Hi, students! Thank-you very much for your interest in my work. Unfortunately I can’t review individual portfolios or answer every questionnaire thoroughly and thoughtfully. And so I’ve compiled some commonly-asked questions here.
How did you get started in the illustration field?
Upon graduation from the Alberta College of Art and Design (2003), I was lucky to be introduced by a teacher to a particular designer who gave me some great local jobs and enabled me to build up my professional portfolio. He was very supportive, and a lot of the work I did with him formed the basis of my portfolio. I worked at a video game company in Edmonton, Alberta, doing texturing and character work, while freelancing during (all of) my free time. Basically, I worked my day job until I had built up enough clients to allow me to freelance fulltime, which I started doing in early 2005 when I moved to New York.
How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
I think that setting out to “find a style” is sort of psychologically limiting. When I was a student, we were very much encouraged to develop our basics, experiment with media and not lock ourselves into finding a “marketable style”. It took me a very long time of trying on different hats before I hit upon something I felt inspired by. I didn’t dare think I should try to get jobs when I was in school, and I’m thankful I was just allowed to incubate.
All of that said, the term “style” has a certain usefulness in the field of Illustration. When you first start out, I would recommend your style (the work you present to the world) be a little more consistent across the board, so people know exactly what they’re going to get if they hire you. But you’re not a machine. It’s my opinion that “style” should evolve over time as you grow and change as a person. It’s inevitable.
What is your creation process?
How do you market/promote your work?
In the past I have sent out postcard promos and targeted mini-portfolios. I have never done an email promo, but that seems increasingly accepted.
Illustration and comics communities are largely online, but I think you have to manage your relationship to those spaces. You can participate and exist online in many different ways. Try to find a way that feels non-gross to you.
Do you recommend moving to NYC?
Sure, why not. If you want to do it and can make that happen financially, I think you should. Living there will expose you to a lot of creative energy and culture at a high level. The community there is very competitive and will be very stimulating for some people. It’s a difficult place to live, both financially and (in my opinion) mentally. I also believe one can make a go of it in other cities/towns/countries. I don’t know what environment/situation is right for you–that’s for you to figure out.
Do you recommend art school/masters programs?
Art programs can be hugely beneficial for some people and a colossal waste of resources for others. Again, this is up for you to decide. In an ideal world, art school would be an enriching experience that allows people to grow as artists and people. I’m all for goofing off, making new friends, moving away from your hometown, being challenged personally and artistically. The equation changes somewhat when you factor in the student debt that accompanies these degrees, particularly in the US. Being an artist is a tough go, even if you are successful.
But you knew all that. I guess my more direct answer is: go to art school if you truly believe you will learn and grow there and are willing to take on the debt. Don’t go to art school if your heart isn’t in it or believe the debt will be crippling. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (ie. eventually end up in an arts career). I have a lot of artist friends who didn’t go to art school.
I went to (a cheap) art school and learned a lot.
Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
I don’t have an illustration rep. I don’t mind doing the promotion and I like not having to giving a % of my earnings to anyone. I think certain people can very much benefit from having a rep, though. It really depends on your personality and goals. I think reps can reach certain segments of the industry that would be hard to crack otherwise. Publishing or advertising, for example.
I have a literary agent who handles my book and comics projects. Book contracts are much more complicated, so I think a literary agent is very helpful.
What is your process?
This is too hard to answer, because these days I do many different things. I will tell you that the tools I use most often for “traditional” illustrations are a Cintiq, a scanner, bond paper, pencils, a light-table, and brushpens.
I don’t mean to be intentionally vague on this point, but it’s always changing.
How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?
It can be tempting to work all the time, and feel guilty if you’re not. It is your own small business, after all. I try to keep in mind that life provides the inspiration for creativity. You have to take care of your mental health needs in order to be a functional artist, not to mention a function partner, friend, sister, son, etc.
How do you manage to have so many styles? Is that a hindrance?
I have a short attention span. I like doing many things. It’s important to me, for my own happiness, to do all these different things, and luckily I’ve managed to convince others to pay me to do so. Certain clients will only want to hire you for certain things, and that’s fine. Other clients I have had for my entire career and are interested in supporting my zigs and zags.
What are your influences?
I think I learned to draw from studying Archie comics and copying photographs of horses. I also liked reading the newspaper comics and the few anthologies my parents had: Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, etc.
As a teen, I was quite interested in Art History and volunteered at a museum at my hometown. Predictably, I was fascinated by the Dadaists and the Surrealists. The idea that symbols, meanings, and words could be manipulated (often to delightful effect) was very intriguing to me.
My influences now are a hodgepodge. Whatever kick I’m on at the time. That doesn’t exclusively include comics or even visual art.
How have changes in your life affected your work over the course of your career?
Of course. How can it not?
Living in New York for 10 years exposed me to illustration at a very high level, not to mention the incredible energy from peers and the city itself.
I started teaching in 2007, first at Parsons and now at SVA. Working with students is incredible, inspiring, enlightening and often very frustrating. But I love it and being around younger people with different backgrounds has definitely affected my work.
Regular old aging has, I like to think, given me new things to make comics about.
In your opinion, what is the biggest drawback to a career in illustration?
There are some annoying parts about running your own business and the instability of being a freelancer. It’s great to not have a boss, but it means you are solely responsible for your own success. Some things about running a business are boring, annoying, unglamourous, unfun. Hopefully students will feel somewhat prepared for that side of the job (I say “somewhat” because you will never feel WHOLLY prepared.) You have to learn how do those things. That’s it.
What do you think of the current illustration market / industry?
It’s treated me well thus far (knock on wood). Ask 5 people on this point and you will get 5 opinions. But if you feel cynical about it, perhaps think about how becoming an illustrator these days is easier than ever. It’s a snap to put your work out in the world and to connect with like-minded people. To educate yourself online.
What does it take for a young illustrator to be successful today?
There are 2 main things, I think.
The first is my blunt opinion: you have to be good. Don’t waste your time if you don’t have the talent and/or motivation. No amount of promos, websites, mailers, new items in your portfolio will do you any good if the work is not up to snuff.
That said. You don’t need to be the Second Coming of Art You just have to be able to make something someone can use. Many people are tripped up by never putting their work out into the world because they are crippled by fear. Which doesn’t make sense because if you thought your chances of success were low before, they are most definitely ZERO now. But I suppose that’s the point. You can’t really “fail” if you never try… that’s a very common attitude.
How do I improve my [drawing/anatomy/computer skills/colour/etc]?
Again, not trying to be cagey here, but I have no advice for you besides seek out educational opportunities, surround yourself with peers with whom you can confer, and practice. Professionals get a lot of questions about tools and techniques from students and frankly I find it baffling. There are no magic tricks or shortcuts. Your suspicions are probably right: your favourite artist got to where s/he is today because of talent, passion, and perseverance. If you hope to create good work yourself, you’ll have to travel a similar road.
Have you always approached your sketchbook so experimentally or is it something you have had to learn to do?
How have you managed to get a hang of the business side of illustration?
We did not have a business course at my school. We just heard the personal stories of our instructors. And yet I didn’t feel unprepared when I finally was freelancing myself. It’s not rocket science and you will quickly set up and streamline a system that works for you. Confer with friends, trade tips, consult, ask questions. I still ask colleagues for business advice all the time.
Any tips for compiling a successful illustration portfolio?
I think it’s wonderful if you can show a range. As long as it feels cohesive. You only need about 12 pieces to get started. I would actually advise against having too many pieces. When you are starting to put together a portfolio, think about what kind of work you would like to be doing and let that guide your decisions as to what to include/exclude. The design of the website should be plain and straightforward and easy to navigate.
Any advice to a excited/somewhat terrified 21 year old artist who is working towards having an illustration career some time in the not-so-distant future?
Hm. I teach a lot of very freaked out 21-year-olds. I think a lot of people psych themselves out. “What do people want?” “Will I get a job/jobs when I graduate?” “What is illustration anyway?” Those questions are hard to avoid and I certainly struggled with them myself. However, my piece of advice is to try not to think so “large”. Think small. Think about the marks you want to make on the paper in front of you… the ones that bring you pleasure and satisfaction. You can’t control what other people think or if they’ll give you a job. You can only control your own actions and the work you produce. You have to be a little delusional to pursue a life in the arts, so throw caution to the wind and make pictures that excite you and hopefully the world will agree.