An Interview with Shelby Bergen
Shelby Bergen is an illustrator from the suburbs outside of Minneapolis. She loves using bright colors, patterns and shapes in her illustrations. Shelby's favorite subjects include cute kids, animals and plus size people. She prides herself on keeping her work diverse, focusing on showcasing different types of bodies. We recently had a conversation with Shelby and gets to know her inspiration and art creation process.
Danielle Duemesi: Your work emphasizes body positivity, specifically celebrating bigger body types. It’s really great to see fun, bright, joyous representation of varying body types just smiling and having a good time while looking stylish! Do you feel media could do a better job of including different body types? Has the lack of representation inspired your work in any way?
Shelby Bergen: Oh, absolutely. Media portrays fat people in very specific roles, and very few of them are good. We are shown as being gross, or stupid, or just simply cast as villains; where the not so bad roles include the ironic ladies man, the fat best friend, or just the mom. Media has been doing us a disservice for a long time and unfortunately has perpetuated some common notions that people have about fat people: that we’re gross, lazy, or the sidekicks to our thin friends’ stories. I am hopeful, though. We’re seeing more diverse stories pop up all over the place, and fat representation (thankfully) doesn’t seem to be any different. In the past few years we’ve gotten Dumplin, Dietland, and Shrill on the small screen, so things are looking up.
My work is definitely inspired by the lack of good media representation. I started drawing fat bodies because I was tired of not knowing how to draw myself. The more fat people I drew, and more of them I posted on my social media, the more I realized that there is virtually nobody doing this. We are so starved for representation that I get weekly messages from people thanking me for what I do. On one hand, it’s incredibly heartwarming to hear from people who are like me that see themselves in my work, but on the other hand, this isn’t something I should be put on a pedestal for. Drawing diverse bodies is something every artist should be doing. Every single one of those messages I get fuels me to keep making media that features fat representation. If big media won’t do it, I guess I will.
Danielle: Duemesi: Your work has a quintessential appeal to children’s book illustrations, and you have some experience in the medium. Was there anything that clicked while you were developing your style that made you say, “Hey, this would be great in children’s books!” ?
Shelby Bergen: When I was in college, I took a Children’s Book class and I felt at home there in a way that I had never felt in any of my other classes. My work has always been bright, cute and kind of silly, and it’s not something I’ve always leaned into. I remember being in high school and deciding to myself: “I want to make beautiful, fully rendered art of pretty ladies!” So, I did that. Or, I tried to, at least. Every single thing I made was called cute by my classmates! I was so frustrated! But, I just kept working at it, and still, for years, everyone told me how cute my art was.
That Children’s Book class is one of the first times that I actually leaned into the cute factor that my work has always had and was the first time I got to lean into every silly idea I wanted to do. I got to take everything I thought was “too much” for my other classes and actually apply it to my work (I remember an illustration featuring a wiener dog in a hazmat suit in particular) and it was wonderful. After turning in our first assignment it just kind of hit me that yeah, children’s book is a place that my art could find a home in. Making body positive children’s books is the absolute dream, and I hope that I get the opportunity to some day!
Danielle Duemesi: A lot of illustrations I’m exposed to on my feed are very graphic and focus on linework–– defined, manic, or otherwise. Your work exhibits a lineless approach to illustration, relying more on shape and color to define division between parts. What is your creative process to making a Shelby Bergen brand illustration?
Shelby Bergen: I actually used to do a lot of linework, but I realized how much I hated doing it! I used to get so frustrated by it—so I eventually just said nope, not doing this anymore. I learned the hard way that when making art, doing things you hate doing to get to a certain end product can actually make your work worse.
I think something that gives a little insight into how I work is my other favorite medium: cut paper. The way I approach both digital illustrations and cut paper ones is exactly the same: it’s a puzzle that needs to be pieced together. When I’m sketching things out, I’m thinking about everything in terms of shape, color, and layers, and I’m always thinking of solutions to problems I know I’m going to face when coloring. How am I going to make this shape look like it’s behind this other shape? How will I differentiate one piece of this from another if they’re the same color? Where is it necessary for me to put in linework?
My favorite part is coloring, always. I love picking out colors, sometimes I start with three color palettes and have to spend far too much time choosing one. I get the big shapes in, then move onto details, which are probably my second favorite part. I love incorporating patterns and secondary elements to give my work another layer of texture. Needless to say, I use about a million clipping masks per piece! I push and pull colors and refine shapes and add patterns until something clicks and it feels complete.
Danielle Duemesi: I saw on your website that in your spare time, you’re usually reading comic books. Are there any artists or pieces of work that inspire your own art?
Shelby Bergen: I’m a big fan of the Lumberjanes series, Help Us, Great Warrior! As well as the recent revival of Marvel’s Runaways—I’ve always identified with Gert, she was one of the first remotely “plus size” characters that I had seen in a role that didn’t belittle them. I’m always inspired by bright, graphic illustration, lately I’ve been really into Virginie Morgand, Marie Boiseau, and Andie Scott! I’m also obsessed with any movie that gets put out by Tomm Moore and Laika Studio, everything both of them makes is so fun and heartfelt and has a vibe that I want to bring to my work. I would be remiss to not mention all of the wonderful fat content creators that are all on my social media feeds daily—constantly inspiring me with their positivity, their honesty and their amazing fashion decisions.
Danielle Duemesi: What have you been working on recently? What can people expect to see from you in the future?
Shelby Bergen: I’ve been doing some stuff for some very cool people recently! This fall, you can see my contribution in The (Other) F Word, which is an anthology of works by fat folks aimed at fat teenagers. I’m so excited to unveil my piece and to hold the physical copy of it in my hands! I’ve also been working with some local people here in the Twin Cities that I am excited to show off when the time comes!
People can expect me to keep drawing all of the fat babes forever. I have hopes of expanding my work into different avenues as my following grows, and I hope to continue to work with all of the cool content creators that are out there.
For more of Shelby Bergen’s content, you can follow her on Instagram @shelby.bergen or Twitter @shelbobergen ! Her portfolio can be viewed at https://www.shelbybergen.com/.