Find out why muralist Debbie Clapper transitioned her career from graphic design to fine art, how she pursued her passion and how it changed her life. If you’ve ever thought of pursuing fine art as a career choice, you definitely don’t want to miss this.
Debbie Clapper is an artist, muralist, mentor and [recuperating] graphic designer. She runs gneural, a creative studio in Boulder, Colorado.
Drawing nearly every day since the age of 9, Debbie has mastered the art of freehand drawing and painting without the aid of a ruler or straight edge. She has built a lush career around pattern illustration via her passion for abstract optical illusion art. Heavily inspired by M.C. Escher and graffiti, her work strives to inspire and ignite imagination in all who interact with it. For 18 years she ran an award-winning graphic design studio, and now she has shifted her focus to niche down into innovative surface design. Debbie’s funky yet sophisticated works have brought life to brands such as Smartwool, BOA Technology, Hope Hummus, Rickshaw Bags, Apex Designs and Pactimo.
Getting to Know Debbie
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast. Debbie. I’m so excited to have you here.
Debbie Clapper: Oh, thank you, Colleen. I’m excited to be here with you.
Colleen: I thought we’d start off with a couple of fun questions.
Debbie: All right.
Colleen: And one of them is, what color do you associate yourself with?
Debbie: That’s a good one. I say hot pink.
Colleen: Oh, yeah. And you use that a lot in your work.
Debbie: I do.
Colleen: And then what’s your favorite decade stylewise?
Debbie: Oh, the 80s. Hands down. 1980s.
Colleen: Cool. Yeah, I mean, I grew up then. So, yeah, I love the 80s.
Debbie: Mm hmm.
Colleen: It’s really interesting that you draw all the lines in your murals and paint them freehand. I didn’t realize this until I saw one of your videos on Instagram. How in the heck did you perfect that skill?
Debbie: Well, I’ve been drawing almost every day since I was nine. I always was interested in lines graphics, abstract work. But one of the things that really started to train me to learn to just draw, like very freely, was falling in love with graffiti art, discovering graffiti art, because the whole process of that is you have to be… You’re on the go. It’s very quick, it’s immediate, and you just have to know what you’re doing and go for it.
So that’s kind of where I started drawing that way was when I discovered that when I was, like, 12 or 13 years old.
Colleen: Oh, wow.
Debbie: Mm hmm.
Colleen: You say on your website that you were inspired by M.C. Escher. I remember that famous drawing of his with the steps that go into each other. I think it’s called Relativity.
Colleen: So what was it about his work that drew you in?
Debbie: Well, I’ve always loved the… There’s like a weird simplicity to the complexity of it all. Because it’s all just based on lines. It’s 2D artwork. Just the way he could draw it just transformed the page in the images into this like crazy 3D optical illusion.
That blew my mind when I discovered that as well, and I did discover that when I was younger, right about the age of nine, so I started emulating it. So I became very much infatuated with this idea of lines, using lines to create illusion.
Colleen: Well, that’s really cool. I used to do a lot of drawing, but I haven’t done it in decades.
Debbie: That’s too bad.
Colleen: But that was my thing. And I was into the conté crayons, and the charcoal and, oh, the Prismacolors.
Debbie: Oh, yeah.
Colleen: I still have the Prismacolors. I love those!
Debbie: You gotta bust them out.
Colleen: I do! So for 18 years, you ran an award-winning graphic design studio.
Colleen: Then you just decided to niche down into what you call innovative surface design. So what made you decide to take that step?
Debbie: Well, a big catalyst was hiring a business coach at the end of 2018. It was Chris Do from The Futur. He and I were having a conversation about what I was passionate about: was it graphic design or was it fine art.
I was like, Well, I’m most passionate about art. And so he kind of, I don’t know… It’s not that I was looking for somebody to tell me to just go for it. But I felt like I was learning enough about business and how to actually make profit as a creative, even just in the design realm, that I figured it was finally time to just go for it and do what I love to do.
I had also done… Basically, I was coming from being a Jill of All Trades type of designer/artist. For those 18 years, I was doing logos and branding and print publication work and also doing illustration and pattern textile design as well. But I just actually got very burnt out with graphic design at the end of 2018. I just was ready to move on from it.
Colleen: Was there a particular reason that you just didn’t start out doing that kind of work?
Debbie: Well, I think, like a lot of people, I just didn’t think it would be a feasible occupation. I went into graphic design knowing it was a way to be creative and to make them make a living like a lot of artists do. And I just thought, that’s what I’d have to do and I can do art on the side.
I think for a very long time I had that mindset that I just couldn’t really make it as an artist. But then up until those couple of years ago, I started to realize, well, no, people do reach out to me, and they want to hire me for the art that I’m creating aside from the graphic design work I was doing. So then I did start to see that there is something there and I kind of knew that anyway. But I realized it was time to just make that push and go for it.
Colleen: Yeah, I mean, I remember when I was having this conversation with my family when I was in high school was like, oh, well, what are you going to study in college? And it’s like, well, I love drawing.
Debbie: Mm hmm.
Colleen: My father taught me how to use DOS on the computer we had back then, and I was good with DOS. I’m like, okay, so graphic design it is then.
Colleen: Because it was that same mentality of you couldn’t possibly go into fine art.
Debbie: Right, and when I went to art school… I ended up going to art school to study graphic design. That was in the late 90s into… I graduated in 2001. But still in that time—and I wonder if you feel the same—I feel like in that time, it was still we were actually being pushed to be kind of the Jack or Jill of All Trades.
Debbie: Coming out of art school even it was like, oh, you need to know how to do web and identity and all that, production and every sort of aspect to design, where I think that has also shifted over the years too where—
Debbie: …timing is better. I think people are more open to hiring artists as artists. I don’t know. There’s more opportunities, I should say, than maybe before—or at least it seems as though there are.
Colleen: Yeah, I mean, even in college, I had to take so many other classes that had nothing to do with graphic design, like ceramics, which I sucked at.
Debbie: Yeah. Well, and going to the Art Institute… I went to the Art Institute in Colorado. We didn’t even do much find studio arts work at all.
Debbie: It was really all very commercial. They were creating little designers and communication experts there. That was kind of the goal. So I don’t have any formal art training. Everything I’ve been doing is kind of on my own since I was a kid too. That’s kind of an interesting part of all of it as well.
Making the Transition
Colleen: Wow. So then what steps did you take to transition from being a graphic designer to being a fine artist and this type of work? Or did you just…? Was there a transition or did you just stop and start?
Debbie: Yes, there was a transition. One thing that I did first and foremost was I set up a financial runway for myself so that I had a few months of money saved up so that I could start to not just rely on getting design work every month, but I could start taking a break from that and focus on building up my pattern portfolio and my social media, and even kind of starting to rework my website to change all the messaging and the language to no longer advertise that I’m a graphic designer or art director or anything but just focusing on a muralist artist.
So it’s been a work in progress still, I would say, since I made that decision to go full time as an artist at the end of 2018. That transition is ongoing. The great thing that’s helped is I do still take on design projects, but more through the back door. People know that they can come to me and ask for that. So I can still take that on as I need to.
But I do love that I’m starting to see there’s been a huge shift and when people introduce me or I’m talking to somebody new or now, it’s all digital right now, because of the pandemic that we’re in. I actually hear it where people shift how they introduce me.
Now they say, “Oh, this is Debbie. She’s an artist. She’s a muralist. She does these crazy patterns.” So I’m like, “Yes, this is what I want people to know me for” versus…
Debbie: I would say when I first made the shift, one of my friends was introducing me at a networking event. She was like, “This is Debbie. Oh, she’s a graphic designer, and she’s an artist. Then she paints murals sometimes and she…”
It was this long list of things she kept saying, and I was like, “Oh, wait, no.” So it’s good to see that it’s starting to take hold, this shift that I’m making. People are seeing it and it’s registering.
Colleen: There’s clarity.
Debbie: Yes. I think there’s still more clarity to be had, but I’m like, Okay, I’m on the right track.
Colleen: Right, who knows if you could niche down to certain types of murals?
Debbie: Yeah, totally, totally.
Colleen: So when you made this transition, when you switched to this type of work, did you find that you had to build a whole new audience from scratch? Or were existing clients interested in this type of work? What did you have to do in terms of audience?
Debbie: Yeah. Some of my existing clients were interested in this type of work. It’s funny because I had been hired to do a mix of both for them.
Colleen: Oh, okay.
Debbie: But what I did actually is I sent a message or an email to all of my clients, when I made this decision. I told them the shift I was making. I took care of them. I passed them onto other designers that I know could take good care of them.
But I was very clear about this is what I’m doing now. Some of them have said, “Great, we don’t have money right now to do that type of work. But when we do, we’ll talk to you.”
Or they’re sending out… I’ve gotten referrals through that. But really the thing that’s been the biggest for me right now, and it’s where I put a lot of my energy into, and my focus is in social media and my Instagram. Through that platform is where I’ve really been able to kind of showcase what I’m doing and reach a new, broader audience way beyond what I’ve reached prior to any of this.
I found that some of the new demographic that I appeal to would be interior designers, which in a way is kind of like, duh, but I just didn’t realize it until it started happening. Then creative directors, those were already kind of the people I was working with anyway, but it’s been interesting because it’s a mix of the old and the new in terms of clientele on that.
Colleen: So how are you getting the clients? Are they mostly finding you on Instagram and then they’re reaching out to you?
Debbie: Yeah, Instagram and then murals. Public murals have been probably the biggest marketing tool, so that when you get one out in the open in a good spot… I had one down in downtown Denver, Colorado, for a couple of years. That actually started to bring me a bunch of business.
Debbie: Yeah. The murals are great for that. Then social media, and I think there’s still so much untapped territory that I haven’t gotten into yet that I’ve been trying to work on. But those are the two main right now.
Then I would say referrals but as I’ve been trying to grow and develop as a business owner, I am trying to figure out different ways to market outside of just relying on referrals, because that’s what I basically that’s what I did for the last 17 years.
Colleen: Some of your work serves a different purpose, it seems. You’ve got patterns that you create that you sell on clothing. That’s kind of more for aesthetic purposes.
Colleen: Which I’ll say is art for art’s sake, right? Somebody wants to look at that, and it’s wearable. It’s like wearable art. With graphic design, it’s usually not art for art’s sake. It’s more strategic.
So when clients hire you, are they looking more for that art for art’s sake, or are they looking for strategic design? Or would you say maybe a mix of both?
Debbie: It is a mix of both. The people who come who just like my artwork, typically when I work with them, it’s like, “You do whatever you want.”
I’ll have them pick out a few of my favorite things I’ve done that you like. They’ll do that and then I can create from there for them.
But then I do have other clients that come… I recently did a—it will be launching soon and it’s on hold because of the whole pandemic—a custom wallpaper project for a coffee shop that’s opening up in Illinois.
We work together… And this is where I actually love that I have my design background in that, because I can come in, and we actually ran a mini-strategy session of sorts at the very beginning of the call, just to ensure that they’re going to get what they want. Because I see those types of branded-type client projects still, as a design project where it’s less art. It’s like art, but it’s still more of a design/functional piece that has to work with their brand and who they are.
I want to make sure they’re going to be completely 100% happy with what I’m creating and that we’re on the same page. We’ll go through a strategy and I’ll repeat back to them what we’ve discussed and kind of take them through different design stages and have approvals in that. So it’s definitely a mix of the two sides of things, which, I don’t know, kind of makes it fun.
Colleen: What kinds of problems are they coming to you with that they’re trying to solve?
Debbie: Well, one project that I had worked with a different company on. We did a custom water bottle design, which, again, it seems like that really could just be an art piece.
But we talked about their company ideals and who they are and what they do, their values in that. So when I created this piece for them, I said, “The intention behind this was to convey all of these things.“ They wanted it to speak to the clients that they would be giving this water bottle to as a gift and then also giving out to people at events.
I went with a color palette that still complemented their brand palette and incorporated one of their colors. Really, I think they come and they want some bit of consistency with who they are as a brand, if that makes sense. But it’s almost like they want to get a little bit wild and kind of push the envelope and step a bit outside of their brand standards guide
Defining a Process
Colleen: Well, you kind of touched on how you talk to them about this and plan out things, but when it comes to actually implementing the mural… You’re not just gonna go paint it, and they’re gonna go, “Oh, well just change that color. I don’t like that color.”
So what is the process for getting the buy-in? Do you do a sketch? And then you’re going to talk about colors? How does that work?
Debbie: Yeah, I take them with any project, actually, regardless of whether it’s branded or not. I still go through a revisions process with the client. I get approvals, I get signoff.
I always first and foremost start with a contract. So, contract, it clearly lays things out. I’ll put together a scope of work. Then we go through everything together. I make sure the color palette is approved, the design is approved, and I also put into it all that there’s going to be a 10% to 15% change that may happen when I go to paint because I actually will make some changes on the fly that I think are fitting to the wall or to the piece or whatever it is that I’m painting for them.
Nobody has a problem because as far as it’s gone. Thankfully, nobody’s had a problem because the communication has been very clear from the get-go. Even though they’re not always “design projects,” I still handle them like they are, in a way, design projects, where it is so clear, this is the scope of work because that is what I learned in my years of design.
Have a contract, have your scope of work, be very clear, have everything lined out down to how many revisions, the project management side of it, how quickly they need to get back to you with an approval, all that kind of stuff.
The feedback I actually get is that the clients feel very taken care of because—and I was this way before but I purpose to change for this—a lot of artists are really flaky. So not everybody, but some, and so people appreciate when you’re on top of it and showing that there’s a level of professionalism that I come with now, that I know that my clientele appreciates.
Colleen: So are you actually showing them something on paper that’s like a mockup or a mockup on screen to show them how the final piece would look?
Debbie: Oh, I do all digital mockups. Yeah, I’ll do a Photoshop mockup of the wall or whatever the item is, and I get them as high quality as possible.
Colleen: Do they ever ask you to…? Well, I guess, since it’s strategic design still, it’s not just the colors that you would necessarily normally use, because I know you like to use a lot of bright colors.
Colleen: I guess there’re times where they have their certain brand color palette, and you’re just going to go with that.
Debbie: Yeah, and that happens. Interestingly enough, a lot of the time people like my color palettes mixed with my design. So usually they come and they say, “We want you to throw in your colors into the mix.”
But every now and then somebody does come and they are very specific about the color palette they have. I’m okay with that. I think as long as we connect and it’s a good fit and works out well then I’m okay with that.
There was a project that I’d gotten hired for. I was talking to the client and they wanted to work with me, but they kept pushing it where they wanted to see other design options that were so not my realm. I just had to say, “Look, I just don’t draw that way.”
Colleen: Oh, interesting.
Debbie: I think that it might be better if you work with another artist where that’s their area of expertise. “I’m happy to refer you to x, y and z.” That’ll happen every now and then.
Colleen: It’s kind of like a client coming to ask you to do a job that you’re not used to doing, whatever that may be so. Yeah. You’re owning the stuff that you do well and really want to do, and you’re getting rid of anything that’s outside of that.
Debbie: Yes. I’ll have people come and say, “Oh, we want you to paint this mural by this other artist.” They’ll show me somebody else’s. That’s where I say, “Oh, absolutely not. I don’t do that type of work.”
It’s kind of funny.
Colleen: Right. Oh my goodness.
Colleen: So how do you get inspired with these projects?
Debbie: Ooh. Well, one of the things that I love to do every day if I can is to go on a walk. I like to go on a one-and-a-half– to two-hour walk, and I get super inspired when I do that.
I also get inspired just looking at architecture and seeing what other creative people are doing and just drawing. This might sound really silly, but I draw every day.
That really helps. I’ve found that making time for the creativity to just let it be whatever it is for me that day helps me to be more creative on the projects that I actually do for clients.
Colleen: It’s funny. It’s like you get away from the computer and that actually helps you—
Colleen: … come up with ideas to implement into the computer.
Debbie: Oh, absolutely.
Expanding on the Niche
Colleen: You’ve taken your skill for this, and you’ve got your custom style, your unique style, and you’ve also applied this to custom pattern design and interactive art installations, illustration, lettering, pattern and art licensing, surface design, textile design, and unique branding and packaging products.
Colleen: How did you get the idea to apply your style and your skill to all of these different areas, which some of them are obviously related?
Colleen: But how did you get the idea for those?
Debbie: Well, years and years and years and years ago, one of my best friends who I went to art school with said to me once, “You need to take these”—she was looking at one of my sketchbooks—“You need to take this stuff and put it on everything. Put it on a wall. Put it on a product.”
This was long before that was even the trend or that murals were the big booming thing that they are right now. So she kind of sparked that idea in my mind.
I would hear people say every now and then, “Oh, wow, some of your work would be cool on a t-shirt or something.”
So just hearing that from other people. I don’t think that… I didn’t come up with the idea on my own to just go and put the work everywhere, even though I’ve always doodled on things since I was a kid. So I was always drawing on every single thing in my room.
I guess I can’t say that I haven’t thought about it, subconsciously. But having people mention it to me started to get the wheels turning. Then, as murals and things started to take off over the last 10 years or so, and even online—print-on-demand stores and the options to even be able to do this stuff on your own—really started to push me in that direction, to just start getting my work out there everywhere, on everything.
Colleen: Marking your territory.
Debbie: Yeah, I guess. Yeah. That’s right. Taken!
Learning From the Transition
Colleen: Would you say that there’s anything in particular that you’ve learned in transitioning to this new line of work?
Debbie: Ooh. That’s a great question.
Well, I’ve learned that—just as a on a personal note—I do work a lot better and a lot harder when I’m doing something I’m really passionate about, even when it’s for a client, and it isn’t 100% just an idea that I come up with.
Focusing and niching down into just doing the art and the patterns, the murals, I just feel like I’ve become more creative, more professional, for sure. It’s just kind of made my life a little bit better.
Comparing Fine Arts to Graphic Design
Colleen: That’s so cool. Well, you’ve already touched on your passion for this. But besides that, what are the other things that you like about doing this type of work as opposed to the graphic design work?
Debbie: Well, I feel like this work kind of brings hope, and it ignites imagination in others. I think, especially with murals and public art, I love how those things just bring people together in a way that maybe they wouldn’t necessarily be brought together.
I think that it shows that you can do something big and you can push through it. I just love how public art is just such, to me, a very encouraging thing. That’s probably what I love the most about this type of work is that I just think it evokes hope and creativity and encourages people.
Advising Other Designers About a Fine Arts Niche
Colleen: That’s so cool. What advice would you give to designers who might be thinking about pursuing a more fine arts type of niche?
Debbie: I would say that the time we’re in right now is a really great time to start experimenting and putting that type of work out there. Take advantage of social media. Now, a lot of the sites and that are free right now. Who knows how long that’s gonna last, but TikTok, Instagram, all those types of things. Get on there.
But, on the flip side, don’t do anything that you’re going to end up being angry about having to do every day or something. If you don’t want to be posting on Instagram every single day, then don’t do that.
I would say more than anything, just cultivate what you’re doing as a creative. If you love to paint, draw, make music, sing, dance, whatever, just make time for it, because more than anything, the value is going to be coming from that, I would say, for you personally, versus if you’re going to be making money from it or something right away.
I would say just make time for creativity and let yourself be free in that and explore and research and just do what you feel led to do and to go try. Especially anyone who’s who’s younger than that and just maybe starting out in arts or design and wanting to dabble in the art side of things. Things don’t happen overnight. Remember that and know that it’s okay to kind of experiment and figure out what do you really, really love to do and are really good at and just take the time to do that.
Colleen: Wise words. Very wise words.
Debbie: It’s taken me 18 years to get to this point so…
Finding Debbie Online
Colleen: So, Debbie, where can listeners find you?
Debbie: They can find me on Instagram. My handle is @gneural. The G is silent. “Neural” rhymes with “mural.”
Then also I’m online on my website, gneural.com.
I have an Etsy shop up and that actually is under my name, Debbie Clapper, all one word together, on Etsy. There I’m selling some face masks/neck gaiters to help cover your face in style during this time of year and just what we’re going through.
I also have a workshop that’s going to be coming up in a couple of months. It’s a creativity workshop and helping people to let go of their inhibitions and be free with their creativity.
Colleen: Sounds great. And I have links to all of these in the show notes.
Colleen: Thanks so much for coming on, Debbie.
Debbie: Oh, Colleen, thank you. This was so much fun.
Colleen: It was!