Philadelphia, PA native Erika Richards is a professional illustrator – a skilled artist who has mastered the technique of blending watercolor and Prismacolor pencils. Erika began creating art at the tender age of three.
A fascination with the female figure and fairy tales has developed into Erika creating fantasy art. Erika draws upon fantasy, history, and the human image to make visual art that elaborates on imagination.
Erika is a graduate of the Moore College of Art and Design located in Philadelphia, PA with a BFA in Illustration. Her artistic skills have earned her several accolades. She is the recipient of the Philadelphia Watercolor Society Award 2017, 2nd place award for “Best Illustrator” at the 34th Annual Fall for the Arts Festival Chestnut Hill, PA 2018 and 1st place artist award for the 11th Annual Gloucester City Cultural Arts and Heritage Society 2019. Her most recent accolade is the Philadelphia Fellowship for Black Artists Mural Arts Philadelphia 2020.
In the summer of 2019, Erika started her business Erika L. Illustrations LLC. Erika L. LLC prides itself on putting quality artwork first. “If the work must be brilliant, everything else will fall into place.” Erika L. Illustrations produces pristine art and merchandise with an emphasis on Afrocentrism and black women. Erika is supported by her mother CFO Sherida Douglass and is currently growing Erika L. to become one of the most preeminent art companies in the world.
As an artist, I try to mix fun with a little culture. I believe art is universal and boundless. It should translate across all diversities and ethnicities. I draw my inspiration from everywhere. However, history has always been my favorite go-to. Childhood favorites such as the Grimm Brothers fairy tales, historic movies, and documentaries as well as television shows and animations really excite my artistic passion.
The beautiful illustrations of the past assist me in wanting to give artistic life to the current generation. When I was young; like most girls, I loved all the Disney movies and the pretty princesses. As well as the beautiful illustrations in the Grimm Brothers books and the wonderful works of art from master artists such as Alphonse Mucha and Gil Elvgren. Which is why my technique is heavily influenced by them. But of course, none of these ladies looked like me. So, whenever I drew a figure, I instinctively made the females look like me. As I got older, I decided to broaden that concept.
Many artists have done African American versions of classic fables and fairy tales. I go a step further, creating not just black princesses but black women in opulent period attire. Because I want the world to remember that African American people were also there during that time. Wearing the same fashion, same hairstyles with wealth.
My goal is to create a moment of epiphany. That when viewers look at my work, they see the true majesty of black people.
Hi Erika! What inspired you to pursue art?
Erika: Nothing truly inspired me to pursue the life of an artist I was born with the love of art and creating. I never took a class or watched Bob Ross painting and exclaimed “This is the life for me!” It just always was. Creating is so deep inside of me that I couldn’t even tell you or think of what my backup plan would be if life as an artist didn’t pan out. Art is and will always be the only option for me.
Tell us about your artwork, style, subject matter etc.
Erika: I would say my style is a mix of fantasy, history, fun, and culture. I try my best to mix those four themes together in every piece that I create. Fantasy is of course found in the elves, mermaids, and such that I create. But even the ladies that I create who don’t have pointy ears or a tail, for the most part, are women that did not exist in history and I made up in my mind. History comes into play when creating the clothing that my ladies are wearing and the scenes that they are depicted in. Fun is largely about how I feel when I’m creating a piece. But also, in the manner of work that I create. I like to create lighthearted pieces with no blaring social or political agenda.
You really would only know the deeper social and racial points that come across in my art by having a conversation with me. And perhaps asking some probing questions of what I am trying to get across in my work. And culture is of course the lovely black ladies that I create. I want the women that I draw and paint to reflect me. I am a black woman so I would like to see a black woman reflected at me on the page.
When did you first realize that you have a wonderful gift and that you can draw?
Erika: Well as I previously stated, I have always known about my wonderful God-given gift because I was born with it. My mother and I have this ongoing joke about the day I was born. We say that she was in labor for 3 days because I was drawing when I was in her womb and I didn’t want to come out until I was finished my piece.
Can you share a usual day in your life, and what a day in your art studio is like… we love the details, and what music would you listen to, and do you have any pets accompany you?!
Erika: So, a typical day for me goes something like this. Number one I am not a morning person. To be honest I’m a down-right crab when I first wake up and it is better for you not to speak or come near me until I have settled into my day. I’m not an early riser either. I say up way past 12 am so in the morning I need three alarms at three different times to get me up and going. The first alarm goes off at 8 A.M. That’s the time I would like to wake up so that I can get as much work done as possible. However, I know that I most likely will not get up at 8 AM but I keep the alarm for good measure. Then I have a 9 AM alarm. Truthfully, I will get up and stay up at 9 AM if I need to use the lavatory. But if I don’t then this alarm gets skipped too. The very last alarm is at 10 AM, this is the now or never alarm. It is usually the one that I wake up for.
Once I am awake the first thing I do is check all my emails business and personal then I check my social media for any updates. After that, I head downstairs to the kitchen and get something to eat. Depending on which alarm I wake up for I may only have time to grab a yogurt and/or a piece of fruit, but I always fix my coffee. After that, I head into my studio and get to work. As you can see, I didn’t say anything about getting dressed because I normally work in my pajamas. It’s just more comfortable for me and I don’t think that will ever change.
The music I listen to when I am working varies on my mood. Some days it is cool jazz or bossa nova jazz on YouTube and/or Pandora. Other days I listen to all my Prince music, Michael Jackson, George Benson, Will Downing, or BTS. At times I’ll be in the mood for nothing but classical music. Tchaikovsky is my favorite composer.
Now as for my furry studio assistant his name is Jazz. He has such a big personality this whole interview could be all about him. Jazz is my 5-year-old gray tabby cat. He was gifted to me by my aunt for my 24th birthday. He’s funny, weird and thinks he is the king of the house. When I am in my studio and he decides to grace me with his presence his mission is to get my attention by any means necessary. He will continuously rub against my legs, desk, and supply containers until I acknowledge his presence. If that doesn’t work, he’ll jump on any surface that is sturdy enough and of course in my sightline to get me to look at him. Now if that does not work, his last resort is to stand on his hind legs and headbutt my arms until I have no choice but to pay attention to him. In most cases, I will stop working and pay attention to him. Yet those rare times when none of his tactics have worked, he’ll leave my studio for about 4 minutes allowing me to work in peace and quiet. Until the 4 minutes are up and he’s back in my studio doing his dance all over again. I won’t even get into what happens when it is his dinner time…. just think of all I’ve just told you but add none stop crying meows. Nonetheless, I love my furry pain in the neck.
Is there any particular subject you found especially challenging to work on? If so, why?
Erika: A subject that I find difficult…. will I should say ‘subjects’ I find challenging to work on are environments like rooms and foliage and subjects like cars and drawing men. These are all subjects I would like to get better at. I struggle with these subjects so much because I don’t draw them often. So, when I do it is a challenge to get them to the leave of my usual subject matter. Also, I just don’t seem to have the imagination for these subject matters. For example, I can certainly draw a car, a man, or a flower but I don’t draw them often, so I struggle when I do. But when it comes to environments like rooms to place my main character in or say if I envision them in a room inside an enchanted castle. I’m super challenged to come up with what that room looks like from my imagination and then transferring that image to paper. Most times I need a reference and I do not deviate from my reference. Which makes me feel constrained at times.
You do a lot of fantasy art. Which part of the fantasy genre do you prefer? Who are your favorite book authors? Do you read comics and graphic novels? Any movie and tv series favorites?
Erika: I’m not exactly sure what to call my favorite genre but I know it’s not sci-fi fantasy…. I guess I could say it’s fairy tale fantasy. However, I do dabble in a bite of all the fantasy genres. My favorite authors are Anne Rice, Louise Rennison and then there is of course The Brothers Grimm. I have more but that would be a long list. I don’t read comic books or graphic novels. I love Japanese Manga of which I have many and hope to get even more. I was turned on to them by a girl who rode the school bus with me back in middle school. She let me borrow one of her books and after I figured out how to read it…. right to left not left to right… I was hooked. I brought every book from that series and I have re-read them several times.
Piggybacking on my love of Manga I also love anime. Some of my favorites include Sailor Moon, Inuyasha, The Seven Deadly Sins, Death Note, Vampire Knight, and many, many more. I also really enjoy watching re-runs of my favorite T.V. shows like Frasier, True Blood, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, The Parkers, and Living Single. My favorite movies that I could watch over again and never get tired of are Interview with the vampire, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a made for T.V. movie that aired back in 2000 called The 10th Kingdom. Now that is truly one of my favorite movies. In fact, I’ve purchased the film three separate times. The first was when DVD players were brand new and I did not know that you needed to take real good care of your discs so they all got scratched up and I could not play them anymore. The second time my aunt brought it for me on VHS and I watched it so many times that I broke the tape. And the very last time I purchased it on DVD again but this time I took better care of the discs. As you can see my likes are all over the place. I’m open to lots of genres be it movies, music, or television.
What is the work you’ve done that you’re the most excited about?
Erika: I can’t really say that I have a piece that I am most excited about. There are some pieces that after I’ve finished them, I think, “I really like this one!” but just one I’m excited about…no. As some artists say it’s like choosing your favorite child and I agree with that.
For many Autumn is their favorite part of the year, so many colors, some of nature is dying to give birth to the new one. What is your favorite part of the year?
Erika: Oh, I am right there with everyone else. Autumn is my favorite time of the year as well. I recently took a trip through upstate New York and I was just blown away by the majestic mountains covered in trees and adorned with all the fall hues. Plus, I’m a fall baby. My birthday is in November so I guess I was born to love Autumn.
Who are a few artists/people that really inspire you right now, and why?
Erika: Funny enough the artists that inspire me haven’t changed since I was a child. Don’t get me wrong over the years I have come in contact with many new people that I admire artistically but artists that inspire my work have always been the same three men…Alphonse Mucha, Gil Elvgren, and John William Godward. Now if you go and look these artists up and then go to look at most of my work you may say, “I don’t see any similarities.” And I would be inclined to agree with you. All three of those artists have such distinct styles that my work would have to almost mirror their whole style for anyone to see the influence. However, the elements I use from each artist are so minute that I would truly have to explain what I took from each artist for you to say, “Oh now I see it.” Which of course I would explain to the viewer. For instance, from Mucha, I take his opulent design, bold outlines, and breaking the border. From Elvgren I take his use of fuller figured women, sexy poses, having the background as secondary to the main subject also his bold use of makeup on the figure. Lastly, from Godward, I take his use of romantic scenes, deep and bold colors on the figure and his Realistic rendering of clothing. The elements that I use from these masters are things that I instinctively want to have in my work. Making it so ingrained in my thoughts that I don’t have to constantly reference their work to be sure I’ve included that small detail. You might even say that I’ve always created my works that way even before I realized that my work was being influenced by these artists.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Erika: I’ve had many splendid responses to my work but the one that really sticks out to me is in my opinion the funniest. Last Christmas while we were vending at a holiday arts & craft fair a potential customer came up to the counter. She wanted to buy one of our tote bags that had my Blue Head Wrap piece on it. She was so in love with the artwork and genuinely wanted to purchase the bag. Now my subject matter of choice is women particularly Black women. Well, this costumer was a Caucasian woman and despite her really wanting this bag she thought it best to ask me and my mother whether or not she had permission to buy the bag because she was white and the woman on the bag was black and moreover wearing earrings that said, “Black Girl Magic.” My mom and I peed ourselves laughing. Of course, we told the woman that she could buy the bag. We told her to rock the bag proudly. That had never happened to me before…someone liked my art so strongly but felt compelled to ask, “Can I buy this because I am not the same ethnicity as the woman you painted.” Truly I didn’t know those thoughts even existed. Talk about unconscious biases.
I have plenty of artwork on my walls of white women and I never question whether I should buy it because the artists painted a white woman and I’m a black woman. I just thought the work was beautiful, so I brought it…. Anyway, it is in my house and if someone doesn’t care about it, they are welcome to leave which is what we told the woman. If someone isn’t okay with you rocking this Black Girl Magic bag, then just walk away.
What are you working on right now, and what are your plans for the future?
Erika: I am currently working on a 30-day art challenge called #Inktober which will be ending this Saturday or Saturday, Oct 31st depending on whenever this article is posted. After I’ll be going back to chipping away at my large stack of unfinished art pieces some of which will be accompanying me to an art show on December 6th in Atlanta, Georgia of which I am one of the featured artists.
My long-term plans are to open my own art gallery featuring black female illustrators. That has always been a dream of mine. There are a ton of art galleries in the world but rarely do I see ones exclusively for illustration…not to say they aren’t out there. I’ve been to a few but compared to galleries that feature fine art, illustration galleries numbers are small. Also, exclusive female galleries are even rarer and once you get into black female galleries well, I’m not sure if a gallery-like that exists at all.
My hope and goal are that through my art I can somehow bridge that gap between racial inequality…one beautiful black woman at a time. I want to create a moment of epiphany for the world. I want everyone to remember that Black people were also there during these times in history that I draw and paint. Black people wearing the same fashion, same hairstyles with wealth and influence. I don’t create work that reflects political views and such, but I believe I do create social changing work…. just in my own way.
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