Chances are if you are a longtime Haute Macabre reader, you require no introduction to the charmingly spooky, gothic art of Abigail Larson. Her eerie illustrations, reminiscent of the gorgeously ghoulish story books and fairy tales that little gothling you never actually had on your shelf as a child (thanks, mom), have no doubt haunted you for years–and ever since you discovered her work, you have been frantically, feverishly devouring it to make up for lost time.
Did you know this artist of the strange and archaic harbored dreams of becoming an opera singer and joining the circus when she was a wee lass? Thankfully for us, she instead directed her talent and energies to the arts and bringing to life those wondrous, fearsome things that inspire her–magical beings, noble beasts, dreadful fears and bloody superstitions–all in her exquisite, endearing style.
Abigail’s work has been featured in galleries and prestigious venues in the U.S. and Europe, and her illustrations have been included in various publications and publishing houses. She has also created advertisements for John Fluevog and China Glaze. Her fully-illustrated version of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Cats of Ulthar” was just released earlier this month (November of 2016).
Despite what is obviously a ridiculously busy schedule, the incredibly lovely and obliging Abigail generously gave of her time and agreed to an interview with Haute Macabre. See below for our discussions on visceral frights, beautiful fashions from long ago, and what keeps her in both a morbid mood and a mindset of the macabre.
Haute Macabre: First, I read recently that you are a 2016 Hugo Award winner for the category of best professional artist–congratulations!
Abigail Larson: Thanks! The award was for “Best Professional Artist” and it’s a general recognition of an artist’s work in the fantasy genre – it was a huge shock to receive the notification that I’d been nominated, and an even bigger surprise when it was announced that I’d won. I was up against artists who’d been at this a lot longer than I have, but it’s such a huge honor.
Speaking of current circumstances, I know from constant peeks at your Instagram that you have just taken part in the October #drawlloween challenge. What were some of the things that are inspiring your pen this Halloween season? Why do you think ongoing social media challenges like #inktober, #drawlloween, etc. are important for artists today?
I really love the #drawlloween challenge – I did it once before, I think two years ago now, but I was traveling through Italy during that month and couldn’t really complete any of the drawings I did then, so it’s been a lot of fun to have the chance to push myself to come up with a completed illustration every single day for a month. It’s tough coming up with ideas, but I’m really enjoying it because I don’t have an art director or editor or client telling me to make changes or adjustments or anything like that – I just get to draw whatever comes into my head based on the daily prompt.
Being a sort of “macabre artist”, Halloween themes are easy for me! These are subjects I enjoy drawing regardless of the time of year, and there are several from the group that I really love! I’ve put them up in my shop, and it’s fun to see photos from fans who’ve purchased the prints, and comments from people who are following along, excited to see my next piece. It’s really exciting to connect with people who enjoy what I love to do. It’s also been great to meet new artists I might never have found, and seeing their work as well! I think it’s important for artists to get involved with the current social media trends (when we have the time to do it) to stretch our artistic muscles. Challenges keep us on our toes, and push us out of our comfort zones. I think it’s a good idea to test how well you work under the pressure of a tight deadline, while still producing fun new work.
Your inspirations from early on include many of the (un)usual haunted, suspects: H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, gothic fiction, the Brothers Grimm, etc. And of course moving forward on our timeline of the spectral and mysterious, there is Charles Addams’ beloved family of creeps and Tim Burton’s uncanny characters! I am curious, though–is there anything right now, be it from film, television, or literature-wise, that ensnares you, sends your blood singing and inspires you to put your own spooky spin on it, in 2016?
Well this past year I’ve had the great honor of working on the comic from one of my favorite tv shows, Penny Dreadful, my favorite childhood story in the form of a coloring book “Alice’s Wonderfilled Adventures,” and a beloved H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Cats of Ulthar” so I can scratch those off my list, but recently I’ve been caught up in fairytales, in particular “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sleeping Beauty.” I’ve written my own versions of those stories, twisting them in my own fashion, and I’m hoping to have a chance to explore either graphic novels or a collection of illustrated fairytales with those stories and several others in the coming months.
All of the characters in your art are so gorgeously attired! You note that you love learning about how people once lived, and the strange things they wore and believed. Can you speak to the importance of fashion in your art?
I love fashion – it’s fascinated me since I was very young. I think you can tell so much about a person from how they’re dressed. My mother worked as a seamstress for a few years when I was little, so there were always lots of pattern books around, and I’d flip through those for hours. As I got older I would draw characters and invent bizarre outfits for them, and I even considered going into fashion school to learn costume design for a brief period, because designing the costumes for the characters in my illustrations is something I love, and devote a lot of time and research to.
In my work, which typically takes place in the Victorian era, I have a very specific niche of fashion. Luckily there are archives like the Met and the Kyoto Costume Institute who preserve and catalog incredible pieces of that era, as well as countless books, and illustrations from the 19th century depicting what people wore, and how, and why. In particular, the design of clothing from the late 1800’s (in my opinion) gave people the most elegant silhouettes, which is why I’m so obsessed with it. They also took great care in regard to what colors they wore, what flowers they adorned themselves with, the styles of lace… it was so intricately detailed and yet still leaves a lot of room for artistic interpretation.
You’ve spoken before on your love for the strange and the macabre, and how it inspires and influences your work, but also on fear and imagination, and how the shadows on our walls turn into horrifying monsters at night. Can you share with us a lurking fear, a frightful subject matter, or a monstrous creature that just creeps you out way too much to explore in your art, and why?
I think fears are healthy and important to confront, but there are a couple things I just have absolutely no interest in drawing because they creep me out too much – dolls (specifically ventriloquist dummies) and clowns. I actually skipped the “dummy” prompt for #drawlloween and drew something else because just researching Victorian ventriloquist dummies was enough to creep me out! Something about the exaggerated features and forced happiness in painted smiles just… disturbs me in a visceral sense. I have no real reason, no trauma in my past that I can recall, but the few times I’ve tried to tackle those subjects I’ve had to toss them in the trash. I can draw ghosts, monsters, and demons all day with no issue, but don’t ask me to draw clowns or dummies!
In 2016 you illustrated H.P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar, and last year your illustrations accompanied When You Give an Imp a Penny, a children’s book by Henry Hertz. Do you have to conjure a different mind-set for the making of art for wee ones? How would you say it varies, for example, from the work that you put into the Lovecraft book?
To be completely honest – I don’t really separate the two.That’s not to say I haven’t had art directors ask me to “tone it down” (referring to my dark themes) or brighten the colors a little when working on children’s illustrations, but for the most part, I don’t change my style too much. My lines are still pointy and angular, and the monsters still look monstrous, because I know most kids can handle creepy stuff, and do seem to enjoy it. I don’t try to frighten anyone with my work – on the contrary. I like to show a lighter side to a dark subject, but I grew up on monster movies and books like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (which had some wonderfully horrifying illustrations by the inimitable Stephen Gammell) so I know that while my work certainly isn’t right for everyone, it might be just right for those who look at the world a little differently, and, like me, root for the monsters.
With regard to mind-set and drawing down the mood, so to speak: what is life like in your studio?
I’m a full-time freelance artist, so my work never stops. If I’m not drawing, I’m researching something for my drawing, or answering emails, or thinking about my next drawing. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and music (currently listening to Christopher Lee reading “Dracula”) and I do like to put on the occasional movie (I have a pretty serious collection of classic horror movies) or tv show for background noise. I love those terrible paranormal tv reality shows like “My Ghost Story” and “Paranormal Witness” and “Monsters and Mysteries in America.” They’re really fun, and keep me in the mindset of the macabre, especially the shows that talk about ghosts, since the afterlife is something that really intrigues me.
Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations that you can share with us?
Nothing I’m at liberty to discuss right now, I’m afraid! I can say I have one upcoming project that’s “Lovecraftian” but that’s all I can say for now!