In the latest Disney Fine Art release, there is a wonderful collection premiered by Heather Edwards, and it’s all VILLAINS! Heather has been creating beautiful fantasy art from the beginning of her career, and became an official Disney artist over a decade ago. Her originals are snapped up before they’re even released, or are done as commissions. Every piece she creates is full of symbolism, often has hidden images, and, of course, hidden Mickeys! I’ll be writing a separate blog specifically speaking to each of her pieces and the symbols, images, and Easter eggs she includes, but first, collectors should get to know her as a person and as an artist, and see her new collection!
I spoke to Heather about her life in art, her inspiration, and her new collection, The Heather Edwards Graphite Collection, which is full of tasty, flamboyant “baddie” characters that don’t get nearly enough attention. Perfect for October and the coming of Halloween!
Leslie of ArtInsights: How did you get your start with Disney?
Heather Edwards: Well, this is a bit of a longish story. First thing’s first, while I loved watching Disney animated films growing up, I never dreamt of being a Disney artist. I was more interested in painting animals and horses and such. It wasn’t until I had been convinced to take my adventure into fantastical art that I stumbled, if you will, into the Disney realm. About ten years into my professional art show career, a gentleman crossed paths with me at my booth at SDCC and asked, rather simply, if I had ever created any Disney related artwork or had been interested in it. I told him, “no.” He then proceeded to ask if I would now be interested in doing so. I told him that I probably was not. (Again, I hadn’t ever dreamt of being a Disney artist and didn’t think it would be something I would be interested in–primarily for the fact that I was envisioning doing the animated versions of the characters. I was focused on employing classical realism in my artwork and those two styles are vastly divergent). The gentleman then proceeded to procure his business card to hand to me, on which it read that he was a marketing rep with Disney and he told me that if I was ever interested that I should give him a call. Lol, if I have a super power, it is the uncanny ability to put my foot in my mouth. Anyway, I took the card and he walked away. As it happens, a very good friend of mine who had watched all of this go down encouraged me to send some sketches to the Disney rep–but only in a style that was entirely my own, which was to bring the characters to life in a way that brought both reality and classical merit. So I did. There was much back and forth over the course of 18 months where things didn’t seem to go anywhere, and then, poof, the emails went silent. I didn’t know what to do. My good friend again advised “just do”. So I painted up Cinderella’s New Day (Cinderella), Elegant Warrior (Mulan), and Her Father’s Daughter (Merida).
Happily, everybody loved them and images of them went viral online after being hung (exactly two years after my first encounter with the Disney rep) at SDCC the year that I finished them. A month later we were hanging the same originals (plus I See the Light – Rapunzel) at the D23 Expo.
That’s where the paintings caught the eye of the folks at Disney Fine Art. A contract was the next step. And the rest is history.
Who are some of your role models as an artist and as a person?
I’m not sure I would say that any artist is particularly a “role model”—albeit I thoroughly admire their work and creativity and that inspires me. As for a role model as a person, I can unequivocally say that a very fine friend of mine by the name of Connie Lane is a star in my mind. She is the epitome of kindness, grace, strength and integrity—everything I am striving to become. Not to mention she was personally an Ambassador to Walt Disney while he was alive. Yeah, then there’s that. 🙂
Who are some of your favorite creators right now that inspire you?
My favorite creators right now are still probably the ones I’ve had for a very long time. I love the styling and sensitivity of the PreRaphaelites of the late 19th century. I also love the vast number of Renaissance artists that were their roots. That being said, however, I am daily delving into modern creative sources in order to find new ways to express my ideas. There has been no one singular artist or one singular style that has grabbed me, per se; I let an image strike me in the moment. I then ask myself why I stopped to look closer at it and if it is something that resonates, I let it “stay.”
I understand that your experiences being raised in and loving nature has had a huge impact on your work as an artist. Can you talk about that a bit?
Absolutely! There are many things my parents taught me growing up, but when it comes to art (and life, I guess!) one of the most impactful things I learned was to be observant and to find beauty in everything. Living a rather sheltered childhood meant that this was focused on my surroundings—and I preferred the out-of-doors. Unlike several of my siblings, during summers off of school, I would wake up as the sun rose to watch the effects the changing light had on and through the blades of grass in the lawn. I would examine the rust on the old metal porch chairs and sleep outside on stormy nights to study the ever-morphing clouds, inhale the moisture in the air and feel the reverberation of thunder. These are just the tiny number of things that I still enjoy doing, and all of it—visual, tactile, audial, etc—has an effect on the way in which I create.
Please give us an idea of a day in your life as a painter, what your process or your daily regimen is as an artist?
No two days are the same for me, honestly. But usually, it’s wake up, feed the cats and dog, take the dog for a walk, put the house in order, pick some weeds, smell some roses… yup, I still take time to observe the sunlight coming through the variegated purple leaves of my canna lilies, et al… make sure that everyone at home has what they need to succeed for the day, and then I head to my studio. You’d think that I would sit right down and get to painting when I get there, but no. There are emails to answer and bills to pay, orders to fulfill and a fire to light under my chair so I get motivated to get to work. When that finally has a chance to happen, I drop into my “zone” and nothing can stop me from painting until all the energy for it has left me for the day. Some days that’s 12 hours. Some days that’s one hour. For me, though, I cannot “surface” paint. I truly have to be in a creative “zone” in order to be successful. This requires a level of mental gymnastics to purge my brain of everything else so that I can focus fully on what’s in front of me. A meditation of sorts. Depending on the day, this can take a while or it can happen almost immediately. But once I’m where I need to be, it is very easy to let the creative juices flow.
How does music play a role in your creative experience? (or does it?) what kinds of songs do you play while painting or what most inspires your muse?
Music (or the lack thereof) is extremely important to my creative experience. I find that with certain creative endeavors, only a certain type of music will do. Music definitely sets a mood and it lends strength to the stories that are being told in my artwork. Generally, I go for instrumentals as I find that lyrics have a tendency to draw me away from my task at hand, and these can range from dramatic classical symphonies to drop-into-the-background game soundtracks. But sometimes, it actually brings more success when I have the opposite, such as alternative rock, jazz, or international music. Other times, if I have anything playing (let alone any noise at all), I am so distracted that I cannot accomplish anything I am trying to do. During those times, I literally meditate the entire time I am painting.
You are a mom with a big family. How do you balance your family with your artistry and how do those experiences feed each other?
Being a mom with a big family has been both a challenge and a blessing. Being able to work a flexible schedule—and up until recently, working from home—definitely helped. But it also made it hard, lol. Trying to paint while you’ve got a pair of identical toddlers crawling and climbing into trouble at any given moment keeps you on your toes (and away from painting)! Traveling for art shows used to be difficult, especially when there were little ones to tote around with me or leave behind with sitters. Now that the kids are grown (the youngest twins are now 16), things run a bit more smoothly. Both my art/career and family have had direct influences on each other, though. Some of my kids have latched onto that creativity and are running with it, and have even made notable money at it. And there is no question that my kids/family have influenced my work—as simply as some of my children being models for me, to full paintings being inspired by experiences I have had individually with them and that we have had as a whole family.
Where did the “DOG and DRAGON” name come from and what is it in reference to?
Before I married my husband now, we both owned and operated separate creative businesses. When we came together, we decided that we wanted something that was “ours”. One night at a Chinese restaurant while waiting for our food to arrive, we chatted over the Chinese zodiacs that they always put on the table as a place setting for diners. We discovered that he was a “dog” and I was a “dragon”. It kind of rolled off the tongue and we thought it sounded cool, so it stuck.
Who is your favorite Disney character? Why?
My favorite Disney character has always been Mulan.
The initial response I get from most people why that might be is usually for the fact that she’s strong and bold and doesn’t need a prince to save her. Absolutely, I agree, one hundred percent. However, it goes far deeper than that for me. Mulan truly resonated with me because I felt very intimately a version of her predicament. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was confused at who and what I should be and my role in family, community and society. I felt I understood my purpose, but didn’t at the same time. Like her, I have felt, and sometimes still do feel, conflicted about a future that is unknown. Yet, from Mulan I took courage and decided to fight against my fears and the expectations of negative influences around me and make my dreams happen instead—and I always will.
In your non-Disney fantasy art, you use a lot of symbolism. There are symbols in your Disney art, too? Can you give us a few examples?
Hahaha, I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to symbolism in my artwork, whether my Disney or independent work. A couple of examples? In Sewn in His Shadow, (Peter Pan and Wendy) there are symbols of Wendy’s journey and purpose in this painting.
I like to capture transitional moments and here Wendy is contemplating “growing up”, becoming a young woman, and in a way, leaving behind being a child. Amongst all the other visual indications of this, the symbol of it is found in the design of the rug beneath the two figures—of blossoming flowers from buds. In the painting Dig a Little Deeper, (Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog) the symbolism of the dreams of the characters of the film and how they conflict and/or coincide are found in the beignets, Tiana’s father’s copper pot and the background Art Nouveau design work of lily pads. There is, of course, much more to the explanation of that symbolism, but that’s it in a nutshell.
Did the pandemic have an impact on your creativity or your artistic perspective?
The pandemic, in and of itself (whether that be Covid-19 or the shutdown), did not have an impact on either my creativity or my artistic perspective, or furthermore, on the business aspect of creating (although it did shift). I just kept on painting and creating and doing the things I always did—only with a mask on, lol. Although, when I think back on it, in 2019 I had begun to tire of attending so many art shows and had thought to cut several, if not most, from my schedule. But when there weren’t any shows to attend for the next year and a half, I discovered how much I missed connecting with people! On the flip side, some of the unexpected aftermath of the pandemic (which I will refrain from enumerating here), did however have a lasting impact on my art, both in content and in the way I produce.
Let’s talk about your new releases of villains. First, what inspired you to create the series?
To be absolutely honest, what inspired these pieces was a bit of pressure from Disney Fine Art, ha! My new paintings, especially the Disney ones, sell almost immediately after they are completed. Because of that, whenever I end up at Disney shows (like Festival of the Arts in Orlando or D23 in Anaheim) I rarely have something by way of originals to offer to people. I’ve done nine of the Villains in the Graphite Series so far (six are released) and the first three were done for a gallery show. The following six were done a few months later for Festival of the Arts. All of them were done while either in a hotel or on an airplane under the stress of finishing them in time for those shows.
Can you go through and talk about each of these images: What did you seek to capture in each of the characters?
In hopes of not offending any of my audience who adore the Villains, but being entirely honest at the same time, I will state the following. I have never been a fan of putting the Villains as central figures of any of my paintings. The reasons are several, but the main thing is that, while I enjoy watching their characters in film and understand the subtle nuances of any multifaceted character, whether “good” or “bad”, I do not wish to immortalize any such character or glorify their villainy in paint. Perhaps that may seem a little harsh, but it is the way I feel and I always try to go with my gut. In creating the drawings of the Villains for the Graphite Series, instead of “bringing them into this world” as I try to do with my other character paintings, what I sought to capture in each of the characters was their “essence”—to give them life and reality, but stay accurate to their Disney design. With this approach, I believe that I am staying true to my core feelings on the subject and yet can fill a niche that folks have been wanting me to fill for a long time.
What were the challenges or ease of creating them?
I suppose the biggest challenge for creating them was doing them justice while at the same time refraining from overemphasizing their negative aspects. The easy part was the actual work. I spent years and years as a pencil artist, so returning to graphite was like “going home”. I love drawing.
What do you love about each of them?
Life’s Full of Tough Choices (Ursula):
I love Ursula’s tentacles! Of course, I love doing anything wildlife related, so this was pure joy.
A Most Gratifying Day (Maleficent):
I think my favorite thing about this image of Maleficent and Diablo is capturing their contemptuous expressions. Kind of a challenge with a bird.
Everybody’s Got a Weakness (Hades):
Hades’ contemplative frustration combined with the posing, wrinkles and even bloodshot eyes got me on this one. Even Villains struggle.
Friends on the other Side (Facilier):
I really liked the lighting on this one.
I’m Afraid I’ll Have to Destroy You (Mim):
Unlike most of the Villains, I don’t actually think of Madam Mim as a Villain. She’s more mischievous than anything and I think that’s why I like her so much. And she’s funny. And terribly underrepresented.
Let the Games Begin (Queen of Hearts):
With this one, it was fun to take a very simple character design (compared to many of the other Villains) and make her alive and full of complexity.
You can see all Disney art by Heather Edwards HERE.