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.
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.
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.
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.
You know the feeling. You’ve just stayed up almost all night perfecting your illustration. After standing back to admire your accomplishment, you send it off to the client and go to bed for a few hours of sleep. When you wake up and check your email (after a well-deserved sleep-in), you find a long list of feedback from the client. As your heart sinks, your temperature rises. You fume inside, angry at an unappreciative client who just doesn’t get it. All the euphoria of the night’s work evaporates into nothing. You are discouraged, tired, and angry.
Like me, you might want to get right to business and hit that reply button. You want to explain and justify your decisions and convince your client that the work as you’ve sent it is the best possible solution to the problem. Or perhaps they’ve pointed out an error on your part, and you want to excuse yourself — perhaps it was sleep deprivation, or the client rushed you, or you have a lot of stressful things going on in your life right now. We blame the client for being ignorant. We blame our computer for crashing. We blame the accident of being born “right-brained”, a creative artist who can’t be expected to pay attention to details. This is our instinct — to react to the feedback in a huff instead of responding to it thoughtfully.
We immediately feel the need to be right, and anything that isn’t is not really our fault. And this, not the client feedback, is the first problem we need to face when undesired feedback comes our way. What if, in this instance, you are not right? What if you have more power to overcome whatever is in your way to meet the project goals and deadlines? Client feedback can be annoying. In fact, it almost always is. But the same can be said of anything that challenges us to think or feel differently from what comes naturally. While such a challenge is often uncomfortable, if it met with an open mindset, it can be our teacher and friend.
What to Do When You First Get Feedback
On receiving client feedback, our first task is to check in with on ourselves. Our first instinct is often to react immediately. In my experience, this urge is a palpable feeling, in my chest, somewhere between my mouth and my chest, a sort of negative pressure that pushes against the inside of my skin. Some might just describe it as a ball of anger. When feedback rolls in, pause and try to identify this feeling. I can tell you from my experience, that, as long as this ball of anger is present, I can only respond negatively. Thus, I do not permit myself to write emails until the negative feelings dissipate. Nothing good has ever come out of forgetting this.
1. Step Away
Take a walk, drink some water, or do whatever you do to calm down. While you’re waiting to not feel like you have to break something, put the email away. Defer dealing with it until you’re in a better mindset. If you are bubbling over, talk to a friend, call your mom, or if it's really serious, write about it in your journal.
2. Get it All Out (First Draft)
When you feel better, return to the email and read the feedback carefully. Hit reply and carefully, without pressing send, go through the client’s feedback, point by point, and write your responses. Be as thoughtful as you can be, but don’t hold back from defending or excusing yourself at this point. Simply write your rationale back to the client. But DO NOT SEND YET! This is your first draft, and you still have some editing to do.
3. Filter Out Negativity (Second Draft)
Now it’s time for your second draft. Go through your responses and look for any place you’ve excused, defended, or otherwise justified yourself or reasoned against the client’s thinking. Now ask yourself why you feel so strongly about it. Does your point really matter, or are you just feeling a loss of control? Is the client’s feedback really that unreasonable? Is it something you can at least try, or even try secretly just to prove yourself right? Consider your tone — do you sound difficult or impatient? Or even rude? If anything, simply ask yourself — can you solve the problem or not? The client is not at all interested in your feelings or your life, no matter how difficult it may be. (Seriously). They have a problem that needs solving, and they have offered to pay you money to do just that. No matter how annoying you think the client is, you have to see past their transgressions and look at their feedback as objectively as possible. What is the problem, and how are you going to solve it?
One angle I often take is to make sure the client and I are framing the right problem. So if I get feedback about colour, I might ask what it is about the colours I have chosen that aren’t working. I probe the client to look for a reason, to tell me why. This gets everyone thinking more logically about the problem and often opens up a real, constructive conversation. If the client can reasonably tell me why they need something changed, it makes me feel like I can reasonably accommodate their request.
Of course, some feedback may be unreasonable. In this case, identify that which you feel is out of line. But bluntly saying so will not convert your client to your way of thinking. Best if you ask the client why this feedback matters to them. You might learn something about the project that never came up in the brief. Everything a client says, reasonable or stupid, can give you valuable insights into what the client really needs and into possible solutions.
Perhaps the feedback is annoying simply because it takes the job out of scope. It adds more time to the project that you weren’t planning for. In this case, if the client is asking you to do more than what you agreed to, again, don’t get mad — solve the problem. In this case, you may be entitled to invoke the original brief or scope and ask for more time and/or budget. Don’t charge at the client, simply charge them more (with fair warning of course)!
4. Read it from a Recipient's Point of View before Sending
So by now you’ve 1) calmed down, 2) written unfiltered feedback, and 3) gone back and edited your feedback to be more solution-driven (rather than ego-driven). Your last step is to read through once more, just to make sure you’ve given everything your client is asking a fair shot, at least in your head. Read it as though someone else sent it to you. Is it demeaning? Belittling? Too long? Is the tone friendly? Is it respectful? Does it build rapport with you and the client?
In all this, it’s easy to think that I’m suggesting that you compromise at the expense of what’s important to you. But what I’m really saying is know what is important — what your non-negotiables are — but also be flexible and empathetic. Your paying client needs you to solve their problem. How will you help them all the while providing the service/product that you are best suited to provide? For instance, if a client seems to want me to do a style that isn’t mine, I kindly but plainly explain that I wouldn’t be very good at it, and I provide references of illustrators who would be way better at it than me. I explain what my strengths are, what value I can add, and then check and double check to make sure they understand that.
We are experts at bringing our unique approach and perspective to a creative problem. Clients are experts at knowing their business and what their goals are. Let them teach you what is important to them, and, having communicated what your value and perspective are, they will better value what is important to you. Some of my favourite projects are those where I received a lot of pushback from clients I respect, or learned to respect along the way. In almost every case, I became a better, stronger illustrator, and understood commercial art from the client's perspective in more profound ways. And ultimately, this gives me a competitive edge and makes me more profitable as a business.
How do you respond to annoying client feedback? Do you relate to this article? What would you do differently? I'd love to hear things from your point of view in the comments!