This week’s artist’s spotlight focuses on Unicorn Empire, who design and make incredible fandom-inspired apparel.
The Artist’s Spotlight is a Hypable weekly feature that will focus on someone who has caught our attention for fandom-related art, whether it be drawings, songs, crafts, or more! Every week you can expect a new talented artist we think you should be aware of!
Hypable: Tell us a little about yourself, and the rest of the Unicorn Empire team.
Amber: Well, my name is Amber Whitney, I grew up in Alaska and I pretty much always wanted to be an artist. I graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a BFA in Illustration, and I never took a typography class or a screen printing class, so I find that kind of ironic since that’s my bread and butter now. My second in command is Megan, I met her online back when I was in school and she ended up taking over a lot of the business end of things for me and now pretty much singlehandedly manages the store and all of our inventory and ordering. Our third Unicorn is Kate, and we also met her online (I’m starting to notice a trend here!) and she came to help out at Emerald City, and then she just kept helping us out after that so we hired her full time at the end of last summer.
What inspired you to start Unicorn Empire?
I was actually having a pretty bad life experience in the moment and I just really wanted to create something, so I drew the Sherlock Holmes ABC book in about two days, I just really poured myself into it. I felt a lot better after I’d finished it, it was very cathartic as art often is, and I took pictures and I put it online and people asked if they could buy one. I ended up selling quite a few of them in the span of just a few days, I had to buy a new printer and everything. At that point I think I realized that there were other options out there other than struggling with traditional employment. I wasn’t having any luck on the traditional front because at the time I was living in Juneau, AK, far away from the rest of the art world, but I do remember finally seeing a tiny bit of light at the end of the tunnel after making that book.
How do you decide on the fandoms that you focus on?
The fandoms that I make things for are stuff that I watch and love, and that’s it. I have made work in school or in the past that I wasn’t passionate about and it really comes through in the art, and I don’t want that for Unicorn Empire, I really want it to be the best that I can make it. We do watch a lot of shows though and we’re always trying new things. We just finished the first season of Defiance, which was amazing!
Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
Normally I have a few quotes rattling around in my head for things that I want to do, or I’ve just come back from a movie or finished watching a show I really enjoyed, so we’ll be running errands and I’ll have an idea and I doodle it on some post-it notes or the back of a receipt. Anything that’s very disposable is so freeing. I usually hammer out the design in a few quick little doodles and post them on my Instagram, which is just chalk full of weird scribbles, and I start working directly on those in Photoshop. Usually it has to ruminate a little while though because I’m putting the piece together in my head, not so much visually as conceptually; what do I want present in the piece, what small nods toward characters or fandoms can I include, how can I give it depth beyond just a quote from a show and make it unique?
“What do I want present in the piece, what small nods toward characters or fandoms can I include, how can I give it depth beyond just a quote from a show and make it unique?”
What are some of the challenges that you face when creating your work?
I think my attention span is getting worse the older I get. It’s something I’ve got to work on. The internet is infinitely captivating. I used to be able to work for hours on end, but these days if I draw for 20 minutes I feel the need to check my email and Tumblr and all that, and it gets me out of the groove.
Do you have any pieces that have been rewarding to work on?
Most designs are rewarding in their own way. If they aren’t doing it for me I don’t post them, I have a collection of nearly finished work that will never see the light of day. I do really love hearing from people who also enjoy that show and are made happy to see a design for it, because I work really hard to include subtle things about the show that only fans of that show are going to get, so they’re the ones that make it a rewarding experience when I read their tags or hear back from them about it. That said I think the Pacific Rim shirt and the Firefly shirts are my two favorites still!
You also made a board game! How did that come about?
When I was a kid I was several years older than my two younger siblings, and we didn’t have a lot growing up, so we’d often make our own board games. My little sister was visiting me and I was telling my friends about this pirate board game or something and I realized that I could actually make a board game and have it be more than just marker and paper. It was an amazing experience and I really enjoyed it. I’m actually working on a second board game now.
“I realized that I could actually make a board game and have it be more than just marker and paper.”
Have you been influenced by any particular artists?
I’m actually super guilty of just saving everything I come across that I like and then never looking at it again, and I’m really terrible with names. The things that inspire me usually end up being worlds apart from what I make, but I really love Alphonse Mucha and JC Leyendecker.
What advice would you give to other artists?
Don’t worry so much about a style; I know that was a huge one for me going through college and after that. My school really placed an emphasis on style and I ended up being kind of a chameleon, which was really frustrating. I think whatever style you are going to have will develop naturally with things that you pick up over time, and you can’t force it. If you cram yourself into a box too early you’re going to just end up drawing the same thing over and over again for the next 50 years, and no one wants that. Just make each piece the best that you can at the time, and then move on to something new.
What’s next for Unicorn Empire?
I’ve got a second hoodie design inspired by one of my all time favorite shows, Supernatural, that I’ll probably be launching some time in the next week. But apart from that we’re actually gearing up for a lot of conventions this year. We’re going to be at Rose City, Geek Girl Con, Jet City and Emerald City, so we’ve got a lot to do!
“I think whatever style you are going to have will develop naturally with things that you pick up over time, and you can’t force it.”
You can find Amber, and Unicorn Empire’s work, on their website and their Tumblr, where they post all of their promotions and sales, as well as day-to-day shots of what they’re doing doing, their workshop, and pictures of their pets. They also have an Instagram account, where you can find more of their progress sketches.
You can also purchase their amazing designs through their Etsy store. As proud owners of more than a few of their screen-printed shirts, we can certainly vouch for the quality.