Every year, I summarize the last trip around the sun as an illustrator. I celebrate the wins and I reflect on the challenges and disappointments. This is my annual report for the 2018.
Last fall, I was approached by the creative director at Rize, a leading developer of residential and commercial properties, about creating a series of posters based on their top projects. Each image in the series would highlight something unique about the architecture of a respective project. Based on the brief alone, I felt very unsure that I was going to be the right guy for the job.
You can place your order here. If the minimum of 12 orders is not reached, the shirt will die and you will not be charged. Sad but fair!
Since we moved from Vancouver to Yarrow in 2015, I had been working out of a studio off site. The space was in a building of mostly pottery studios. It served its purpose quite well, and for most of the time, I required a space that was some distance from my home — mostly because of the age of our children.
This spring, we decided it was finally time to bring my studio home. It was a combination of reasons that all suddenly converged, but mainly we were ready to start our second wave of renovations (the first wave was when we moved in in 2015). The other reason was that we felt our girls were at an age where they could understand my "at home" and "at work" modes and therefore understand why I might not be available during the day. The flip side to this is that I can spend more time being present at home, and hopefully soon, I will be comfortable enough to invite them to participate in my workday a little more. That's still a work in progress, but that's a different post!
At first, I thought I would actually build a studio in the back yard, but because of building code restrictions, it would have to be pretty small (about 100 sq. ft). For the same cost as a proper outbuilding studio, we figured we could do a lot more in our laundry room, and probably do our bathroom, finish our entrance, and update the playroom while we were at it. Our laundry room had been in pretty much the same state since we moved in. It was our most neglected and shameful room. It seemed like a waste to have such a large room devoted to laundry and neglect. So this is why the laundry room has become my studio.
While I hope to show some before and after pics of the rest of our most recent reno, I wanted to show the transformation of our laundry room and adjacent bathroom first. I'm super pleased with the results. A big thanks goes out to Matthew Holdsworth and Tyler Dick over at Hickory Lane Construction. If you're looking for a good contractor who can make your renovation dreams a reality, try giving them a call!
I get asked this a lot — how to draw with more personality or style. Truthfully, I don't really know if I can adequately answer this. What constitutes "more personality" or "better style" is a bit unclear to me. But here are some pointers that might help:
- There is no overnight solution to this problem, but understanding what you want to achieve in your own style, or what you admire in others' work, is a good goal to start out with.
- Style and personality emerge from experience and confidence. Just keep drawing. Over time, make an effort to identify what you like or think is working well. Aim to exude confidence in your work.
- Identify artists whose work you would define as having the kind of personality you're looking for. Study them, emulate them, be inspired by them.
- Learn how to draw well by carefully studying your subject.
- Then try drawing intuitively, from memory. Fill in the gaps in your memory with weirdness. Don't try to be realistic — try just doing something new and see what happens.
- A good drawing shows an underlying understanding of the subject or a creative interpretation of it. That is why it is important to draw from real life, because you never truly see things until you draw them. As you draw, you internalize the subject. Then it is easier to draw things like your subject from memory.
- Pay attention to how you feel when you're drawing in different ways. Do certain feelings relate to specific ways of drawing? Do you feel notably confident in certain situations? For me, there is a very specific confidence and joy I experience when drawing in a certain way. When I draw from this mode, I do my best work. This feeling is exuded in my work. Drawings are literally graphs of our souls — soulgraphs. In the same way a seismograph charts movements in the earth, a drawing charts movements in our souls.
- The first sketch is the most accurate and least overthought soulgraph. The brain hasn't had a chance to edit what comes through your mind to your hand. That is why the first sketch is usually the freshest and liveliest. The first sketch may not always be the most resolved, but you can learn a lot from it and do your best to apply it to a more refined and resolved drawing.
- Don't show hesitation in your drawing. You might pause or hesitate off the page, but don't show it in the final drawing — avoid drawing over lines, or doing light sketchy bits as you figure out a contour, for instance. It's okay to do this for a first draft, but then trace the drawing with more confident, singular strokes. This is the trick to making your work look improvised, even after careful planning.
- Share a lot and see what feedback you get.
These are just some preliminary thoughts on the topic of drawing and style. Perhaps I can elaborate on this at another time — or even build a class around it? Have you experienced any of this or come to a similar conclusion? Has any of this helped you find your style a little more? Please let me know.
2017 was certainly a year worth recording. For all its ups and downs, I definitely outdid myself from previous years in both the quality of work and the success of my business. I'm pleased to say that, for the most part, I exceeded my expectations from the previous year, and more or less met my personal goals. Please enjoy this little report, and thank you so much for another amazing year. Specific shout outs are due — you will find those at the end.
Total Unique Clients
Total Unique Projects
46 projects and over 120 illustrations.
Most personally significant project
Whose Boat? — My first actual illustrated kids' book. Last year, I set the goal of finally pitching another book idea to some publishers. That idea was one I had been working toward with a friend since 2014. While I in truth have not moved an inch on that idea, I did realize my ultimate aim of illustrating a kid's book. I will write more about my reasons and feelings about the personal book idea below (see Biggest Disappointment below). However, it was clear to me that when Whose Boat? came to me, I had to take it. I had a lot of fun illustrating it, and just as importantly, I gained some very useful insight into the book illustration process, which had up until this year been debilitatingly shrouded in mystery. Additionally, this project really saw me turning to digital brushes a lot more, simply due to the quantity and complexity of each spread. For most of my time as an illustrator, I've been almost a staunch purist, using only physical media to create the textures and details in my otherwise digital artwork. While in some ways it felt like a compromise to use digital brushes, which I've had little true affection for, ultimately, I grew to appreciate and even embrace them. Truly, this project will be a watershed moment in my career, opening up new possibilities and opportunities — how can it not?! The book, authored by Toni Buzzeo, is set to launch in May.
Most Fun Project
Field House Brewing Co. x Tom Froese beer and merch collaboration. There are a few illustration projects I covet: magazine covers, picture books, and beer labels. When my local craft brewing sensation buddies Field House offered to collaborate with me on a label and merch collection, I was all in! What I didn't realize was how illustrator-forward they wanted the final product to be. While I still feel a little funny about people drinking beer out of growlers and glasses with my name on it, I'm ultimately chuffed. It will likely be very few and far between that my name gets to be this prominently featured on the things I illustrate for. What I appreciate so much about the folks at Field House is how they so selflessly and truly collaborate with their artists and partners. I think they really represent the camaraderie that you might expect between brewers within the craft beer community, and they've extended this to artists like me. While it's doing wonders for my ego, I truly hope the fact that the word "Tom Froese, Illustrator" (key word Illustrator) both inspires other illustrators and elevates the industry in the minds of regular beer drinkers and beyond.
Most Ambitious Project
The kid's book was a pretty big bite to chew on, but they gave me lots of time. The project that really pushed me to the edge came later in the year and was for GQ France: 7 maps of skiing hot spots around the world, an opener, and four spots — in about 2 weeks! Did I mention everything was in French?
Staving off burnout. Like most creatives, I've edged on burnout a few times over the last few years of my career. But I think I truly came closest to becoming a sad, charred version of myself in 2017. I think it was a few things, including an overall increase in the amount of work and an anxiety inducing year in the news. In terms of workload, I truly maxed myself out. It sounds a bit silly to put it this way, but I came close to being a victim of my own success. The blessing of course is that I have work coming to me.
“I didn't even realize how much the news was rotting me from the inside until one night when I was watching something that made me angry and I realized how I was giving these unrecoverable minutes and hours of my life to things like this. I immediately unfollowed every political account and deleted Twitter and YouTube off my phone.”
The harder part is managing both the jobs and myself as a human/husband/friend/professional. In terms of the overall political climate, I don't think I'm unique in feeling a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, despair, and whatever other things one might feel at the perceived eve of the apocalypse. It didn't help that I grew an unhealthy addiction to keeping up with the news via Twitter and YouTube. While I was pretty good about not shouting my own outrage and adding to the problem, I was privately glued to the set as it were, and it was really pulling my mood down. I didn't even realize it until one night when I was watching something that made me angry and I realized how I was giving these unrecoverable minutes and hours of my life to things like this. I immediately unfollowed every political account and deleted Twitter and YouTube off my phone. The effect was immediate. The next day, I felt a lightness I hadn't in a long time, and I got more done during normal studio hours. One of the most important realizations, though, was that I hadn't been actively pursuing inspiration, since all my attention was turned to the real-life soap opera. Since then, I've been far more intentional about looking at things that feed my creativity and lift me up, and it's been very good.
Setting up a "bad portrait" booth at the big Lasers and Blazers party at Yeah Field Trip. I had a lot of fun and was reminded that I need to up my life drawing game, but also how much I like doing it.
Illustrated a kid's book
My actual goal was to put together a pitch for a book idea I've been mulling over since 2014. Instead of having to pull together a proposal and shop an idea around to different publishers, however, I had the a publisher come to me with a ready-to-go project. It was an easy decision, and the ultimate goal of illustrating a published picture book, which was embedded in the personal book endeavour, was realized.
Launched my third Skillshare class
Again, my actual goal was to launch a Skillshare class about using colour. But after a few futile weeks of trying to write that class, I let that one go and polled my social media following on what they'd like to learn. Colour did come up, but so did an illustrated map class, and that really clicked with me. And I'm pleased to see that it clicked with students as well — so far over 1,000 students have joined up, and I'm hoping to triple this amount this year. And so far, I'm super impressed by the quality of work in the student projects.
Launched the second issue of The Canadianist
This goal was straight-up achieved! In 2015, Everlovin’ and I collaborated to produce the first issue. This year, launched our second issue in time for Canada's 150th birthday. Within this goal, I wanted to update the overall branding to make it stronger, as well as produce a set of prints, in collaboration with our artists, that were more iconic. The set so far has been well received, and we even got a feature in FPO (R.I.P. 2017) and in actual print in the Applied Arts 2017 Advertising Annual.
Scored some great speaking engagements
Last year, I wrote that I hoped to do more speaking. While I did fewer than I thought (I did 3 in 2016 but only 1 in 2017), I added one podcast interview on The Meaning Movement, and one podcast mini-feature on The Creative Pep Talk podcast. It was a complete honour to be invited to both, and I hope to continue sharing my experiences with audiences and evolving my public speaking platform.
Goals for 2018
Maintain revenue but lower total hours
If I can keep earning what I earned in 2018, that would be enough for me and my family. What I would really like to see is if I can be both more efficient and be more strategic in taking on higher paying projects.
Work faster and less self-doubtingly
Working faster here is not really about being efficient or creating crappier work as a compromise. Rather, I'm hoping that I will spend less time deliberating on concepts early on and be able to harness that magical energy that comes out in the first sketches.
Draw from life every day
It was this practice that I believe launched me on solid footing early on in my career, and it's time to take it back by storm. I don't plan on sharing everything I draw with my audience for now, but I trust that there will be visible fruits a few months down the road. No promises though. The reward will be in the discipline itself, and I know that it will help me draw more intuitively and less self-doubtingly (as per above) when on the job.
Travel a little more
I'm kind of cheating here, because I already know I'll be doing a bit of travelling this year. My wife and I often fantasize about travelling abroad with our kids. We really like the idea of having a micro life in a foreign city, such as Amsterdam or London, where we base ourselves in a rented home and live as locals, working sometimes and going on excursions at other times. To this end, we have decided to practice with our family by having a microlife for two weeks in a city we're both familiar with (and fond of) — Toronto. It's not exactly exotic, but it will help us see how we work as a family in a new context. It is less intimidating because we can focus on enjoying the change of scenery without worrying about getting lost or feeling lonely.
Continue to integrate more organic ways of executing my work
This sounds a lot like my second goal, but in this one I mean more from a technical standpoint. I've always depended largely on a process of refinement, of sketches, copies of sketches, and then using digital wizardry to make my work look finished. I've always envied the style of the old guard of children's illustration, like the Provensens and Miroslav Sasek. The didn't use computers, even if they had a few reproduction tricks up their sleeves. Most of their work was done direct to the page, with real, live paint. It continues to be a dream of mine to work like this, at least in some contexts. My hope in 2018 is to continue practicing and experimenting in various techniques that a) look good, b) work with my style, and c) are viable alternatives for my actual commercial work.
I have written in front of me "Work like a pro, strive like a student." I think this says everything. As an increasingly salty old seadog, I have experience and craft on my side. But I also have the propensity to grow tired and bored with my work. I don't want to be someone who just pumps out work to make money. I don't want to create work that just "works" but is not inspired. Rather, I want to create work that looks like the person who made it is on a journey of discovery. I want it to be joyful. To invoke curiosity. To inspire. And to have these feelings, I must have these feelings too. These are feelings of a student — someone who is constantly curious and eager to learn more and improve their craft.
Won 2 distinctions in the illustration annuals
My artwork for Stong's won an Award of Excellence in Communication Arts and received Merit in the 3x3 Annual No. 14.
Increased revenue by over 38%.
Scored a workshop at ICON 10 in Detroit this July
I'm super excited to be teaching some of my skills live, in person, at my all time favourite illustration conference! I'll be announcing more about this in the next few months.
As mentioned, I had been trying to pull together a book pitch based on a lovely poem my friend Lance wrote. I had a spark of inspiration for this back in 2014, which was a time I was very eager to cut my illustration teeth. Since then, the realities of being a husband, father, and full time commercial artist have taken priority over this rather ambitious goal. But All the way up to now, the biggest hurdle has been more conceptual. The poem itself evokes such amazing imagery, which is why I liked it in the first place, but knowing exactly how to translate the imagery into illustration has been my single largest hurdle. Some projects I can jump right into, just start and finish without too much hesitation. But I think this one has been on my mind for so long that I've overthought it, so I think that's primarily why I'm stuck. Lance and I had a heart to heart in the summer about this — this was when I was in the thick of illustrating Whose Boat?. Needless to say, it made a lot of sense to prioritize an actual book project over a speculative one. Moving forward, I will give this idea one last kick at the can. The good news is that I have so much more experience in the actual book illustration process — and a few more friends in the publishing industry as a result! If, by March 31, I have not moved forward with this, I will have to simply let this one go. If it doesn't happen by then, it won't ever.
Okay, so I have one other disappointment contending for this space, and that's Summer Studio, the stationery line I created with Vincent Perez. We produced 8 beautiful greeting cards under a new brand, and we were so excited to launch it in mid-2016. We had a few retailers carry the cards but the overall reception was underwhelming — far less than we had hoped for. Late this year, I took a look at our dismal web analytics and took the site down. The products, which we still love, are still available at Everlovin’ Press, both online and in person on Everlovin’s craft fair circuit. The most valuable lesson I learned with this endeavour is about what makes a sellable card. We were trying to be sophisticated by not using words, and by creating ambiguous narrative groupings of objects. But this is a hard sell when people just want to say, quite literally, Thank You, Happy Birthday, and I Love You. In any greeting card designs moving forward, I will be more mindful about creating a simple, obvious message that is more readily identifiable — while still aiming for a higher level of craft and thoughtfulness in the design.
Biggest Growth Areas
Feeling of confidence and consistency in my work. Being more intuitive with my drawings. Increased spontaneity. Better gestures and figures. Will continue to march forward in this direction.
Where to Improve in 2018
Appreciating every single job I take on (and don't take on). Prioritizing activities in the studio. Being more regular with keeping my books up to date. Actively seeking inspiration.
Okay, it's time to give credit where credit is due! First and foremost, I must give thanks to my wife and kids! Amanda, you have been my anchor through the good and bad times, encouraging me when I'm down and rooting me on when I'm up. You are the one I turn to when I need a critic's eye, or just someone to say "good job" when I'm excited about something. You are the most supportive, loving, and patient person, and I am so thankful — and extremely blessed — to have you in my life. Nina and Marie, I'm so proud of you girls. You are growing to be such wonderful, sweet, talented, and very interesting people. It means so much to me when you look at what I'm drawing, and I learn a lot from how you interact with it. It means even more to me to see you guys making your own creations. Your drawings are getting more and more creative and skilled every day, and drawing with you is my favourite way of spending time together. I love you girls, and I thank you for your inspiration, and also your patience as I try to balance my work and family priorities.
Next, of course, thanks is du to my clients, who entrust me to their businesses and brands. You let me into your world and invite me to represent you through my art. It is an incredible honour to have my name and my art on your stuff, and to have your name on my roster of esteemed clients.
Special thanks is due to my agents. I'm looking at you — Tim Higgs and the team at MP-Arts (UK) and Tom Mendola and the team at Mendola Artists (USA)! Thanks as always for your hard work in promoting me to your clients and for being boots on the ground where I cannot be. Thank you for including me on your esteemed rosters and allowing me to represent you with my art.
Vincent Perez! As always, it's so good to collaborate with you on letterpress projects. Letterpress has always been one of my favourite things about illustration and continues to influence my work. It is a core part of who I am as an illustrator. I'm super lucky to be able to work on the projects we do together.
And, finally, I would like to thank viewers like you! One of the main reasons I love illustration is the connection to an audience. I've always been a sharer, and it means a lot to me to have people on the receiving end of the things I put out there. I know there are a lot of options out there, and it is an honour to be among those you choose to watch. Thank you for coming up to talk at live events. Thank you for reaching out over email. Thank you for sharing my work. For taking my Skillshare classes. Thank you for your likes, comments, and for simply sticking around.
Thank you so much everyone!
This is the second instalment of a series of reviews of my favourite illustration agencies. More information about what makes for a great agency can be found in the first post in this series.
While not strictly New York based (they have Tokyo and UK bases too), Dutch Uncle has an address in the Big Apple, and they represent a number of artists based in the city and its boroughs.
And what talented artists they have! Dutch Uncle is almost the perfect agency, with a goldilocks roster (not too big, not too small) — which includes seventeen illustrators at the moment. The agency aims high too, boasting super star illustrators like Ping Zhu, Noma Bar and Satoshi Hashimoto. While technically not an illustrator, they have BC-based graphic genius Marian Bantjes on their artist roster as well.
One of the most remarkable things about DU is their support for their artists beyond bringing them and managing paid work by "encouraging and supporting their personal development and projects", in addition to helping "coordinate and produce their fine art projects including exhibitions, products and publications.". This may explain the maturity exuded by their roster — these are illustrators who've been around the block a few times and are clearly involved in pursuing more personal, less commercial work. For me, this kind of relationship, where the agency and artist work together to hone and develop their body of work, is an ideal to be pursued at mid- to- late stages of an artist's career.
On the branding and experiential sides, Dutch Uncle comes out on top. Their brand is cohesive, premium, and evokes a sense of restrained cool. Their website is at once no-nonsense and unpretentious. It is super minimal but somehow does not feel vacant or under-designed. It's the perfect crystal goblet through which the talent can sparkle, shine and effervesce. Of course, a nice looking website is nothing if it is unhelpful or misses the main task of giving clients access and insight to their talent and culture. Dutch Uncle has just about the best artist profile design that I have seen. Artists are represented variously by professional portraits or thumbnails. I like that they put the artists themselves forward, beyond their work. It seems like a risky move, but it actually speaks to the calibre of the people the represent. They're not selling twirly doodles for drug store greeting cards — they're selling the best minds and hands in the creative industry.
Clicking into an artist thumbnail from their Roster page takes you to the artist landing page, which large, eye-catching portraits and work images in a carousel, and a synopsis below. Further thumbnails allow you to click into either their rather extensive full bio page or their portfolio. In the latter, work images are shown large, and without superfluous doodads, in an overlaid window box. The only small thing I could pick at is that the image file names are displayed, in a sort of default, clumsy and clearly unintentional look. There must be a setting in their Squarespace panel to hide that or title the images more elegantly.
Their client list has all the usual suspects. As I've written before, the client list of an agency means less to me than the artist list and other experiential and branding factors, since most of the big companies make their rounds to most known agencies. If you've been around a few years, you'll have worked with Coca-Cola and Google and Nike and Adidas, etc.
Their Instagram is nicely curated but has a surprisingly modest follower count, given the calibre of everything and everyone else in their arsenal. I suppose 6.8k followers is commensurate to how often they post, which is about once a week as far as I could tell by a quick scan. They may have been late to the Instagram game, or perhaps they are focusing on building their actual artist's careers rather than garnering likes on social media.
While animation for me (and the entire agency world) falls on the sidelines, I'm impressed to see DU has a specific page on their site showcasing motion work by their illustrators. For over a decade the realms of motion and illustration have become more blurred together, and there is no sign of this trend going away. DU is clearly keeping up with the times, working with mutli-disciplinary illustrators and leading the industry with relevant services and content.
My Final Verdict
Dutch Uncle is possibly the most desirable agency to work for as an illustrator. With a philosophy of developing artists's careers and art practices, they put it into practice by putting their artists and work first (in that order, too). It's rare that an agency acknowledges the life blood of their business in such a selfless way. More than anything, I see that DU values relationships — relationships between them and their artists, but more remarkably, between their clients and the artists. It seems gutsy for an agency to promote their talent by showing a photo of the artists before the work, but then again, it's a huge vote of confidence in just who they're dealing with.
This is my first instalment of what I hope will be a series of reviews of my favourite illustration agencies. At first, I was going to write an exhaustive list of my favourite New York reps in one single post, but it quickly became apparent that this would take forever to both write and read. Instead, I will post one agency at a time, and will for now focus on reps in New York. Why NYC? Because it is indisputably the global centre of the illustration industry.
Of course, every review must have its criteria. I am hardly an expert critic on anything, but as a represented, full time illustrator, I do have my own opinions of what makes as good agency. For instance, an agency should have strong branding and a clear focus in its portfolio. I tend to favour agencies that have a few high quality artists over the ones that have dozens or even hundreds of pretty good ones. I am less impressed by the quality of individual artists than I am of the overall presentation of the set. But of course, who they represent is every bit important: I'm looking for at least one or two recognizable names, and I give extra bonus points for industry superstars (although not all reps with superstar names meet my other criteria). Good agencies of course show the work of their artists well and give each illustrator a proper bio and profile page. Another mark of a great agency is their demonstration of stylistic and technological freshness: their talent is current and creating good, time-friendly work, and their online experience is up to date. In 2017/18, We can't overlook social media influence either, particularly on Instagram. I'm looking at the follower count, which is an indicator of reach and influence. I'm also looking at the feed itself, particularly how it is curated. Finally, you may be surprised to learn that clients are less important to me than these other things. Most agencies can boast a handful of the big ones — Nike, Google, Penguin, The New York Times, etc. — if they've been around long enough. For me, the most stand-out agencies are the ones who are not just saying they're different, but actually are.
These are my personal criteria for what makes an admirable illustration agency. As I do not count myself an expert critic, I would caution you to take all my comments with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, I do not know how these agencies operate from the inside, nor do I know how well they are doing as businesses. The agencies that impress me most do so for the above reasons, and that's that. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged I myself have a New York-based rep. To make sure I am not showing any bias, I have left them off the table for consideration.
Bernstein and Andriulli
Bernstein & Andriulli is a premiere creative management agency with hands in all the pots: photography, illustrators, cgi, motion, beauty, fashion, and even influence marketing. But don't let their "one stop shop" appearance fool you: they boast an impressive talent roster, including pop art legend Sir Peter Blake, who created the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" sleeve. Among others, they also have the whimsical Nomoco (a personal favourite) and Toronto's own Polyester Studio.
What impresses me about B&A is their strong branding, which is sophisticated and premium, alongside a well designed web experience, which makes finding and viewing individual artists a pleasure. While there are many other reps in New York with similarly diverse and choc-full rosters, B&A do a very good job presenting the work in a way that feels cohesive and well-curated. It helps that their logo and overall branding is straightforward and elegant. Even their international-sounding name pleasantly lands on the tongue.
With an Instagram following in the tens of thousands, it's easy to assume that Bernstein & Andriulli are doing something right. And yes, their feed is delectable. It strikes a great balance in terms of showing work from its many disciplines, and demonstrates an expert curator's skill.
If I have any critique of B&A, it's fairly practical: for all the ease of use in finding artists on their website, finding information about the agency itself is less accessible. They don't have an About section on their page: I had to go to LinkedIn to find their agency statement. Their client list is similarly hard to determine, although specific clients are listed in individual artist bios.
My Final Verdict
Bernstein & Andriulli stand out as the top New York agency in my mind, with a good mix of legendary and fresh talent, a great online experience, high audience engagement, and a clear dedication to keeping with the times. They seem to elevate their artists and their work above any specific merits of their own, as an agency, which is refreshing in this industry. And this is the mark of a confident agency that knows what makes it most valuable — the work and the illustrators who make it.