Debra Cartwright: In Living Color

You may not know her name, but you’ve surely seen her work under the acronym @BeginningKisses. As a graphic designer, her work is published in People magazine. As a water color illustrator, her work was featured on McDonald’s cups during EssenceFest 2015. She is as vibrant and lively as the images she paints with an infectious exuberance. As we sat in Harlem sipping cocktails and talking about food and southern roots, I knew I met a kindred soul. Her work is currently on exhibit at Sol Studios in Harlem through September 12th. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the talented Debra Cartwright.

Mr. Refined (MR): You made my job easier answering general questions on your website. You state that you’ve been painting forever and that your mom put you in watercolor classes when you were 8 years old.

Debra Cartwright (DC): I was constantly painting and drawing Disney characters. My mom wanted to put me in extracurricular for the weekends and sports was not my thing. Ironically, the classes had more adults, maybe because it was Saturday class. There were middle school kids, me, and adults.

MR: Why watercolor?

DC: Probably because it was the only class available. However, isn’t watercolor everyone’s first introduction to art and painting? As a kid, you get the coloring book with five paint colors and use a brush, mainly your fingers to paint.

MR: Did you go to school for this?

DC: Yes and no. I went to University of Virginia (UVa) and majored in painting. In college, I was sewing my own clothes. A friend from UVa graduated a year ahead of me. She was attending Parsons School of Design. She told me that I needed to attend because I was really into designing and sewing my own clothes. After graduating from UVa, I went to Parsons for a one year graphic design degree so I could work in magazines.

MR: What’s the difference between graphic design and painting?

DC: That’s a good question. As a painter, your paintings reflect your representations, your message. As a graphic designer, you have to simplify and represent someone else’s message. I struggled with graphic design in Parsons. It was a hard transition. I’m a better painter.

MR: Is this your job?

DC: I work as a full time graphic designer at Graphic design pays the bills. Being a painter and illustrator is my passion. Like the song says, I got six (two, I have two) jobs, I don’t get tired. 

MR: How did the McDonalds/EssenceFest collaboration come about?

DC: This is where social media worked. McDonald’s contracted with the advertising firm Walton Isaacson. This year they wanted to use a black illustrator. Tracey Coleman saw my “Don’t Shoot” painting on Instagram and reached out to me. At the time, I had no idea about illustration. She became my mentor, walking me through the process. And the rest is history….

MR: How did the exhibit at Sol Studios come about?

DC: That is where networking and relationship building played a big part. I was always looking for a space to exhibit. While having coffee with Tracey, the connect from the McDonald’s/EssenceFest project, I was lamenting my difficulty finding a gallery to exhibit my work. She looked at me and said I know of someone that has a relative in the gallery business. She has been a wonderful mentor.

MR: How do you protect your work from being stolen off social media?

DC: When I first started, I didn’t think about that. I was at a mixer and a friend from UVa approached me. She happened to specialize in creative copyright law. She said that she saw my work online and that I needed to take steps to protect it. At the time, I still didn’t think anything of it until later someone stole “appropriated” my work as their own. I called my friend and hired her immediately. I learned the hard way that artists need to protect their work from exploitation. I do not mind showcasing my work, but you must balance what’s fair versus exposure. You need protection not only from online pirates, but also in getting fair contracts for gallery exhibits. Attorneys are my best friends because they protect my interests.

MR: Do you do commission work?

DC: I do illustrations for commercial work – logos, book illustrations – and projects like the McDonald’s/EssenceFest. I use an Illustration Agent, Shereka Evans, to handle all requests for commercial illustrations.

MR: What if readers want to purchase your work?

DC: Gallery works are originals, so they are not reproduced. I do have some digital pieces available via Etsy.

MR: What advice do you have for young girls thinking about becoming a painter?

DC: Follow your passion. If I had to do over, I would have stayed with painting. However, there is always concern over being a starving artist so I became a graphic designer to support myself. I wished that I would have followed my passion from the beginning. Practice every day. Share and show your work, even stuff you’re not sure of. You never know what speaks to people.

MR: How can readers stay informed of the latest from @BeginningKisses?

DC: Readers can visit the Made in HER Image gallery exhibit at Sol Studios in Harlem through September 12th. They can also stay in touch via my website and social media.


Instagram: @BeginningKisses

Facebook: @BeginingKisses

Etsy: Illustrations by BeginningKisses

Ronda Lee, JD

Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She's a blogger for the Huffington Post and you can follow her musings on her blog, Ronda-isms- Good Bad & Ugly. She has launched her own snack mix, Auntie Ronda's Snack Mix. Her goal is to get her books published.

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