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.
At the outset of last year, I had a premonition that it would be a hard year — harder at least than 2017, which was so exceedingly good it was hard to believe I could top it. It’s hard to pinpoint what, exactly, what made this past year harder. On the surface, things look pretty good. I continued to get more than enough work, I worked on some really great projects, and I even earned more than ever. What I think is different, though, is that 2017 had numerous unanticipated milestones in my career, such as my first kid’s book commission and multiple awards won. 2018, on the other hand, brought me fewer surprises: being my fifth year as an independent illustrator, the good things that did come my way didn’t feel new to me.
The dark side to success is that it becomes harder to be grateful for what at one point would have seemed impossibly good. But there is a silver lining. As I was planning this report, I realized that in the past few years I have been working much harder, pushing uphill. In 2018, for the first time, I was coasting more on level ground, maybe even downhill a bit. There’s something romantic about the uphill climb, the pride in effort and strength it takes to keep going. Cruising is easy, and there’s not a lot of story in it. And I think 2018 was more of a cruising year, in terms of doing work that is familiar, easy, and in which I am more confident. Becoming a master at what I do (which I suppose it what is happening) means I am more comfortable and confident, but it also means I am conquering fewer challenges that feel new. That’s not to say I haven’t had any new challenges, but overall, the feeling has been this one of coasting and familiarity. As the old adage goes, “familiarity breeds contempt”, and I will be honest that I struggled a lot with that emotion. 2018 was a year of burnout, and I would attribute most of it to fighting feeling uninspired, unenthused, and ungrateful.
For whatever reason, I have a very strong premonition it will be back to the climb in 2019. Perhaps in some ways that I don’t want it to be, but also in some exciting new creative challenges. The year is already beginning with some pretty challenging projects, far outside my comfort zone but well within my aim in terms of the kind of work I want to be doing. So the outlook is good! And of course, all things considered, 2018 was my best year yet. It’s just harder to feel that way without the feeling that everything is shiny and new. I have so much to be grateful for, and the very process of writing this report has really given me a much needed perspective shift.
So, now on with the show. As with previous years, I will start with some quick stats, and then go through some of the most important moments of the year in terms of my creative career. I will end with some of my goals for 2019 and some shout outs to the people who made 2018 another amazing year — in spite of the struggles.
Total Unique Clients
39, including YVR (The Vancouver International Airport), Yahoo!, and GQ France. Of total clients, 36% were taken on independently, and 64% came through either my US or UK agent. In 2017, I had the same number of unique clients, but the majority of my projects were taken on independently.
Total Unique Projects
45 projects and over 140 illustrations. (Or closer to 300 illustrations if you include all the icons in the 10 or so map and mural projects I did.)
Most Personally Significant Project
Sadly, the single most impressive and important project of 2018 is still under wraps! You will have to wait until the Christmas 2019 season to find out more about that. In very close second place, however, is my latest Skillshare class, Odd Bodies, where I teach how to draw stylized, expressive people.
This is one of the few projects this year that has far exceeded my expectations. When I set out to write and plan this year’s Skillshare class (I do at least one every year), I strongly doubted it would be as well received as my other classes. I wondered if would be possible to teach a class about style, and whether I was qualified to teach figure drawing of any sort. Much to my delight, within a month of launching, it gained almost 2,000 students, was featured in the Creative category on the site, and has even been designated as a Staff Pick — one of the highest honours on the site. Stats aside, the student projects (there are over 60 of them to date) are AMAZING. My wonderful students really engaged with the lessons and responded to the class exercises well, and the reviews have been exceedingly positive. Between September and October, I poured a ton of myself into the production of the class (I estimate around 200 hours). So to see these fruits of my labours is immensely satisfying, and really shows me that teaching online classes is something I both love and am good at.
Most Fun Project
Being able to have fun on at least some of my projects really kept me going in 2018. One of my staple clients, GQ France never disappoints in the fun category. They always give me fun content to work with and a lot of freedom to just get weird and whimsical. This year, I continued on as the contributor for the Manuel de style series of smaller spot illustrations. They also assigned me a new column, Commandements de style, which is a larger and more conceptual feature.
Most Ambitious Project
This is a tie between The Art of Development for Rize and Odd Bodies. With Odd Bodies, at least I was the only stakeholder, so I could have quit at any time if things got too hot and heavy. With the Rize project, however, I was contracted to complete 10 poster-sized illustrations of the Vancouver developer’s building projects under some challenging conditions. While I have done a few projects as extensive, few have been so outside my comfort zone. You can read my extended thoughts on the process here.
Most Popular Illustration on Instagram
Christmas logo treatment for Yahoo! In second place, incidentally, is the one I did for Thanksgiving. While these are not the most intensive illustrations I’ve ever worked on, I think my Instagram followers were proud alongside me for getting to work for such a highly recognizable brand. I think people are also just really tickled when a big company decides to have some silly old fun with its brand.
Most Jobs Turned Down
In 2018, I turned down more projects than ever. I didn’t keep track of the number, but I estimate I turned down at least one for every job I took on. While this may seem smug to mention, It’s worth saying because turning down good jobs is part of my practice. When a new, perfectly good job would compromise the work I’m already committed to, I say no. When a job does not have a budget that I feel is fair, I say no. When an opportunity doesn’t feel like a good fit for me, or if it it fills me with dread rather than excitement, I say no. In spite of turning down these jobs, I still managed to earn more than ever this year. I focused on taking on jobs that felt more significant and better suited to me and let the money thing take care of itself. While earning more by saying no is not a principle I can guarantee, I can say that being courageous enough to say no freed me to take on the most interesting and, often, the highest paying jobs.
In 2017, doing my first kid’s book was huge, and the year before, speaking at ICON 9 were both clear moments where I could palpably feel my career moving forward. But I still have so much to celebrate in 2018. This year, the following moments were important for my career in that they affirmed that I am still on the right path, heading in a direction that I both want to be and which is appropriate at this stage in my life and career:
Taught a workshop at ICON 10
I was invited to host a workshop at ICON 10, based on my INKY MAPS Skillshare class. When the workshop was finally announced in May, the workshop sold out within less than a day. An amazing response! The workshop itself was a full day, a morning session and afternoon session. It was intense, and as I expected, we did not get through everything I really wanted to. But it was really fun connecting with fellow attendees as my workshop guests, and showing them some of my illustration skills.
At the conference, attendees were give coloured lanyards: green if you were a regular attendee, and pink if you were a conference speaker or workshop host. Being one of the pink lanyard people was a singular honour for me. One day, I would like to be an actual speaker at one of these events. It’s highly presumptuous, and possibly delusional, but offering expertise, guidance and inspiration is a natural part of who I am and where I think I would like to be as I mature as a creative professional. The idea of being a practicing illustrator who also can share deep and meaningful experiences and expertise to others excites me. Being invited to host a workshop at a top conference like ICON felt like a huge leap toward this end.
Launching Odd Bodies
Producing Odd Bodies was a labour of love. As already mentioned, it was a much bigger success than I could have ever expected. And it’s only been two months! This is a career highlight because it affirms that teaching is something I am both good at and enjoy, and this positions me to have a more expert role to a wider audience with more speaking and teaching engagements in the future.
A Year of Collaborations
This year was a year of more collaborations with more different people than ever before. Collaborations are partnerships between two creatives, or between a creative and a business, where there exists some common purpose or passion. I enjoyed making a line of Yukon-themed products for The Collective Good, conducting experiments in ceramics and illustration with Cathy Terepocki, and continuing to create fun beer-themed artwork for my friends at Field House Brewing Co. Of course, I also continued add new letterpress prints to The Canadianist lineup with my friend Vincent Perez at Everlovin’ Press.
Another collaboration I am proud of was a mug design for McCafé Canada. While many of these kinds of project go uncredited, McDonald’s included a little tag on these mugs with a designer credit and small bio. They also used my design on the topper for the in store displays. The only downside to this was that there are no McCafé locations near where I live, on the West coast of Canada, so I have not been able to actually see the product or in-store display.
Among my favourite projects in 2018 were the murals I worked on for some local businesses. With so much of my work ending up hidden between pages, it’s really exciting to make work that ends up on much larger surfaces.
An interview on the Creative Playdate podcast
As an aspiring public voice on illustration and creativity, I really enjoy being interviewed. Later in the year, it was an honour to chat alongside my wife, Amanda Froese, with Michelle Kondrich on her podcast, Creative Playdate. We talked about the challenges of being parents of young children while working as creative freelancers. You can catch the episode here.
Skillshare Staff Pick
The single highest honour of the year would have to be Odd Bodies earning the Staff Pick designation! Also, over the last year, I was given a “Top Teacher” badge — the equivalent of a blue checkmark on Skillshare! According to Skillshare, “‘Top Teachers’ represent our most active, engaged, and high-quality teachers on Skillshare. They rank among the top 1% of teachers on the platform.” I’m chuffed!
Illustrating for ICON 10
As the conference that brings together the most (and many of the best) illustrators in one place, ICON is such an important event for me. It was a no-brainer when they asked me to design the conference map, which would be seen by every attendee. I rarely if ever take on pro-bono work, especially this complex, but it was an honour to give something back to a conference that has given me so much.
2018 Goals Reached
Increased revenue and worked less
I worked very hard in 2018, but overall, I worked fewer hours and spent more time with my family. This is due to increased mastery of my craft, but also because I moved my studio home! Productivity went up. Also, by saying no to more small jobs and saying yes to intimidating but larger jobs, I was able to bring home more revenue.
Drew from life/sketchbooked more
While my goal was to draw from life every day, I did draw from life a lot more than I have in a long time, and that is a win. I even started an Instagram account for my drawings. Like many things of this nature, it fell into neglect later in the year, but there it is, waiting for me to come back to it when I’m ready. I will say that drawing from life reinvigorated a part of me that was dead for some time. Drawing for the sake of drawing, and drawing from life is a lot different than the kind of drawing (mostly from images) that I do for my client work. It is a deeper, almost spiritual exercise. It makes me see differently. And hands-down, it makes me a better illustrator.
I travelled a little more
As mentioned in my 2017 report, I had already planned a trip to Toronto in July. The idea was to practice travelling abroad with our two kids, living an alternate life in a “foreign” city, basing ourselves in a rented home and living as locals. Toronto was a sort of dry run, and it worked out fantastically. No solid plans for the near future, but we are so game for travelling further. As long as we can find a place that will allow me to work as I do from home, I am confident we will be able to pull off longer term trips in more exotic places!
Integrated more organic ways of working
My perennial aim has long been to become more intuitive and organic in my art making process. I want my work to feel free and spontaneous, full of energy. By creating elements by hand and integrating them in less planned, more spontaneous ways, I have been able to arrive at this feeling, to some degree. What I have discovered, however, is that my commercial work generally relies on a process of planning, iteration, and digital refinement. Quite the opposite of intuitive and organic. The style I have become known for commercially is simply based on that process. That being said, some more impulsive ways of creating have crept back into my workflow, such as using paper cutouts for my Christmas cards and getting quite zany with my inky marks in the Glenn Gould poster for Polaris Heritage Prize and the Rize poster series.
Increased revenue by 17.4% over last year.
I attribute this growth to an increase in more involved, higher budget projects (i.e. advertising jobs). I would have been happy just to stay level with last year’s earnings. To see even more growth is a total blessing!
Picked up a new kid’s book deal for 2019
Just at the end of the year, I was able to secure a new kid’s book deal through my UK agent. I’m very excited about this and cannot wait to share this project as it unfurls. I start work in earnest in the second week of January, and will ultimately have finished artwork by the end of the summer. This will no doubt be one of my most significant creative challenges (and feats!) to date.
Grew a YouTube channel from 6 to 960 subscribers in 10 months
Like many people, I’ve had a default YouTube channel for a long time. Every now and then I’d post a video, perhaps promoting a new Skillshare class or posting a video of me speaking at an event. In February, I noticed a very small handful of people subscribing to my YouTube channel. It was like 5 people or something like that, but I thought that perhaps if 5 would come, there might be more, and so maybe I could be leveraging YouTube a little bit more. I decided to start posting videos of me answering illustration-related questions. I call the series the Making Friends Vidcast. After an initial good response, I set a goal of gaining 1000 subscribers by the year end. If I met that goal, I would continue making the videos. Although 960 is not technically the goal, it’s pretty darn close, and I have really enjoyed making the videos. Some subscribers even found me at ICON to tell me they watch it, which was so encouraging. So I will continue to build the channel in 2019. I currently see it as a side project but have a hunch that it has the potential to grow into something bigger than I can imagine just yet. Just putting that out there.
Fought hard against burnout
Very early in the year, I was hit hard with burnout. The long and short of it is that I grew to become entitled and resentful in my attitude, and I really lost sight of the customer service side of being a freelance illustrator. This single fact was eating away at me from the inside, and I grew more and more apathetic about my work. Thankfully, Gordon Ramsey (yes, the iron chef) himself shook me into shape, and I was able to redeem myself. If you’re interested, I tell the the whole story in this video (Episode 19 of Making Friends, my YouTube channel).
I entered some of my favourite projects — illustrations I was really proud of — into at least 3 competitions in 2019, and I didn’t win. Now awards aren’t everything, I know. But damn it, placing in illustration annuals and competitions is so validating. And having won a few awards in previous years, entering work and not winning this year really stung. It’s stupid, really. I’m trying not to be a baby about it — I know how competitive these things are. What stings the most, I think, is feeling there is a disconnect between what I think is good and what the judges like. It makes me question my whole ability to judge what makes an award-winning illustration! It’s a mind frick. But I’m not a baby, and I know that I have a lot more creative juice in me. I will continue to enter my work into competitions, and I will probably lose most of the time. But the feeling of those few wins? Priceless.
That personal kids book project did not happen after all
A book idea I had been sitting on for four years finally bit the dust. Last year I told myself I had to let this one die if I didn’t move on it by the end of March. It was hard to admit defeat, but in the end, I know I gave it a good last chance, and I was ultimately released to focus on other personal projects more within my grasp.
Where to Improve in 2019
As usual, Prioritization and Focus.
The longer I work, the more branches my career seems to grow. New client connections, additional Skillshare classes (and more students), a YouTube channel to grow, personal projects and collaborations, playing the engagement game on Instagram … all these things require my attention and can distract me at various times from doing what I need to be doing in the moment. I will need to continue to spend my limited time wisely, prioritizing those jobs that balance keeping me in business and making me happy.
Keeping my books up to date
I’m afraid I was even worse in 2018 than I was the year before. I have a lot of expenses to log before tax time!
Responding to client emails sooner
One thing I used to pride myself on was my quick email response time. This year I saw that go out the window as I took sometimes a week or more to respond to some. This is sometimes okay, but mostly without excuse. This year, I want to be more diligent in responding to client emails quickly and with a smile!
Goals for 2019
Continue drawing from life and keeping a sketchbook
Starting back up my drawing sketchbook this past year was one of the best decisions I made. Keeping this going will be challenging but worth it. To keep this goal realistic, I will count even the smallest jot and doodle, even if it takes me 30 seconds. The only requirement is that it be intentional and done more than just once in a while.
Grow and improve my YouTube channel
I want to continue to make content for YouTube. I will continue with the AMA format with the occasional monologue, making small tweaks and improvements as I go along. I’m toying with a name change and visual refresh of the homepage and thumbnails, but this year I want to see how things evolve without putting too much more effort into it. If I can grow to 3000 subscribers by year end, I think that will be a good sign that I should keep doing it into 2020 and level up on the branding and production side.
Plan my next big family/work adventure
Having really enjoyed the family vacation/work trip to Toronto, we’re confident we want to do something more ambitious. We are playing around with a few options right now, but really not quite sure yet. We will likely spend the better part of this year mostly talking, dreaming and planning. Everything seems so open right now, but I do believe we’re edging closer to something exciting.
Truly have fun in my work
This is my perennial goal — making my work look like I’m having fun. This is the most valued thing for me when looking at other work — there’s something in the image that looks effortless, free and beautiful, like ink splats were flicked straight from the artist’s soul. May my work in 2019 be more joyful and instinctive than ever.
Enter the competitions with my best, without fear
Entering competitions often ends in disappointment, but it’s the hope of winning that inspires me to do better work. I will not let my past failures stop me from believing that I can do it again.
Explore new ways of collaborating
I have been branching out in my collaborations. To date, I’ve collaborated with a brewery, a home and giftware shop in the Yukon, and a ceramicist. Who knows, maybe this year I’ll collaborate with a comedian. I’m excited about joining forces with fellow creatives and businesses, looking for commonalities and bring inspiration to each other from each our own unique worlds.
And now, finally, I would like to give credit where credit is due. First and foremost, thank you to my family — my wife Amanda, and my two daughters, Nina and Marie. Amanda, you are my rock, my support, my favourite art director and illustration critic. You help me make good decisions, you balance me out when I get extreme, and encourage me when I’m down. If it weren’t for you, I don’t know where I would be — in this career or in life in general. Nina and Marie, you’re probably still too young to read these, but you guys are the most insanely inspiring balls of creative energy I know. Your constant drawing and crafting, the way you burn through smelly markers and scotch tape, your curiosity, the profound, undiluted wisdom that can only come from a child — you girls are oozing with the kind of creative energy most creatives can only wish to be around.
Next, I would like to thank you Mom, Allen, Stefany and Kat, who are always cheering me on from your side of the country. I love that you still point out my handiwork (and your relation to me) to clerks at shops where they sell products I’ve worked on! I would also like to thank my late father (d. 2009) whom I know is giving me two hearty thumbs up at this very moment. You know how important your encouragements to me were as a creative. You always supported my creative exploits, even when they seemed to be leading me down sketchy paths. You also lived a life that inspired me, always creating, and always aiming to be your best. I miss you so much, Dad.
Of course, a huge thank you to my clients and collaborators (you know who you are), who have entrusted me to represent your brands, products and messages through my creativity. 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.
As always, special thanks is due to my agents, Mendola Artists in the US and MP Arts in the UK. Thank you for doing all that you do, increasing my reach and championing my cause while I focus on making the art!
Thank you, as always, Vincent Perez, for continuing to collaborate with me on the letterpress side. Thank you for the many hours spent this year turning my illustration lead in to letterpress gold.
And, finally, I would like to thank readers like you! Thank you for following along, liking, commenting, taking my Skillshare classes, leaving kind reviews, watching my YouTube videos (and liking and subscribing)! Thank you for coming up to talk at live events. Thank you for reaching out over email. Thank you for sharing my work. I love how illustration connects me to creative people everywhere in the world. There are so many amazing artists to follow, and it is an honour to be among those you choose keep up with.
Thank you so much! I look forward to following up on this year in review in 2020. Have an amazing 2019!