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Spotlight on Casey Robin Neal

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Casey Robin Neal — or just Casey Robin as her grandma used to call her — is a California-based artist who uses paints, pencils, crayons, coffee, and yes, even computers to make her whimsical and striking art. From looking at her art with its fairy tale aura, you can quickly see how she would fit in somewhere like Disney. She indulged us when we asked her to draw something for us in SketchBook and tell us more about the kind of art she likes to make.

When did you start to pursue art?

I came from a creative family. My mother was an author and painter; my father was a singer and dancer. My siblings and I would make movies, put on plays, and write stories together. In my spare time I made costumes, paper dolls, and miniature houses. With Mom being a writer, of course the house was full of books. Stories – especially fairy tales – were important to me from a young age.
For most of my growing up I was interested in every kind of art. Theater, music, drawing: I liked it all. I was lucky enough to attend a performing and fine arts charter school, where I was allowed to explore. It wasn’t until I discovered the “Art of Disney” books that I narrowed my focus to visual art. I was amazed by the way production designers broke down an art style into elements and then applied those elements to every aspect of a picture in a way that supported the story. I was particularly taken with character design. I suppose it appealed to the part of me that still wanted to be on stage.

How did you pursue art professionally?

The first part of my career path was marked by a singular goal: to become a Disney artist. The Disney pictures resonated deeply with me. They seemed to draw upon all that was noblest and loveliest in the world. I saw The Little Mermaid in theatres when I was five and thought it the most beautiful, most magical thing I had ever seen. It planted a seed in me that bloomed many years later. I learned to draw specifically so that I could one day be good enough to get into Disney and make movies like that. While in my final year of college, I was brought on as part of their Talent Development Program, working in Story and VisDev. While there, I co-directed a short with Justin Sklar. I learned a lot from my time at Disney, and I’m really grateful for the wonderful mentors and friends I found there.

In recent years, however, my vision has expanded beyond my initial Disney dream. One of the things that I discovered while working there was that I had a knack for story creation, for the “big idea.” I also discovered that I love to write. Currently, I’m working on some book projects that I’m very excited about. The one I’m most in love with is a trilogy of illustrated middle grade novels retelling the myth of Medusa. It’s been growing in me for more than five years, and I’m so excited to bring it to the world. I will be both writing and illustrating the series. While nothing can compare to the excitement of making films with a great team of artists, there is something so special about crafting a story from start to finish.

disney fairies
Casey’s wonderful LadyBugs series treats Tinkerbell like fairies like 1950s pin-up models.

As to the more practical question of what I do, it’s a little hard to define. I guess you could call me an illustrator these days. I draw and paint, mostly traditionally, though I like to keep up my digital skills. I pay the bills with a mix of private commissions, storybook illustration, convention sales, and gallery shows. I also run an Etsy shop selling prints of my art. My Etsy followers have been so wonderfully supportive of me through this whole journey. I love knowing that my art is going into peoples’ homes all across the world.

The things that I love to draw these days are the same things that I loved when I was five. Give me an assignment with mermaids or fairies or pretty dresses, and I’ll be a happy camper. I drew fantasy pictures all through high school and college. So many of my teachers hated that. There was one recruiter from CalArts who thumbed through two pages of my portfolio before sneering, “So, you’re one of those that draws mermaids and unicorns. That’s not art; it’s craft.” Well, if so, it’s a craft that I love and take great pride in. I’ve parlayed it into a pretty delightful career.

harry potter
A big fan of all things Harry Potter, Casey applies her style to the Potterverse.

In addition to my love of all things magical, I find great inspiration in nature. I love to study plants for their thoughtful design and simple elegance. Animals offer endless varieties of color, pattern, and construction. They are so full of personality, too. I particularly like drawing cats because they just do their own thing and don’t care what you think of them. Of course, the human figure has been a major source of inspiration throughout my career. It is so magnificently designed. I’m always discovering new marvels while drawing people.

What was your workflow for the Mermaid?

This was my first time working in SketchBook Pro, so I wanted to start in familiar territory. I began this picture exactly as if I was going to paint it by hand. I drew a quick value study, roughed out my design in pencil, then transferred it to illustration board and refined the drawing in a mix of red and blue Col-erase pencils. When I was happy with the drawing, I scanned it in and set it as the base layer in SketchBook. I knew that I wanted a blue and orange palette, so I threw down some turquoise tones on a separate layer and played with the blending modes. Then I blocked in some bright pops of orange with a textured brush, again on a separate layer. I took a very experimental approach with this piece, so my file was a mess of layers by the end. I pushed the darks and lights, and then began to tighten up the drawing with smaller brushes. In the final stages, I played around with glow brushes to bring some sparkle to the tail, as well as some atmospheric bubble brushes. I went back and forth so much, but in the end I found my way.

scan mermaid sketch
Casey’s process for this piece started on paper and ended up via scan in SketchBook. Try this with the Scan Sketch feature and see if this same process works for you.

What’s your favorite tools for this piece?

I chose a mermaid as my subject matter specifically because I wanted to see what fun effect brushes in SketchBook Pro had to offer. Tails, scales, and bubbles seemed like the perfect elements to give a little flourish. I loved the textural brushes that behaved like natural paint. I also had a lot of fun with glow brushes, though it was easy to overdo it on the glow effect. I played around a lot before I found an effect that looked right. For the hair, I wanted something almost calligraphic. I ended up using a mixture of ink and marker brushes for that. By the time I was done painting, I knew that I had only scratched the surface of what these brushes could do. There were deeper levels of brush customization and whole sets of brushes I hadn’t even touched. My picture was already pretty busy by that time, though, so I decided to leave further exploring to another day.

Inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, this series of fairy drawings has a spectacular Art Nouveau look.
Casey’s series of fairy drawings inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a spectacular Art Nouveau look.

Do you have advice for other artists?

I’m still very much finding my own way in the art world, but here are some principles that have been important to me:

  • Practice and work hard, but don’t lose the love. When I was in school, I worked myself to a frazzle. At one point I was going to school full time, working ten hours a week at the library, and another thirty to forty at a game studio, while also creating an original short and a separate portfolio for Disney. I worked from 7 a.m. to midnight every day of the week, with an all-nighter at least once a week. This kind of thing can work in short bursts, but it isn’t sustainable in the long run. Art-making demands downtime and reflection. If you work, work, work just for the sake of looking busy or “getting ahead,” you may find that your art becomes sluggish, labored, and uninspired. More importantly, if you find yourself falling out of love with your work, you may need a break, some fresh inspiration, or a change of direction. Burnout is a very real threat in this industry. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you take the time to rest and feed your muse, your work will soar.
  • Know your worth. While in school, get to know what you’re good at. Find out what it is that you have to offer to the industry. It should be more than just “I want to make stuff” or “I can do everything.” It should fill a need. That may be the need for appealing characters or delightful stories, but your work should give something to someone other than you. Once you know what you have to offer, be sure to charge an appropriate amount for your work. The Graphic Artists Guild publishes a handbook of pricing to help you in drawing up quotes for clients. This may seem scary at first, but if you want to be a professional artist, you have to be able to make a living. By charging fair rates for your work, you are not only helping yourself, but also the art community as a whole. What we do has value, and if we all uphold that, we are all able to keep creating.
  • Put your work out there. Take a risk on art fairs, conventions, and online shops. You’ll make a lot of new contacts and you may find out about work you never knew was out there. It can be scary to stand there with your art on display, but exhibiting at conventions has really helped me define my audience, find my niche, and gain exposure.
  • Build a genuine network. I used to hate the idea of “networking.” It seemed so slimy and disingenuous. After a few years in L.A., though, I’ve begun to look at networking in a new light. I like to make genuine connections with people, and to help them when I can. I use my network to help connect people to one another. I may have one friend who is looking for good story artists and another who does amazing story work — they should know each other! Doing good for others boosts your confidence and your standing in the community. Then, when you need a hand, people will be more likely to want to help you. Industry folks can tell immediately if you’re just sucking up to them to get something for yourself. So don’t be that person. Be the one who is interested in others, who makes connections in an honest way. Then, when the time comes, share what you have to offer and see what opportunities open up.
  • Be true, be kind, be courageous. It may sound corny, but the lessons we learn as children can be helpful in guiding us through the perils of the industry. Be true to your calling because that is where your best work lies. Be kind to others because we are all connected, and your reputation is so very important to your career. Be courageous because creating takes courage, and you must risk failure before you find success.

These are just some of the things that I have learned in my career so far. Each of us is has our own path to walk, and your way may differ from mine. But I do hope that you keep going, keep creating, because the world will be richer for it.

More Casey Robin Neal

If you see something you like in this post, check out Casey’s Etsy store. You can purchase prints — including some of the ones we feature here.