Turning Dreams into Stories with Karen Cantuq

In this episode, I’m talking to Karen Cantuq, incredibly inspiration digital artist from Mexico. Karen now has an Instagram community of over 90k people, has partnered with brands like Starbucks and CocaCola, but what’s more important is that she has figured out how not to be a starving artist and pay for travelling all over the world. But this is not how it started though. Karen’s story started with deep personal trauma and depression, which art helped her to overcome. Maybe you can relate to this. But please hear her amazingly inspirational story from herself and I hope you enjoy the interview!

Show notes

What we talked about:


  • How making art can help you heal
  • Why you shouldn’t be afraid of being weird
  • Finding a balance between work, personal art, and Instagram
  • The importance of doing your own thing




Karen’s Instagram

Karen’s Society6

Karen’s website

Eduardo Galeano, author of a quote "Scientists say that we are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are made of stories."

Karen’s IGTV with her “We Are Made Of Stories” videos

Unsplash, stock images page from where Karen gets pictures

Pixabay, stock images page from where Karen gets pictures

Pixels, website with stock images

Ronny Garcia, photographer from Chile

The Lego Frida by Karen

Ted Chin, inspires Karen

Luisa Azevedo, inspires Karen

Alexandria, inspires Karen

Vansessa, inspires Karen

Interview script

-  You have a very strong message behind your art. Please tells us the whole story: how did you start and how did you get where you are now?


- I started about 4 years ago. I was very sick for almost 2 years and I was actually in med school. The doctors told me that I need to take a break from it and figure out what’s wrong with me. So I did, but my dad knows me so well and he told me to have any kind of classes just to distract myself and not being at home all the time. Being at home you’re stuck thinking and it’s just you and your mind and some many unpleasant thoughts, so I was actually hurting myself from my thoughts of my sickness.


So I went to the architecture school, in which I have a degree now. In the meantime I was depressed for when I was in med school I thought I found what I wanted to do. I watched Friends, and in this one episode Rachel was crying as she thought she has her whole life figured out, “I’m gonna marry at 24 and graduate at 25” and this was happening to me, I didn’t know what to do. I always liked art but never thought of it as of my calling. When my dad bought me a camera just to find out that I’m a terrible photographer I discovered Photoshop. I had an idea in my mind, but I didn’t know how to capture it with my camera, so I just started manipulating the photos.


I started with photo of Lily and just added some butterflies in Photoshop. It was like a therapy for me. By editing every single day I distracted myself and it took away my depression  and suddenly everything felt like that was my path, my way. That’s how it started.


- Now I totally understand “I have brought my feelings into work of art for a long time”.


- Exactly! I needed a way to express my feelings without hurting myself. So that was Photoshop.


- It’s a great story. It's sad that so many people don’t realize your art doesn’t have to be good at all at the very beginning. As long as it helps you to deal with your emotions.


- Yes, you can be terrible at it, but with a lot of practice it becomes a part of your life. Eventually you become better at it. Like any photographer or artist.


- Tell us about “We are made of stories” videos. They’re so beautiful, so vulnerable and sincere. How did it start and why are you doing it?


- I’ve read this quote of Eduardo Galeano "Scientists say that we are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are made of stories.” I thought it’s so true. And I was having hard time dealing with humans. Summer 2017 I was with my friend on a trip. She was getting married, but she had to return home. So I was alone with her boyfriend and his family, it was very awkward, I didn’t know what I was going to do for a 3 days. I called my dad and told him I’m going on a trip, I didn’t tell him it was a whole night ride with a bus, because he’d kill me, but it was my first solo trip and I’ve met amazing people.


I was there for a weekend but it inspired me to do first “We are made of stories” video. This is about us, this is our life. Dreams are great but eventually we need to take all of those dreams and make them actual stories. Dreams can give you inspiration and the encouragement but we need to take it to the next step. I decided that this is going to be my life and one day I go with more stories than just dreams.


Everyone has a life lesson by the end of the day and I’m grateful for all the people I’ve met. They encourage you to go out there and and just be you and remember this is life is about you. Not about anyone else, but you.


- You recently wrote a post about your personal style and that you mainly associate it with animals, flowers and astronauts. Tell us how you found your style. Was it hard? Any advise for people who struggle with that?


- I think we all struggle. I still struggle. But when you’re creating it’s easy to be inspired by other people and there’s a thin line between being inspired and actually coping their work. I was inspired by lots of artists when I started. I discovered my love for animals and I began with it when I realized I just can’t be out there rescuing elephants and doing good for animals. I thought I could do art with animals and make people fall in love with them. There are amazing wildlife photographers but I can bring something different to the photography with animals. So if i could add flowers, something that you won’t see in real world and it would be the amusement, something different, something cute. I started this whole “global awareness” stuff, it became a thing.


Sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in this planet, it’s hard sometimes to think differently than other people, sometimes they think you’re crazy because you’re so passionate about your work, you actually start doubting yourself like “am I crazy or is it normal artist stuff?”


- I can so relate to it because I’m a total weirdo and all of my friends are asking what am I doing, that that’s not the real thing.


- Yes, they don’t get that. First my parents thought there’s something wrong with me and what am I doing, but now they love what I do and they have my prints all over the house.

- At first people around your don’t get it, such a weird feeling. But then you put your stuff out there and other people get it.


- Exactly! It was a surprise for me, I didn’t start publishing on Instagram for sharing, I just kept my things there as it’s easy to have your things online, and then suddenly people started to like them. I started without knowing people are gonna like it.


- Many people start as instagrammers and then they discover their style. You started with art, then you started sharing it.


- Obviously my Instagram was personal first. Then I started mixing and was like “Oh, this is the thing” and I just kept it up.


- You are quite sure why you create. Do you think it’s important for an artist?


- If you feel it, then just do it. There’s a reason why you’re feeling and why you’re creating. At first I didn’t understand why I was creating, I found myself doing it every day until I realized it’s therapy for me and it became a part of my life. I understood that a couple months later after I started doing it, the thing started helping me. I was more calm, my feeling were more stable, I started going out more. So yeah, if you feel like you have to do something, just do it. Sometimes I have an urge of creating at 3-4am and I respect that, because this urge is there for a reason. If I get busy with stuff other than photography or Photoshop, I physically feel bad.


- Tell us about your process. Do you get pictures yourself?


- Mostly I use Unsplash or Pixabay and I have my Adobe Stock membership. That’s a thing, you also start learning. At first it’s very easy and grab a photo from Google, but then you start realizing this photo is somebody’s work and you realize it’s not free of rights. And you learn about the whole creative world. Of course, you make mistakes at first if you have no idea, but you start doing things right and asking for permission, buying your content. That’s how i found Unsplash, It is a free of rights website, uploaded photos are free of rights automatically. I’ve uploaded couple of my photos there.


- So when you get an idea, what do you do? How is your creative process organized?


- People sometimes ask that and I really don’t know. I just see an image or I have something in mind and I’m just hours looking for a right image to create that, to express the right feeling. Sometimes I look at the image and I can immediately do it.


- How long do you work on one image?


- The longest i’ve worked on an image was 8 hours and it was for a Lego Frida collage, but normally I work from 10 to 45 minutes, an hour tops. It’s like a daily therapy.


- You pay a lot of attention to colors in your work. When did you start thinking it through and why do you think it’s important?


- I just think colors express lots of feelings. If you go through my Instagram, you can see red when I am angry, blueish if I am kinda sad, and then yellowish when I feel happiness. I do it unconsciously. Of course, I pay attention to it, also because as a designer you create consciously. When I’m editing I express how I feel through the image.


- Do you have to be full time artist or can you combine it with some other jobs?


- I do have a job, I’m a freelance designer and I work under the contracts. I don’t work on a side, unless I travel for something specific. When I started I was in school and I was working, so I think it’s possible. At the end of the day I'm still creating art. I love creating, whether it’s an image or a design, a magazine. I love designing, I love creating.


- How do you balance between your work assignments and personal art and Instagram?


- I think what’s more difficult it’s to keep up with Instagram. The fact that you have a community and you have to answer their comments and messages. Creating an image on my computer it not the issue because I can create whenever. But then you have the same amount of time to answer. People are being so nice and supportive and those are the actual people that are creating your career. Without them you wouldn’t be noticed. So you need to take a time to answer. I do it whenever I can. When you upload a photo, be sure to have time to answer the comments. Be there to take care of your community and your art.


- Last week I spoke with Ronny Garcia, a photographer from Chile and we spoke about how important it is to be a marketer when you’re an artist.


- Yes. Those arts are so difficult sometimes and people don’t realize that. And then comes the people that hate your work and they comment “that’s photoshop”, like really? I thought there are foxes on the moon. You deal with this kind of stuff every day. Sometimes people DM me saying they want this wallpaper, sure, I can do it but later, I’m working, and 2 hours later they ask me where’s the wallpaper? I have no obligation to send you a wallpaper, give me a break. Yeah, people demand and when the post is good, you kinda struggle with this social media stuff.


- You are very generous by giving this wallpapers.


- I’m just being thankful.


- You’re spreading your art for free. Sad when people don’t understand you put a lot of effort into it.


- I love people requesting them, but I have a life too.


- You manage to turn your art into business, you sell phone cases. Can you tell about this business initiative and how hard was it to start it?


- I’m not gonna lie, doing it by yourself is so much work and then organizing and having your website and do all the orders. I stopped promoting it because it was so much for me and as I was getting money… We need to be honest, we can’t just do it for likes and comments, we need to pay rent, eat, whatever. Do something that profitable to you. So I has to stop a little with the cases because I was having different contracts that bring you more money. But it’s great and I think every artist should do to it, to find a profit out of what you do. If it’s selling prints or being creative or partner with another business.



  I don’t do my own prints. But I don’t have time to go and print, and having a stock is hard too. And people are asking where are their prints or cases, and you can understand as they paid for it, but I had work, I was in school. So you can’t be full time in your business. When I was done with school I thought I’d have more time for it but i don’t.


- It's very interesting to hear because lots of creatives have the same question.


- I get so many DM’s from digital artists asking how I’m doing my cases. And when I explain they say it’s a lot of work.


- What’s a biggest challenge right now in art?


- That’s a good question. I think my biggest challenge is to continue creating something that I haven’t done, something that will continue inspiring me and surprise people. I still think I haven’t found like “this is me”. I did this thing with flowers, but I think I have something more underneath me. But I have no idea if it will ever come out. I hope I can continue creating my whole life and live from what I love doing and my passion.


People don’t realize how hard is to be a freelancer and have contracts. You’re just out there in the world without anything that keep you on earth. But I think it’s worth it. I plan to release an Instagram video about all the struggles of freelances and digital artists.


- What I found interesting is when you start sharing and trying to teach someone what you already know, you understand yourself better and you organize that informations for yourself and benefit from it as well.


- Exactly. When you teach someone to use Photoshop you’re just providing the tools hoping the people could create with them. They’re not stealing your job.


- Where do you find your inspirations?


- I find inspirations everywhere, I read a lot of designers’ books or look at magazines.


- Can you name the magazines?


- A lot of magazines online, even teen magazines. You can see what’s on trend and what people are talking about. You can have a trend of colors, or right now people are loving animal prints. Or on YouTube, most liked video is with a cat, you say cats are a thing so you creating with cats, and start engaging with what people are linking right now.


It’s not hard to engage with people now, because there’s tons of things online. If you have an audience or want to have one, just find out what your target is. When you give them what they want to see, then you start growing audience.


- I think it’s also important to find the sweet spot where it connects things that interest you and things that interest people.


- There’s a lot of people in the world, so even if you’re not into most popular thing, just do whatever you feel, because someone will like it. Just be yourself.


- Can you name few people that inspire you?


- Sure, Ted Chin, Luisa Azevedo, she’s been my huge inspiration and I love how she has grown and her editing is so good. Also Alexandria, I love to watch her tutorials on how she edits photos that she took herself. And the_life_of_aivax, she makes photos with her kids.


- What’s your biggest dream as an artist?


- I actually had a crisis few months ago. I was just crying and my dad asked me what’s wrong, I was just crying and couldn’t talk so I sad that I don’t know what I’m doing with my life and I don’t know where I’m going. He told me to shut up and tell what’s going on - that’s what’s going on, I don’t know what’s going on, he said to tell him one thing that I wanna do fit he rest of my life, and as I love bagels I said that I want to eat bagels all over the world. He said “what? That’s the one thing you want to do for the rest of your life?” I said yes. So he said what do I need to do to to eat bagels all over the world, I said I need to travel, “What do you need to travel?”- “money” - “and how do you get money?” - “working” - “and what do you want to do for the rest of your life for money?” And I answered “I want to create”, “there you go” he said. It started as a stupid conversation about eating bagels, but he was right. Just do what you love and do it with passion. This happened a year ago and this year I travelled more than I have ever in my entire life. I ate bagels in 16 different cities this year.


- Have you been in Europe?


- I only have been in London, but I want to do an Europe trip.


- Thank you for sharing this story. I think every person should listen to it because every person, or at least artists, comes to this point of crying.


- Yeah, and it can be so frustrating when people say “it’s so expensive”, like you don’t know what I’ve been through to do this. Regardless of how much a computer, or Photoshop and all that stuff cost, my creativity has a price.


- What makes a good work of art?


- That the artist has made it with passion and not business. Like when people ask me to edit something for them, it just doesn’t feel the same way as if I created it because I felt it. When a work has a meaning to the artist, that’s the good work of art.


- It’s great when this passion translated to the viewer, when the viewer can relate.


- Or when they let you be when you create and do your thing. Sometimes it can be really hard as people use you to create what they want. 



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