Crystal Walen is a fabric pattern designer and the artist behind the popular surface design brand Crystal W Design. The artist creates relaxed, nature-based watercolor designs often featuring fresh florals, modern basics and a vintage vibe. Every Crystal W Design collection incorporates freehand watercolor work, digital design and delicate detail brought to life by bold colors.
You may have come across one of the RISD grad’s designs. Major brands, such as Hallmark, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Elle Décor, Spoonflower, Hawthorne Supply Co., Society6 and Etsy, have featured Crystal’s work on various products, including home decor, apparel, and tech accessories.
I went to high school with Crystal, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. Since I am fond of Crystal’s work, I was thrilled to catch up with her for this Artisan Joy interview to learn more about her artistic process.
AJ: How did you get started creating your art?
CW: I first worked for other privately held U.S. suppliers who sell to mass-market retailers for over a decade. Then I launched my own design brand while freelancing through the transition.
AJ: When did you realize that you could turn your craft into a business?
CW: I always wanted to have my own business in art and design, and with the beginning of online print-on-demand (POD) and e-commerce businesses like Society6.com, Spoonflower.com, Redbubble.com, Zazzle.com and others popping up, I saw the potential for starting a side business that could grow into something more.
AJ: Where do you find inspiration for your creations?
CW: Nature, pop culture trends, vintage architecture, travel, exploring social media channels like Pinterest and Instagram to follow other artists and brands are just some of the jump-off points that give me ideas to explore creating new collections or designs.
AJ: How do you apply that inspiration to your work as a fabric pattern designer?
CW: I often take an idea and think about how I want to render it, whether it’s a color story, or concept or both and then do research to see what’s been done and how I could do it in my own way that feels in harmony with my style, brand and aesthetic.
AJ: What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
CW: I really can’t whistle, but my mom could hand whistle! The second thing is that even though my art may seem really relaxed, spontaneous and not fussy, I do a lot of initial research into the concepts, shapes, colors and overall feel, sketch some practice compositions and then paint freehand with the idea in mind that I developed.
AJ: As creatives, we can be continuously creating and refining our art. How do you handle perfectionism?
CW: I don’t think about perfection. If something doesn’t feel like it’s working with my art, I put it aside and move on to something else that feels better, but I don’t usually get hung up on something. Occasionally, I have spent too much time on something, trying to force it to work, and it never ends up working out. So, I learned to put it aside and come back to it when it feels right. When it comes to freelance commissioned projects—if I’m not feeling into it, it’s not a big deal because it’s not about me or my vision. It’s about fulfilling someone else’s view, so it’s kind of easier just to get it done and move on.
AJ: What advice would you give to someone interested in putting their art out into the world but feels vulnerable about it?
CW: I would say just do it. There’s really nothing to be gained by waiting because the reason you’re waiting is probably fear-based. There’s not much to be lost by putting it out there, even if you fall flat on your face. If it doesn’t initially get the response you were hoping for, you can pick yourself up and keep trying. There’s no perfect place to start. It’s a process, and you live, learn and progress toward what you are after.
AJ: Has someone ever criticized your artwork? How did you handle it?
CW: Yes, I went to art school, so critiques are a big part of a degree in art or design. The world is full of criticism, and, honestly, it’s not a big deal. It was hard for me in art school, but it prepared me for the real world, and as a designer, you have a boss to answer to, and that is usually a critique on how you are meeting the customer’s needs.
AJ: Creatives are often very in tune with what’s happening in the world. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. If this happens to you, how do you cope?
CW: Painting and connecting with my art is a huge relief in dealing with the world’s uncertainties. Anything that allows me to disconnect with overwhelming untouchable issues and connect with tangible projects like gardening, baking and creating is always stress relieving for me!
AJ: Are you are passionate about a cause and why?
CW: There are so many causes that I am passionate about, so choosing one is difficult, but I’ll go with mental wellness. Mental health is an invisible illness that is at the base of many fundamental issues. I’ve often thought about starting an organization to offer therapies to people struggling with mental health challenges.
AJ: What brings you joy?
CW: Spending time with my family and pets, exploring nature, travel, camping, adventuring and baking bring me lots of joy!
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.