I’m a huge horror junkie, so when I was perusing the aisles at the Mutter Museum’s holiday art fair and saw an illustration of Art the Clown from Terrifier I got really excited. That’s when I found the work of Esther Coonfield, a rad illustrator who not only highlights horror but the badass ladies of horror! Her cleanly lined illustrations are amplified by the contrast of her dark and bold colors. Sparks of deep red or purple seem to constantly pop from the grungy colors that build her atmospheres. Her imagery has a pop that either sparks nostalgia through classic horror characters or drills a haunting original images into your mind. However you recognize her work, it’s bound to stick with you!
I was stoked to get to add a few of Coonfield’s illustrations to my collection, of course I picked up an Art the Clown, and I was even more stoked to get to talk to her about the origins of her work and style. She gave an awesome interview that goes deep into her horror and illustration roots and gives us details on how this super cool work has developed. It’s a fun read that gives a little extra context to the work and the artist behind it! Enjoy!
1. First things first is background! So, what got you started in art? Any Schooling? What helped to shape you into the artist that you are today?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve pretty much always known that I wanted to be an artist. I’m really fortunate to have a supportive family that has always encouraged my interest in art, and my highschool had an amazing art program that provided me with a lot of the essential art skills. As a kid and teen I spent most of my free time watching movies and reading books, so I frequently made artwork inspired by the things I watched and read. It wasn’t until I started applying to colleges that I discovered illustration as a career path, which completely blew my mind. People actually get paid to draw pictures for books? Hell yes, sign me up! I went on to study illustration at Syracuse University, where I was truly able to explore my passion for visual storytelling.
2. You've got a very bold illustrative style both in color and imagery. How did you develop your style? What were the developmental differences between your line work and color use?
It took a lot of trial and error to find my style. I’ve never considered myself a painter; my brain is simply not wired to handle acrylics or oils, and I’m okay with that. As a teen I discovered the enchanting pen-and-ink illustrations of Edward Gorey; I was captivated by his ability to create so much texture and expression with ink alone. I began experimenting with ballpoint pens, fineliners, and dip pens, and in college I learned various printmaking techniques (intaglio, relief, screenprinting) which I absolutely fell in love with. At the same time, I was experimenting with adding color to my black-and-white work with watercolors. The contemporary artist Caitlin Hackett was, and still is, a huge inspiration to me in this regard, because of her ability to combine ballpoint pen and watercolor. I still enjoy working strictly in black-and-white, but over the years I’ve fallen in love with the textures available to me through watercolor, and the drips and stains and splatters have become an essential part of my work.
3. Your work is heavily inspired by horror, most notably the ladies of horror. What inspired not only the use of horror imagery but the empowerment of the bad-ass ladies of horror in your work?
I’ve always been drawn to darker subject matter, even as a kid. I used to scare the shit out of my parents because I was always drawing things like dead bodies hanging from nooses and women crying blood - pretty dark stuff for an eleven-year old! Not to place the blame on anyone in particular, but my dad is definitely the one who got me hooked on horror movies. When I was growing up, both of my parents were in school and working full-time. My dad studied and taught at Michigan Tech, a school way up north in Houghton, MI. He taught a film class which he frequently needed to test 16mm reels for, and he would do this on the weekends, usually bringing me and my sister along. That’s how I was first introduced to horror classics like “Nosferatu” and “Frankenstein”; I was forever changed to say the least! But my dad wasn’t the only one to blame; my mom was always an avid reader, and she introduced me to great horror writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz. Suffice to say I grew up to be a pretty serious horror nerd, and as an artist I enjoy paying homage to my favorite films and books, as well as creating my own dark and twisted visions. Back in 2017, I stumbled upon #WomenInHorrorMonth on Instagram, a daily challenge for the month of February that encourages horror fans to promote the work of women in the horror industry, whether it be actors, directors, writers, or artists. I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to make art that not only showcased my love of the horror genre, but my feminist ideals as well. I don’t think many people realize how empowering the horror genre can be for women; it’s chock-full of bad-ass ladies taking down masked psychos and slaying the patriarchy… literally. For me, horror is an escape. If I’m feeling sad, stressed, anxious, angry, or all of the above, the first thing I want to do is throw on a horror movie. The horror genre can provide the perfect escape from real-life stressors, whether it be something as superficial as a bad day at work, to something more major like trauma or mental illness. That’s what horror has always been for me.
4. In terms of process, how do your works begin and develop? Does the process vary depending on the image or the style that you're trying to achieve?
My work always starts with a sketch. I keep a bunch of different sketchbooks that I scribble all my ideas into, and when I’m ready to take a small idea to the next level, I’ll start working up a larger, more detailed drawing. I’ll draw something over and over again until I get it just right, because the last thing I want is to get to the final stages and realize that my drawing is super weak! Once I’m satisfied with the final drawing, I’ll transfer it onto hot-press watercolor paper and work up a full, detailed ink drawing. The level of detail depends on whether I’ll be adding color to it or not, because the addition of watercolor to a heavily textured/detailed area can make the piece muddy. So I try to choose specific areas where I allow the linework to shine, and others where the color and texture of the paint can stand strong. Once I’m satisfied with the quality of the drawing, I’ll start adding very thin layers of watercolor, slowly building up values and textures. I like to work in a very limited color palette, again, to avoid any muddiness, and to create a more surreal atmosphere. Also, like I mentioned earlier, I’m no painter, and I like to let my drawing shine through.
5. You have a series of various prints and stickers, so your work at some extent goes digital but your IG feed shows that you're heavily hand done, so at what point does your work go digital? Is the hand done aspect an important part of your work? Does anything change if you're making a sticker or pin as opposed to just a print?
I definitely consider myself a traditional artist. I just love the process, I love staining my hands with ink and getting paint under my fingernails, and I love the amount of control I have with a pen in my hand as opposed to a stylus. Not to say I’m anti-digital art by any means! I rely on Photoshop for editing my work and formatting it for prints and stickers, and I recently began using Procreate for the early stages of my process. I’m still getting the hang of it, but I really enjoy sketching and building up a solid drawing in Procreate; it saves me a great deal of time (and paper) because I can make changes and adjustments so easily. Lately I’ve been working up my final drawing in Procreate, printing it out, transferring it onto my watercolor color paper, and then inking away. It’s truly been a time-saver for the early stages of my work, but I’m still not a fan of going 100% digital.
6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find your work? Any shows/events coming up? Anything and everything you'd like to share and anywhere people can find you, fire away!
Instagram is my go-to for posting updates, works-in-progress, and so on! Find me at @esthercoonfieldart
I also have an Etsy shop where I sell originals, prints, and stickers: www.etsy.com/shop/EstherCoonfieldArt
And lastly, you can check out my full portfolio at www.esthercoonfield.com