Illustration Inspiration : Mab Graves Interview

How did you get started as a Freelance Artist?
I never dreamed that I would be able to support myself as an artist. They always tell you that “artist” is synonymous for “starving” so I always assumed I would work two day jobs and paint my nights away.
I have been drawing since I was little but only started painting a few years ago. I didn’t go to school for art (I was bartending! ^_^). When I finally “came out” as a painter, no one in the city I was living in even knew I was an artist. I had a little room in the house I was renting, filled floor to ceiling with paintings that no one had ever seen. The upside to being completely unknown was that I was able to emerge with a body of work and my own style, rather than having people see my work over a number of years and say “oh, she is improving”. It caused a bit of a splash, and that got the ball rolling. I very quickly started to get invitations to show in galleries, but it wasn’t until I got a website and started a little Etsy shop that I really started to freelance. Being online is key.

What do you look to for your inspiration?
 I always start with a story -I love old fairy tales and folklore. My childhood was webbed with storybooks and I love falling back into the familiar comfort of unquestioning awe they inspire in me!
Fairytales are a universal language and an innocent connection we all share.  I have a giant bookshelf that takes up an entire wall in my studio and it’s full of books.  While I am working on a piece, if I am not painting I am reading – so it’s a constant cycle of inspiration!
Best advice: Never stop being six years old.

How long does it take you to do an illustration, start to finish?
There are SO many factors that go into that! It depends on the size and intricacy of the project. It could be anywhere from a few hours to a few days – there have been a couple of my super-detailed larger pieces that have taken weeks!

What is your process when working with clients? Can you explain your typical job?
I don’t really have a “typical” actually. I’ve been lucky enough to get to work on a myriad of different and quite varied projects. I’ve worked on books, logo designs, character designs for a stop-motion film, commissions for galleries, and of course pieces for private collectors.
Each job starts with a pitch- where the client proposes the project, and then if I’m intrigued we generally email back and forth for a while nailing down specifics. I normally have concept sketches to them within a week, and then the finished project within another two. ^_^

Can you walk us through your process?
Before I even begin a piece I do hours of research. I research flower symbolism so every plant and tree means something. Every color and gesture has a purpose. Then I start to paint. I don’t sketch beforehand or really do any planning – the painting is already alive in my head before I even begin and my brush knows just where to go. I just absorb the information then let my body do the rest. If I try to map or plan too much it just muddies the water.

Do you get ‘Creative Block’ and how do you push through it?
I can say in complete honesty that I have never for one minute not known what to paint, or had a block. There is an endless queue in my mind of images keening to be put to life.
I am very picky and don’t take on projects that don’t come to life in my head the instant they are pitched to me. That is a big key in not getting bored! I know it can be painful to turn down an opportunity, but if you are not inspired by it from the beginning, it’s going to be a thorn the whole way through. I’m not saying don’t take on challenges. Just never sell yourself out to a really boring project!

What Advice do you have for new kids starting out in the Freelance field?
The best part about what I do is the painting.  The sad part of being a professional artist is you are running a business – you are the business - and painting is only about 20% of what you have to do!
The best advice I ever got about how to be a successful freelancer was:
Do the things you don’t love.
I was not thrilled to receive that advice.
People always tell you “do what you love!” and I liked that much better.
But doing what you don’t love – the emails, inventory, taxes, lectures, social networking etc. – is REALLY important. It’s not nearly as much fun as shutting myself away for weeks and painting my heart out (what bliss!), but these things must be done. If you let them get pushed aside you will find yourself inventory rich but client poor. It’s taken me a couple years of being hideously overwhelmed to find a happy medium in my days, but I have found it.

And I always have to add this one – you don’t have to include it in your article, but it’s my “mission statement” as an artist, mentor and teacher:
Mab’s Advice to all emerging artists:
There is a great trend in pop-surrealists to be vulgar and shocking. Stay away from that!
It requires so much more skill to be subtle than it does to be obscene. Darkness, sadness and filth are all around us, and I think it’s our jobs as artists to put a spin on things.
I try never to underestimate the intelligence of my audience. You don’t have to spell everything out in black and blood to get people to understand your message. It is very important for me to try to maintain a dignity and a subtlety to my work.  A tinted innocence.
  And as much fun as it is to create sarcastic political art, at the end of the day when I come home, I just want to make something beautiful….
The beautiful thing about when you paint is the only boundary that exists is you.

Find more of Mab Graves' work here:


  1. Replies
    1. How insanely talented is Mab? I thought you would like her stuff missy! I like that she plays with dark elements throughout her work. Glorious x