book. This year I started taking kickboxing as a complete change of pace. I also started getting into fashion blogs, so getting dressed up has become a small hobby of mine. What I look forward to most, though, is getting together with my husband and friends and letting my silly out.
What are a few things on your artistic bucket list?
I’d love to work on a children’s book. Learn to screen print. I’d be curious to try working in California someday, exciting things in the illustration world seem to come from there.
“When I was a kid, I was enamored with cartoons, stories, and characters and I drew what inspired me.”
Who are some illustrators you look up to, and why does their work speak to you?
I’m adding more and more people to this list every day! The ones I tend to return to, however, are my standbys that get me going again when I’ve hit a wall. Chuck Jones for his vitality and humor, and for his cartoons that got me started in all this! Dupuy & Berberian, creators of the most stunning comics I’ve ever seen–I can’t tell you how often I turn to their books for guidance on page layout, storytelling, composition. Peter De Seve, whose watercolor techniques I would love to successfully emulate someday. Jen Wang, Graham Annable, Scott Campbell, Vera Brosgol, Brit Wilson, Juan Berrio…I could go on! Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with inspiration, I feel very lucky.
What is your creative process, typically? (Mood, time of day, rituals, duration of work, surroundings, caffeine intake, sleep-depravation levels, etc…)
I love visual problem-solving, so I thrive on constraints and deadlines. Once I settle on a project, either for myself or a client, a great amount of my time is spent gathering visual reference. Ideally I would make a trip to check out the real thing I need to draw, but most often that’s not possible and I rely on stock photography sites. Then I make small thumbnails in my sketchbook; refine the drawing either digitally or traditionally; color study in Photoshop; and finally paint, either digitally or with ink, watercolor, and gouache. While most of the final product is planned in advance, I think spur-of-the-moment decisions and happy accidents keep the work fresh, so I leave myself at least a little mystery before beginning a final illustration. I work best in the morning and afternoon, but when that occasional all-nighter has to happen (side note: I LOVE sleeping, so you can guess how I feel about all-nighters) I drink a cup of coffee and I’m a jittery, wired machine. Oh, and I always–ALWAYS–need a movie playing in the background, or I can’t concentrate. One of my best resources: listentoamovie.com.
You’re a dirty-joke teller – give me your best (PG-13) joke!
Gosh, you’ve really pushed me against a wall here. It’s awfully hard–to perform under pressure, I mean–I don’t want to get a rise out of anyone, after all. I may just have to sit on it.
“Kindness opens more doors than you can imagine, especially in a world where a lot of the people you meet never see you in person.”
On your ArtVenue profile you say, “As a lover of animation, I also employ a sense of motion in my illustrations, capturing action so that the characters appear to have life beyond the page. ” How did you craft this skill? (Specific classes? God-given knack and ability? Hours in the studio at school?)
Hours and hours of cartoons! Practice makes perfect, of course, and I did go to an art magnet high school as well as art college, but when I’m drawing a character I imagine the movement–like a cartoon–I feel myself doing it while I’m drawing. If I can’t get it right in my head, I act it out! For a long time I wanted to be an animator, and any animator will tell you that you have to be an actor as well to bring a cartoon to life. When I realized in college that I didn’t have the patience to be an animator, I inherently had to find a way to convey movement in a still image.
"Jack Spratt Investigates Old Mother Hubbard"
Describe your most difficult project you have ever worked on, personal or work-related. How about easiest or must fun?
Interestingly enough, most of my projects that I’ve been happiest with are the most difficult–it’s through the struggle that I find satisfaction, even if I’m grinding my teeth every step of the way. The comic I illustrated for Inbound #4 (written by my husband, Matt Boehm, published by the Boston Comics Roundtable) was incredibly hard for me. We were constricted to four pages, and we chose a fairly ambitious story to tell in that amount of space, which means there were a LOT of panels. It also took place in a historic landmark that no longer stands and has very little documentation, so reference was quite a challenge. I ended up relying heavily on written accounts, which I had never depended on before for a nonfictional setting. And, of course, I procrastinated…pulled those all-nighters I hate so much, panicked, inked until my fingers ached. I’m very proud of the result, though, and I’m proud of the book it’s in.
“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with inspiration, I feel very lucky.”
In regards to the second half of your question, I’m actually collaborating on a project with a bunch of my friends right now and it’s incredibly fun! It’s called Fanartica (fanartica.tumblr.com); it’s a blog started by me and Matt, in which we and our closest illustrator buddies contribute fan art that conforms to rotating topics. It’s only been up for a [few] weeks, but we’ve been picking up a lot of steam with our first topic, 90s Nickelodeon. It’s really great to work on something that’s simply meant to make you and your friends laugh.
"Fair Is Foul, and Foul Is Fair"
Describe the pinnacle of your artistic career. (ie: Are you a household name? Influencing fashion? Prints flying off the shelf?)
Ha! I think the pinnacle is still coming (that’s what she said). So far the proudest moment of my career is a fairly humble one: it’s when I was able to quit my day job. I worked part-time for four-and-a-half years with a wonderful staff and generous bosses at Pearle Vision while moonlighting as an illustrator. There finally came a time when I couldn’t realistically juggle both jobs anymore, so I took the plunge into full-time freelance. It’s scary, and not always lucrative, but I’ve never been happier. (Plus I’ll always have my eyewear knowledge to carry with me. You need help with lenses? I’ll hook you up.)
"Brer Bear, Brer Rabbit, and Brer Labrador"
Pick your favorite piece on ArtVenue. What is it of, why is it your favorite and what does it mean to you?
Woah, I imagine that’s like trying to choose a favorite child. Let me instead tell you about my most influential piece, Ghosts of Japan. When someone looks at my portfolio for the first time, this is the piece that stands out. I don’t know what it is about her, but she opens doors for me. She’s the first piece I made when I reevaluated my career strategy in 2008. She brought me out of a six-month-long creative slump. She was printed on the cover of the Weekly Dig to promote my solo show in 2009. When I look at her now, I see all the technical errors that I have since improved upon, but she is consistently my most popular illustration, and remains my best-selling print. I can’t help but get sick of her sometimes, I feel like I’ve progressed so much since I made her, but I owe a lot to that Japanese girl on the subway with her ghosts.
What is some advice you could give to budding artists, hopeful to make a name for themselves or looking to build a portfolio?
Just keep working. Find reasons to make new artwork, dig for deadlines to meet. When I left college I had this idea in my head that I was worth too much to work for free; don’t get me wrong, to a certain extent, this is true. But when you decline the opportunity to build relationships and experience because of the money, you get yourself nowhere fast. Respond to those calls-for-artists, start a blog and consistently post work, find any reason to get your work seen–better yet, published–and the opportunities will come. Also, be nice. Kindness opens more doors than you can imagine, especially in a world where a lot of the people you meet never see you in person.
"The Food Issue"
View Ellen Crenshaw’s complete ArtVenue profile!
ArtVenue would like to thank Ellen for lending us some of her time and fantastic thoughts. We are psyched to have her on ArtVenue – welcome to the family!