Artist interview: Mab Graves

Mab Graves  (Indianapolis, USA), makes some of the most wonderful paintings.

I first became aware of her work when my girlfriend bought me some of her prints and paper dolls as a birthday gift a few years ago, and I fell in love.

Mab has previously described the paintings she makes as, ‘My creations, my obsessions, my darlings. My waifs and strays. To inspire you, capture your wall, hold it hostage and not let go.’

Mab was a dream to interview; punctual, articulate, interested and interesting, and above all else, super-friendly and approachable. To get a sense of why, you need only step into her world via her artist bio: ‘Inspired deeply by fairy tales and old classic literature. She has powder pink hair and is at least 7years old. Her dream pet would be a yellow fruit bat, or a nice old hedgehog with an eye patch.’

Every time I got an email from her in my inbox, I knew it’d be friendly, unique, charming, and as if it were written in glitter before I’d even opened it; elements and traits which show up in her artwork too, such is Mab’s ability to imbue the girls she paints with character and life.

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Hi Mab, how are you? Are you currently working on anything you could tell Pikaland readers about? 

Hello! I am doing rather splendidly.

Yes! I just finished several really cool projects – a paper doll book with Dover publishing (due to come out later this year), character designs for an independent stop-motion film (in production!) and I’m working on 2 big shows that will be coming out in the fall – one will be debuting at Gallery Nucleus in CA, and the other will be opening in the gallery my partner and I own (Monster Gallery) here in Indianapolis!

Much has been said about your work, in descriptive terms, but how would you yourself describe your art?

I tell people I am a Dreamchild Neverist. It’s a totally made up term for my painting style though.

In reality I am a Pop Surrealist.

Where did your interest in art and creativity come from? Is it something you’ve held from an early age?

Oh I’ve always been a creative. When I was little, my mother told me I would come home from preschool and sit at our little table and draw for hours. She says she never had to worry about where I was – I’d been obsessed with drawing since I could grip a crayon. I only discovered painting 5 years ago- but we’ve been passionately in love ever since ^_^

I hear that you’re a self-taught artist. 

How easily did learning to draw and paint come to you?  Was it a case of just *start* and see where it goes, and then practice, trial and error? Or did you have a better plan than that?

Do you believe it’s something that has become easier the more you do? (And thus, important not to give up on if it wasn’t right first time)?

My first painting was 5 years ago now (I had always been shy of paints – too fluid and out of control). I was in a very dark place and I just sat down with an old canvas, some dreadful gift-set paints and a sumi brush. It took me an entire month of painting hours and hours every day to finish it. Sumi brushed are designed for Japanese ink painting. They have bamboo handles that suck up tons of water (so the ink travels). I was painting acrylics so I would be bent over working on some tiny detail when –whoosh!- a puddle of water would seep out from the brush and wash everything away. It was really frustrating. The brush also had quite a thick end, so I had to get pretty creative to achieve the kind of detail I wanted. I learned a lot about little turns of the wrists and tricks with the brush.    When I finished the piece, I went out and bought some real paint and a whole set of brushes – and it was like I had been running with a pack of rocks and had just taken them off. It was like discovering I had wings.

I learned SO much about brushwork with that first piece.

I think it’s a good idea to tie one hand behind your back so to speak, and challenge your limitations.

And yes – you get MUCH better at it over time!

Do you think that being self-taught has freed you up to try new things free from the constraints of having to do things the ‘correct’ or ‘expected’ way? 

Would you have wanted it any other way?

I would not want it any other way! It was definitely “the hard way” to learn without any help or guidance, but I can be a very proud single-mother of my little creations.

As long as the end result is what you wanted – it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Being self-taught, and initially developing your work yourself without much external ‘schooled’ validation, where did/does your motivation and confidence in your work come from?

Oh I think I must be the most selfish of painters ^_^ When I paint, I paint for me. I have never really needed external validation. As long as I purely love and am thrilled by a piece I created it never mattered to me if others liked it too.

My motivation comes from the fact that: I am an addict. I simply adore creating. I know it’s the reason I was put here on this earth and I get an exhilarating sense of peace when I paint.

I love it.


I interviewed somebody recently who had been self-taught, and who was doing just fine with that. Then they discovered a different way of doing something via a friend who had been taught various techniques; she was totally bummed out because if she’d had known about that technique years ago it would have saved her so much time and labour.

Is this something that sounds familiar? 

What are your thoughts on sharing your ideas, skills, and knowledge with others? 

No, not really. I’ve never been bummed when I discover something new – I’m just thrilled!

My biggest “mind blowing” (as I call them!) discoveries have come from experimenting with new mediums.

I think that every medium has something that it is particularly good at – something that no other medium can do quite as well. For skin, I love to use oils –you just can’t get the luminescent glow with anything else. For details I use a fine Japanese gouache, I love using inks for shadows and for expansive backgrounds I like to use acrylics because they dry faster and allow me to continue working sooner! I am not a medium snob – I love them all equally.

The more opportunities I have to explore and play with new materials, the more I learn.

The one downside to never having gone to school for art is that I didn’t have the opportunity to try every medium and see what fit. It can be very expensive to go out and buy a set of a new medium just to try – without knowing you will like it!

But I love every new discovery I make and never feel ashamed that I hadn’t known it sooner. Life is all about learning.

From your own experience, what would your top-tips be for anybody wishing to teach themselves to draw/create art?

Play. Don’t attempt to do anything more than have fun. Don’t put expectations on your pieces, they are fragile and could cave under demands, crushing you both. Paint for fun and love whatever comes out of your brush. She may be a little lop-sided or have light coming in at her from two suns, but she is yours and you created her.  The less pressure you put on yourself, the more freedom you will have to experiment and learn!

Similarly, what are your top tips for others who wish to be creative but feel stuck, don’t know where to start, or feel like they aren’t ‘good enough’ to do so?

Again – just play! Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you find yourself in a block – just stop. Leave it. Don’t push it. Immerse yourself in a fabulous new book series, get out of town for a road trip, or mess around with a totally new project. The worst thing you can do is keep pushing when you are stuck. Be patient and come back to it later. It may be months – it may be years – but don’t push.  It’s like letting a wound heal and knit back together: if you pick at it – it’ll only get worse.


Where do you make your work? What’s your studio or making-space like?

What sort of things keep you company in your studio / place(s) of work, for inspiration?

Oh heavens I work in chaos. They call my studio “the Forest” because it is wild, untamed, and probably full of wolves. I have a beautiful collection of hundreds of picture books (predominantly fairy tales!), cute and creepy old toys, cabinets with scores and scores or drawers filled with bits and bobs, and my walls are hung ceiling to floor with art – mostly other insanely talented artists I love, but a few of my biological paintings. It’s my own little sanctorum and the absolute happiest place in the world for me. Being in my studio is like stepping into my own skin.

What stages, from start-to-finish does a typical piece of your work go through, and over what time frame?

(I ask this, from a practical point of view, to guide others who may be seeking further understandings of creative processes. But, I appreciate what you have astutely written in the past, that, ‘Every piece I create is a culmination of my whole life’s experiences and mistakes’).

Before I even begin a piece I do hours of research. I research flower symbolism so every plant and tree means something. Every colour and gesture has a purpose. Then I start to paint. I don’t sketch beforehand or really do any planning. That painting is inside me already by then and knows exactly who it wants to be. I just absorb the information then let my body do the rest.

A painting for me could take anywhere from 2 days to a week – some longer. It depends on the size and scope of the project. I do all my detail work with a brush that has only one hair so it can be very time consuming!

You seem to maintain a pretty prolific outpouring of ideas, projects and creativity. 

What puts you in the best mood for drawing? And, what keeps you motivated, makes you burst with energy, keeps you inspired enough to keep going, and makes you want to continue being an artist?

I am always in the mood. I am a paintophile.

My mind is constantly teeming with tiny keening voices waiting (usually most impatiently) to be brought to life. Painting keeps me sane and brings me a shocking amount of peace.

Being an artist is not a choice to something I decide to continue being. It is my entire being. If you took the artist out of me I would be wisp of pink hair and green tea that would surely evaporate quickly.

How do you manage your time in order to devote as much time as you’d like to your art?

I will NEVER be able to devote as much time as I would like to my art! The sad part of being able to survive as a professional artist is you are running a business – you are the business – and painting is only about 20% of what you have to do!

The best advice I ever got about how to be a successful freelancer was:

Do the things you don’t love.

I was not thrilled to receive that advice.

People always tell you “do what you love!” and I liked that much better.

But doing what you don’t love – the emails, inventory, taxes, lectures, social networking etc. – is REALLY important. It’s not nearly as much fun as shutting myself away for weeks and painting my heart out (what bliss!), but these things must be done. It’s taken me a couple years of being hideously overwhelmed to find a happy medium in my days, but I have found it.


I read on your blog your comments about living with arthritis, where you say:

‘I know I can’t do this forever. I know this. These poor little hands won’t hold out. I am so grateful for every minute that I have to paint. Even though every minute of my passion hurts me, I couldn’t possibly be happier when I paint. A lot of us have complications. Restrictions. People who tell us that we have unrealistic career choices. There is no dream you shouldn’t follow. Ignore the odds’

This positivity, hope, inspiration and affirmation is infectious… that idea of passing on positive messages and ideas for keeping on going, the encouragement, and sharing your belief in notions of ‘doing’ and ‘being’.

Why is it important to you to pass on these good vibes?

I know I have been given a gift. Being able to paint is not something I bought or earned – I have no laurels to rest on. It is something intensely precious that I have been given and it is extremely important to me that I give back. I have a responsibility not to squander it. Art and love are both things that need to be shared. I don’t think there is enough of either in this world – and you’re right, they are infectious. I plan on doing as much good as I can with the time that I have. Let’s start an epidemic ^_^

I’ve been reading and hearing so much recently from people whose art has been plagiarised or copied (almost without changes) by others for financial or personal gain. It seems to be a growing problem for artists.

What are your personal takes on inspiration vs imitation?

And, on the flip side, do you think it’s possible that there is no such thing as ‘original thought’ in art, that everything has been ‘done’, and that the very nature of being inspired by others’ work leads naturally into using that influence and it showing in our own creativities?

Yes, I have had people steal my images and sell prints, shirts and jewellery with my paintings on them. It is surprisingly hurtful actually. I have a very good lawyer who sets them straight pretty quickly, but it still leaves a feeling of violation.

I think that education on image rights is a big problem. With most of these people when you write them and tell them that they have illegally stolen a copyrighted image and are liable for a huge lawsuit – they are totally shocked! A lot of people actually think that if an image is online, they can have it and do what they want with it. I’m not sure what we can do about re-informing this kind of ignorance.

As far as Original Thought goes – well I suppose that depends on the style of art you are painting. As a Pop Surrealist painter, “original thought” is a bit moot because, well – it’s pop surrealism. The subject matter is inspired largely from retro 60’s and 70’s culture (big head and eye art) but also from current events, books, films and popular subjects. Someone always thought of it first. We are re-inventing it. That’s the point!

I think as long as you are true to your own style, interests and paint purely from your own inspiration then don’t worry if some other artist is inspired by the same things at the same time.

It is 2013 so creating something completely new and original would be tough, I agree. I’ve seen a lot of emerging contemporary artists scrabbling desperately trying to create a NEW art – and it mostly involves bits of string hung in places or jars of bodily fluid. I think we should be less concerned with creating completely new things and just create completely beautiful things.


What fascinates you most, and fires your imagination?

What do you think the power of ‘imagination’ is? Both for artists, and everybody more generally.

I read. I love old fairy tales and folklore. My childhood was webbed with storybooks and I love falling back into the familiar comfort of unquestioning awe they inspire in me.

Imagination gives us limitless and unending possibilities. It’s the most beautiful tool you can harness yourself with.

Best advice: Never stop being six years old.

What about your work gives you the most satisfaction?

Oh that’s easy. It’s looking down into the little soul I just put on canvas – seeing her eyes look straight back into me and hearing her tiny voice inside my heart. Bliss.


Melanie Maddison is a zine writer and former postgraduate Women’s Studies student from Leeds, UK. Her main zine, Colouring Outside The Lines has been going since 2004 and interviews contemporary female artists. She’s our resident chief interview lady, and you can read all the interviews she has conducted for Pikaland here!

7 Replies to “Artist interview: Mab Graves”

  1. Beautiful interview! Thanks so much ladies:)

  2. Donna Reid says:

    Oh how I love Mab Graves little girls! This article was fantastic. I felt as though I was right there in the room with her. It was wonderful to step into her world for a while!

  3. Lia Craven says:

    Great interview! What a delightful person Mab is! I am a visual artist too and I agree with what she says about bringing more beauty into the world and giving it generously because it is a precious gift. I didn’t appreciate my gifts for a long time and it does hurt to be away from it. I love the worlds she creates!

  4. ella says:

    Oh I love Mab Graves, wonderful inspiring interview, she is truly magical

  5. i love this girl! i’ve admired her work on etsy for some time. it was great to hear what she has to say. thanks!

  6. candace jean says:

    I love the glimpse into her curious little studio. I adore her big-eyed beauties. I love reading her interview and all of her positive thoughts. (I too have arthritis– though not in my hands– and some art days prove to be a real struggle.) Thank you!

  7. kitty says:

    she’s awesome! how old is she?? i love her pink hair!!! she’s very inspirational!! 😀

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