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This Artist is On a Mission to Replace Your Selfies with Something Far Better

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Illustrations by Michele Melcher

When Philadelphia-based illustrator Michele Melcher turned to Kickstarter to launch The UnSelfie Project on May 1st, she hoped to strike a chord with people, but the public's enthusiastic reaction to her campaign has by far exceeded initial expectations. With time to spare, Michele has already made nearly three times her initial fundraising goal of $4,500.

Michele's mission is to bring back the art of the portrait and replace the ubiquitous (and often thoughtless) selfies that have overtaken our social media feeds like an unstoppable digital kudzu.

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I met Michele while recruiting artists for ArtCorgi.com (a website where people can easily commission personalized illustrations from up-and-coming artists for use as avatars, wall art, gifts, etc.) and had the pleasure of asking her about her experience with this project, her thoughts on selfies and commissioned art, and her insights on being an illustrator in today's modern and constantly-evolving commercial art world.

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Through this project, Michelle has found that the art of the portrait is not as lost as we might imagine. People like supporting creative artists. People like the idea of having an artist turn their photos into something more. People like the statement they can make with original art. And they're eager to snap up some of their own.

Thankfully, the rise of platforms like Kickstarter and ArtCorgi make it possible to do so. Michele's Kickstarter campaign runs through the end of May, after which you will be able to order selfies through ArtCorgi.com, as well as Michele's personal website.

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Simone Collins (SC): What inspired you to kick off the Unselfie Project?

Michele Melcher (MM): As an illustrator I have always been fascinated by old portraits; the original avatars. I believe that the selfie has really made the special, unspecial. I want people to see the value in representing themselves in an artistic way that makes a statement about who they are as individuals. I want to take the portrait back and get rid of as many lame selfies as possible.

SC: How do you think illustrated versions of selfies are different from normal photographs? What value does an artist's rendition of a photo bring to the table?

MM: I think that illustrated versions of selfies bring back the creativity of the portrait in a fun way, kind of like the "rock star" version of the portrait. It is also an affordable piece of art which is appealing to customers on many different budgets. You don't have to be super wealthy in order to commission an Unselfie!

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SC: Why do you think selfies have become so popular?

MM: I think that selfies have become super popular because these days everyone is online and has a phone at their disposal that can take a somewhat decent photo. Not to mention all of the filters that make a bad photo look a little bit better. You have a zit or a wrinkle? No problem! Just filter it out!

Everything is able to be uploaded at the touch of a finger. It's a quick way to communicate how you want to represent yourself. (But please, duck face should never be the way that you would want to represent your self!)

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SC: What do you enjoy most about creating portraits of those who commission your work?

MM: I enjoy drawing for a living because it's what I was meant to do...It's in my blood. I've drawn since I was a small child and it's always been my passion. I remember drawing pictures for my mom and being so excited to show them to her... I still get that same feeling of excitement and anticipation now when I illustrate something and share it with the world. It's very fulfilling for me. Especially drawing people.

I love creating portrait commissions because every single one is different - it doesn't get boring! You never know who or what you will end up drawing. I like capturing the personality and expression of the person and transferring it into a drawing. It always feels like a small victory when I do it.

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SC: Let's say I want to snap a selfie of myself so you can illustrate it- do you have any tips on what I can do to create a great selfie for you to work with?

MM: Yes and Yes.

If you can get someone else to snap the selfie for you, please try to do that. When the camera is too close, even turned around at an arms length, it will distort your face and you won't look like yourself. Ever wonder why many of the selfies that you take that way look weird? That is why. I am drawing from the photos that you supply me with and if you don't look like yourself, your avatar won't look like you either.

Try not to shoot in a place that is too dark because your image will come out blurry. If I cannot see what you look like, I will not be able to work from the photo and will request that you send another.

On the other hand, try not to shoot in a place where there is too much light - photo ends up being blown out and I cannot see the detail to draw from. Same deal, if I cannot see what you look like, I will need to request another photo to work from.

As tempting as it may be, please try to refrain from using filters. For pretty much the same reasons stated above. I need to see what you look like!

Last but not least...try not to give me a photo that is too far away. If you are too tiny, I will not be able to work from your photo.

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SC: What are the biggest differences (in terms of process, feel, result- whatever) between creating small, personal works of art for everyday people and doing large illustration jobs for companies?

MM: I work for large many large companies as well as smaller clients but I treat each job using a similar process. A proposal is written, a contract is signed and then we begin the sketch to final art phase. Depending on the client, this can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. An illustrator always has to be on their toes in order to deal with any surprises that might happen.

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SC: You have a delicious illustration style- very bright, bold, colorful, and playful. How has it evolved over the years, and where do you seek out inspiration?

MM: All artists have a style but I do believe that it evolves over time. This is a healthy thing. If you keep doing the same thing over and over you get bored and stagnant and it reflects in what you do. My style has changed over the years from strictly watercolor, to pen and ink and watercolor to completely digital. I used to be a die hard traditional medium type of girl who raised an eyebrow at digital art. It is personally fulfilling to me to put a pencil to paper and actually draw or paint. I considered digital art to be lesser art. I was completely wrong.

In order to be competitive and successful as an illustrator, you need to be quick and accurate. I love watercolor, but it is a very unforgiving medium. It is also a lot slower. I found the pressure sensitive Wacom tablet to be something that works really well for me. It allows me to draw I can make revisions on the fly. I sleep a lot better at night now knowing that if a last minute change comes up I'm on top of it! And I can can also pick and change colors in the blink of an eye so it's a much more efficient way for me to work.

For personal work, my inspiration might come from what is going on around me, or what I might be "in to" at the moment. It could be a specific place I visited, music I heard or an idea that I have been thinking about. If I am working on a commissioned piece for a client, I will try to find out as much about the subject as possible in order to get a "feel" for what it is that I am asked to draw. For instance, If I am a drawing a certain musician or band, I might listen to their music while working on sketches in order to get a vision of where I want the sketch to go. If it's another celebrity, or personality I might watch a movie or a television show or read an article about them, etc. I think it is very important to know your subject, even if just a little bit. And, As cliche as it sounds, inspiration is everywhere!