Olaf isn’t the only one who likes warm hugs!
Erin Schechtman Caruso started Super Group Hugs — a cleverly named collection of art that depicts popular characters embracing — back in 2015 as a way to unwind with something fun. Since then, she has painted more than 150 always-adorable, sometimes-awkward watercolor art pieces that she sells online and at comic conventions.
Super Group Hugs is now a full-time business for her husband, Ron Caruso, but Erin prefers to keep it as a side hustle. The Pop Insider spoke with this animated artist about balancing her painting with a separate career, what’s next for Super Group Hugs, and more.
Pop Insider: I’ll start with the biggest question first: Why draw hugs?
Erin Schechtman Caruso: Back in 2015, I was looking for a theme that I could do a lot of for a series, and hugs were very me. They’re cute, but they’re also kind of awkward.
It’s a very good theme with pop culture because every character would always have the motivation to hug someone — whether it’s a positive hug or an awkward hug or sometimes hugs as a weapon. It’s just kind of a very good, overarching theme that you can use in any fandom.
PI: When you started, were there any characters you knew you had to draw?
ESC: The first one I ever did was Superman hugging the sun. That one, if you look at it, the editing development and the style have definitely changed.
I think I was originally starting this with a comic shop that’s local to me that always does events. They blow out free comic book day really, really big, like a kind of mini-convention, so it started out more comic-focused. I’m very much a multi-fandom nerd, so it very quickly went into everything.
PI: Do you have a favorite fandom?
I’m an animation nerd, so the animated stuff is what I like to watch the most. For the hugs, it’s very much all over.
PI: I’m obsessed with the one of Kevin with the chili.
ESC: Yeah! The sad ones are my favorite! I think they’re so funny.
PI: How do people normally react to your work?
ESC: I always get big smiles, which I think are kind of special. At cons, I kind of shout at people — not in a very annoying way — I just say, ‘Hey, I’m Erin! I draw hugs!’
When you’re yelling at random people in an Artist’s Alley, you can kind of expect negative reactions, but I get a smile every time. They go, ‘You do draw hugs!’
With other artists, you can always tell if it’s an artist looking at your stuff because they start asking about what supplies you use and technique, and they’re a lot more interested in the original than the print.
… The community is awesome, so people are always very supportive. I think that it’s kind of a silly concept and you never know what you’re going to get in an Artist’s Alley. But then I think that the art is quality enough that art people will be like, ‘Oh, OK, you know how to draw.’ I’m like, ‘Yup! I’ve got a degree and everything.’
PI: Speaking of your degree, you have a completely different job from your artwork.
ESC: Very different. Super Group Hugs is actually both me and my husband. He runs the business more than I do. I just do the art, and he’ll often go to shows without me. He does all the online sales, the newsletter, and everything. He’s a stay-at-home dad, so this is his full-time income source. We both are involved, but it’s really his big project.
For my day job, I’ve been in product design for 11 years. The past four years, I’ve worked at a small company [called Pulsar] — at first as an art director, and now I’m the creative director of the company. We make all sorts of really cool products for big stores like Dollar General. I run a whole creative team — we’ve got eight including me.
My day job is awesome, fun, and exciting but very stressful and demanding at times, too. It’s really nice to have Super Group Hugs because it’s kind of a stress release — at least to do the artwork.
PI: Would you ever want to do Super Group Hugs full time?
ESC: You don’t want me staying home. I will drive myself crazy.
[My day job is] a whole different life, but it’s adjacent because it’s still art, still design. I really like working with a team and problem-solving. My job is just run, run, run, run all day! Every two minutes someone else needs me, and that’s awesome. It’s exhilarating.
Super Group Hugs is great, too, but it’s definitely my [way to] wind down.
I could never, ever be the type of artist who stays at home and freelances. That’s just not my personality. I really need a difficult job that I have to be challenged [doing]. I need to be talking to people every day. Not that freelancing isn’t difficult (because it definitely is), but I need a lot of different types of problem-solving to be really happy. There are different types of difficult.
PI: Have you always been interested in art?
ESC: Yeah, I got serious about art when I was 11 or 13 [and took] classes. When I was 14, I decided that I was doing this for a living and worked very seriously with a private instructor. I went to art school at Syracuse University [and studied] illustration.
Art has always been my passion, but it has also been entrepreneurship [turning] that into a business and into an income. Even when I was in high school, I was selling my artwork. I was doing caricatures.
PI: Has your work with Super Group hugs changed a lot since you began in 2015?
ESC: The style has. It kind of started out as sketch cards — little teeny drawings — and that didn’t last very long because it’s hard to cram that all in. Other than that, except for getting more experienced, the style hasn’t changed all that much.
You can see there are technical improvements, but Super Group Hugs on a whole was designed for me to be able to easily execute. I knew that I only had a really limited time to get [artwork] done in the evenings after work. So it’s very simple watercolor paintings and colored pencil with no background on white paper.
That’s designed to be that way because it’s easy for me to scan it in and edit it to make it into a print without having to worry about the background element. With the people, you can see there’s no anatomy. They’re all noodle arms, and they have three fork-prong fingers. That’s all completely by design.
I have a fine art background. I taught oil painting for five years. I can do a lot of different styles, but this is very branded and toned into the specific style.
PI: Would you ever consider using a different medium for Super Group Hugs?
ESC: I’m thinking about branching out into hug-adjacent stuff and trying a different medium, such as screen printing. But it would be different art. It wouldn’t be the characters that I have. I think I would be more interested in doing it outside of the fandom stuff, more of my own stuff that is hug-related.
I work in other mediums a lot. My day job is entirely digital. I’m in Illustrator and Photoshop all day long — and I have been for the last 11 years straight. I would love to do more oil painting again, but it would definitely not be related to Super Group Hugs. It would have to be its own branded thing.
PI: How many conventions do you typically attend each year?
ESC: We do 12-20. Generally, we try to do two a month, but usually in December, January, and February there’s no show. In our part of the country, it’s pretty wintery around then. We’re always branching out to at least a couple of new shows a year.
PI: What’s your favorite show?
ESC: We really like Cincinnati Comic Expo and Motor City Comic-Con, but definitely C2E2 in Chicago. It’s our first show of the year this time around.
We’ve made really good friends throughout this whole process, and part of the treat of going to bigger shows is that we get to see them and spend time with them. It’s like your convention family. Some of our closest friends we only see certain times of the year. Sometimes, you see them back to back but then not again for several months.
PI: Do you only attend local shows?
ESC: We’ve only flown to a show once, and that was the last show we did: Designer Con. This year, we’re doing a show in Boston in March, so we have to try to figure out how to fly there, too. It’s a whole different challenge. I have a 1-year-old, so we have to be really thoughtful about how we pick things. I could do a whole different interview on being a parent and an artist. It’s definitely an adjustment.
PI: Which artists have inspired you?
ESC: Overall, my favorite artist ever is John Singer Sargent.
… Recently, I’ve met people who are super inspiring — like Katie Cook. She does comics, and she’s just a total beast pumping stuff out. I’ve gotten to know her, and she’s incredible. My friends who do the brand Jellykoe do shows full time. They’re also amazing artists and amazing people. They’re so kind and generous with their knowledge, and they’re always just really inspiring. It’s been fun getting to know them. I also really love Joey Chou. He’s an artist on the West Coast. I got to meet him at Designer Con and totally fangirled.
The cool thing about this community is everyone is so nice and so supportive. You can meet people who you only see on the internet. You have access to them and just find out that they’re regular, normal people like you are.
It hasn’t happened all that much, but every once in a while, I’ll have people get excited about meeting me, and that’s the coolest thing. People draw me fan art, and it’s the best thing ever. That’s how you know you’re doing something right. I have it all hanging up in my office.
PI: What’s your artistic process? Do you just pick a character and start to draw?
ESC: My husband and I have a huge list of things that we think would be good. We try to pay attention to what’s coming out, pop culture wise.
The other big thing is, for the most part, I only draw from fandoms that I genuinely like. The only exception is horror stuff because I’m just not into scary things. In that case, it’s what my husband knows and what he likes. There’s something really funny about cute horror monsters, so that’s fine by me. Lately, a lot of it has been, ‘What do I have time for?’ Simpler characters are easier for me to draw because you don’t have to worry as much about getting the likeness right.
I’ve been working around when the baby is sleeping and when I have the energy to actually sit down and do some art. … Between work and having a toddler, it really takes your energy. Trying to adjust to having a baby and being an artist has been challenging. I’m starting to get back into the thick of making more hugs, but [I have] been [on] a bit of a break.
It’s a new normal you have to get used to. Getting over not having the time that you used to takes a bit.
PI: What do you see next for Super Group Hugs?
ESC: We have our spring pretty well-booked. We’re going to C2E2, then our hometown of Cleveland has Wizard World, and then Ace Boston.
Our dream projects are putting out an anthology book and … doing a children’s book someday. We have a lot of baby experience, so I know what they like.
I also want to get more into making things that are physical. We have enamel pins, but plush, wall plaques — stuff that’s hug-related but not so much fandom-related. Someday, I’ll have time for all these projects.
Ron and I are both delighted and very grateful that these little paintings seem to resonate with so many people. At a time of global uncertainty, when a lot of people are unhappy or worried, we get to give them something special: a HUG. We will never take for granted this amazing, kind, diverse community that supported us for all these years.
Photos: Super Group Hugs