Debra Cartwright

How does New York inspire you?
The vast majority of transplants came here to follow their dreams. It’s very special to be around people who have given up the comforts of suburban life to get to the top of their industry. It feels like a rat race, but that keeps me focused and is why I love it here. Nothing is as inspiring as the people in New York.

How did you get into painting?
I’ve painted since I was a kid. A few years ago, I was working as a graphic designer during the day and felt stifled in my creativity. I discussed that with my friends from grad school and we challenged each other to do creative illustrations at night to share and that's what got me back into painting after a hiatus.

Why watercolor as a medium and why Black women as the subject of your work?
Watercolor because I'm extremely impatient. I love instant gratification and you can finish a watercolor in about three hours. In terms of Black women as the subject, at the time, I was transitioning to natural hair and illustration had just started becoming a thing on Instagram. There were a lot of illustrations being shared but the majority of the work I liked was of White women. I decided to create representations of what I look and want to look like as motivation to be my natural self but in a style I was really drawn to.

How would you describe the illustration industry?
The world of illustration is super difficult. I'm actually bowing out of it for a little break. As you progress in your career, it's less about the passion and more about the production, which is constant. The industry is a mix between graphic design and painting. It's more the former because you work with the client to sell a world for marketing purposes. Whereas with painting it's the artist’s own depiction then marketing comes later.

Illustration teaches you so much though. I’ve learned not to take things personally, to stick to my style and be true to myself. At the beginning of my career, I was hurt because I would have discussions with clients then they would say "Oh no, this is not the style we want." Then I'm asking what is wrong with my stuff but it's really just not the visual representation they need. I would say about one in seven discussions go to project, so it’s not for the weak, but the best part is when things come to fruition.

When you're approached for commission work, what makes you want to say yes or no?
The people that do their research and come to me with all of the factors I need to come up with the price and a timeline are the people I work with. In terms of the project itself, I'm not going to do something that goes completely against my morals, but it's more about ease and organization than if it's something I believe in. However, if it's something I believe in, I'm going to promote it more.


How do you navigate the business side of being an artist?
Being an illustrator and working for yourself is not only doing the accounting, but it's also the law. Copyrights and intellectual property law actually affect your money more than anything else. Both impact your prices and determine what your business is going to look like in the future. In the first year, I signed over control of some things that I look at now as such a mistake. I'm a quick learner, so I haven't done it again. That’s the thing. It is a lot of trial and error as well as refreshing. I still read art business and law books.

What drove your decision to go back full time? Why Essence?
I love that I have the flexibility to say no to art projects now. It was awful chasing check after check. However, the biggest reason is I was lonely working for myself by myself. My relationships struggled because I felt like I’d lean on them way too much. Others had daily interaction with people at work, so it always looked like I needed an exceptional amount of attention. I went to Essence specifically because I have a pretty good relationship with my boss. I told her I was lonely and she told me to jump on board. I used to work at Essence eight years ago so it's like going back home. They think I'm crazy because I’m so excited get dressed up everyday, come to work and talk to people. It hasn't worn off and I've been there since December.

What has been you approach to raising awareness of your work with social media?
Well, I haven't leveraged social media tactically. I honestly feel that's the best way to approach it because there are so many overcurated pages right now. That's not to say I don't curate my page. I definitely do but I'm not sitting and planning out what I'm going to post. I was just tweeting about how I miss the days of Instagram when you had the ugly old filter and frame on random shit. There was something tactile and personable about that where you felt like you're entering a person's world. I still try to do it as if it were just for my friends, but it’s more of a challenge now because it's become a marketing tool. So you have to figure out where's the balance. What is authenticity and what will people bring people without losing yourself?

Is art therapy for you?

My art started as therapy for me but it became something I need therapy for. Years ago, my discussions about my work were very deep. Then things turned because I started selling more to companies and it became superficial. I'm in a weird place right now because I'm trying to feel out what will be therapy for myself but when I start doing it I feel like it won't be accepted by the masses. I have a whole different Instagram of work I do for my therapy and it has three followers, which are my cousins and my sister.

What's on the horizon for you?
I'm having a great time at Essence and I'm trying to take it day by day with that. I don’t want to pressure myself too much to figure things out. I did that for the past three years. I'm really in a great place and enjoying life. Painting-wise, I do have a few oil pieces and I'm aiming to finish four more by the end of the summer so I can have a show.

How do you stay motivated as you strive to achieve your goals?
I figure out a way to save what I have and make money in another way that I enjoy. I'm really fortunate because I have a handful of tricks to make money. When I'm not motivated in one area, I don't really push it. I think that's the Taurus in me. My art, when I push it, turns out like trash. Then I'm like “You just made more trash. How do you feel about yourself?” And the answer isl worse. If I focus on other things, like yoga or design a website, I will get back around to painting eventually.