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!
I find it hard to believe that 2016 was only my third full year in business as an illustrator. It feels like I've been doing it for so much longer! There has been so much change in the past year, let alone the last three and a bit. There are so many different ways to categorize the year's achievements and lessons that I can't choose just one. Instead, here is a report-style breakdown of my most significant moments of this amazing year.
As always, I would like to thank all those who were a part of making my year so great. First, I must thank my wife and kids, who patiently endure all the overtime and verbal obsessing about my work. Without Amanda's encouragement and insight, I would have given up a long time ago. Now, I must of course thank my clients, who trusted me to visualize ideas on their behalves and to add value to their companies. Next, a special thanks also to my agents for all the hustle and taking care of the business side — so I can focus more on the creative work. And speaking of trust, while technically they represent me, they also entrust me to represent them with my work. My work is their product, and I do not take my part of that responsibility lightly. Finally, a big thanks to all my friends, new and old, inspiring me and cheering me on. A particular thanks is due to Vincent Perez, my longtime collaborator and friend, the man behind almost all my letterpress projects. And thank you — whoever you area — for reading along and caring.
Now, without further ado, I give you the report! (I will add and update links as I am able).
Total Unique Jobs
79 projects and over 100 illustrations.
Most Personally Significant Project
Cover for The Walrus Magazine. This was my first mainstream magazine cover, and it came to me within weeks of wondering if and when such an opportunity would come. I was getting used to doing interior illustrations and started to wonder why I hadn't done a major cover yet. Not that I felt I was too good for interiors, but self-doubter that I am, I wondered if I just wasn't a cover kind of guy. Needless to say, I was elated to learn I was being too hard on myself. In fact, by the end of the year, I had 3 major covers, including The Walrus, Reader's Digest, and Quill & Quire.
Most Fun Project
Traveller's Playing Cards for Herb Lester. Because hey — I got to design a deck of cards. And this for one of my favourite little companies.
2016 was a year of firsts. First mainstream magazine cover. First illustration conference. First art fair. First beer label. First private commission. First major newspaper illustration. First line of custom stationery. First deck of cards!
20 Illustrations for Kit & Ace's online journal, The Ante. By sheer quantity of illustrations, Kit & Ace was my biggest client. What made it so easy to push out an illustration every other week? A client who gave me tons of creative freedom and trust, and one who has a great sense of humour.
Most Important Career Moment
Speaking at ICON 9. Going to this conference on its own would have qualified for this category, but it was an amazing opportunity to be able to speak on the mainstage, for Kaleidoscope, in front of hundreds of my peers and heroes in illustration. I did a 6 minute spiel about why I am an Inky Illustrator (why I choose to use physical media in my art). The audience response was amazing, and I was blown away by the kind feedback from attendees thereafter. What nobody knew was that it was my birthday that day — best gift ever!
Being interviewed and featured on Heythere.ca, a well designed and edited blog dedicated to the Canadian creative industry.
My main goal for 2016 was to pour myself more into each job, to up the ante when it comes to craftsmanship, intensity, and overall wow factor. At the end of the previous year, I felt like I was settling into a groove and leaning on a few go-to tricks a little too much. In 2016, I really pushed myself to try new processes, unfamiliar techniques, and to lean more on my intuition. This definitely shows in all the work I did this year, but particularly in such jobs as my mural for Ryerson University, Monocle Magazine, and Manhattan College.
Another major goal was to produce a line of greeting cards. With the help of Vincent Perez, we pushed out 8 flagship letterpress cards under our very own brand, Summer Studio Stationers.
Increased revenue by 25%. While my overhead increased this year, my overall earnings increased as well, owing largely to an increase in advertising work and a strong US client base.
Another huge win was discovering A&Co, an entire community of talented creatives and entrepreneurs in my own neck of the woods. It was so much easier for my career to have a social life when I lived in Vancouver. In May, in the midst of burnout and feeling very isolated, finding out about A&Co (Abbotsford and Company) put some much needed wind in my sails. Since then, A&Co has even created new friendships and business opportunities.
Un-met goals for personal projects leaves a small hole in my 2016 heart. Having too many goals is probably a pretty good problem to have, but I definitely had a lot and failed to meet a fair share of them. One major letdown was not getting very far on a picture book pitch I have been dwelling on since 2014. Similarly, I had hoped to do multiple new Skillshare classes but ran into writer's block late in the year that I have yet to get over.
Where to Improve in 2017
As more than enough jobs came through my doors, financial and time management fell by the wayside. I was sloppier than usual in keeping track of finances (I am still trying to catch up as a result), and I definitely picked up some bad habits in terms of using my day hours. In 2017, I will need to be more diligent in bookkeeping, and I must work to prioritize activities and stay on task.
Goals for 2017
My main goal this year is to finally get my book pitch together and in the hands of publishers. It will be a matter of setting aside time each week to work on it. My two biggest challenges in this regard will be to nail the story concept and to establish the book's illustration approach and style.
Another goal is to produce a second issue of The Canadianist. Our first issue was an amazing success, and it's worth noting that it got picked up by Chapters/Indigo (The Barnes and Noble of Canada). We hope to release the finished product in time for Canada's 150th birthday celebration on July 1st.
I'd also really like to complete and publish my colour class for Skillshare. I know some of my students are waiting for me to move on this — It's going to happen!
Finally, I would like to do more speaking engagements. I had three in 2016, the most notable of course being the one at ICON, and I really enjoyed them all. I had a few casual discussions of more speaking engagements which I hope materialize! Stay tuned.
If I simply match the success of last year in 2017, I will consider it a feat. While it is tempting to put a lot of effort into matching and surpassing my numbers and earnings, I must remind myself that this is not why I got in the business of creating art for a living. I make art for a living because it's what I love, and I always want it to be that way. My passion is a tool that serves me and should not be the other way around. My challenge in 2017 will be to continue to find that original sense of joy in creating — loving the process and discovering new ways of doing and seeing things. I wish you all the best in your own reflecting and goal setting. I'd love to hear about what you learned from the past year and what you hope to accomplish. Thanks again for coming along for the ride!