The Canadian Design Resource is an incredibly valuable repository of the best of our country's design industry. Todd Falkowsky, the site's founder, and I worked together for a time in Vancouver — he was my creative director. We butted heads a lot then, but somehow we've become friendly over the years, admiring each other's work. So it was a pleasure to give some long answers to his probing questions. Grab a coffee and find a cozy chair and read about what drives me as an illustrator (if you ever wondered).
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a major company about an in house illustration position. The idea of being employed, let alone an in house employee, wouldn't normally be so enticing to me, but this was different. A hugely influential tech giant, a move to sunny California, an adventure, a pretty glossy comp package. After three interviews, they were ready to fly me down to meet the crew. But something in me just felt like I needed to really consider what was most important to me.
In the end, I realized that, no matter how good an opportunity this was, it wasn't aligned with things that are important to me right now: independence, having total say over how I spend my time and what jobs I take on. Not knowing what's around the corner. Having that constant motivation of not knowing whether I will get another job, nor from whom. There are many other reasons like this, mostly centred around me personally and my career.
The most important factor was less about me, though. My wife just started working again after 5 years of new-motherhood. My girls, 3 and 5, are in pre-school and kindergarten, respectively. They are making friends and are putting their own roots down here. And we as a family have so much community — friends, family and networks — that it's hard to imagine leaving this all and starting over again.
Just because you choose the right thing, it doesn't mean you chose the easiest thing, or the thing that made you feel the most amazing, at least right away.
Personally, I wanted to do it. I love adventure and not knowing what's around the corner. And I would have had the option of leaving the job in the future if things weren't working out. But the reasons to go were all personal, whereas my wife and kids would be left to figure out what to do in a new city, in a new country (my wife without a working visa) to feel at home.
I emailed the company back on Wednesday to tell them my final decision, before they booked my flight and hotel. I felt good about it, peaceful in my heart. But even though the decision was right and has given me peace, I am still struggling with the sense of deflation. For two weeks we were readying ourselves for a big change of life, and I was feeling pretty important. And now it's back to business as usual.
The rain fell a lot harder this week, and the wind blew stronger. And I saw a lot less action in my inbox, and some of my clients seemed to go silent. Some of my clients were more critical and less pleased with my work than I'm used to. Self doubt set in. Maybe I should have taken the job. Maybe I was too cocky. Maybe I'm not as good at this as I often believe. Sure, I've enjoyed some success, but maybe it's coming to an end. Maybe I'm becoming irrelevant. These are the thoughts that sunk into the vacuum that was left when the promise of new things went away.
Here's what I know, though: by deciding to go with my heart (not my head), I upheld my integrity and reinforced my conscience. By letting a lucrative offer go, I cast a giant vote of confidence in myself and my ability to keep doing this. By loving my family more than myself, and community more than my career ambitions, I respect myself more. I put my money where my mouth is (or something like that). I chose something that was good even though it was hard.
Just because you choose the right thing, it doesn't mean you chose the easiest thing, or the thing that made you feel the most amazing, at least right away. But it's a temporary sacrifice for something better in the future. There is no divine reward for doing the right thing. A good thing is is in itself blessed. The most important result is inner peace. And I have that, even without having the outer glory of what this job could have been for me.
Instagram, Twitter, social and economic status in general are all useful in their own ways. But they mostly show the outer veneer of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy. Listening attentively to the quiet voice inside (quiet because we drown it out with endless distractions) and letting it ask hard questions, and answering these questions with the most precise, brutal honesty is what, in the end will give us joy.
Clearly, I'm in the middle of feeling deflated. We were gonna do something cool, but in the end, it didn't sit right with our consciences (this was a family decision, of course). I'm proud of myself (one of the few times I will actually say that) for making the best decision. Now all that's left to do is ride out the waves of self doubt. But here is where the real adventure begins: now that I have chosen to stay, I have a new sense of purpose in being here and doing what I do already. The challenge is now to keep growing and evolving, as I have been since I started this journey of being an independent illustrator. The fact that I was even presented with such an opportunity is testament to my success. I know I didn't flaunt my success by declining it (I wanted to make sure I wasn't being cocky like that). I simply knew I had a good thing going, and I'm not done yet.
The Meaning Movement is a podcast about transitioning from a "regular job" to more meaningful work, produced by Dan Cumberland. I met Dan at Yeah Field Trip in California in February. I met a lot of amazing people at the 5-day event (it was intense), and Dan was one of those guys that I hit it off easy with. Dan was kind enough to follow up in July by inviting me onto his podcast.
From the Podcast website:
In this episode you’ll learn:
- How I became an artist for a living, despite failing art in school
- The importance of giving ourselves permission to pursue things we’re drawn to
- The power of choice and self-paced learning in helping me thrive after high school
- The value of starting early but also the importance of appreciating our own process and journey
- Why I believes you need to know what is driving you even when you aren’t sure of the next steps in the journey
- How I stay motivated and the most beautiful parts of the job for me
- The reason it’s important to embrace our difference, lean into what makes you unique and own your voice
- My advice to people who are feeling stuck
- Why I keep testing and testing to figure out what lights me up
- The power of community and meeting new people to drive change in your life
Please have a listen — and be sure to review the podcast on iTunes!
Some of you guys may know I've been working on a new Skillshare class on how to create beautiful illustrated maps using the techniques taught in Inky Illustrations. It's called Inky Maps (obviously)!
I am currently producing it and am about 3/4 the way through! Here are a few production stills just to show you what I'm up to — and hopefully to whet your appetite!
I'm planning to launch this in mid-to-late October. It is a sheer coincidence that the class will be launching in this month, for some reason now known as #Inktober!
Please stay tuned for the official launch announcement!
There are no guarantees and no single path to becoming a full-time freelance illustrator, but there are definite things you can do to bolster your chances. Here are 10 things that worked for me, which I believe apply to all of us.
1. Live in a big city, at least when starting out.
Generally speaking, there are more and better opportunities in larger centres. You have access to museums and galleries, and the quality of work you'll find is likely to be higher simply due to the larger funding larger cities enjoy. And this extends to almost everything you'd need as an illustrator: educational opportunities, the calibre of agencies and studios who will hire you, exposure to good design (in restaurants, coffee shops, public spaces and art, etc.), diversity of people and culture, and so on. By simply walking out your front door, you are immersed in a sea of opportunity, and chances of striking gold increases exponentially with the size and importance of a city.
2. Find your creative community. Reach out to other creatives, especially people with the kinds of jobs you covet.
I'm not saying be a greasy schmoozebag, but it's entirely okay to find out who's making good work and even who has the best jobs, and kindly ask to pick their brains. Most creatives with any level of success are aware of the challenges of "getting there" and are happy to help others up. If someone seems a bit standoffish and hard to talk to, let them brood in their self-importance and don't take it personally — there are plenty others who want to cheer you on.
The most important thing, however, is this: it is relationships, not talent, that takes you far in any industry.
3. Identify work you love, and find out who's making it.
Knowing what you like is a huge clue into who you are, creatively speaking. What kind of work/art/products are you most drawn to? Fantasy? Minimal/designy? More traditional? Skate culture? Vintage kids' books? Whatever excites you to look at, that's the kind of work you're interested in. Your homework is to find out as much as you can about your favourite work starting with who made it. And then find out what else they made, and where they were trained, and see if they wrote anything — and then read it. You get the picture. By finding out the history and circumstances around the things you like, you peel back the mask and find out how the sausage was made. You realize how ideas emerge from things artists are thinking about or their experiences. And you find out who they were influenced by. Work is never made in a vacuum, including yours. Study people are are better and further along than you in their craft and allow yourself to be influenced by them.
4. Start and maintain a daily creative project that you share online.
The only way to get good at making things is by making things. The things you make at first will probably be worse than the things you make down the road. But you've got to start somewhere. And you probably need some structure around what to make, because the hardest thing is to stare at a blank page with no ideas. So here's something that worked for me: while in art school, I started a drawing blog, posting one drawing every day. I have no idea how many people followed me, maybe 20-30. But this audience, or delusion of an audience, motivated me to do something everyday, lest I disappoint. And as I did this every day, I found a style and a voice to work within, and people actually started to comment on it and encourage me to do more. This was an important way for me to gain confidence as a creator and also prove to people who would hire me that I'm active as a creator. This was back in the days before social media. It would have been so much easier to post on Instagram. You're already a few steps ahead of me in that sense.
5. Work first as a designer.
Very few companies are looking to hire full time illustrators. If you have any training as a designer, start there first. Not only will you actually get a job, but you will gain really important experience as the kind of person who will eventually be commissioning your illustrations. I work with art directors all the time, and it is a huge benefit in communicating with them to understand things from their point of view.
In my own experience, designers are far better at presenting their work. They understand that all good ideas must be sold, clients must be persuaded, and all this requires a level of professionalism and a touch of psychology when presenting the work. Illustrators tend to be more chaotic and less strategic. For instance, a designer would never just plop a screen grab of a logo concept into an email. Instead they'd build a nice presentation deck with a title page, a short synopsis statement, and maybe even a thank you at the end.
Needless to say, if you're the designer, you often have the opportunity to determine what kind of photography or illustration ends up being used in your projects. Few employers are going to discourage you from using your own illustration talent to save them from the cost of outsourcing!
6. Make everything about illustration.
Look for every possible way to make illustrations. On the side, up high, down low — illustrate until your friends start to worry about you.
7. Learn classical art/design skills and disciplines.
People often ask me how I came up with my style. That is an almost impossible question for me to answer (because to some extent, I don't know), but I do know that underlying everything is a foundation of classical art skills: colour theory, drawing, principles and elements of design, and typography. Look at any artist in history and you will see that they first had to learn the rules before breaking them.
Learning, practicing and ultimately internalizing formal artistic disciplines first allows you to create more intuitively, i.e. with more style, later on.
8. Be experimental.
One sure way of developing novel techniques and stumbling upon a unique voice is to experiment. Try thousands of things, waste time barking up the wrong trees. Lots of them. Paint badly, use the wrong tools, download and use free fonts, borrow a Wacom tablet for a weekend, rent a DLSR camera, start a YouTube channel. Write a lot. Make messy work without goals. Design fake logos. Along the way, you're going to learn stuff you could not have foreseen, and it's always the surprises that end up taking us higher.
9. Show your work to others.
Be vulnerable. It's the hardest thing to do, even for me, now. But if you want your work to resonate with other people, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to share it with some folks and be open to their feedback. Don't look for affirmation more than you want truth. When you receive hard or even harsh feedback, do this: 1) stay quiet, don't get defensive. 2) Go away and think about it. Is the feedback even a little bit true? Why did that feedback make you feel that way? Be objective as possible, and accept that you make mistakes and aren't right a lot of the time. But then, most importantly, identify how to improve, and try again. Repeat.
10. Emulate your heroes.
We all start by copying our heroes. And some of us continue to do work in the spirit of others who have gone before us. So don't be ashamed of stealing ideas and being a copycat — at first. When we're just starting out, we can emulate others, and this helps us deconstruct how work is made. But along the way, over time, something happens. We start to inject a little bit of ourselves into it, and we give birth to a new style. Over time, only a skeleton of influence is left, and we have something totally new and our own. But we must always remember to give thanks and pay homage to those giants on whose shoulders we stand.
This list is not exhaustive, but it's definitely a start. If you have any tips for starting out, I'd love to hear in the comments!
NEWS: I just completed my second collaboration with Reunion Goods & Services on some wall art a the new Upper East Side location of Quality Eats. Their photographer, Liz Clayman, was kind enough to let me post some of her photos of the interiors. You can see more of the art I did for this location as well as the original East Village one here.
Just a quick follow up to my last post. I've been thinking more about this (as I do when I share my thoughts with the Internet) and it turns out there is a justification for doing work for a client who wishes to restrict your ability to show it after its creation. That justification is less about business smarts and more personal. It is an attitude shift, a different way of seeing the work. Although I feel very strongly about retaining the right to show the work I make for clients, there is some room for seeing things a bit differently.
It should go without saying that, if I need the cash and have the time, I would be stupid not to momentarily suspend my hard stance on issues that are not ethically vital. But on a more honest level, there is a lot of work I never show — sketches in my journal, process work for clients I deem unfit for public consumption, and that kind of thing. In essence, I am always making work I can't (or at least won't) show. So if I viewed the odd client job as a paid sketchbook exercise, perhaps I can live with it the possibility of it never being seen. There may be some jobs that we must take on, or want to take on, for practical reasons, even if they fall under unfavourable terms and conditions. Co-opting client work for my own purposes, viewing it as being paid to do something I would be doing anyway (sketching, thinking), can be all it takes for me to reconsider my position.
Am I undoing my arguments from my last article? I don't think so. Rather, I need to post this to reflect another some of my other values: having a good attitude, being adaptable and flexible, and choosing my battles wisely.
Once, when I was just starting out as a freelance illustrator, I worked on a dream project, with a motion picture studio, designing hypothetical books as props for a television series that was in production at the time. Being new to the game, I grossly underquoted. But that wasn't the part I regret.
No, it was the fact that the contract prohibited me from showing the work on my portfolio (unless it was behind a password-secured wall) and from naming the client. The work I produced was decent, but the association of my work and this major Hollywood production would have been invaluable. At the time I was so excited just to work on the project that I said yes and went ahead. It wouldn't be until after the project was done, with an amazing project that I might as well have never worked on. I swore to myself that I would never again work on a project I couldn't show.
This week I had an opportunity to work on another dream project. For the sake of not singling out anyone in particular, let's just say it was for a very nationally significant project, one that would be seen by many Canadians over time, and one that would last well into the future. It would have been my chance to contribute a tiny piece of me to my country.
By my understanding, the client, who routinely produces projects like the one I was invited to work on, has to run a sort of competition as part of its selection process. So in this case, they had an idea and then opened it up to a small selection of designers; they were invited to create concepts, for a reasonable fee, for the client's consideration. The client would then award the job to the designer of their chosen concept. An additional fee, commensurate to the work involved, would of course come with the package.
When I was invited to work on this project, it was as an outsourced illustrator through a design studio. So my relationship to the actual client was as a third party. The studio outlined the project, including their client's offer (fee) and the requirement for a total transfer of copyright. While it is laudable to offer a fee for what is otherwise speculative work, the requirement off the bat for the artist to relinquish all ownership and rights to use the work felt a little strange to me, especially at the pitching stage. It sent me back to that Hollywood project and really made me wonder about my principles — are they worth standing up for?
Obviously, it is clear from how I am writing this story that I turned the job down. Today, a day after I sent over my email rejection, I still wonder whether it was worth it. One time, an agent of mine said, "you've got to be in it to win it.". He said that when I was invited to work on a book pitch, where I would be paid a small fee to work on a few sample illustrations with the promise of more follow up fees if the book gets accepted and published. In this case, there were no copyright restrictions on the pitch work, but the fees were low for the amount of work, and again I felt I was being asked to put more skin in the game than the client. And sure enough, after taking on the job and delivering the files, I never heard from the publisher. Sure, I retained the copyright this time, but I did not win the project, which shows me that, although "you have to be in it to win it", being in it doesn't guarantee you against losing it. So I have a heightened awareness of the risks involved with pitch work, and in the case of my most recent opportunity, a lot of skin in the game to lose.
While I cannot fault the client from needing to protect their process (probably for political reasons), and while I do laud them for paying all whom are invited to pitch, I still have to consider what my own needs are as an independent commercial artist with limited resources. I have to be strategic about the jobs I take on. Most importantly, every project I create is an advertisement for more work. Every job potentially leads to another. Projects that don't turn out well or which I am prohibited from using to demonstrate my abilities lose their longterm value. Sure I get paid, but I can get a day job if I'm only in this for the money. As an artist, I am strongly motivated by the promise that others will see the work. I make work to be seen. Commercial art is worthless if it gets buried. Working on a project that people may not ever see is a morale-drainer, a party pooper.
All this being said, I may have agreed suck it up and play the long game — had it not been for the real deal breaker: I wasn't told, even after asking, what the fees would be for the awarded designer. So what was already a risky offer became simply a gamble. Who knows if I'll win? Who knows how much I'll be paid if I do? Why on earth would I pour my time and creativity into bureaucratic, committee-driven black hole? No thanks. I'm blessed to have other work that pays my bills and into which I can freely pour myself into, without such restrictions on who and how I can show it. And at the end of the day, this is what I became a commercial artist for in the first place. I love to make things, and then I love to show them to people. I know there are people who will disagree with me on this, and such people are free to take on any project under any terms they wish. As for me, I believe I made a grounded, thoughtful decision that I can live with. And that is one value I hold strongest as an independent commercial artist: the ability to choose and not choose jobs based on my principles. We are not free when we feel compelled by outside forces to do things we would rather not do. We are most free when we operate according to our deepest convictions, even when it means sacrificing the best opportunities.
Creative block is a thing. We feel confident one day, breezing through our work like it's nothing, and then — bam! We hit a wall. No matter what we do, we can't seem to make anything we're pleased with. We can barely even lift our pencil.
The seasoned creative professional will know, of course, that the only way through creative block is more work. We can't not do something and expect the universe to realign in our favour. We participate in the bigger picture of whatever it is that feeds us our creativity. Being creative is an active mode of existence, not passive. But that's a truism. The real question is: what kind of work should we be doing to get through our creative block? For a more exhaustive list of ideas, you should check out concept artist Xia Tapterra's timeless post on the topic. For me, however, one method has proven to be effective without fail. It's not really fun at first — in fact it's really, really hard — but it works. And that is what we need — not the absence of effort but a real breakthrough so we can actually make things we (and our clients) are happy with!
Though hard to do, it's actually really simple in concept: plant seeds today, harvest tomorrow. In my case that means sketching a lot, possibly not seeing any value in the work today; then, tomorrow, review all the sketches and look for value you were unable to appreciate. Here's an example I'm going through right now: I have to create 12 large and complex illustrations on a relatively short timeline. That alone is enough to invoke creative paralysis. But the client is paying me and relying on me, so, there's no time for feeling scared. I've got to do this.
Day One: Prepare the Soil
I start by researching the topic, doing some initial studies, finding and sketching from reference images — all without any goals of creating real compositions or concepts at this point. Just download the raw materials to work with, to internalize some of the imagery. This will help me create original artwork from my heart instead of needing any reference images later. My faulty memory will serve me well: I will remember a few essential aspects of the subject matter I need to draw, and then later, not having a photographic memory, I will use my creativity to fill in the blanks. This is where style and originality come from. But this is an aside — I haven't even planted seeds yet. This stage is more like preparing the soil. Let's just say we do this on Day One.
(This has accidentally become a gardening analogy. I'm okay with that!)
Day Two: Plant the Seeds
With the soil prepared, it's time to plan the seeds. This is Day Two. Loaded with new data (from my sketch studies on Day One), however spotty, I have enough information to start actually sketching concepts according to the brief. By the way, at this point, I have a well defined list of illustrations from the client — in this case 12 scenes with people doing various things in Vancouver. At this point, I am thinking about the actual composition and content. Professional Woman Pushing Her Young Child To Daycare in a Stroller. Diverse Group of People Lining Up For the Bus Near The Airport. Etcetera. As rapidly as possible, I sketch these concepts, maybe doing 6, 8, 12, or 25 variations, some half finished, others more complete. The point at this stage is to solve the visual problem (how to communicate the most important idea in the most interesting way). I have no preconceived notions of what the solution will be, so I have to just try and try again until something seems to stick. Or, if I do have preconceived notions, I have to test them to see if they work. At this point, I should not be concerned whether the ideas are good. Mostly, I am just making stuff and feeling quite badly about everything, but trying not to let that discourage me from continuing to make more stuff. And when I've done as many iterations as I can possibly stomach (or when I feel like I've solved the problem as best as I can), I stop. I put things away and sleep on it.
Day 3: Reap the Harvest
Now it's Day 3 — harvest day. Refreshed by a good night's sleep and an emotional break from the anxiety of trying to come up with the best ideas possible, I return to the sketches. I open them all up. Almost without fail, I see things in the art that I didn't the day before. I'm more positive about my ideas and less critical about flaws. Or, I am even positive about the flaws and see them now as strengths. Even if I am not satisfied with anything yet, I have a fresh mind and am better able to self-critique. Armed with a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't, I can return to the drawing board with more confidence. At this point, I can either choose to go with my sketches as they are (if I am happy with them), or I can make the necessary refinements. I load them into my deck and send to the client.
To summarize, I have shown you how I am able to conquer creative block in my own practice. I have outlined my steps for creating ideas, or at least creating the right environment for ideas. First, I gather and sketch reference materials without thinking about concepts. Second (and often on the next day), I sketch as many rough concepts as I can before I feel either satisfied or exhausted. Most importantly, I don't have to like any of them — and chances are I won't. Third (and again, one day later), I review my sketches, discovering value I was unable to see while in the thick of it the day before. With a renewed mind, I am able to choose the best concepts or refine them further before sending to the client.
Creating good ideas is neither instantaneous nor easy. Like gardening, it requires work to create the optimum conditions, and above all, patience. Creative block is a hard thing to go through. It creates real anxiety and can send us into the abyss of despair if we let it. But for those willing to put up a fight, to do the hard work of being creative (someone who creates — does — things), a reward awaits on the other side.