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.
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!
Being creative means keeping the inspirational fuel source coming. I don't know what inspires everybody else, but for me, it's things that are encouraging, positive, aspirational, uplifting, and so on.
Every few months I encounter a slump in inspiration and motivation. I go deeper into self doubt and cynicism. But my most recent slump was particularly bad in terms of cynicism. Feeling ungrateful, irritable, losing perspective. It was largely due to burnout, having taken on some pretty ambitious and all-consuming projects (which I completed, thank God). But something else was lurking beneath it all and I couldn't quite put my finger on it until one evening at home.
I was watching a political video — a guy I wasn't really a big fan of talking about something I felt was complete garbage. But I was watching to just learn about some issues. But then I realized that I had this precious little time to recharge and here I was watching something that made me anxious and which was not uplifting. I was spending my irreplaceable, unrecoverable time with this guy. There is a time and place for doing this, but I had been doing this a lot — watching lots of youtube videos and following lots of twitter accounts that are very political. The issues are important and I believe it's good to stay up to date on current events and debates, but I was going overboard. Around a quarter or more of the people I was following on Twitter were political types, and in spite of being a minority in terms of quantity, they were inundating my feed with mostly critical and reactionary things. Over the last few months, so much of my day has been dominated by political punditry, whether in the form of podcasts, articles, tweets or videos.
I've heard it said that we are the product of the five people we spend the most time around (or something like that). Given I spend so much time working alone and listening to these things or just seeing them passively in my feeds, the negativity must have been profoundly affecting me.
In that moment, realizing I was giving my time to people whose content was not building me up, I decided to unfollow every political twitter person and delete my YouTube and Twitter apps on my phone. This alone has drastically reduced the amount of encounters I have with the kind of content that was getting in my head. Suddenly the noise of opinions and woeful cries of apocalyptic doom was gone. My attention can now be turned to good things — and it already has been. I've started listening to more positive things online and actively seeking out more visual inspiration — stuff that fell by the wayside in recent months.
To be clear, I still let myself check in on the political stuff, because it's important to stay informed and balanced, but I've put it in its place. And I'm working on bringing the balance thing up a few notches. So much information is going into my person all day — even into my sleep. I cannot fall asleep without something playing in my ear (otherwise I stay up all night thinking about everything). So with all the information coming in and having no time to process it, I think I'm just brewing up a toxic storm inside my soul. My aim now is to give myself ways of digesting and processing the information. One way is journaling. I've returned to keeping a journal (you know, with a notebook and pencil) just to let my thoughts and feelings come to the surface. Writing things down releases them from building up and creating anxiety — the anxiety of having many thoughts without really understanding them. Writing helps me organize feelings, thoughts and anxieties, and that alone somehow creates more room for positivity and creativity.
Another thing I'm trying to do is to let myself fall asleep without the headphones on and just listen to the things going through my head. It's really hard because it's mostly things that make me anxious, but there must be a reason our minds do this when our heads hit the pillow. So I guess I'm just being more mindful of what goes into my head and how I process it.
As for creativity, I've realized it doesn't really do very well on a diet of pure cynicism. A little bit is actually good — critical thinking has always been part of my process. But mostly, creation is about potential and problem solving, and these need to have hope and a healthy disregard for obstacles. The most inspiring people I know are realistic about life and challenges, but they are also profoundly, inexplicably positive. They don't fixate on problems or simply observe them for sport. Most importantly, they are thankful and generous (which are two sides of the same coin). My aim from now on is to allow more people like this to enter into my life, whether online or off, and to steer my own life toward a more constructive path.
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.
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!
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.