I have always loved to draw. I remember being six or seven years old, obsessively drawing characters from one of my Beano comic books. As I got older and made my way through primary and secondary school, I attended a few art classes, but mostly I drew by myself, for my own pleasure, or with my uncle, who used to paint murals of cartoon characters in local schools. I never grew out of it—it grew around me.
In the time since then, I’ve come to realize that the life of an artist isn’t an easy one—even less so, I dare say, for artists of the female persuasion. I’ve had magazines ask me how it feels to “represent female illustrators,” which only proves that they have no familiarity with the many, many incredible illustrators out there who happen to be women, a good number of whom are much more experienced and accomplished than I am. I have been invited onto group projects—I thought for my skills, but then I’d overhear something that revealed that I was just the “token female,” a symbolic member whose only value was to make the group seem more egalitarian. I have had an examiner from a big arts institution, after viewing my work, act surprised when he met me face to face. “Oh,” he said, “the style of your work made me think you were a boy.” Catching the look of disbelief on my face, he added, “But you should take that as a compliment!”
Since I was a kid, copying Beano characters into my notebook, I have favored a cartoonish drawing style, with thick black lines and bold colors. I don’t know why—it’s just what I’ve always been drawn (LOL) to. Maybe my cartoon-mural-painting uncle had something to do with it. In any case, my focus has always been on otherworldly characters, dripping inks, monsters, and zombies, which I guess the examiner didn’t see as appropriately “elegant” or “feminine”? People have used the word vulgar to describe my work, and I guess only boys are allowed to be vulgar.
I never wanted to go to university, but my mother insisted. My thinking was that I didn’t need a degree to make art; hers was that education was paramount—my older sister was the first person in our family to go to college, and our mother didn’t want to see me squander (or even delay) the chance to be the second. I enrolled at Kingston University in London, where my major was illustration, even though I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
My style of drawing was not a favorite at Kingston. In my courses, the emphasis was on drawing from real life. We’d go outside and draw the scenery around us. We’d stay inside and naked dudes would get paid to stand very still in front of us while we tried to meticulously draw their balls exactly how they looked. I loathed every minute of those classes. Try as I might, I couldn’t get myself to pull off the lovely representational drawings expected of me—I would always fuck things up at the last minute by turning the naked model into some dripping evil character. Why draw what’s already there? You already know what it looks like. I would much rather create and develop my own world, with its own characters. I feel that there is as much truth in what you imagine something to be as in what it already is—if not more. I believe you can make something real by imagining it. This was not, apparently, acceptable.
You could consider my first year of uni a failure, because it literally was—I flunked my classes and had to go to summer school. I came close to failing my second year, too. But I didn’t want to have to return to summer school, so I made myself do it their way—for a while. Then I got so uncomfortable with the work I was making, and so bored with the way of working I was being forced to adopt, that I started to push back. I argued with my teachers who didn’t share my vision for my art (which was all of them). I remember one class where I finally flat-out refused to change my art-making method. The teacher started fighting with me, I fought back, and the scene culminated with us screaming obscenities at each other—in front of the whole class.
Believe it or not, this whole experience was good for me, in a way. I learned that I would rather fail doing what I love than succeed with something I hate. When someone commissions work from me now, I don’t waste any time figuring out how to approach it. I know exactly what to do. Those years of fighting for my work strengthened my faith in my own artistic vision.
A year or so ago, one of my best friends told me that one day, while she was studying at London’s Royal College of Art, she was having lunch with a teacher there and a group of students. The teacher was telling the students about an exceedingly difficult student he used to have. She was so stubborn, he said. She stood by her work and didn’t back down when challenged by an authority figure like him. She almost flunked out of school, he told them, but she got up and tried to do better and fight harder for what she wanted to do. She was, he concluded, “an ideal student.” My friend asked him if he was talking about me. He was. This is still the biggest compliment I have ever been paid. After all the struggle, all the fighting, all the misunderstanding and confusion, someone finally understood me. Time is often your best friend as an artist—if no one understands you today, keep going—someone will tomorrow.
Maintaining your vision isn’t always easy. Especially in the early part of your artistic development, people will come at you from all sides to tell you that you aren’t good enough, or that you aren’t doing it right, or that what you’re doing is too weird or different or foreign to be valuable. You need a lot of strength to stick to your convictions. You will have to fight for them and never give up even though it seems everything is running against you. You will have to crawl through mud to swim in clear water.
Today, I am fortunate enough to make a living from my art. I have to work hard every day to keep it going. But I’m comfortable with my art and my methods of making it. I truly feel free, which is perfect because it allows me to play and experiment with my style. I have a lot of support for my work now, which is an incredible feeling. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but as long as it appeals to mine, I’m happy. I still doubt myself from time to time, like when jobs fall through, and at times I don’t feel good enough. I’m my own worst critic and judge. But I use those feelings to motivate me to get better.