Casey Robin is an illustrator and animator focusing on a few things Luna Luna loves: ladies, creepy pretty things, and fairytales. Oh, and dolls. She has a culture project on dolls and how they’ve evolved over the decades—and it’s giving her ideas for stories! Bonus. This skilled and extremely lovely artist (with credentials like Disney under her belt) shares her art and her inspiration with us.
Where did you first get the inspiration to do these warm, lovely illustrations?
I was often very sad, growing up. I still have a tendency to be melancholy. Really, I just wanted to cheer myself with some happy little pictures. As it turns out, other people were cheered by them, too. My heart often feels very full of love. Not for any specific thing, just a big, big love for—I don’t know what—but it aches! Making these warm illustrations helps me get that big, strange love out onto the paper. When other people started seeing them and reacting to them, it was the most wonderful thing, like we were instant friends because I had made this picture for them. Only I didn’t know it was for them when I made it!
As far as subject matter goes, I’m mostly inspired by childhood stories and by femininity in its many forms. My mom read all of Narnia to me when I was little, and it left a deep impression. Naiads and Dryads were very dear to me. My faun girls haven’t made it into my public art yet, but my sketchbooks are full of them. I was in love with Mr. Tumnus when I was young. Still am, actually. I like to draw fairytailish things because I think fairytales touch us on a primal level. They affirm the things we feel certain of when we are very young: curses can be broken, monsters can be vanquished, the small, innocent one can triumph in a dark world. We tend to give up a lot of these beliefs as we grow up, but I think they’re important. I think they’re true.
I can’t say why I draw women almost exclusively, except that I really, really like drawing women. When I was younger, I drew beautiful women because I wanted so badly to be beautiful. I’ve always been girly and it’s interesting to me how many different ways there are of being feminine. I almost never draw princesses these days. I like chubby girls, or wild, barefoot things with twigs in their hair, or monsters. I’m becoming more and more fond of sad monsters.
You have a unique signature style. How did it develop?
Throughout late high school and most of college, I worked in a more classical, slightly darker style. Lots of anatomy and chiaroscuro shading. I was trying to impress people – to prove that I could really draw. Those illustrations would get an appreciative nod or a nice critique, but they never elicited strong emotion from people.
When I was about to finish school, I started asking myself why I’d wanted to draw to begin with, and what I hoped to achieve with my pictures. The answers were right there, just waiting for me to ask the questions. I wanted to draw because things like Disney movies and great fairytale illustrations made me feel. Sometimes they made me feel warm and safe, and at other times quite uneasy, but I always enjoyed the emotional effect they had on me.
I wanted to make things that would have that kind of effect on others. So I put aside my “Look at me, I can draw!” style in favor of a simpler, more childlike approach. I delved back into the things that had first sparked my desire to do art: the work of old Disney artists like Freddy Moore and Mary Blair, Little Golden Books, illustrations by Alphonse Mucha, Kay Nielsen and Arthur Rackham. I allowed myself the freedom to draw the way I wanted to draw, not the way I thought my teachers wanted me to draw. By being honest with myself, and setting aside my desire to impress, I found a style that felt true.
You’ve described your work as being either “sunny or scary.” Tell us about some of the stories you’ve concocted. How could these adorable illustrations possibly tell a scary story?
Growing up, I loved stories that scared me. I liked dark fairytales. I watched Labyrinth over and over again because it freaked me out. As soon as I was old enough to understand them, I devoured the works of Poe. I have a range of stories in me, some with dark or frightening elements. Right now, my style is very light because I’m just having fun, but I have a darker style on hand for when I need to tell darker stories. Medusa has been weighing on my mind lately, and while she will be the hero of the story and very likeable, that story just won’t work without some dark and scary moments. So, it really depends on the story I’m telling as to whether or not the pictures will be scary.
Animation takes a lot of skill and patience from what I’ve heard. Can you talk to us about your educational experience? Where were you trained?
I pieced together an education from a lot of different sources. I started by learning everything I could from books. I had this Art of Animation book that I spent hours and hours copying from. I was lucky enough to go to a performing and fine arts charter school, so I took classes in drawing and acting, both valuable skills for an animator. Just after graduation, I went to CalArts’ summer intensive, where I animated my first short (in about two weeks!)
For college, I planned to do two years of general education at Westmont, and then transfer to CalArts to specialize in animation. The first part went as planned. Through Westmont, I was even able to spend a semester studying classical drawing and painting in Italy. I was accepted into CalArts, but my financial aid fell through and I couldn’t go.
After my disappointment with CalArts, I drifted from place, trying to find the knowledge and skills that would get me to Disney. I attended The Art Institute of California, both San Diego and Sacramento campuses. I spent two years working at Borders, selling books in the children’s section and looking at the most beautifully illustrated ones during breaks. I did The Illustration Academy summer intensive at Ringling College. I worked as an aupair in Amsterdam, hated it, and went to Paris, where I inquired about attending the prestigious animation school, Gobelins. For a long time I was very lost.
While I was at the Illustration Academy, feeling out of place amongst all the students doing high-concept editorial illustrations, I saw a poster advertising Disney’s Talent Development Program. It was like a beacon light drawing me back to my path. I knew that was where I needed to be, so I threw everything into getting myself there.
And I have to ask: what was it like working at Disney?
It was extremely difficult, and extremely rewarding. The biggest surprise to me was that there weren’t really that many “great Disney secrets.” I had to learn. I went in for Story, storyboarding, that is. When I asked my mentor “Alright, how do I do this?” He was like, “Just do what feels right. See if it works. If it doesn’t, change it.” More than anything else, I learned that my intuition is true and valuable.
At Disney, I also discovered that the real secret to Disney magic isn’t one super talented person or one magical art trick: it’s people working together. Everyone there is very talented, but they tend to specialize in what they’re best at. You have one guy who’s phenomenal with lighting and another who’s great at design, and another who’s really funny, and you take the best things from each of these people and put them together. It’s a powerful mix.
It can also be powerfully explosive. I was working with a team of fourteen interns. None of us had ever worked together and each of us was terrified. We were basically trying to do the impossible (make an animated short from scratch in six weeks) and the stress levels were pretty high. There was a lot of drama, but there were a lot of magical moments, too, of people pulling hard for the team and supporting one another. We finished our short and it was both terrifying and wonderful to see it up there on the screen in the Disney theatre with all the Disney folks watching.
You have this new project underworks about dolls. That is, dolls and their place in American culture throughout time, right? Can you tell us about that? Where did the idea for this come from?
After many months enjoying blogs like The Toybox Philosopher and Confessions of a Doll Collector’s Daughter, I decided it was time to start my own doll blog. I wanted to call it “Dollyanna,” but that was already taken, so I’m calling it Casey Robin’s “Dollyanna.” I’ll be focusing mainly on the modern American fashion doll world, particularly playline dolls that are intended for a broad market. Though occasional collector’s dolls and dolls from other countries will probably make it in as well. I’ll review dolls that interest me, commenting on strengths and weaknesses in design, aesthetic, concept, and quality. I will also include fun little photo stories and customization projects. I’m very interested in Monster High repaints. Whenever relevant, I’ll compare current dolls to dolls of the past to see how trends have shifted. I’m hoping that my experience in art and character design will make for an interesting perspective on this subject. Also, I’ve been getting a lot of new dolls lately and it feels selfish not to share them with the world somehow.
Can you talk to us about doll culture in America in general? It tends to be a touchy subject given the whole issue of sexism. Do you think there’s still issue in 21st century style dolls? Are we getting better or worse?
Right now I would say that fashion doll culture in America is shifting away from the Barbie model, and that’s a good thing. There is enormous variety in the type of dolls available today. Want a companion roughly your own age? There are American Girl dolls and their less expensive cousins, Our Generation. Want to play out scenes from your favorite stories? Disney Store dolls have never been better. Want a big-headed girly doll with lots of sparkle? There are Cutie Pops, Lalaloopsy, and La Dee Da. Is that too tame for you? Well, there’s always Monster High and the bajillion copycat lines that it’s inspired. And if monster scare you, there’s the brand new sister line to Monster High: Ever After High! Robots, zombies, mermaids, aliens, Chinese dragons, blob monsters. Dolls are a lot more creative nowadays than when I was a girl. Back in the 80’s your choices were Barbie – the blonde one or the brunette one – sweetsy, cutesy little girl dolls like Strawberry Shortcake, or a doll with one gimmick that quickly got old.
For as long as we have fashion dolls, I think there will be debate about what kinds of body messages they send to girls. Personally, I never compared myself to my dolls. I still don’t. I see them as fun little design objects, little cartoon people that don’t have much bearing on reality. Many of them are highly stylized anyway, with heads the size of minor planets and eyes like saucers. While I would welcome a variety in shapes in dolls, on a very practical level, that limits clothes-sharing, which is part of the fun of doll play. I’m more likely to take issue with the types of personalities that dolls model for little girls (like the shallow, self-obsessed Bratz) than I am to take issue with their body measurements.
The one thing that I do think is sad about today’s doll culture is that girls are aging out of dolls very early. Girls as young as seven often think of dolls as “for babies.” I would like to see children continue to engage in imaginative play for as long as possible. I think that a doll collection – like a personal library – can grow along with you. There’s a rich world of imaginative play beyond baby dolls and Barbies. Now that I’m an adult, I interact with dolls in a very different way than I did when I was a child, but it’s still a pleasant and relaxing pastime. I can do things now – like sewing, customizing, and blogging – that I just couldn’t when I was younger.
What kind of influence do dolls have on your stories? Is there any connection there?
Oh yes, the impetus for this doll kick I’m on came directly from a story. I have this idea I’ve been nursing for a while, about a young girl who’s been transformed into a performing automaton back in 19th century Europe, when automatons were a big thing. The man who altered her considers her to be his masterpiece. He’d spent years trying to perfect automata through traditional means before incorporating alchemical magic. Anyhow, he’s completely obsessed with her, and very possessive. I wanted to get inside his head, to understand this bond he’d forged with the mechanical girl. So I started stalking the doll aisle, figuring that dolls are similar enough to automatons. I bought myself a Novi Star Mae Tallick, a cute little robot. And I fell in love. I became fascinated with these little personalities, these little beings that you could buy and own. I tend to fall into my interests deep and hard. I think I understand my characters better through this obsession.
What about fairytales? They seem to have a big influence in your work. What are some of your favorites?
Rapunzel – Because I always felt very sheltered, growing up.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses – Because I love the mystery of that strange underground place that seems to have them all entranced.
The Wild Swans – Because the sister loves her brothers so deeply and suffers through so much in order to help them.
Jack and the Beanstalk – Because my grandma used to tell it to me from memory, and because I want to believe that there are giants in the sky.
Beauty and the Beast – Because it is the sweetest, saddest, most tender fairytale, full of emotional upheaval.
The Little Mermaid – Because I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid. I think I would have stayed in the undersea palace with my mermaid sisters and my water garden.
And since I asked about 21st century dolls, what about 21st century fairytales? Or rather 21st century fairytale adaptations. What are some you think worked well? Not so well?
Can I squeeze in a few from the 20th century? I think Ever After was a very interesting adaptation of the Cinderella story. It basically took magic out of the mix and left it to the characters to solve their own problems. I love Leonardo Da Vinci as the fairy godmother. I also think that the 1946 French Beauty and the Beast movie (La Belle et la Bete) is wonderful for its heavy atmosphere and surreal visuals. I recently discovered the series “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller,” and I love it to pieces for just telling fairytales without any flashy gimmicks or pandering humor. They just tell them very well and don’t treat kids like they’re stupid. Because kids aren’t.
This one isn’t quite a classic fairytale, but I love the 2003 live action Peter Pan. I didn’t see it in theatres because I thought it was going to be full of Hollywood-style “attitude,” which I hate, but it was actually incredibly well-acted, insightful, and funny. It brought new dimension to the characters of Peter Pan, while still remaining true to the fundamental theme and tone of the story. It has the first Wendy I’ve seen who wasn’t painfully boring.
Most classic fairytale adaptations that I like are found in books rather than movies. I was pleasantly surprised by Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, though I found the film obnoxious. Edith Pattou’s East was a sensitive and well-executed retelling of “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon.” I also love books that weave in elements of fairytale while creating an original story, such as John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and Mike Mignol’s Hellboy series. (By the way, I really enjoy the film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, as well as Hellboy II: The Golden Army.)
As for adaptations that don’t work, I’m just going to share one. I think it’s emblematic of the modern film fairytale and why that model often falls flat. Here we go: Snow White and the Huntsman. It had so much going for it: an excellent take on the Evil Queen, with a stellar performance from Charlize Theron, some really great concepts, a dark Germanic-Gothic look. And it just screwed it all up. The casting on Snow White was terrible. She was completely uninvested. There was a last minute love triangle forced in where there didn’t need to be one. They wedged in fairy magic late in the second act, when, again, the movie would have been better without it. Above all, the ending was one of the biggest letdowns ever.
The Evil Queen was so powerful and interesting, that I just kept telling myself, “Okay, so Snow White is as boring as tar, stick around. You know that an awesome villain like that will come to a spectacular end.” But no, she just sort of whimpers and falls over. It was the nail in the coffin for a movie that I really, really wanted to like. It was as if halfway through production some other director took over and said, “Forget that retelling of Snow White thing, if we want to get asses into seats, we’ve got to make this more like Twilight!” The movie should have trusted itself enough to just be what it was meant to be: a really dark and magic-free retelling of Snow White. It didn’t need more big names. Just cast the best Snow White. It didn’t need a forced romance plot. Just tell the story of Snow White! It didn’t even need magic, outside of the dark powers of the Evil Queen. As much as I love magic, that would have made for a really interesting take on Snow White. They got the Evil Queen right, and the rest – while initially promising – fell flat.
Before I get off my fairytale soapbox, may I just say that I love Neil Gaiman stories? They are true 21st century fairytales. Coraline is one of the most frightening, most satisfying stories I’ve ever read. It operates like an old world fairytale, with enchanted doors to other worlds, magical assistance, and a truly terrifying villain that wants to gobble up the Innocent of the story.
What do fans of your stories and illustrations have to look forward to in the upcoming year?
I’ll be doing some Harry Potter pieces that I’ve been wanting to make for a while now. These will include (tentatively) “Breakfast at the Burrow,” “Socks for Dobby,” a series entitle “Expecto Patronum!” and possibly a triad featuring Lily Potter.
I’ve already begun a series paying homage to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with my versions of Oompa Loompas and that trippy boat ride. While I’m not able to sell prints of these at the moment, I will be putting the images up on my blog for people to see. I may also create some licensed art for Firefly and The Princess Bride later on this year. And for fans of Dr. Who, let’s just say that this year my art may be bigger on the inside.
In my personal work, I’d like to expand my LadyBugs pinup series to include some new bugs like “Audrey Hepbug,” “Liza Spinelli” and “Diana Wasp.” I also have a fun and saucy line called “Tea and Strumpets” that I may debut, depending on how much time I have for personal work.
And finally, I hope you’re not afraid of snakes, because I’m tackling the myth of Medusa! Actually, she’s afraid of snakes. She’s afraid of a lot of stuff. My Medusa is a very reluctant hero. Oh yeah, she’s the hero in my version. It’s the story of how she becomes the snake-haired monster we remember today. It will be a graphic novel, YA or middle grade, depending on how dark the story wants to go. It actually won’t be out for a while, but I’ll try and leak some images.
Artist’s website: www.caseyrobin.com
Images: Casey Robin
Renée Aubern is a California born, New York bred poet, writer of songs, and kook. Constantly on the move, she documents the world around her in photographs and notebook scribbles. @reneeaubern