How I Work: A Peek Inside L.A. Artist and Feminist Bijou Karman’s Workspace (and How She Monetized Her Passion)
Success and creativity feed off of our environment: the things we see, hear, and feel around us while we work are incredibly impactful as they influence our mood, creativity, and focus. For many, workspaces directly affect one’s ability to create and inevitably, those special spaces begin to reflect the people that work in them, too. It might be a cubicle, an art studio, a home office, a co-working space—or even something we haven’t thought of, but it got us wondering, what does the relationship between our workspace and success look like? For us, the answer lies with modern disruptors. Stepping inside their spaces is like peering into their mind. It might be clean or messy, colorful or plain but above all, it's personal and tells their unique story. That’s why we launched the How I Work series. Follow us as we highlight the people we admire and the spaces they work in.
Film photos by Natalie Engel
A modern desk lamp, a striped notebook, raw ceiling beams, and gridded windows. Can you guess where I’m sitting? In my nook at the office where I work Monday through Friday. Like many, inspiration comes to me by way of the people and things that I’m surrounded by. Our environment plays a crucial part in our professional success by directly affecting the work we produce. And this rings true, especially for artists—their workspace is vital to their creativity and inspiration can strike them at any given moment.
One of my all-time favorite artists and illustrators, Bijou Karman, is not only an L.A. native, but an inspiration-seeking, plant-loving, feminist. Through her artwork, Karman has intertwined strong women in fashionable getups with bright colors and lively textures. But her work digs far deeper than eclectic women splayed on canvases. Karman has made it her mission to weave societal contexts surrounding conventional beauty standards into her art in order to showcase what real beauty looks like. She actively paints and draws women she is inspired by, that break the molds society has trained us to feed into. She makes a point of raising her voice through her work for personal and even client-based projects.
You have probably heard her name or seen her work online. Perhaps you even drove by her mural on the Nike concept store on Melrose, stumbled upon her illustrations for the Rihanna x Stance collaboration, or seen her art across publications like The New Yorker and Refinery 29. Karman is a self-made, female artist that has scaled her passion into a full-fledged business. I couldn’t help but be curious about what a successful female artist’s workspace looked like and how she gathers inspiration. So, I sat down with Karman at her home art studio and plucked her brain about her space, her success, and the relationship between the two. Additionally, I wanted to capture her in her element—on film. Follow along for insight into Bijou Karman’s workspace and what really inspires her.
Natalie Engel: Can you begin by telling me a little bit about yourself, your style of artwork, and the space you work out of?
BK: I’m an artist and illustrator. I work in all different mediums. I love painting in gouache and doodling on my iPad and laptop. [The medium] depends on the assignment. I do a lot of work for clients as well as personal work which I show in galleries.
My style varies. It’s very colorful, feminine, and playful. A lot of which are pop-art references. But, the medium and the actual style vary a lot. People say that my style is distinct which is really nice to hear. But for me, it feels all over the place. Sometimes I’ll do a super detailed painting and other times a really flat, digital drawing. I like having that spectrum and being able to apply it to different clients and projects.
The space that I work out of is just a little studio in my house. I love being able to work from home. It really suits me because I work at all different times of the day and have a really unusual schedule. I get things done whenever I can. Because I’m so passionate about what I do, it doesn't feel like work. This is my little space and I’m doing the best with it that I can.
NE: Well, it’s beautiful. You’ve done a great job with your studio and I love seeing your paintings everywhere. Your art embodies things that inspire you—whether it’s strong women, bold patterns, fashion or all of the above. How does your art reflect the things that you see and feel in the patriarchal society that we live in today? Can you dive deeper into what drives you to make certain pieces and how societal contexts weave their way into your artwork?
BK: As a woman and feminist, I am very aware of the patriarchy in everyday life. It is really important for me to reflect my values in my work. Luckily with my client work, I think that gets reflected back at me. I get approached to do a lot of feminst-leaning projects.
In my painting, which is my personal work, it’s whatever I want to put out into the world. In both [client and personal work], it’s really important for me to show a diversity of beauty and to make sure every woman is represented in my art. It’s really important to not just show skinny white women—it’s important to show every shade, color, and size.
That’s really important to me and what I’m most passionate about—fashion as a freedom for women. You don’t have to look a certain way [with fashion]. You can just be anything you want to be, any person you want to be. You don’t have to look sexy or hot or cute. I try to show interesting, unusual women and fashion in my personal work.
NE: To be our most inspired and successful selves, it takes being in a certain headspace and workspace—and your space is wonderful. That being said, your studio is crucial to your artwork. Why do you think that is? Can you walk me through its nooks and crannies and why is it the optimal place for you to create new pieces?
BK: It actually isn’t the most optimal space—yet. I want to grow into a bigger studio because I’m starting to make larger paintings and need more space. So, in some ways it’s great. But in that way, I’m really outgrowing it. I think I’ll have to upgrade soon.
In terms of the positives about my space, I need a quiet and private environment. I often like working in silence which sounds creepy. I really need quiet to focus and without distractions. I feel lucky to have a space where I can do that. I find that it’s really helpful for me to put my phone in another room. Because if I don’t, I’ll check Instagram every five minutes while I’m waiting for the paint to dry.
I surround myself with things that make me happy and inspire me. I just pin up [on the walls] what I’m interested in. It’s a way to remind myself that I want to draw this plant or pattern I’m interested in, or even another artist’s work that inspires me. I like to keep things in front of me to keep my mind fresh.
NE: When do you feel that your mind is at its peak performance for your work?
BK: I think when I’m focused and not distracted by other things. I’ve sort of situated and tweaked my workspace over time to be most beneficial for my body. It’s something that I’ve really had to focus on as an artist. I elevate my laptop and my desk. I have to stand up when I’m painting because if not, it takes a physical toll. I’m in my best headspace when I feel good in my body.
NE: Art is a wonderful outlet and vehicle for self-expression. How have you managed to monetize your passion and creativity in a noteworthy way? Can you run through your most pride and joy projects with clients that you were excited to work with?
BK: I was able to monetize my passion by putting out a lot of work into the world that showed who I am and what I’m all about. As an artist, most of my commissions came from doing self-initiated work that I was passionate about. For example, I created a series of paintings based on women in movies that I was inspired by. So, giving myself assignments that just showed everything I was passionate about—music, women, style, and fashion. I put that out there and that kind of work was able to come back to me. I always tell people that it’s really important to do that. Putting my work online and on Instagram along with being social and meeting other artists. You know, putting myself out there.
And in terms of some of my favorite projects, I work a lot with Ban.do. I feel so happy working with them. They’re supportive of me as an artist and we really vibe with our style. I’ve had an ongoing collaboration with them for the last three years or so, doing different products. I recently did the cover of their yearly planner which I’m really proud of.
NE: Do you have any tips on how somebody might be able to accomplish what you’ve accomplished... in regards to working with a client that they’re striving to work with and finding someone that aligns with their vision?
BK: Always reach out to clients, it never hurts. Especially in a noteworthy way. Like sending something in the mail. Reach out in a personal way if you can. It’s always great to show a face and have something personal connected to your voice. Also—always be creating.
NE: Your art is a full fledged business and being an artist is your full-time job. Can you highlight some obstacles that you’ve faced on your way to where you are now? And how did you surpass them?
BK: I think an obstacle that I have been going through recently but am now phasing out of, was feeling like I needed to please my clients. I mean, they’re hiring you for your work. But I ended up putting out a lot of work that I felt wasn’t very me. It’s fine, but I’m not super proud of that. I felt that I may have bent too much for the client’s wants and needs. Now, I’m finally reaching a point in my career where people come to me for my aesthetic.
I think learning how to say no and “hear me out on my ideas, I know what would be better” is something I’m still learning how to do. It feels really good when I’m able to do that. I am more proud of the project when it comes from me. Ultimately, they are hiring me for my taste. So, if I present them with something—they might just go for it.
NE: Who is your favorite artist at the moment?
BK: Good question. Well, my all time favorite artist is Alexander Calder. I’m always inspired by him. I just got a new book on his work. And actually, this new artist. What is her name? Nina Chakrabarti. I just discovered her work. She did this fashion book right here. She’s an illustrator who’s been around for a while. I think this is actually a pretty well known book that a lot younger girls have. I just bought it for inspiration. She does really cool pen drawings about fashion. I’m really looking forward to delving into this. I know it’s for kids, but her work is really beautiful.
NE: When you do something like this painting, do you draw freehand first?
BK: My process is that I have a bank of inspiration images. I’ll pull them from the internet or take them myself. Then, when I’m looking to do a new piece, I'll grab a bunch of elements. It’ll be like hair from this girl, this book that I want to draw, a plant that I saw, these chairs that I saw at the flea market. Sometimes, I’ll take references pictures of myself in certain poses and I digitally collage them together in Photoshop and build a sketch from that. Then, I’ll sketch. So, it’s kind of a long process. I sketch first in pencil and then fill it in.
NE: So, where can somebody buy your artwork?
BK: They can actually buy it online at my webshop, shop-bijou.com. I sell original paintings, prints, zines, and woven blankets that have my work on them.