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Illustrator Profile: Esther Pearl Watson: "To find work, I plant seeds all over"

By Robert Newman   Thursday May 7, 2015

Esther Pearl Watson is a remarkable artist, cartoonist, illustrator, and visual storyteller. Her artwork encompasses a wide range of styles, but it’s all rich in detail and symbolism, and powerful in its impact. Whether it’s Esther's current paintings, which draw on her memories of her father’s attempts at building flying saucers, or her ongoing popular Unlovable comic strip, her work is memorable, artful, and highly original—a pure slice of Americana art that never fails to delight and surprise.

Esther lives in Los Angeles with her husband and sometime collaborator Mark Todd, and their daughter Lili. The passion she brings to her work is evident in everything she does. Her paintings are very folk art influenced, with an often haunting and surreal feel. Her cartoons have a loose, raw 'zine style, with brilliant writing and strong graphic impact. And Esther is a frequent contributor of smart editorial illustrations for publications such as The New York Times, McSweeney’s, and The New Republic. Esther has done a number of book illustrations, including, notably, the cover of American Illustration 22. In addition to all this, she teaches, takes care of her family, and is the president of ICON9, the illustration conference scheduled to be held in 2016 in Austin.

Esther has garnered much acclaim and a big following for her comic strip Unlovable, which has run since 2004 in Bust magazine and has been collected into three books by Fantagraphics. The Unlovable comics are based on a teenage girl's diary that Esther found abandoned in a gas station restroom 20 years ago. Esther uses this ongoing story of a 15-year-old to reveal insight and wisdom about life, growing up, and much more.

MY LIFE:
I live in Los Angeles. I have been freelance for over 20 years. When I was in college (Art Center College of Design) I worked in the library. That’s where I met my husband, illustrator Mark Todd.

MY WORKSPACE:
I work at home. Mark and I share a studio in a pool house behind our main house. Sometimes I paint on the dining room table.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I am traditional, in that I mostly use ink and brush, or acrylic paint. I do use the computer to some degree with every job.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
I entered American Illustration and the judges hired me. I began working for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Details magazine.

MY INFLUENCES:
I am inspired by folk art and self taught artists. I am looking at Texas memory painters like Velox Ward and Aunt Clara. Kitsch and nostalgia also inspire me. My husband, Mark Todd and daughter Lili Todd are big inspirations and encourage me to push certain projects.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
I admire all of us in creative fields, because it is not easy. We are stubborn and determined. But best of all creative people remind me to notice the small details of life.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Time. Right now it is finding time to be left alone to work. It seems like there are some many things demanding my attention. I teach, I’m a mom, I’m the president of ICON9, I have been traveling to exhibitions, I take care of aging family members...

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
Heather Smith Harvey from Wieden and Kennedy. She matched me with an assignment that really fits my sensibilities. This is when work becomes play.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
Prepping lectures for class often puts me in the way of unusual inspiration. Teaching a composition and painting class, I began looking at color all around me. Also, there are some crazy stories in art history with details you can’t make up, such as Caravaggio’s career, which took a turn for the worse after a bad tennis match.

HOW I MAKE COMICS:
I have an idea of a story, I draw, scan it in, draw some more. I re-work any jokes to step them up. Then my husband Mark colors it in.

I always alternate between writing and drawing, because I am impatient to see what it will look like.

ON THE UNLOVABLE COMICS:
Unlovable is based on a diary I found in a gas station bathroom. This diary has been my muse for 20 years. I made a mini-comic in 2003, based on the diary. Unlovable is about a 15 year old girl who is going through high school in the late 1980s. She is awkward, boy crazy and tries to impress loser so-called-friends.

I made a thousand copies of my first mini-comic and sent it out to publishers. I began doing the back page comic for Bust Magazine in 2004. Fantagraphics has since published three volumes. And the series has been in Best American Comics twice, including this year.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
To turn my comic into an animated series.

ILLUSTRATORS I ADMIRE:
I admire illustrators who have been around, lived through dry spells and good times. Martha Rich, Calef Brown, Lynda Barry, to name a few.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
I do more than just editorial illustration now compared to when I started out. I actually find it more rewarding and interesting to apply my work and concepts to new outlets. Besides illustration, I am a teacher, a gallery artist, an author, a comics artist, a zine artist.

To find other types of work, I plant seeds all over. I start small projects like comics or book ideas and send them out. I make sure my work has visibility so that people can come to me.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
I use social media mainly. I do send out packets to targeted people I want to work with or that I have made a personal connection.

ON BEING PRESIDENT OF ICON9:
I am honored to follow my friends and peers to be the next ICON president. As president I get to push for my vision and I believe illustration to be going into a very exciting direction. As artists we are given more freedom than ever, and get to express ourselves as with multiple creative voices. We art designer/illustrators, author/fine artists, comic artists/illustrators, and the combinations become as unique as each of us.
 
ICON9 is going to be in Austin, Texas, in July 2016. We have an amazing board working on the programing that will include over 150 presenters. ICON9 promises to be another great week of inspiration, interaction, information and loads of fun for an anticipated 700 attendees. We plan to expand the Educators Symposium to the Main Stage, which will offer two full days of some of the best arts educators presenting new radical ideas for 21st Century arts education. There will be wonderful parties with great music and fun art, including Roadshow, the popular arts marketplace. As an illustrator, designer, or educator, this is something you don't want to miss.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Make yourself visible. Create your own jobs and don’t sit around waiting for jobs to come to you. Share what you are working on so potential jobs can visualize working with you.

See more Esther Pearl Watson illustrations, new work, and updates:
Esther Pearl Watson website
Esther Pearl Watson and Mark Todd shop
Esther Pearl Watson gallery
Unlovable Fan Page on Facebook


 



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