Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
On this last day of Mercury Retrograde (until June) we present UK born Illustrator and Professor, Rebecca Bradley. She’s currently living in Baltimore with her Artist husband Sam, teaching Illustration full-time at MICA, while raising two kids and still find time in the studio. You can see her loves of everything rainbow and Americana iconography unquestionably influence her colorful illustrations. Her style is somewhere between a more sophisticated folk art and vintage inspired — it’s fabulous. We had a great time catching up with Rebecca via Skype, seeing her beautifully organized wall of watercolor dyes and other fun materials art nerds would drool over.
SHANON WELTMAN: Walk us through your typical process.
REBECCA BRADLEY: It depends on what I’m working on. Let’s talk about Surface Design, because I think it’s something new that people might not know about, the process is different. The way of being commissioned is different, you don’t get commissioned. You make the art, you make heaps and heaps of it and then you give it out. You go to Surtex or Print Source and make prints and sell them and they get used. How you go about making that is just collecting things, like color palettes that you like. I might get digital ones, but because I work traditionally I then try to mix those colors so I can work with them and go in and out of that and then things that I like to do, pictures that I collect: shoe pictures and flowers and old books. I like to go to The Book Thing. Remember The Book Thing? So I rip books apart…[Rebecca shows CC a torn vintage hardback drawing surface.]
SW:[Gasp] Ohh jealous!
RJ: So cool..
RB: Yeah! And then I draw on that because that is just… the bomb, that is so nice! But that’s when I know what I’m doing. Up to that point I’m just playing around with drawing things. I think I’m in the middle of perhaps changing how I work and trying to get a little bit more digital. Which is… I’m slow on this train, it’s leaving without me [laughs] it would just make things so much easier for me, to draw things on paper that didn’t bleed. There’s just something about drawing on this [paper] that I love, and I don’t want to lose that in the process. I’m trying to find out how I can blend those things. Come to terms with them. My agent will send me color trends or sometimes we’ll buy a packet so we know what’s coming up for next season. We will think about plaid or snakes or something and we’ll just work on making patterns or one design or characters. Whatever, it’s kind of fun! Not having a deadline is fun, it helps me, having kids as well.
[In my studio] …right in front of where I sit you can see [a large, large shelf of color organized watercolor dyes], this is my color picker. That inspires me, color always inspires me. I say to my students, ‘If I ever see anything rainbow-colored, I have to buy it.’ I just love it. It’s so seductive to me to see all of the color pencils, just all the different colors together. I just… gotta have it.
RB: I tend to do washes and color first and then line work, quick-like with pens. I just draw into the colors, either dry or wet, depending on how patient I am.
SW: Do you have any other kinds of rituals? Like a certain time of the day or music or anything?
RB: I have to do it when I have to do it, because I teach full-time, so that means I’m usually emailing anything up to midnight with students and staff. So the time that I have is, one day a week, until 2 o’clock, that I can get into the studio, on Friday. That’s my day in the studio. I just started to binge watch TV, have that on in the background [laughs] like “House of Cards” and stuff, while I’m doing it, but I don’t know if that’s very productive. [Laughs] ‘What shall I watch now?’ Friday becomes my binge watching day rather than my art making day. I might do a few color studies while getting caught up on what is going on in DC. I’ve got to find a new ritual. Something that is very caring. My rep is all about that. She is doing a lot of teaching now online. The first thing she says is get your space clear, make sure you’ve got your coffee, your snacks, you’re warm and free and able to work. I don’t want to show you what my desk looks like. [Laughs] It’s horrible, it’s not very zen at all. I wish I had a bigger space.
SW: Are you in your basement?
RB: Yeah, it used to be the playroom [for my kids]. See the Richard Scarry picture? We did all Richard Scarry and then almost a month after, we said ‘This would be a better studio.’ So we cleaned out and now we’re living with chickens and penguins.
RB: [Laughs] It’s alright. My husband is a painter, so he has this wall. He has a framework because he’s a realist, he paints neon signs and has to draw a lot of straight lines. It’s the opposite of me. If I spill something on my page I get really excited, because I can use it and he will have a kanipshin about that, you know? He’s all about control. [Laughs]
SW: What are your favorite images or concepts to illustrate? What do you like other than fashion?
RB: I haven’t done fashion in a while, but I’ve started to get into children’s fashion and collecting a lot of references. Mainly because that’s what I’m around at home and I also think that it’s not a market that’s saturated as well. I always tell students if you want to do it you must have it in your portfolio. So I’m trying to follow that advice, and have more children’s fashion on my agent’s site. I can choose what goes on their site, so I try to make work for that. I teach a food class at MICA and I teach a map class. Those are things that I like to do and I like to make. Maps I wouldn’t do for fun, but they are fun when you actually get a commission to do one. You can make it fun. Drawing little icons and things is really nice. Little houses and little shoes, teeny. I like that.
SW: Do you have a favorite map you’ve done?
RB: Yes, I’ve done one of Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota a long time ago, and it’s got Babe the Blue Ox on it. I like that I just did it all green. I always say, ‘You don’t have to use green on a map.’ But I made it emerald green and it had the lumberjack on it. I like how I did the type. Because I’m not American, I get very seduced my Americana. When I lived in Cleveland, I just was like ‘Oo, look at that.’ There’s all these things that people just take for granted all the time. Painted on signs for parks and packaging on old timey bags and things, I just loved all that.
SW: A lot of people do take that for granted, it’s pretty cool.
RB: Yeah! I see it when I take the kids to London. I see it with them, going ‘Look at that! Look at that!’
RB: [Laughs] That’s cheesy! That’s chintzy!
SW: Did you have an interest in teaching before it came into your life, or did kind of fall into your life?
RB: I think, like a lot of people, it’s a means to an end. A beginning, but now it’s become my life and informs what I do. I don’t know how people who are not in a community stay alive creatively. To be a freelancer on your own and not have any kind of community. The school is just the best community, you have the resources, but then you have this great… you know what MICA’s like. You have all the ‘cream’ coming through and just doing great work and inspiring you and vice versa. As you know now, since you’re teaching. You sort of get a ‘Oh wow, I never thought of that’ and you would never have thought of that, in a hundred years it wouldn’t have come to you. It’s great. I know you guys got me right at the beginning…
SW: You were awesome!
RB: [Laughs] Thank you, I feel like I’m a better teacher now, but you know… the first time you do something…
SW: I was awful my first year! [laughs]
RB: My advice to first time teachers: you will never have that day again.
RB: Yeah, that first day teaching. It’s scary.
SW: Do you have a favorite assignment that you give?
RB: I’ve got one that’s coming up that I’ve given a couple of times now. It’s called 50 things. They have to illustrate 50 things. What I like about it is they don’t have to think about them being in a setting. They can just draw what they like, so if they just like doing monsters, they can do 50 monsters. Someone did 50 things from the post office, [laughs] it brings out the nerd in them. It’s large-scale, it’s really involved and it looks at style across different parts of the picture. It taps my thing about liking icons as well. I really like that. I think they like that too.
RJ: What scale do they work at?
RB: I do a UK size, a A2 Poster. A1 or A2. Big. They can work on whichever size they want obviously. One student made these monsters out of neon post-its. She just made shapes, she just made different ones. it was really lovely.
SW: That sounds really fun.
RB: Yeah! It’s coming up for my juniors.
SW: That sounds cool… we didn’t do that! [Laughs] We did King Lear!
RB: [Laughs] I know, assignments evolve as you see what’s needed out there and sort of what the gaps are. The concept classes have other things I don’t need to be covering. I do less and less narrative now actually. I did a lot of narrative stuff with you guys, I don’t really do a lot of that anymore. I do a lot of, what I guess people would say is, designy stuff, but design is in everything right?
SW: What is it like having kids, a full-time teaching job on top of freelance deadlines, and then your own whatever you have to do for yourself?
RB: I have to say, some things gotta give. A life might change, it might not be the same thing all the time. So, I finally realized I can only do one thing at a time. Right? [Laughs] It’s taken me 40 odd years, I’m with my kids and I can’t be thinking about school and I can’t be thinking about freelance. When I’m doing freelance I can’t be thinking about my kids and can’t think about school. It’s one thing at a time and something’s gotta give at some point. What’s gotta give is that I don’t have as much time for freelance as I used to when I was single and all that and I don’t get to get a pedicure [laughs], stuff like that. Sam works at night, so that’s useful, that’s when I do most of my school stuff. The kids are asleep and I’m down in [my studio] or in the lounge doing school stuff. When I’m at school I’m concentrating on the students. It’s compartmentalized.
SW: What is your personal mantra when you’re stressed?
RB: Scream? I don’t know. [Laughs] I just fall apart when I’m really stressed; my body does and I wish I took better care of myself because of that. My mantra when I’m stressed: You can only do this one thing and do it! Everyone has that little voice in their head saying ‘You should be doing this. You should be entering all these competitions and you should’ve done that piece yesterday’ and, you know, my kid’s throwing up, I couldn’t! So… just be kind to yourself.
SW: Last question: This is the shortest. Favorite Disney villain.
RB: I really want to say Maleficent because the look was just killer. Real Scorpio, you know [laughs], I know you like that stuff. That’s me. Actually, when I was kid I had nightmares about Cruella DeVil. Serious nightmares about her. Weird. It might be her!