ESSENCE Network: This Artist is Taking Black Girl Magic to A Whole Other Level With Her Work

Photo by Debra Cartwright
Self-employed illustrator and entrepreneur Debra Cartwright shares how her passion for paint led to inspiring little black girls to love their hair.

Name: Debra Cartwright

Age: 28

Title and company: Owner of Debra Cartwright (self-employed)

Location: Brooklyn, New York

Hometown: Annapolis, Maryland

Twitter: @dkayecartwright

Instagram: @debracartwright

Linkedin: Debra Cartwright

The gig: Simply put, I’m an illustrator. The amount of creativity I get to exert everyday is amazing. Whether it’s coming up with personal projects or finding solutions for a client, everyday is different.

The Journey: I’ve drawn since I was very little and never knew it could be a career. It’s certainly always been my passion but for the longest time I brushed it to the side as nothing more than a hobby. I fell into illustration by painting things that made me feel pretty and posting them online. It was a leap of faith. I saved money while working a full time job and one day just gave my two weeks. I wasn’t happy working so hard for someone else. I love working but I wanted to invest in my name rather than someone else’s.

Making Connections 101: Reach out to people you want to work with and admire. You never know who is going to appreciate your work as well. I hate the word networking because it feels contrived. Build a community of talented people you respect.

Confessions of a black woman in art: I paint women of color and they have completely made my career. Mainstream illustration is such a difficult field to break into and very much saturated not only with white artists but white illustrations. I make my illustrations for me, and by extension for women of color. I love us and believe in us. Without the support of black women I wouldn’t have this career. 

Her biggest lesson learned: My biggest mistake was not understanding the field and signing contracts anyway. I screwed myself over on some work-for-hire stuff I wish I could take back. Now I dedicate “library” days where I read and highlight art laws. 

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Her biggest accomplishment: Many women send me messages saying I’ve influenced their daughters to finally love their curly hair. Some have said my paintings make them feel beautiful. That feels better than anything else.

The smartest advice she’s ever received: I’ve had several of my illustrations stolen by small companies. It would costs too much in lawyer fees for me to go after everyone. Another illustrator told me: ‘They can steal a piece but they can never steal your talent. Keep working.’

Her best time-saving tip: I’m so unorganized so I have the same lists everywhere. I write my lists in a planner, on a paper calendar, a google calendar and another app.  When you work from home and for yourself it’s very easy to get up and go, “Wait, what do I have to do today?”. The lists answer that.

In her downtime: I like to walk around New York aimlessly for inspiration.

Her tech fix: The only thing I do on my phone is social media. I’m super into Instagram.

In her beauty bag: I use literally one thing on my hair. Herbal Essence’s Hello Hydration Conditioner. And zinc suntan lotion on my face. 

Her power outfit: I like to dress as close as possible to my paintings so I like wearing anything light and flowy.

Her theme song: "W.A.Y.S," by Jhene Aiko

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