It was a cold winter day in Queens. The sun was mostly hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds but warmed our skin when it made an appearance. We spent the better part of our forty-five minute walk chasing after the sunny side of the street on our way to visit the illustrator Rachel Merrill. On arrival, she greeted us with a friendly and energetic “Hello!” and invited us into her apartment which she keeps at a temperature that matches her personality, nice and warm. Being from the South, Rachel views the cold, wintry weather as an evil force that must be reckoned with. Layers of fabric act as her shield while a sharp wit acts as her dagger.
Nowhere is this made clearer than in her satirical fashion illustrations with characters proclaiming, "Even in Rodarte winter fucking sucks” or an over-bundled woman describing herself as “passing as an extra in Fargo”. We quickly discovered this southern gal is a combination of sweet mixed with a bit of spice, dare we say sass? Both of our paternal grandmothers also hailed from the South and embodied these same characteristics. We immediately felt an affinity for Ms. Merrill and instantly knew we were going to enjoy this interview. What ensued was a lengthy conversation about politics, fashion, podcasts, and how all of these inform her art.
Filter & Funnel (F&F): Where does your creativity come from? Does it run in your family?
Rachel: My grandmother on my father’s side was a painter. She was a really amazing lady. She was born in 1911 and grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee. She went to school in a covered wagon and had to drop out of highschool during the Great Depression. She was super funny, super dry, and in her seventies, she got into painting and actually developed really quickly. Her children have houses that are just covered in her paintings. Most of my other family members are incredible writers, also really funny and dry. I think we all get our sense of dry, southern humor from my grandmother. She had heard one of my relatives was getting married for the third time, and they asked if she wanted to come, and my granny said, “No, that’s okay. I’ll go to the next one.” I wish I could just come out with lines like that. She would say them with the straightest face too.
F&F: Where did you grow up, and how do you think that shaped who you are?
Rachel: I grew up in a really conservative town, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s the capital, but it feels very small town. I just never really felt like I fit in. I was always the weird kid who didn’t have friends. I was the baby in a large family, and I adored my family in Tennessee because they were all very intellectual and witty. I was this precocious little kid, and they lavished me with attention, which made me feel great. On the other hand, I did not fit in whatsoever at my very conservative, religious schools, and my schoolmates made me feel horrible about myself. It made me develop more of a sense of imagination. I got really obsessed with cartoons and books. I was totally a nerd and obsessed with Sailor Moon for a really long time and thought she was the best thing ever. I had this really great family who had me try all these different things. I think my parents could sense that I didn’t really fit in, so they were like, let’s make her even more weird by putting her in acting and ballet. As I got older, I fit in less and less and ended up looking for people weird like me. When I found them, I felt I should really stay in these kinds of communities. Whenever people talk about going to Louisiana, I say, "It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t recommend living there." There’s this great Carson McCullers quote. She was a Southern Gothic writer who wrote this amazing book called The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It’s about the inability to connect with people. She made a comment once saying, “I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror.” She was just so eloquent about it. She left for New York as soon as she could. I feel like, for a certain creative person, if you’re in a conservative community in the South, it’s really really rough. I haven’t been back to Louisiana in a couple years, but last time I went back, I remembered why I wanted to get out of there right away. Even though I was happy to see my friends, and they were all lovely, many people are very complacent about not stepping up for what’s right. At least people with privilege don't. Not everyone is like that, and certainly not in New Orleans, but in my hometown it’s very much like that. If it’s not our problem, then we’re not going to deal with it. I like that here, people don’t typically have that attitude. However, I do like to brag that Lucinda Williams was named by Time as the best current songwriter in America. She’s from Louisiana, her songs are about Louisiana, and I’m so proud. She’s very very southern but not in the way you think. She’s constantly labeled folk because she’s not talking about the Confederate flag. She’s the opposite of that, but she’s so deeply southern. It’s very difficult to describe, but Lucinda Williams is definitely one of the big reasons I’m proud to be from there. Southern Gothic literature is another reason I’m really proud to be from there. Both of them explain so eloquently what’s wrong with the South but also the beauty of it too.
F&F: What brought you to New York?
Rachel: Before spending four years going to college in Florida, I spent the summer of 2006 here going to Pratt Pre-College, and I just loved it. In my mind, at the time, I thought this is what New Orleans would be if it was successful. It was just amazing. I felt like I fit in. I could relate to people. I wasn’t the weird one. I wasn’t even close to weird. I was actually kind of boring, and it sort of hit me, Oh! I’m not that weird, I just go to school with a bunch of entitled assholes. I loved it. I reconnected with my cousin who’s a few years older than me and lives in the West Village. I got to be on my own, and I just loved it. I really enjoyed going to art school and wanted to keep doing it. So it was always in the back of my mind, and it feels like, in illustration especially, you have to go cut your teeth in New York before you can really go anywhere else. I felt like my neurotic energy was well suited here.
F&F: How has New York differed from or lived up to your expectations? Did you have any coming here?
Rachel: Yeah. I thought I was going to get invited to some really great parties and be adored by everybody. Haha! Lately it has been living up to my expectations, but I really had to make a strong transition in my outlook. When I first moved up here, I had no confidence in my work or in myself. I thought I would just take a job, and I’d figure it out. Well, then I stopped doing my work, and I got really miserable and depressed. In a way, that was good because I thought I am definitely going to be doing this in my life since I’m so unhappy not doing it. I think I got really burned out from school, where there was a certain expectation of how you were supposed to be as an artist. If you didn’t adore always being by yourself drawing and never socializing, you weren’t a real artist. Now I don’t think that is necessarily what they were trying to say, but it felt like it at the time. So I was just very insecure and didn't advocate for myself at all. For two years, I was kind of lost. I guess my problem was that I was always looking at people who were at the top, and I thought I would never get to that. I wasn’t giving myself any credit, though, because they had been working at it years and years, and they got breaks. I started finally paying attention to people who were up and coming and realized I was as good as a lot of them. I thought, I should do this. Why am I not putting myself out there? Always in the back of my head there was some authority figure telling me I wasn't good enough yet, and I had to wait. I thought, you know what? Fuck that. I’m good enough. I just saw too many people getting really good jobs that I wanted. Then I started working again. Lately it’s been a slow continuation of me trying to be an advocate for myself and telling myself this is what you’re here for, you have a right to exist, and your work has a right to exist. My friend has been telling me for the past two years that I don’t finish things that I start because I am so determined to make it perfect. I’m realizing it’s more important to just do the work than it is to make perfect work. The community has always been really great here. It’s weird, though, because you feel like you can fit in here but also be horribly lonely at the same time. For me, it’s been really critical to have a strong support network in my cousin and his girlfriend. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them always being available to talk to or see. They’ve been a really good stabilizing element. It’s interesting. I wasn’t expecting to get closer to family when I moved up here, but I really have. I also didn’t expect the cost of everything. Everybody tells you, but then it doesn’t really hit you until you literally see yourself throwing piles of money into a fire, and then you’re like oh, this is what they meant. It is still a constant struggle trying to get a handle on that.
F&F: How long have you been illustrating? Did you start off in the arts illustrating?
Rachel: I took a course. I was really into comics when I was a kid, so I was drawing Japanese comics all the time, and when I went to Pratt Pre-College, I picked Illustration because it sounded cool. I really liked it because we did a lot of editorial-based work, and I got to express my opinion. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a lot of them. I have since I was five. My poor parents… So I just really liked the work, and then I majored in it at Ringling College of Art and Design. I guess I’ve been illustrating for seven or eight years.
F&F: Besides Illustration, what other creative outlets do you engage in?
Rachel: I knit. I haven’t in awhile because I’ve been focusing on my visual work lately, but I’ve made a lot of elaborate knitted pieces. I made this crazy knitted dress, and I have a couple sweaters that I made a few years ago, giant ones because I didn’t have a real coat when I first moved to New York. They’re really big and burly. So yeah, I do knitting. I like to cook, but I’m not a foodie. I used to sew a lot too. I made a few dresses when I was a kid. I made pants at one point. I would love to get a sewing machine again. As long as you know how to do the basics of knitting you can do almost anything you want. You visualize what shapes you want to sew up, and if you have a good knowledge of sewing, you can make anything. It’s awesome. It’s like you’re making fabric and then making clothes out of it. They have patterns, but I’ve never been one to play by the rules. I met this nice knitting lady in the Lower East Side, and every time I come in, she calls me the girl who makes up shapes. She’s super annoyed that I refuse to use a pattern. I will just go up to her and be like, “I can make this if I draw it out like this, right?” She’s like, “Just use a pattern.” I say, “No. I don’t need a pattern.”
F&F: What are some of your interests outside of art, and does that influence your art?
Rachel: Crime and Politics. I would love to get more into political drawings, just because I think most political cartoons now are so shitty. I love political cartoons of the nineteenth century. There was PUNCH, and then there was a French draftsmen named Daumier, who was amazing. He got imprisoned a lot because of his political work. It was just really beautiful, but you could also tell right away what was going on in it. Then there are also a couple illustrators from the Sixties with political-based work who were amazing. I just feel so strongly about politics that I think I need to get that muscle going visually at some point, but I haven’t really figured out how yet. I take a long time to simmer ideas in my head until I have a clear idea of how I’m going to do it. I loved the Rob Ford story. I mean he’s crazy. He looks like a Louisiana politician, and that’s why I think I just loved him. He is just perfect for Louisiana. My cousin and I have talked about doing political satire. He is my collaborator on my blog. We are both pretty obsessed with politics. In fact I joke, whenever I am upset or emotional, I call him and talk about politics. It’s just endlessly fascinating to me. I feel like people are very poorly informed, especially people of my age. It seems less so in New York, which is really great.
F&F: You mentioned your blog. What inspired you to create Darted Line?
Rachel: My cousin is a content strategist, lives in the West Village, and he is the most stylish family member. He always has these great suits and super expensive coats. He is the embodiment of a stylish New York man. We would talk and joke for years about both stupid and really cool stuff we had seen on the street. I started talking about how I needed to put myself out there, and so his girlfriend suggested he and I do something visual with all the jokes we kept making. So it’s mostly my project now, and was kind of always geared to highlight my work, but it’s definitely a collaboration a lot of times, where one of us will see something either really awesome, ridiculous, or both, and I’ll make a drawing right away. Then either he, his girlfriend, or I will come up with a tag. So it really started with my cousin and me being sassy. He is much drier than I am. He’s like my grandmother. He’s very very dry. Some of the jokes are about me. One of them is where I was on a date walking through Central Park, wearing this dress, and I was with this punk guy. A girl came into the park, wearing a floaty dress (like me), and her boy was dressed like a punk too, and we all kind of looked at each other and stopped. It was like that episode of Futurama where they meet their other selves. I adore fashion. For awhile I was really into everything fashion related. Then I felt like I got my information quota filled. Some of it is just really stupid and shallow. It’s about putting women down and making them feel like crap. I don’t read women’s magazines because I like having self confidence. So a lot of it fell by the wayside, but I still visually really like fashion, especially in New York. We’re all just kind of thrown into this town, all from different backgrounds, and how people interact with their environments is so fascinating. How it’s both a defense and an expression of yourself is endlessly interesting to me. I still follow fashion week because it is some of the stuff I really do like looking at, but all of the culture I’m not really into. Im not into being thin enough or the keeping up with the Joneses aspect of it. Following what the next cool brand is and saving up three months worth of wages to get it is crazy to me now. I’m not interested in the peacock people, as I call them, who are really privileged, go to fashion week, and wear see through skirts in thirty degree weather. I still like the peacocks for the hilariousness of it, but I’m not so inspired by it. I’m really interested in how ordinary people put together their lives visually. The craft of it is what I definitely like.
F&F: It’s clear by reading Darted Line, there is a lot of love put into the visual description of the clothes.
Rachel: Oh good! Thank you. I mean at the end of the day, I still love clothes. I am amused about what they say. I have another illustration based on something that happened to me. I have this awesome rabbit fur coat from the Eighties. It doesn’t have the crazy shoulders or anything, though. It’s like a bomber rabbit fur coat, which is so boss. It’s really warm, and I was telling Julie, my cousin’s girlfriend, “Oh wow! I love this coat so much, and it’s surprising how warm it is!”, and she looked at me with her eyebrow raised and said, “Well, it was warm enough for the animal.” I was just like, oh my God! I’m that guy. I’ve got to illustrate that. That, to me, sums up everything about fashion. That’s perfect. I get so wrapped up in the fantasy, and then I fail to see what it’s actually about or what the rationale is.
F&F: Do you ever use digital tools in creating your work?
Rachel: Yeah. I use a Wacom tablet for some pieces. It starts as a pencil drawing. Then I ink. In Photoshop I’m starting to get a crazy amount of layers, now that I am understanding more how to work digitally.
F&F: How did you start to develop your own style?
Rachel: Lots of figure drawing. I copied a lot of Degas’ work actually. I was obsessed with his nudes because they were just so perfect. His figure work is very strongly cinematic, and this was before cinema. It has a lot of the same stuff that I’m obsessed with. It’s all about gesture and fashion. It’s making a comment on people at that time. So I actually copied those works a huge amount when I was in high school. I was watching and drawing a lot of anime, but I was also copying Degas. I used to work in pastels and oil paints. In Florida I was an oil painter. I didn’t work in watercolor at all until the last three years, since I moved to New York.
F&F: Do you have a preferred medium?
Rachel: It depends on the project. I would love to get back into oils for figure work eventually. Back then, it was definitely preferred because I was the most comfortable with it, but now I feel very comfortable with watercolor. I feel that it translates better illustratively than oil paintings do, but there is something really dynamic and powerful about a huge oil painting as well. It just depends on the project though. I mostly work in watercolor. It’s a very versatile medium in terms of subject matter and content. For the nude studies, the shorter five minute poses are ink and pencil, but for the longer twenty minute poses, I’ll use watercolor. Everyone is always wondering why the hell I am bringing watercolor to Drink N’ Draw because there are no tables, it’s super crowded, and disaster could befall at any time. I could spill my ink on someone else’s work, but I have never done it (knocks on wood). I think watercolor for twenty minutes is very appropriate. It works really well, and as long as I don’t spill anything on anybody, it’s great. When people say, “Oh, I am so terrified of watercolor”, I have to remember that I used to have that fear too. Now I don’t even have to think about it, which is the whole point. The less you think about it, the better your watercolor is going to come out.
F&F: How often do you go to Drink N’ Draw?
Rachel: Every Wednesday. It’s actually a really great place to meet people. Really cool, creative people. I’ve been going regularly, and now there are about ten people I know. Everyone is super sweet and lovely. When I am having a bad week, I definitely make sure to go because I know I’ll feel better. I get this awesome, immediate sense of community, I get to draw, and it’s all for ten bucks.
F&F: It seems that even though Darted Line is a satire on fashion, having an understanding of the nude figure must inform your drawings.
Rachel: Totally. I actually spoke to the lead illustrator at Buzz Feed recently, and what he liked about my fashion illustrations is that my hands are really strong, and the bodies are really well rendered, considering he doesn’t see that a lot in fashion. There are some really awesome fashion illustrators out there, but a lot of them don’t really understand the body. They are more like decorators. To me, that’s not really what my interest is in illustrating. It’s more about the relation of the clothes to the body. Fashion illustrators often ask me if I have ever thought about stretching out the body. That’s not what I’m interested in. I feel like a lot of that is just imitating illustrators of the Fifties who did that, but did it better because they had a huge knowledge of figure drawing. Like René Gruau did a lot of Vogue covers, and he did those elongated bodies, or David Downton did all those stretched out bodies in the Eighties, but they were great and they were their own thing. I don’t feel like I’ve got to represent every body type, but I definitely don’t find it interesting to prettify something when I’m trying to convey a mood. I don’t feel like that serves anything at the end of the day. I feel like hands, especially, add so much to a simple drawing, and with a lot of fashion illustrations, the hands are hidden behind the back. You’re just missing so many opportunities to showcase something really good. I would definitely say learn the rules so you can break them as much as you want, but you don’t know what you’re breaking if you don’t know the rules to begin with.
F&F: Your color choices are really interesting. Is that something that comes naturally, or do you really think about colors and how you’re putting them together?
Rachel: I’m going to be super lame and say it’s both. I usually have a pretty good idea starting out how I want most pieces to look, and then I’ll make color choices based on that. I guess it’s based on mood. Most of the time it’s very intuitive, but sometimes I’m not sure. So I’ll be much more meticulous doing the stuff that I’m definitely sure of, slowly add things I’m unsure of, see how they look, and then push further.
F&F: You have a number of different projects that you’re currently working on, and each one has a unique style with a developed voice. Do you feel like content determines style?
Rachel: Absolutely. Not consciously, but it does. I guess some of it is a little more conscious. These bigger fashion pieces I’ve been doing have been more of an experiment for me. I wanted something a little more simple. I didn’t want to do something so realistic because I wanted to convey a mood more than how perfectly drawn it could be. So some of it is a little more thought out. A lot of times it’s just about simplifying the correct way. You don’t have to have all the information there. That’s what is so cool about illustration and what is so difficult about it too. You need to have the right amount. You can’t have too much or too little.
F&F: Do you feel like you’re simplifying in order to exaggerate a specific thing, or do you just simplify because you like a more simple look?
Rachel: I’m not really sure. Girls With Guns is a really big piece, and so I couldn’t go super crazy. I had never really done a huge amount of ensemble characters before, especially without using reference models. I really wanted them all to have very strong visual looks. I focused more on their outfits and knowing what expressions they were going to make but not over-articulating them. I remember thinking I could do every shiny rivet on the bikes, but what is that adding to the piece? It’s not going to add anything. I want you to see the girls and the girls in relation to the boys, and I feel like that’s pretty well achieved. I’m just happy I managed to do it without killing myself.
F&F: How did you get involved in illustrating the comic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
Rachel: I dated one of the writers, Mauricio Le Sage, briefly in high school. We just stayed in touch over the years, and he was seeing me post my work on Facebook. He and the other writer, Rudy Rihner, were thinking about hiring another illustrator, but then Mauricio saw my work and wanted me to do it. They had the script completed a few years ago, but because we were in different states and this was the first time we had all worked together, it took some time to complete the project. I had this insane idea that I was going to photograph every single panel for reference, which is crazy. I will never do that again. I had to do a couple of reshoots for the references, and my friends that were modeling were so patient with me. I would try to direct the photoshoot, but I was terrible at getting the models to give me what I needed. I would tell my friend, “Okay, look really scared”, and my friend would just kind of be like uh? Hans, the photographer, was so much better at directing. He would say to my friend, “I’m suddenly naked right next to your bed late at night”, and my friend would just be like, “Oh God!” with a look of absolute sheer terror. Snap. I feel like the first half of the book is sort of looking at a learning curve. Then, in the second half of the book I feel I got it, and I stopped being so tied to my references. I was able to get more loose and free with it. I didn’t really know what I was trying to go for in the first few pages, and I look at it like ugh, but that’s good. It shows me how much I’ve improved. I also realized how much I enjoy collaborating. I really love working with other people. It was a really great experience. We are going to have the second issue before long, and then the madness will start all over again.
F&F: Do you feel like you were allowed creative freedom with the project?
Rachel: Totally. I added elements that weren’t in their notes, but they loved and wanted to keep them. I decided how the characters were going to look. They said they wanted them to look almost interchangeable, but I kind of gave them more distinct looks, and they didn’t really push it. But then there were some times where I misread stuff. I made an incorrect ship drawing, which was supposed to be an exploding sixteenth century ship, but I made it a World War II ship. I’m so glad I screwed up because the second one came out so much better than the original.
F&F: Was there a moment when you were like, “Oh man, I have to do it over again?”
Rachel: Yeah, I was like, “Fuck! It’s so much harder to find a sixteenth century exploding ship! I don’t think they took photographs of those back then!” Haha! So I had to look at a lot of illustrations, and I drew it out multiple times. If I don’t know how to do something, I will just keep drawing it over and over and over and over until I feel comfortable enough in the final version.
F&F: One of the things surprising to hear, is that you had that period of time where you were not feeling confident about your work because you strike us as someone who is comfortable reaching out and pursuing creative opportunities. Is that a conscious choice?
Rachel: Honestly yeah, it’s a conscious choice. If you believe you have a low self esteem, you will have it. If you decide to believe you’re awesome, then you are. The other thing is having a really good support network. So when you call someone and say, “I suck”, they are like, “No. You’re just drunk, and I still love you.” That’s the key. Yeah, I actually used to think it was the worst thing to put yourself out there. I had this insane idea that if you were really good, people would just come to you. That’s just really not true. I mean people will come to you once they’ve heard of you and they like you, but if they don’t know of you...that was where I failed in that equation. I didn’t realize people actually had to know who you were before they could come to you. It definitely doesn’t come naturally, but I am determined because I really love doing this work. It seems like it’s going to come out no matter what I do, so I may as well do it on my own terms and do it with things that I am really passionate about. I am just trying to turn off the voice in my head that is saying I don’t know. At the end of the day, that doesn’t lead anywhere. It really doesn’t do anything for you. So you may as well just listen to stuff that is going to get you what you want. Just because you’re an artist, and you’re not at the top of your field, does not make you a bad person. Just because you’re starting out, does not make you a bad person. Those are not bad person characteristics. Stealing money from old age pensioners makes you a bad person, not being a struggling artist. You really got to keep it in perspective at the end of the day about stuff like that.
F&F: Is this primarily freelance for you? Did you work for a company where you were illustrating?
Rachel: No, not yet. Mostly it’s been private commissions. It’s really only been the last few months I’ve really started pushing myself to reach out to people and go for things I’m really interested in. I’m trying to cast a huge, wide net and wait and see.
F&F: Do you have any rituals to put you in the mindset of creating?
Rachel: Podcasts and coffee. I need to hear another person talk when I’m working. I don’t really listen to music much when I’m working. I think I have about four hundred unplayed podcasts because that’s how many I’m subscribed to. Sometimes I will play movies that are heavily audio focused, like documentaries, but it’s largely podcasts. And coffee.
F&F: Which podcast do you have heaviest in rotation?
Rachel: WTF with Marc Maron. I met him a few months ago. It was awesome. He performed at the Skirball Center at NYU for the New York Comedy Festival. I handed my phone to the guy I was with and said, “Here take our photo.” I was so nervous. It’s really difficult for me to smile genuine on command. Most of the time, it looks like I’m going to murder someone, but that’s the happiest smile that’s been documented of me in the last year. I was gleeful.
Rachel’s new found sense of confidence in her work can clearly be seen. The beautiful and bold color blocking in the faces of her subjects reveals a solid understanding of the human form, allowing her to be free and break with convention. She dances along the fine line of looseness and control, controlled without being too tight and loose without being a mess. She mercilessly pokes fun at fashion while, at the same time, nurturing a true love for it. It is these dichotomies at play that make Rachel Merrill’s work endlessly fascinating and enjoyable to look at. It was a true pleasure spending time with her and gaining a deeper understanding of what drives her to create. If you would like to see her work for yourself, head over to her exhibition at Kinship in Astoria, Queens opening March 6. You can also check out her work on her website, rachelmerrill.net, her tumblr page, Darted Line, or follow her on her instagram, @ohhhaeee. Keep an eye out for issue two of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and a new anthology in the works about terrible dating stories.