Interview | The Macabre Art of Drea D.
Disney after dark
Drea D. is clearly an artist who fascinates me with her very particular style. Taking her inspiration from Disney as well as from the macabre, romanticism, and gothic art, she manages to forge a very unique universe where mythologies meet and where we discover other facets of some of our favorite characters. Drea D. was kind enough to take some time to give us an incredible interview and introduce us to her whole universe. Dive with us in her den of the fantastic and the macabre.
1) Hi Drea, could you let us know a bit more about your professional path? What made you decide to become an artist?
Like so many of us, I grew up in Southern California, immersed in Disney movies, and all I wanted was to make those movies when I grew up. When I was 8 years old, I was gifted a drawing pad for Christmas, and immediately started drawing every character on the cover of my VHS tapes! Haha, I wasn’t amazing, but I was better than average, and my parents were very encouraging.
I enjoyed drawing so much from that point, that I just never stopped! My dream in high school was to be an animator for Disney – it’s been part of my identity for so long, it’s hard to remember where it began!
2/What was your professional path (school, university, jobs…)?
My professional path has been an unusual one – it’s mainly a story of conquering my fear of failure!
I had some amazing art teachers in high school – one in particular (Hi Mrs. Putney!) that gave me a lot of encouragement, got me through AP art, & took me on a tour of Cal Arts when I was accepted there (the school Tim Burton and Disney made famous).
My path seemed pretty set… but plot twist! I was terrified to have a career in the arts! People were telling me “traditional animation is dying – the future is computers” I didn’t want to choose a career in a dying industry, so instead I went to UCSB to study art history another love of mine, thinking it could provide more stability. I still can’t believe I did that.
While earning my major in art history, I missed drawing and painting, so I took up an “Art studio” minor and found out my skills (from spending SO much of my youth drawing) were pretty advanced – and I got to learn welding! That was awesome! …but plot twist! One terrible painting teacher wouldn’t stop harassing me for producing paintings he found to be “too gothic.” I let him discourage me so much that I dropped the minor entirely! I still can’t believe I did that.
Thankfully, I was pretty good at art history too, and loved it! I had some amazing teachers– one in particular (Hi Professor Bermingham!) Who helped me write an award-winning thesis paper! I attended that award ceremony in place of my actual graduation and no regrets! My career in education seemed pretty set… but plot twist! I was terrified of student debt, so I decided to just get a job that could pay my rent. I still can’t believe I did that.
After that, I didn’t draw or paint at all for years. Working behind desks, finding myself terribly off course. I had let my fear of failure pushed me into a life of avoiding any potential entirely… I was depressed!
So one day in my late twenties, I noticed a sign shop looking for an artist to paint portraits & landscapes on wooden signs, and I thought “I have NO reason not to try and get this job.” And I did, and I loved it more than anything else I’d ever done because I spent 8 hours every day conquering my fear that “I wasn’t good enough to do this” – I had no choice now! It was literally my job to produce high-quality paintings on a strict timeline! That job also taught me it was possible to support myself doing art, and that’s what gave me the courage to strike out on my own in my 30s!
I started doing my own digital art and putting myself out there at Comicons and on Instagram, and I was hired by some amazing pin designers and getting commissions and it just grew from there!
3/ How would you describe yourself as an artist? What is your philosophy about art in general?
Geeky, but on the spooky side! Whimsically macabre! Disney after dark! Playful, but casually threatening! I think the things we are drawn to are just about filling the existential void in our soul that we all have for whatever reason. Some people like to fill it with religion, science, humor, serious things – there are endless options! I personally like to fill the void with silliness & escapism! So my art tends to be entertaining, uplifting, often silly, never serious. So on the surface, very sweet… but perhaps with a darker philosophy behind it? Classic Drea.
4/ We can feel a lot of different inspirations in your work: from pop culture to macabre and gothic art. Can you tell us a bit more about your inspirations?
You’re so right! Actually, building a “brand” was a bit difficult for me because I’ve always been gothic and spooky, but I’m also a pretty big nerd! I fit in really well at comic cons having grown up on Disney, Tolkien, Star Wars, fairy tales, etc, I’m inspired by those stories & attracted to visual storytelling. In the end, that’s what I’m hoping to give to people; that magical or inspired feeling they get when watching their favorite movie or reading their favorite book. To me, that’s the best feeling in the world, and holding onto that feeling is what guides people like me through their whole lives! That’s the reason I love making fan art so very much because I’m a mega-fan myself! I get it!
5/ You often work on multiple illustrations that are part of a series. For my part, I really love your “Bad Romance” and “Phantom of the Opera” series. How do you imagine new series?
Thank you! The Phantom and the Hobbit are still my favorites as well! I have a weird answer for you. I’m one of those people that love so very many things that it feels overwhelming like you don’t know where to start. For example – I’d like to illustrate Phantom of the Opera… but WHICH SCENE!? There are too many amazing options!! My workaround for this issue is to do a “series,” which gives me 6-8 pieces with which to explore a subject. I can pick my favorite scenes or ideas, but have to narrow it down so I don’t go nuts and make 30 illustrations on one subject! It helps me stay productive and avoid being overwhelmed.
6/ There is often a distinction between the creative process and the cerebral manifestation that accompanies it that works in a synergistic manner… like a needful companion at the helm of artistry. Will you share with us more about your artistic approach and process?
Happy to share! When I was younger, I always loved how Walt Disney described animators as “actors with pencils,” and took that to heart. So The way I approach each piece is not unlike an actor or writer! I like to think about the scene from the point of view of each character; what are they feeling, physically, psychologically, and that helps me to decide poses and expressions. Then I think about what they would be wearing and why, as well as what’s happening around them to bring the scene to life a bit more, make the “world” feel a little more real, or add a touch of whimsy!
7/ Who is the artist that inspires you most?
There are so many, but I can narrow it down to 2 for you! One for my whimsical geeky side: Karen Hallion was the artist that when I found her work, I thought… this woman is living my dream!! She made me believe I could find a path forward doing whimsical fan art and that was huge for me. And the other for my spooky side: Abigail Larson, who is the queen of all things macabre! When I saw her work for the first time, I was just immediately in love – her muted tones, expressive poses, silhouettes, and the way she conveys mood with just lines and color, her work is just endlessly inspiring!
Please everyone follow both of these talented women! They are incredible!
8/ What is the work you are most proud of, and why?
Weird answer again! When I was dating my now-husband, I painted him a freehand replica of his favorite Museum piece: “Frühe Stunde (Early Hour) “. I intended to gift it to him at Christmas, BUT that first year he did NOT get a gift for me… but he DID get a gift for his ex-girlfriend! Omg. So I never gave it to him, Thinking “you don’t deserve this, you jerk” :-p A few years later, when we were moving in together, I presented it to him unceremoniously on like a Tuesday. Haha, he was dutifully impressed and told me he loved me for the first time, so it worked out just fine!
We have been together for a decade now, and the infamous painting hangs in our living room; so that I may regale our friends with this very story, and shame my husband over not getting me a Christmas gift that first year, for the rest of time! Because let it be clear: you do not mess with Drea. She will lovingly make you a painting and then use it for eternal revenge! Muahaha!
9/ What are your typical days in the studio? Do you have any habits or little quirks you can’t get rid of?
These days I work digitally, so I’m in my home office drawing at my desk most of the time… and I’ve collected SO many weird habits at this point, it’s hard to list them all!
Here are just a few…
I use a giant cushy chair because I sit cross-legged. I never sit in chairs “the normal way” because I’m so short, my feet never touch the ground!
I always have at least 3 unfinished beverages on my desk at all times. I don’t know why it’s impossible for me to finish a drink… but it is.
I’m a nocturnal creature, always have been, and don’t know why. 7 pm – 3 am is when I do my best work. Since I’m nocturnal, I’m able to keep 3 rescued sugar gliders (adopt, don’t shop!): Batman, Cookie Monster, and Sprinkles! My whole office is like their habitat so they hop around with me as I’m working at night and generally cause a ruckus. We had to glider-proof my office, and my workday now starts by cleaning up after those messy party animals!
I have to be listening to something to work – podcasts (true crime is a big go-to), audible (staying up to date on fantasy book) Hulu (Brooklyn 99, Parks and rec), Netflix (the office, documentaries), NPR, you can actually learn a lot about a whole lot of subjects while drawing!
10/ What is your relationship with pop culture in general, how did you “fall into it”? What do you think of it recently?
I personally love that making pop culture art really bonds you with your followers. It’s like you can be instant friends because you already have something in common: a love of fandom! I think that’s how I fell into it; of all the artwork I’ve made over the years, I’ve had the most fun with fan art, because of the joy and connection brings with other people. I love seeing little kids’ faces light up when they recognize “toothless!” Or when someone my age says “omg this was my childhood!” It’s just full of joy and common experience, and we all need as much of that as possible!
I’ve been enjoying it especially recently, now that there is WAY better (not perfect of course) inclusivity, representation and SO many awesome female characters on screen! Women are here to stay in the land of geeks and we are changing the landscape for the better and moving in the right direction- that’s why my favorite event is Geek Girl Con in Seattle! I wish I had characters like Moana, Raya, Merida, Okoye, Brienne of Tarth, and Arya when I was a kid, so I’m inspired now to draw them as an adult!
11/ What are your current and future projects?
My downfall is always having too many projects going at once!
The biggest right now is on my Patreon, we are making a full Star Wars playing card deck, & a Potterverse playing deck! So 104 character portraits! I’m doing 2 characters every week, and we’re about halfway through this year-long project! It takes so much discipline, but my Patreon supporters are so amazing at keeping me going!
I’m also designing all kinds of new enamel pin series and a really fun “Made in the 80’s” print series, featuring my favorite childhood fantasy films! You can get peeks of both on my social media or Patreon!
And I have a few book projects happening! My first illustrated book, “Crown of Teeth,” written by Chani Petro is up on Kickstarter through the end of this month, and it was chosen as a “Project we love!” We are SO excited!
I recently started my “DreaDful Boudoir Patreon Page” (separate from my main page) where I’m making some NSFW geeky fan art based on Patron’s votes! It’s SO much fun and I have plans to turn those pieces into a book next year!
I’m also beside myself with joy to have just started working on a book with a few of my art idols! I’m not allowed to tell yet, but keep an eye out for that announcement in the future!
12/ Finally, do you have any advice for young artists wishing to follow your career path?
Definitely! Here are three things that helped me the most:
Firstly: Never think “I’m too weird” or “people won’t understand my stuff”. Don’t try and water yourself down to reach a wider audience. Instead, lean harder into your favorite things. Do what you love the most deeply, keep putting it out there, and in time your audience will find you almost like magic! I promise!
Secondly: Hack your struggles! Fear of failure and being overwhelmed by options are big ones for me. The idea of a “series” helped me, and the first one I ever made as a freelancer was an A-Z series where the characters were making fun of me for not drawing them better. Haha For some reason that helped me with my fear of failure and pushed me forward! Do whatever works!
Thirdly: You don’t need a degree, or anyone’s blessing to be a creator. Just put as much as you can out there all the time, use those pieces for active practice, and don’t give up! Everyone has moments when they want to give up & it feels impossible. Just write this quote on your bathroom mirror and live by it: “If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.”― Mary Pickford
In a nutshell:
Your favorite movie?
This is the hardest for me to answer since I’m a superfan of so many movies! But all my tattoos as Tolkien so I’ll go with: “The Lord of the Rings” director’s cut trilogy! A close second: “The Dark Knight”, and a close third: Guardians of the Galaxy!
Your favorite video game?
Shoot, I don’t think I have one! I’m more of a board gamer myself – we have quite a collection! Cosmic Encounters, Mysterium, Sherlock… too many to name! “Sit Down and Shut Up” is an AMAZING board game review show btw!
Your favorite book?
“The Night Circus”!! Erin Morgenstern is my hero!! That book is what inspired my black white and red Comicon booth! If I had an endless amount of money, I would spend it trying to make the Night Circus real.
Your favorite comics/bd/manga?
Fun fact… I haven’t actually read all that many comics! Which is nuts! But I LOVED “Harleen” by Stjepan Šejić – the art and the writing is stunning and so unique! Oh and “Through the Woods” by Emily Carrol is the living end!! A well-deserved shout-out also to my favorite fanfic of all time “The Harlequin” (and “ Pantomime”) by Knit_Wear on Archive of our own! It’s a Dark Knight Harley Quinn story and is the most enjoyable thing I’ve read in a long time. Seriously. Everyone, please read it so we can geek out about it! She’s writing more as we speak and I’m making some fan art
Don’t hesitate to follow Drea D. on her different networks and to visit her shop!