inside the artist’s studio with rebecca tillman-young

Posted on 9 min read

Rebecca Tillman-Young paints with the precision and technique of a master artist from another time. And we should know, because we’ve seen her paint.

A native of the DFW area, Rebecca received her BFA from the University of Texas at Arlington, and has been working as a self-represented freelance artist ever since. Her work focuses on realist and surrealist portraiture, much of which delves into the idea of what it means to be a woman in the world. She and her husband now call Los Angeles their home, and she’s had her work featured in shows such as Floriform, An Invitation to Rome, We Rise, and A Woman’s Perspective: Empowering the Female Vision. 

We toured Rebecca’s home studio where she gave us insight into her artistic process, her tricks for getting out of a creative rut, and why it’s so important to put in the work even when you don’t feel like it.  

When did you begin your work in illustration and painting, and when did you decide to pursue it as a career?

I grew up in a family of creatives. My mom is a writer, my dad was doing church music for most of my childhood and teen years, so I grew up around people who valued art and who pursued their own mediums throughout my childhood.

I started drawing myself about as soon as I could hold a pencil. I remember watching my mom, who dabbled with sketching and painting and was quite good, and wishing I could do what she was doing. I think that was really the beginning. I never put the pencil down again after that.

I was fortunate to have a family that was very encouraging when it came time for me to choose a college major, because for me, I felt there was only one option. It had to be art. It wasn’t the practical choice, but it was all I could envision myself doing, and fortunately my parents both supported that decision. I’m very grateful to them for that support.

What are some of the reoccurring themes in your work?

I like to explore ideas, so I often deviate from a consistent thread in my work. That being said, however, there are themes that tend to come through often in my work. I think they sneak their way in when I’m not paying attention. One such theme is this idea of femininity as a sort of question. What does it mean to be feminine? What does it mean to be beautiful?

What does it mean to be feminine? What does it mean to be beautiful? We’re constantly given answers to these questions by the society around us, but the answers we’re given are shallow and exclusive.

We’re constantly given answers to these questions by the society around us, but the answers we’re given are shallow and exclusive. I think beauty is a much broader concept than what we’re so often told. And I think femininity extends far beyond the bounds of what we’re taught to think of as “feminine.” And in the current political climate I think it’s important to talk about these things, because I’m tired of women being confined to the box that a male-dominated society has built for us.

Recently, I’ve been exploring some new concepts for what will hopefully be a new body of work soon. I’ve been digging through my past and sort of deconstructing ideology that I no longer completely identify with. I think it’s important to go through this questioning phase every so often. It’s a process of breaking down and rebuilding. It’s a complex web of ideas to dig through, for me. I’m not sure yet how it’s going to affect my work, but I’m excited to explore it.

What does your creative process look like when starting a new painting?

When I start a new painting I usually start with an idea. Sometimes the idea is something that strikes in fairly well-defined form, but more often it’s something I struggle with for a while. During this phase I like to spend a lot of time looking at other artists’ work, at photos, and anything else that inspires me. I also do some doodling and sketching to get the creative juices flowing.

Once I have an idea, at least vaguely, I start looking for reference images. I have a sort of bank of photos of friends and models that I’ve photographed in the past, and I’ll usually dig through that first to see if I already have useful material for a piece. If not, I’ll ask a friend or hire a model to get the photos I want for the image or images.

Then there’s a lot of experimenting, which for me usually takes place in Photoshop, and sometimes in my sketchbook. I’m a very visual thinker and I like to have a fairly clear idea of my painting before I start laying paint down. When this is a simple portrait, this is mostly just tweaking composition and color in the image, but for more complex pieces it’s often a lot more involved.

I think I probably put about as much time and thought into the prep for a piece as I do actually painting it. Once I’ve begun painting, I’ve already solved the biggest problems, and I’m free to enjoy the process of painting without having to stop and question the image itself too often.

What inspires you, and what do you do when you’re in a creative rut?

I draw inspiration from a lot of things, really. But I’d break “inspiration” into two categories: First, there’s the inspiration of seeing something or someone who is interesting or beautiful. I think “unique” is actually a better word for the people who most often stand out to me. I’m most inspired by people who seem to have a well-developed sense of self, and a creative expression of that self. The second category of inspiration is from my own experiences. I’m trying more and more to draw from this category as I develop ideas for my work.

Keep feeding yourself creatively. Sometimes you just need to take a breather and focus on input rather than output. For me, it’s like a warm up before a big workout. It feels like you’re not doing much, but there’s a lot happening under the surface.

When I’m in a rut, the first, and probably most important thing to do is to just keep making things. Even if it’s just a stupid sketch that turns out horribly, the discipline to sit down and continue creating when I’m not feeling particularly inspired is one of the most predictably successful ways I’ve found of beginning to get back on my feet.

But the other part of that is to keep feeding yourself creatively. Sometimes you just need to take a breather and focus on input rather than output. I’m in the middle of a phase like this right now. I’ve spent some time refocusing and feeding my creative spirit by spending time studying other art that inspires me, journaling about ideas, doing things that fill me up, and sketching. These phases are usually followed by periods of intense output, so while it can feel frustrating, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow yourself this time. For me, it’s like a warm up before a big workout. It feels like you’re not doing much, but there’s a lot happening under the surface, and it pays off in the end.

As an artist of extreme versatility, you’ve created everything from realistic portraits, surrealist imagery, to more abstract paintings, and various combinations of these. Is there a particular style that you prefer, and is there a style that you find more challenging?

For most of my life I have focused heavily on representational (realistic) artwork, particularly portraits and figurative work. There has always been, and probably always will be a special place for that kind of work in my heart. I get a deep satisfaction from it.

But I will say that I’m discovering more and more the value of other styles and methods in my own work, and I’m constantly experimenting with ways to push my work, to make it more fully expressive of what I want to communicate.

For me, abstract has always been more difficult than representational. I like a challenge, though, so I’ve been looking for ways to incorporate some of what I’ve learned in my brief affairs with abstract painting into my figurative work as well. I think now, many of my favorite paintings (both my own and by others) are often pieces that combine abstraction with realism.

As a self-represented artist, do you find it difficult to find time for the work that you want to create, versus the work for your clients?

At times, it can be a real challenge to balance the two, but for me things have tended to happen in waves. I’ll often be incredibly busy with client work for a time, and then all of a sudden find myself with nothing but time on my hands, so a lot of times my personal work is just put on hold for those gaps.

Who are some of your favorite artists? Is there any artist in particular whose work influences your style or subject matter?

There are so many! But a few contemporary artists who I come back to often are Alyssa Monks, Kehinde Wilde, Lee Price, Meghan Howland, Alonsa Guevara, Sean Cheetham, and Soey Milk.

What’s your favorite podcast or audiobook genre to listen to while you paint?

I listen to all kinds of stuff. It’s a habit I picked up in college and has stuck with me! In college, I started by just listening to whatever I could get for free. There was a free audiobook app that had volunteer narrators reading public domain books (read: old). I loved it, and blazed through old series like Sherlock Holmes and other classics. Now I use Audible and I’m particularly fond of science fiction books, but I listen to anything that looks good. I fill in the gaps between my monthly Audible books with a variety of podcasts. I love story podcasts, like Levar Burton Reads, or audio dramas, but I also listen to a lot of political stuff and some comedy as well.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about commissioning custom artwork?

Honestly, I think price is the biggest one. I get a lot of people who want work for free or for pennies an hour, which is honestly kind of offensive. It’s hard to make a living as an artist, and I get really frustrated with how many people get offended that I would ask them to actually pay a fair price for work. It’s kind of bizarre.

What’s your favorite way to unwind after a long day?

My favorite way to unwind is usually to find a good show to stream and spend some time cuddled on the couch with my husband before bed. Nothing like quality time with someone you love to recharge you after a long day.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon that you’re particularly excited about?

I do, actually! I’m not ready to give details on it yet but I’ve been in the preliminary stages of a new body of work that focuses on identity through a lens of gender and socialization. I am also very excited to have one of my paintings appear in Black Monday, a Showtime show that premieres on January 20th (my painting is supposed to be in episode 3).

To keep up with Rebecca and her work, you can follow her on Instagram, and shop some of her prints on Society6. And if you’d like to see the final result of the painting she worked on during our photoshoot, be sure to check out Showtime’s Black Monday!


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inside the artist’s studio with rebecca tillman-young