Representation, perseverance and growth as an artist: Duchess365´s journey so far
Welcome to the latest Let’s Talk Art interview, my name’s Jack and this time I’m joined by the wonderful Olivia, known online as Duchess365. I met Olivia briefly at MCM Comic Con in London this year and was really struck by her artwork. I instantly fell in love with her portraits so had to find out more about her.
Find out the story behind her online name, how a further education in art helped her to grow, why she is determined to combat the lack of representation in art, and the benefits of doing the 365 drawing challenge in this exciting addition to our interview series.
So, Let’s Talk Art!
Your online identity is kept pretty private, so we hugely appreciate you being part of this. Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
Thank you very much for having me be a part of this wonderful series! Well, as you know, my name is Olivia, and I’m an illustrator based in London.
A little bit more about myself… I love cats. I’ve loved them for many years. I remember being 8 years old and writing my own comic called “The Strong Cat” which was about a yellow domestic cat with a decent amount of strength, who would always save the day in his community.
As a teenager, I used to really be into photorealistic pencil drawing [I have a folder of old pencil drawings which you can insert if they’re relevant]. I only began losing interest when I started pursuing digital art. I also remember finding artists like Mark Ryden and Sas Christian when I was at school. They remain within my group of favourite artists. Artists like Ryden and Christian made me realise that it was detailed that I’ve always loved as opposed to realism. I habitually look at art every day.
I love to look at concept art, manga, animation, and historical portraiture. Some random things about me: my favourite films are all animated (Cats Don’t Dance, Alice in Wonderland  and Coraline), I think potatoes are my favourite food, my favourite colour is purple and my favourite video game is The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (the GameCube version).
Your online name is Duchess365 and I’m hoping there’s a fun story behind it – is there?
There is! Well… I’ll let you decide if it’s fun – but yes there is a story behind it. “Duchess” is my mum’s nickname for me. She’s been calling me duchess since I was very young – possibly all my life. My older brother and sister she would affectionately call “Prince” and “Princess”. Duchess has always stuck and some of my extended family and family friends still call me duchess as well as my mum.
The ‘365’ comes from a drawing challenge I did back in 2015 through to 2016. It consisted of drawing every day for a year and I decided to do it after seeing the artist @picolo complete it. I decided to document my challenge on Instagram and at the time ‘duchess’ wasn’t available as a username on Instagram so I whacked ‘365’ on the end. I’ve since thought about changing the 365 to something else. But I don’t have any ideas (that aren’t already taken).
We met at MCM London Comic Con, where I was blown away by your booth. It was wonderful to see so much art revolving around black culture. What drives you to create art with this focus?
Thank you so much. Yes, we did meet and it was lovely meeting you! I’d say what drives me to create a lot of black-centered art would be my childhood. Growing up as a little black girl, there wasn’t much out there in children’s entertainment (video games, cartoons, animated films, toys/dolls, books etc.) featuring characters that looked like me. I can recall this negatively affecting how I saw myself.
As I grew older and became more interested in art and drawing, I would look at other artists work that I loved and I still wouldn’t see people who looked like me. The work I created in those years reflected that. It was only during my 365 drawing challenge (after receiving backlash on Tumblr for painting Susie Carmichael from Rugrats many shades too fair) that I realised I didn’t really know how to paint dark complexions.
I also realised that I wasn’t doing anything to combat the lack of representation I’d been made aware of when I was younger. I don’t want other little girls to feel the way I did. So I began painting more black people and it just stuck. And even though I’m no longer a child, I still get excited whenever I see black people being represented (accurately) in entertainment.
One thing I’ve noticed is the sheer amount of young, black women identifying with your art. It’s remarkable. How does this make you feel as an artist knowing that your art is inspiring and resonating with so many people?
It means so much to me. To know that other women and men of colour have felt the same way as me in terms of representation is a relief but it’s also sad at the same time.
It was a very personal thing for me growing up, so it sometimes shocks me to learn of other people feeling or having felt the same way. At conventions I’ve been to over the past year, people of all shades whom I have met have seemed to take kindly to the fact that a lot of my paintings are of black people which are encouraging. Perhaps it’s part of the reason why some people who come over to my stall express interest in purchasing my banner.
Ultimately, seeing little black girls/girls of colour identify with or enjoy my work is just… it’s like looking at my younger self – it’s really heart-warming.
Instagram is currently your primary platform for sharing your art. I love that Instagram has enabled so many artists to become so “popular” online. Do you ever feel a certain pressure to post for your 75,000 followers?
Yes, sometimes I do. Because I’m a freelancer and my online presence is where the majority of people find me to then hire me so you feel a certain amount of pressure, as a freelancer of that regard, to make sure you’re putting out more work – and preferably new work! At the same time, I can’t force myself to create personal work… perhaps this is normal? It’s something I noticed back when I was completing my 365-day drawing challenge.
I found that I couldn’t make myself draw every day funnily enough. I ended up finishing the challenge quite late!
Your art focuses primarily on portraiture. Is there any other kind of art that you’d like to explore?
I would love to explore animation more. I have a few ideas for different animation projects but I don’t currently have the knowledge to execute them all. So I was thinking of just creating concept art for some of them instead – which is an entire avenue I’d like to explore in itself.
I need to flesh out my story ideas. I would also love to explore landscapes more and general scenes. I recently finished work on a children’s picture book and painting scenes for that was a lot of fun! I have a couple of book ideas of my own so hopefully, I can get to working on them sometime soon.
What do you do currently job-wise? And do you have any tips for a good work-life balance?
I’m a freelance illustrator at the moment. I’m still working on how to find balance in terms of being able to work on my own stuff at the same time as client work. It’s been under a year since I started freelancing full time.
Some tips I’m trying to follow myself are
- Creating timetables (really helpful I reckon), where I can allocate specific times to do things including making my personal artwork.
- Taking breaks is another tip because burning out really isn’t fun. Leaving work at work, so that you can enjoy the time that is yours. I enjoy painting so I’m trying to be stricter with my working hours so that I can have more time to paint. Sometimes I keep working from morning until it’s time for bed (which isn’t good!).
- I’m trying to follow for balance is being patient with myself. Some days when I do finish work on time, I simply don’t feel like painting anymore. I’ll play the Sims or listen to music or sermons on YouTube and that’s okay too!
You studied graphic and communication design at University – how do you feel a further education helped you to grow as an artist?
My course wasn’t illustration-centered but that was partially a deliberate choice. I initially wanted to study fine art but I ended up going with the graphic design. And I think for the style of work I create it was definitely a better avenue for me. My lecturers were great and they encouraged me to weave illustration into my design projects – particularly in my final year. Another amazing thing which came from my course was the opportunity to work for a year in industry.
For my year in industry, I interned at Disney as a designer. However, my wonderful manager at the time, who had seen some of my illustration work in my interview, would often put me forward for illustration jobs that needed doing.
At the end of the year, I went on to freelance as an illustrator there for a couple of weeks here and there over the period of a year. My colleague at the time had put me forward for an exciting Disney Channel project where I’d paint portraits of various Disney Channel stars for them to react to (such as Zendaya and Cameron Boyce) – using a trusty, giant Wacom Cintiq pen display! The series was called “Disney Channel Star Portraits” and it’s on YouTube if anyone wants to see any of them.
My university would also have guest lecturers come in to talk to us weekly/ bi-weekly. They would be designed practitioners and they’d talk about their journeys; how they got to where they are today and what sort of things they’re currently working on. I always looked forward to seeing illustrators come in.
I think all artists have a “dream job” they’d love to do, whether it’s working on a particular project or at a particular company, or both. What sort of work would you love to do if you got the chance?
I’d love to work on my own animated film. I have an idea that I haven’t fully fleshed out yet. It may only be that I create concept art for it for now but I would love to do more with it if I ever get the chance.
Since I was in school I’ve dreamed of having an art exhibition. We had an art exhibition at the end of A levels which was the first and only one I’ve had so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I love painting details and a lot of it is lost when I post my work online.
Another avenue I would love to explore would be designing/ creating dolls! I have no idea where to start with that but I know that’s something I would so love to do. I also have a couple of art book ideas. Both are to do with natural hair; my experience with my hair and some of my observations. There’s a lot I’d love to do. I could go on forever!
You had your art shared once by Taraji P Henson, which gained over 75k likes on Instagram. Social media “likes” certainly aren’t the most important thing in the world, but how did that feel, knowing so many people including Taraji’s fan’s liked your work?
It’s a wonderful feeling when the person you have painted or a loved one of theirs approves of the piece. Especially if it’s a painting of someone you don’t know personally because you’re painting them from a photograph without having met, known or seen them in person before. It’s a similar feeling to working on personal portrait commissions. I also love Taraji and her work, plus her Instagram posts often put a smile on my face. I have in mind to paint her a second time. I keep a list and she’s on it!
A couple of years ago, you did a drawing every day for 365 days. That must have felt fairly exhausting! How did you manage to maintain that and were there any times you felt like stopping? How did you overcome that feeling?
Yes, it definitely was exhausting. I went through numerous art blocks and on certain days I didn’t draw at all because I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.
I think I may have also chosen a bad time to carry out the challenge because it fell within my final year at university which meant I became quite overwhelmed with things to do. However, it also enabled me to build up a portfolio of illustrations which I could then use to look for work upon graduating! I was also able to improve my digital illustration skills which is part of why I did it in the first place (they were pretty much non-existent when I started).
As exhausting as the challenge was, it was also incredibly fun. I loved (and still love) talking to people who began to follow my journey on Instagram. I’d often take requests from them or ask them about their favourite anime or TV show characters and it was fun to carry out their requests. That was a great way to overcome times when I felt like stopping. I also I briefly did something fun which I called “Follower Fridays” where I would paint one of my followers every Friday.
They became like my friends during my challenge. I would definitely recommend the 365 challenge to anyone who wants to improve in any media! (Just maybe don’t do it in your final year at university).
Like MCM London Comic Con, do you attend a lot of conventions and do you recommend other artists to try to exhibit and sell their work?
I don’t attend a lot of them, I started last year and I’ve sort of been testing the waters to find out the ones that work for me and the sort of work I create. Currently, MCM London has been the best one for me out of the 3 different ones I’ve been to. The other two were more suitable for those who strictly sell fan art.
I’d recommend other artists go to conventions because it’s definitely a unique experience. Depending on the type of person you are they can be a bit socially exhausting but I find them to be more rewarding than anything else. It’s so wonderful to have deep conversations with passers-by; find out how they’re doing, how they made their costumes talk about art with them or whatever comes up in conversation.
It’s also great to speak to other artists and creators and drink in all the sights the convention has to offer. I try to stick to London ones as I’m new to conventions it’s where I’m based. I am, however, venturing out to Manchester Comic Con for the first time this year.
What is your current set up? What do you use to create your art?
Currently, I use a Wacom Cintiq 27QHD which is connected to my MacBook Pro via display port (I did a lot of searching online to see if you can connect 27QHDs to MacBook Pros via display port! I was very excited to learn that you could). I work in Photoshop CC using one of the default dry media brushes (a chalk brush) and I use the “pressure for opacity” option.
The pen pressure on the Cintiq 27QHD exceeded my expectations. It’s such a smooth painting experience. Prior to getting the Cintiq 27QHD in April of this year, my main hardware was a Wacom pen computer (Cintiq Companion 2) which I got back in 2015 whilst I was at Disney and still completing my 365 challenge. I loved taking it out and about with me or even simply going downstairs to sit on the couch and draw with it whilst spending time with my family. I ended up covering it in stickers over the course of owning it. I still use it, it’s now my backup tablet!
The Cintiq 27QHD was a massive upgrade for me (unintentional pun). I had wanted one for years but I promised myself, whilst I was on my year in industry, that I would only ever buy one if I were to practice illustration full time. So it’s a landmark piece of hardware for me and I think I’ll keep it for a very long time. It’s perfect for the work I create too because I can add more detail to my paintings with it and details are my favourite thing to paint next to the eyes.
You’ve done a lot of ‘before and after’ style illustrations recently, taking older pieces of your own work and re-creating them. Obviously, your skills have developed a lot. How has creating these helped you as an artist?
Recreating my childhood drawings has been both fun and helpful because they aren’t very detailed so there is a lot of room to make things up and exercise my imagination.
Drawing from my imagination was something I desperately struggled with when I first started my 365 drawing challenge. I can recall a piece I’d worked on for hours and hours at the start of my 365 challenge of an imaginary girl which took me so long that I became frustrated. Looking at the painting, however, it looks like a sketch.
I wouldn’t say it’s easy now but I’d like to think there’s been an improvement. Recreating my paintings from recent years has been helpful for me in that I am able to reflect on my artistic growth, whether that’s growth in terms of style or the ability to capture a person’s likeness. That’s always going to be something I want to improve on – without going fully photorealistic.
Besides being an artist, what else would you say you connect with? Do you have any other serious passions and do they affect your art?
Being a Christian I would say. There’s actually a project I’m still in the planning stages of which is partly influenced by my faith. It’s one of the two I mentioned previously – to do with natural hair. I’m still fleshing it out as I want to do my best to get it right.
Sometimes it’s difficult to get across what’s in your head. Aside from that, I’m trying to learn to trust God more with my career and efforts. That helps me to relax when I’m stressing out.
Sometimes if I’m really struggling with a drawing, I’ll pray about it which always helps me. I also like to listen to music while I create. I recently bought a CD /tape player and it sits right beside my desk, so I’m often switching out CDs and tapes to listen to throughout the day. I often end up painting musicians whose music I enjoy so I suppose that’s a way music affects what I create. I actually want to paint Michael Jackson soon – and Gwen Stefani. As I mentioned before, I keep a list and they’re both on it!
Your work is often in colour, with very little greyscale artwork. How did you personally study colour theory and what would you recommend to artists struggling with colour in their art?
I actually did a couple of optional colour theory modules at university which were helpful, I was able to learn more in-depth about colours that work well together and why. However, when it comes to the application of knowledge, a lot of the time with my colours I just go by eye. Sort of like playing music by ear?
I don’t know if that’s what a lot of artists do too. I want to learn more about how to utilise colour with proper thought behind it – consciously choosing colours. I downloaded a couple of colour wheel tools but I don’t really know how to use them. I think there’s more I can and want to do to enhance the use of colours in my work. I have a lot more colour theory to study which excites me.
Looking at other artist’s work helped me to get to the stage I’m currently at – considering that’s currently my main media. Sometimes watching digital art time-lapse videos can be quite helpful to see how the different artists go about choosing and using colours.
Very early on in my 365 drawing challenge, I mostly painted in black and white, and my coloured pieces were quite unsaturated. This was because I was afraid of colour and unsure of how to choose and use them digitally. I would say now that my work is much more saturated.
Thank you for reading!
We hope you enjoyed this interview with Olivia. We certainly enjoyed finding out more about her artwork and her experiences as an artist.
See you next time!
If you want to see more of Olivia’s work in the future, be sure to follow here on the links below and if you’d like to purchase her artwork visit her Society6 and Tictail stores.