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An artist’s world of monsters: Justin Hillgrove's work has taken off

Snohomish artist Justin Hillgrove in his studio on Wednesday, March 6 surrounded by figurines and the first issue of his ongoing comic book series “The Imp Lands.” Imps are mischievious devils, but Hillgrove’s characters keep lively and kid-friendly.

SNOHOMISH — Down a long wooded lane, visitors will find to their delight imps and monsters frolicking and nestling together on the walls of Justin Hillgrove’s studio.
The artist is hosting an exhibit there April 27, but fans can find him first at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con March 14 to 17. There, he’ll be selling his latest book, No. 6 of the “The Imp Lands” comic book series, among his other works.
Hillgrove grew up here, graduated from Snohomish High School and returned years ago to settle in his parents’ home after they moved away.
He learned his craft at home too, playing Dungeons and Dragons with his siblings, painting miniature figures and penciling creatures on spare paper his dad brought home from work.
Today, he’s converted part of the home to a workshop. Furry faces peer from the canvases, warm acrylics in every rainbow shade inviting viewers to spend a few moments where the wild things are.
His paintings capture human moments, Hillgrove says, snapshots of emotions. But not terror. Though his labor is monsters, he’s not in the horror biz. Hillgrove’s creatures have wide,
expressive faces, often softened by a tuft of fur or stubby horn.
The father of four said “when my kids showed up, I didn’t want anything that would scare them.”
He wants the audience to empathize, so instead of humans that we might compare and contrast with ourselves, he populated his world with relatable monsters.
In one humorous image, “Overwhelming Odds,” a lone octopus is unnerved by a raft of rubber ducks that have it surrounded.
In many others, viewers encounter familiar childhood friends. Charlie Brown is here, so is Kermit, and Harry Potter too. Max and the wild things romp, and No-Face, the hooded spirit from “Spirited Away,” often visits.
Storybook figures make appearances, too, like the Cheshire Cat and Little Red Riding Hood.
Science fiction fans will feel right at home as well; Star Wars, Dr. Who, and lately, robots, inhabit the canvas.
The robots are the sprouts of a dry spell.
“I was stressed, having anxiety (wondering) ‘what do people want me to paint,’ until I suddenly remembered to paint what I want.”
Instead of painting to demand, Hillgrove says his aim is to improve.
“I know I can always get better.” He’s inspired, he says, “by the painters who don’t even need a foreground, because the background is so perfect.”
The business side of the profession has him spending half the day on everything from answering correspondence to marketing.
He keeps his contributions diverse, from comics to paintings, toys to games.
The latest game, Battle of the Bards, follows musicians vying for audiences across the mythical land of Tessandor. Nearly 1,000 fans funded the endeavor on Kickstarter in less than three hours this January. Gamers should be able to buy it by November.
Today’s popularity was decades in the making.
After years in the design field, Hillgrove met a fellow artist and friend who worked in sales at Funko and inspired him to begin painting.
His first showing, at Kla Ha Ya Days, was a bust. “I sold four prints” to my friend’s wife, he recalled. He had committed, optimistically, to showing at Bumbershoot, and found it was too late to pull out without forfeiting his deposit.
“We were poor,” he said, but Hillgrove had gambled big, $1,000, on a vendor booth at the massive Labor Day music festival.
It paid off.
“You’ll never believe how much money we made,” he said he told his wife. The couple thousand dollars earned was a windfall and an omen of future success.
Nine years ago, Hillgrove quit his design day job to become “a full time business owner who gets to do art.”
For would-be collectors, the art is accessible. Stickers are $2, comics $3.99 and prints start at $20, while aficionados can spend a few thousand to own a large original.
But a look is free. Hillgrove welcomes fans at shows and in his studio by appointment, along with the April exhibition where he’ll be showing several new works.
For more information on the April 27 exhibit or to see the artwork, go to and click the events tab for details.



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