With their signature soft forms and bright, feminine color palette, Gabriella Cetrulo‘s illustrations have a definite storybook-like quality to them.
And the New York-based artist does just that, exploring what it means to be a woman–and at times even just a human–through her illustrations, which have been featured in the likes of Teen Vogue, BUST Magazine, Garmentory, oh, and our very own horoscope series. We caught up with Gabriella in her dreamy New York digs (with a bed that also doubles as her studio a la Frida Kahlo) to learn more.
Hi Gabriella! Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started as an artist and what are some things you’ve been working on lately?
I started when I was very young. My mother wasn’t a professional artist, but she was very good and would patiently draw with me for hours, so I started mimicking her. I wasn’t particularly talented, but I remember adults encouraging me and complimenting my Crayola scribbles, which convinced me that I was a tiny genius. Now I realize that belief was what pushed me to practice and develop. And as I grew older and more self-conscious, drawing became my way of connecting with people. I felt awkward and didn’t know how to make friends, so I’d sit alone and draw, and that sometimes lured people in — saving me from having to approach anyone.
I completely stopped making art after college. Something about art school turned me off, so I didn’t touch a sketchbook for years. But about a year ago, I fell back in love with painting and started reaching out for illustration work here and there.
Right now, I’m working on illustrating a children’s book I wrote last summer. It’s a really simple nursery rhyme about counting, but with a little twist in the end.
So, you’re definitely concerned with the female form, and I love how you keep it real, whether that means including women in different shapes and colors or depicting pubic hair and bare breasts, which we all know can get you in trouble in the age of Instagram. Would you consider your work to be feminist? What message do you hope to give your audience?
My work has always been female-centric. But looking back on what I created when I was younger, a lot of it was filtered through a male lens. I don’t think I was celebrating women as much as reinforcing a narrow sexual agenda — and not even my own. Like a lot of women, I grew up learning that my worth was inextricably tied to my appearance and degree of desirability, and my work reflected that. It’s honestly something I still struggle with. I’ve spent years trying to retrain my thoughts and I started using painting to help. Hopefully, the messages I’m sending to myself come through in my work and resonate with others.
A few of your works also feature women, many of whom were in positions of power, who have had some sort of controversy surrounding them in the public eye (thinking of Imelda Marcos, LaVona, Anne Boleyn, etc.) What draws you to these subjects? How do you choose the real people we can see in your works?
I’m drawn to women who represent the best and the worst in all of us — women who have been built up and torn down. I feel like society has denied so many women of their humanity twice: first by putting them on pedestals, then again by defining them by their mistakes. But I think that extreme duality is exactly what makes someone a compelling example of what it means to be human.
What mediums do you work with? Which is your favorite and why?
I’ve always worked with acrylic and pencil, but I’ve been trying to get used to painting with gouache and watercolors. Gouache is becoming my favorite medium because it has the opacity of acrylic paint, but it feels a little more pliable.
How did you come to develop your current style? And how often do you create works for your own enjoyment? Do you ever experiment with different styles now?
I used to work in a completely different style. Until I decided to creatively reset last year, everything I made was realistic and hyper-rendered. I used to need tons of references to work from, but I finally got tired of that. So I spent months experimenting with new ways of working (and bugging my illustrator friends for feedback).
I’m still in the process of developing and I’m not sure that will ever stop. I’ve had trouble adhering to a hyper consistent style, which probably hurts my ability to get hired for commercial work. Art directors want to know what they’re going to get from you. They want to look at your portfolio and see a certain degree of predictability. I have such a hard time with that because the moment anything feels second-nature to me, I’m bored and want to move on. There’s definitely consistency in my palette, materials and subjects, but I tend to vary the way I treat granular details.
I read that when it comes to decorating your space, you tend to select images depicting women that were created by women artists. I find the same applies to me–I don’t necessarily seek women artists, but it does seem to just happen this way. Would you say the same yourself? Why do you think it works out that way, or what qualities in these works do you appreciate most?
It’s definitely unintentional! I just think women tend to depict other women in a way that feels more substantive and relatable. We’re less likely to sexualize or fetishize each other’s bodies the way male artists often do.
Speaking of spaces, you grew up in the suburbs in New Jersey and now live in NYC, where you’ve moved around quite a bit. Do you find your surroundings impact your art? How so?
My location hasn’t had much of an impact — at least, not in a way that’s been obvious to me. Even though I’ve moved around quite a bit, I’ve lived in NYC for more than a decade. I think moving around just comes with the territory here. I’d say I’m more influenced by the people around me. I have to be extra careful about who I let into my space because that person’s energy can make or break any given day. If I spend enough time with someone who makes me doubt myself, I lose the will to make anything.
Where are some of your favorite spots in NY to check out art or gather inspiration for your own works?
The Met is a short walk from my apartment and it’s always been my favorite museum in New York. The Society of Illustrators is also right down the street, which I don’t visit nearly enough.
I spend a lot of time near the sailboat pond in Central Park, which happens to be surrounded by monuments to Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carroll. It took weeks before I realized two of my favorite children’s book authors were so close to me.
Do you have an artist’s studio or do you work from the comfort of your own home? When do you feel most inspired to create?
I’ve always painted in bed (Frida Kahlo style). I work at home because I like to be alone while I’m painting. It isn’t that I don’t love being around people, I’m just easily distracted. A shared studio would most likely turn into a social space for me. Whenever I’ve had roommates, I’ve had to lock myself in my bedroom for long periods of time to detach and focus.
I feel extra inspired to create on grey, rainy days, when I don’t feel any guilt over staying indoors. If the sun is out, I just want to go outside and walk in the park.
And lastly, who are some of your fave women artists to follow at the moment?
My favorite illustrator is definitely Maira Kalman. Her paintings feel so timeless and have such a great sense of humor. Carson Ellis and Kaye Blevgad also make really beautiful work. Their illustrations also have a rebellious quality that makes me smile.
I also love Isabelle Feliu and Elizabeth Graeber’s illustrations — I have extra large prints of their work around my apartment.