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Rising Stars: Meet Nikki Lafreeda

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nikki Lafreeda.

Hi Nikki, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I have been drawing since longer than I can remember. One of my earliest memories was back when I was either two or three, my sister and I were drawing in the living room and I drew a picture of Ren and Stimpy, but my sister nor my mom could read my drawing. I was always the kid that would doodle around the lineart images in the coloring books, adding and creating a new narrative to the pre-existing image or scribble all over my Highlight magazines. I started to get interested more into art, specifically in animation, when I was nine. I had a teacher who was a big Disney fan and I wanted to be the teacher’s pet and be able to talk Disney with her. So I asked one of my friends if I could borrow one of his books that dives into the works and history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. One page into that book and I became a big Disney fan myself. I started to research as much possible about the studio and what goes into making their animated features.

By reading about the works of Disney, I became more curious about other animation studios and what makes them unique. I picked up my first art book, Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons! by Jerry Beck back in 2008 and I became fascinated by the work created at Nickelodeon Studios. The book dives deep into the production of various cartoons that I grew up watching or still currently watched at the time and it really opened my eyes that I could one day work here on one of their shows. Funny enough, I wanted to be a veterinarian for the longest time back when I was a kid but that dream quickly faded because I set on a new dream, to work in animation. Even though I drew often, I only got serious about art and animation when I was eleven. There was a series on Cartoon Network called The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, created by Thurop Van Orman, that really made me want to draw cartoons. So I practiced drawing the characters from the show and once I felt confident on how I able to draw them, I started to draw characters from different shows I enjoyed watching. It was a great way to practice and learn how to adapt to different art styles. Most of my drawing started off as self-taught and self-driven. The first art class I took was in eighth grade and it did help with learning the art fundamentals. I was able to take a couple of art classes during my junior and senior year of high school.

Throughout my time in both middle school and in high school, I was known as “That Girl That Draws The Cartoons” and it was fun title to have. It wasn’t until I entered college was when I was able to really benefit art-related courses. I was taking courses more geared towards the art that I wanted to make and share with the world and how could I make my artwork better. Before entering college, I really did not know exactly what in animation I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an animator since that is what most people think of when they think of a career in animation. While in college, I discovered that I am very fascinated about the pre-production phase of animation verses the actual animation phase. I also learned that I really enjoy doing character designs and experimenting with different looks and styles. Perhaps the most important experience while at college was that I met a handful of wonderful artists all with a similar goal and drive like mine and they have been a great source of inspiration and support.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Oh, I wished it was a smooth road. When I announced to my family that I wanted to work in animation when I was eleven, they were not convinced. I remember during a car ride that my mom told me she did not want me to become a “starving artist” and feared my artwork would only become famous once after I pass on. But after some convincing and practicing my drawing ability, my parents soon became big supporters of my work and have helped me greatly to achieve my dream. I have noticed that a lot of artists feel the need to have one set artistic style and at one point, I believed that. I felt worrisome because I did not have one set art style because I never stuck to one style. I loved to experiment with different shapes, proportions, and expressions and I could not find myself being dead-set to just one look.

I soon learned that it is ok to explore with designs and not feel confined to just one style, which I was very relieved to hear. And that is something I really want to encourage other artists reading this to explore and more importantly, have fun with creating something extraordinary and not feel that you have to stick to just one style. Perhaps the biggest struggle is self-doubt and fear of not achieving the dream. Most, if not all, of my insecurities all stem from self-doubt. It is very exhausting and it can really mess with you mentally. It is very common for artists to look at the work of other artists and believe their work is inferior and feel crestfallen. I experience with that many times. Back when I was a kid, a teen, and as an adult. What helps me overcome that feeling to remind myself is that there is only one person who can make this art and that is me. It is one of a kind and special because I made it.

Creating art is very much like being a chef. You can make this fantastic dish. Some people will love it, but some people will not. But at the end of the day, that dish you created is unlike any dish because it was made by you. Another thing that helps is just by simply talking to a group of supportive peers during these tough times of self-doubt. Most of my art friends have all gone through a similar feeling of self-doubt and question their decision of being an artist and just talking it out and offer advice or comforting and inspiring words really goes a long way and works wonders.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I specialize in character design. I love playing around and toying with different styles and giving personality to a drawing. Each character I draw has a different story to tell and I get to share their stories and elevate their voices when I draw them. The work I make is primarily digital. My go-to illustration application is Procreate on my iPad Pro since I can draw anywhere as well as the brushes and brush filters are fun to explore and experiment with. What I am probably most known for as a digital artist are my cute pin-up 1950’s inspired characters. That is what makes people look at my work and say, “This is a Nikki Drawing!”. Most of my works are influenced by illustrations and works of animations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I am very drawn to the visual look of those eras and the use of shapes, colors, and textures. Stuff like animated commercials and magazine illustrations from the 50’s-60’s, vintage sewing patterns, UPA Animation, and the work of Jay Ward just to name a few have all been huge influences on my character designs and illustrative work.

Also, regularly dressing up in vintage clothing from those eras might have been a factor as well to why my art is so retro looking. Lately, I have been exploring the style of 1930’s rubberhose-style cartoons and it is a contrast to the stiff shapes of the 50’s and 60’s. It has pushed me to be more loosey-goosey with my drawings and to push my expressions and poses and make them even more zany. From time to time, I like to dabble in paper cut-out artwork. I was really inspired by the work of Brittney Lee that I wanted to try to make paper art myself. The first piece I made was a shadowbox that I was selling at a convention and my friends who attended the convention all loved this piece I made. They loved it so much that I was asked to create a shadowbox piece for a gallery dedicated to Broadway musicals. More recently, I got to make a shadow paper cut-out piece for the Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater zine, A La Mode. It is something I personally need to make more art of in that medium because I have a blast every time I make a paper cut-out piece.

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned along your journey?
The most important lesson that I have learned on this never-ending journey is to have patience. I know my work would not look the way it looks today if I did not have patience and I know my work will look different in a few years (and hopefully improve). As an artist, you have to put the time and dedication to get better at your craft. You will not be a master overnight. The best thing to do is to always keep practicing and never stop learning. It may be frustrating because you want this piece to look a certain way but it’s not coming out exactly how you vision it, but you got to keep trying. Step back and take a breather if needed, but pick yourself back up and keep doing what you love to do. Patience also applies when trying to look for an art relating career, which I am currently in the process for looking for. It has been a bit stressful, but I gotta remind myself to have patience. There will be a project where I will be a perfect candidate and I get to work with a team of creative artists and we produce something we are proud of and get to share it with the world. One day I will get there. Till then, just got to keep looking and have patience.

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