This is the fifth in a series of interviews with hopefully, all eight artists who participated in the show we co-organized with Los Angeles’s Gallery Nucleus, then collaborated with each other to create the image below. (Some of them are taking longer than I expected to facilitate. Can MerJune be a thing?)
Whitney—who painted the image’s background—has spent the last decade entertaining kids in a massive way. She was the creative director for girls’ toys at Nickelodeon and the VP of New Content and Design at Just Play, a toy manufacturer-for-hire you’ve probably never heard of, but who’s made stuff for Disney, Marvel, Dreamworks, and Hello Kitty, that a child in your life probably owns. Her first gig was as an intern for Disney, eventually rising to the level of senior toy designer, which she describes as like “a boot camp” in both their iconic style and in drawing cute characters.
This was one of the toughest interviews to put together: It took two scheduling errors and a missed call before I finally got through to her via Skype, but when I did, It was worth all of it: Whitney is one of the most passionate and—no pun intended—animated interview subjects I’ve ever had, her infectious energy for art and her work coming through even over the phone.
By the way, Peekalo, the company she co-founded with entrepreneur Natalie Makous, has been pitching animated series to various networks—and recently, they got one accepted. She’s under a strict non-disclosure agreement as to any details or even who picked it up, though. And to my knowledge, our interview was the first public announcement of it.
…But Skype wouldn’t let me record it and OBS failed, so the audio was lost. So I had to get the answers again by email a week later. Then writing up the article was delayed due to a backlog of interviews that had happened in the meantime and needed to be written up first. Then it was delayed again due to my neighborhood being hit by riots. So the Instagram takeover we discussed as being in the future, has already happened.
Pretend you didn’t see this.
What I was going to say before the tangent, though, is that the same energy she displayed during our call is clearly visible in her work. Just looking at her Instagram feed, The sheer amount of color and intensity that jumps out at you will take your breath away.
And combined with her bold brush-pen-styled lineart, her style is uniquely striking. Although I can see shades of all the influences she’ll mention further down the page, I can’t think of a single artist who she quite resembles, or who’s been able to duplicate her style.
Anyway, on to the interview.
What was it that drew you to mermaids?
Mermaids and fairies have always been so much fun to draw. I think I just like drawing weightlessness. There’s something so freeing about painting a figure unencumbered by gravity. I’m also a sucker for long, sweepy, fluid lines. Mmm. 😊✍️
Do you have a history with Gallery Nucleus?
I’m fortunate to say that I do! When I was in art school, we were asked to write out our goals, and one of mine was to show my work at Nucleus because so many of my favorite artists and animators had been featured there. Now, this will be my third show with them since graduating. My first was with Liana Hee, the mermaid queen, for her Splish Splash show. I remember I was so nervous to exhibit alongside her and her talented lineup of mermaid artist friends. It ended up being an awesome show, so the nerves really weren’t necessary—but are they ever?
The second was a corgi-themed show where real live corgi pups were running around. It was beyond cute! This was on the same night that Wendy Park exhibited downstairs at Nucleus. Her work is killer, too, so if you’re looking for another cool artist to follow, check her out at @wendy.hearts.
Environment designs by Wendy Park, from Instagram
And finally, the third was this one with the creator of MerMay, Mr. Tom Bancroft! He and I had met a few times at various conventions but this was the first time we’d ever worked on something together, and it was so much fun! I didn’t expect it to be this collaborative and inspiring, so thank you to him, Nucleus, and you guys at Wacom for making so many memories with us! I don’t know if that sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth!
Now that you’ve hopefully had some time to turn it over since our phone interview, do you have any types of art or specific artists you’re looking forward to sharing when you take over our Instagram?
As usual, I have way too many ideas but no clear answers. 😅 I’d love to do a little demo on my beautiful new Wacom One—maybe draw some expressive hands, or ask the lovely folks following along what they’d like to see. I’m excited about hearing from the Wacom community: What does their work setup look like? What kind of routines do they follow to get their day started? I’ll share my process and hopefully hear from them too!
You’re very adept at coordinating bright and saturated colors so they don’t clash, which is very challenging to do. Do you have any color theory advice?
Thank you for saying that! I’ve worked in toy design and kids’ entertainment for over a decade, so I’m so used to pulling super-bright candy colors from Pantone books and fabric swatches, that it’s just kind of second nature now. I also love taking pictures of old vintage products from the 50’s to the 70’s. My grandparents’ house is filled with dusty treasures from that era in every nook and cranny, so maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to them. I was over their house a few months ago and found this little bottle of paint in my grandpa’s office—he was an artist too—and thought, “How come we don’t see these colors anymore!?” So I took a pic with my phone.
I think the key is always keeping an eye out for the things that make you happy. And also not losing those reference pics in a sea of other random phone photos! 😅
When you said illustrating for Disney was like a boot camp, how so?
Oh man! I grew up freeze-framing Disney movies and sketching what I saw… I had how-to books from Hercules and The Lion King, probably a million hours logged watching every Disney VHS…
And still I had to work for months drawing and redrawing from Princess model sheets at Disney to learn how to draw those characters on-model from memory. The training was no joke! Learning those characters for style guide creation was my one and only job, so I practiced nonstop. At work, at home, when I was boredom-doodling… All the time! My mentor would say, “Draw Belle,” so I’d sketch the almond eyes and Cupid’s-bow lip with a little dimple, and she’d just say, “Not quite. Draw it again, her nose is wider.” Then it’d be Ariel with the fish lips and pointy chin; she was easier because her features are so iconic. It would go on and on like that until I think they realized that my characters were never fully on-model and I had more fun stylizing them with a modern twist anyway. Since then, I’ve pretty much made a career out of modernizing classic characters.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, my favorite Disney character to draw is Tinkerbell! Hot tip, if you want to get Tink down, draw her mouth literally hanging off of her little jelly bean face. 😊🧚🏼♀️
From Whitney’s portfolio, shared with her permission. Don’t tell Disney.
Who were some of your biggest influences before you started working for them?
Hirschfeld, considered one of the best and most unique caricaturists of the 20th century, was discussed extensively in our Skype interview. She says his fluid, minimal line work was the biggest inspiration on her own. Image from Broadway Direct.
I also grew up obsessed with pop culture. Music, film, animation, fashion, I’d just eat it up. I ran home after school to record Sailor Moon, and sometimes X-Men. I was just a nerdy little kid growing up in a small foresty town dreaming of being a part of something bigger—I think that’s what motivates most artists when they’re young, don’t you?
Sampler of Monica Grue’s work. From her Instagram.
What are your favorite features of the Wacom One, and how have they helped you as an artist?
So many awesome features! Aside from the very cool textured screen that feels just like paper, the stylus that slips right into the top of the tablet, and the cute little feet that fold open to give the tablet some lift, I just discovered that it’s perfect for taking your work on the go! Today I was working at my Cintiq that faces a window and we’re having a heat wave, so I’m literally dripping sweat and thinking, “You can do this, Whit! You like the heat!” But then it dawns on me, I have a Wacom One! I can go work in the other room with air conditioning and watch a show! Haha! So I did exactly that and it was great. Wacom saved the day. 🙌
I know you can’t reveal specifics, but could you at least tell me what genre your show is?
I want to tell you everything so badly! But it’s still in the very early stages of development, so I honestly can’t say anything … Check back in with us next year! 😊👍🙌
Will do. Until then, her website can be found here, but meaning no offense to it, there’s a much better selection of her work on her ArtStation. Her Twitter and Instagram are both @whitneypollett, and her cat’s Instagram is @specialboydelivery. Words edited for concision, but emoji left intact.
Image from IMVU Insider