Julia Griffin's Art Illuminates Dark Corners of Fantasy Worlds

Julia Griffin talks fairy tales, a fertility goddess, and the need for a little darkness. 

Heavily influenced by the fairy tales of her youth, Julia Griffin enjoys toeing the line between light and dark in her illustrations. Mostly, she’s enamored with the struggle between good and evil.

Griffin, an artist from Amherst, Massachusetts, uses colored pencils to meticulously create her illustrations, and says that some pieces can take months to create (in between other projects and her day job). This painstaking attention to detail is evidenced in her self-published book of 13 original illustrations, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Snow Queen.”

She spoke to Inverse about balancing the delicate with the dark and what it’s like building her own world of fairy tales.

What inspires you about fairy tales and mythology? And what were some of the stories that inspired you when you were growing up?

I think there’s a certain attraction to fairy tales because they have universal appeal. They’ve stuck around with us for a long time and there’s a reason that they’re sort of universal. All different cultures will have sort of the same stories which just came out of people trying to find meaning in the world and coming up with these stories. There’s definitely a sense of mystery and wonder about a world that hasn’t yet been fully discovered that I really like.

"Best Friends"

I remember poring over the illustrations for “The Chronicles of Narnia” and some of the fairy tale books that I had growing up that had really wonderful, beautiful, delicate illustrations that I would always go back to. And I remember doing my own illustrations for some of the stories as well for things that I had in my head.

What drew you to reimagining Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Snow Queen,” specifically?

A lot of things. I knew I wanted to make a full book because in school you have a lot of different projects you’re working on and you have some longer projects, but you never really create a full, final book. So I wanted to do that. Since I don’t have a lot of experience writing, I figured if I approached a story that was already established, one that had been told before, and retold it in my own voice, that would be sort of a safe stepping stone into that world. I knew I loved fairy tales, so I read through a bunch of old fairy tales I’d read as a child. And the Snow Queen I really liked because it has this sort of unusual situation where a little girl is rescuing a little boy, which is not your typical fairy tale. There’s a lot of really beautiful imagery and it’s a great sort of epic quest type story.


What was your favorite image to create in that story?

I had a lot of fun doing the cover. I think that was probably my favorite overall. It was one of the more challenging ones too, because I was trying to come up with something that could sort of give you an impression of the whole story and work as a cover.

"The Snow Queen"

Of the interior illustrations, the one that I think I was most successful with was the one of Kai stepping into the carriage with the Snow Queen’s hands on his shoulders. I wanted it to be very, very creepy and doing sketches for it, I just came up with this image in my head of these cold hands and the rest of her is completely in darkness. I knew that that was the one to go with and I really had a lot of fun just making it very creepy.

Your pieces range from very light, delicate scenes to much darker, more sinister images. How do you strike a balance between those elements?

I think the balance between dark and light is definitely something that I like to play with and I want to be present in my work. With “The Snow Queen”, there’s a good balance of it, there’s a number of very creepy events, but it’s a happy ending. I think that it’s important to have both the dark and the light, they both give meaning to each other. The sort of very happy Disney fairy tales don’t have much depth to them and they don’t really reflect the real world.

Do you do all of your work in colored pencil? Why are you drawn to that medium specifically?

I do all in colored pencil. I have recently just started experimenting a little, doing some ink washes just to give myself a basis because colored pencil can be very time-consuming.

But I love the texture you can get with colored pencil. It’s not something you find with paint, you get this sort of graininess that I really like. I also really like the process of drawing with pencil, it’s a very meditative process and you sort of have to turn your brain off and go into the zone.

"Pulled Under"

Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for “Pulled Under” and the struggle being depicted in the piece?

So that’s a piece for a new story that I’ve been working on. It’s an original fairy tale of my own devising. The main character is a deer-boy, sort of like a centaur, but with a deer instead of a horse. In the beginning of the story, he comes upon an enchanted pool in the woods and he’s pulled into the pool by a Kelpie who tries to drown him in the pool. The rest of the story is him sort of coming back from that and dealing with it. I wanted to get at least one illustration for that story out to set the character in my head and give myself an idea of the atmosphere and how it was going to work out.

When you’re creating your own fairy tales, what are some of the key elements you make sure to include?

A lot of things. I like dark fairy tales. I think they’re more compelling when there’s some darkness in them, some sort of mysterious-ness, creepiness. And magic of some sort. But also I think having some sort of heroic journey. I always love reading heroic journey stories.

"The Goddess of Nebulae" 

I was also really intrigued by your piece, “The Goddess Nebluae.” What was the inspiration behind this?

That is a piece I did for an art book that a friend of mine was organizing and the theme was “Space Monks.” She was very loose with it, she said basically you can create anything you want that has to do with this theme and interpret it whichever way you want to.

So I was thinking about religion and space and decided I wanted to do a fertility goddess. And if she’s a fertility goddess, clearly it has to be Nebulae. I then started thinking about different religious art and did some research into mandalas, which are these beautiful Buddhist designs which represent the universe which fit right in with my idea about this fertility goddess.

What’s been the most visually interesting or inspiring thing you’ve seen lately, whether it’s in film, TV or gaming?

The BBC did an adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s a really cool book by Susannah Clarke about magic in old England and sort of an alternate universe where there was magic but it’s now faded.

There are these two magicians who are trying to bring magic back into the world. The BBC did an adaptation of it for a mini-series last summer and it was really beautifully done, just really well done and visually amazing. That was a lot of fun to watch.

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