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 (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.
Would you recommend ACAD?
I enjoyed my time there and felt prepared for life as a commercial artist upon graduation. But the program has changed since I was there, so I can’t really speak to it now. All art schools are different and I would recommend you thoroughly research the institution’s strengths and graduates. (Not that I did. I was lucky.)
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?
An online portfolio is essential. So essential I feel a little strange pointing it out. But anyway. I also send out promo postcards once in a while, send targeted mini-portfolios to clients I want to work with, and enter a few annuals and competitions. I have never cold-called or sent out email promos. Both of those things seems annoying.
I’m increasingly of the mind that “promotion” today is much more ephemeral, with the proliferation of blogs, communities, and social-networking.
What was one of your favorite assignments?
The best illustrations are always the result of collaborations with art directors who aren’t afraid to take risks or stray from the really literal solutions. I find that I am sometimes asked to execute already-conceived ideas, which can sometimes make you feel like “hired hands”. The art director is entitled to hire you to simply “do this idea in your style”, but the joy of illustration is always in the collaboration and self-expression. Usually, the final illustration itself evidences this joy and life (or lack thereof). That’s been the case in my experience, at least.
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 comic works. Book contracts are much more complicated, so I think a literary agent is very helpful.
Describe your work setting.
I have a studio-room in our apartment in Brooklyn. It’s underwhelming, just a desk with an iMac, Cintiq, laser printer and scanner on it, another desk with paper on it, and a third desk with a light-table where I draw. I listen to a LOT of public radio and podcasts. My little grey cat, Gretel, keeps me company. People sometimes ask how I can stand working in my house, but since I’ve never had an outside studio, I don’t know any better.
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. A day in the museum or a walk around New York City can do wonders for one’s motivation.
What led you to your decision to work in illustration?
The Visual Communication programme at the Alberta College of Art and Design (I graduated 2003) was a very old-fashioned course with the curriculum split between illustration and design 50/50. I had completed my Foundation year at Queens University Fine Arts and had decided that I found that while I enjoyed fine art immensely as a viewer, something never felt right when I tried to make it myself. I went to ACAD with the intention of being a designer, but was drawn to the illustration side immediately. It was very serendipitous, as I didn’t even know Illustration was on the menu. When I first entered ACAD, I honestly don’t think I knew that illustration was even a thing. Books and comics were always an interest to me, but it had never occurred to me that one could actually receive training to do those things.
What historical artists have been influential to you? What contemporary artists?
This changes all the time. But I have always been interested in Art History. When I was in highschool 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 interesting.
I read a lot of Archie comics when I was a child. I remember thinking how some of the stories were drawn better than others (particularly those of Dan DeCarlo). I think that in a way I learned to draw from studying those comics and copying photographs of horses.
So in short, I’m going to avoid naming names here, but I will say that I draw a lot of inspiration from pop culture, classic illustration and design, contemporary art, art history, decorative arts, novels, folk art, and crafts. That’s a lot of stuff.
Throughout your career as an illustrator, has your method, style, or way of working gone through any major changes?
I would say that it has evolved in relatively free-form manner. My abilities have increased considerably in the 5 years I have been illustrating simply because I do so much of it (thankfully). I don’t hate all my old work though. Sometimes I look at it and think I should revisit that particular conceptual or psychological tack.
I think about the pictures I would like to make, the symbols I would like to use, the things that inspire me that day or week or month. Then I think about the way I would like to make the picture, the new things I’ve been trying in my sketchbook or with new materials. Then I mix the two things (ideas and materials) and something comes out.
How have changes in your life affected your work over the course of your career?
I moved to NY in 2005. I’m not sure of any concrete changes (I had already been freelancing full-time from my home in Canada), but I have to think that being in NY, the epicenter of the publishing industry, has had a positive effect in ephemeral ways.
I also 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.
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.
In your opinion, what is the biggest drawback to a career in illustration–and how do you deal with it?
There are some annoying parts about running your own business. 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. If your work is good enough, I like to think it’ll float to the top.
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 illustration. 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.
If you have any recommendations for things I should read/look at or advice to an aspiring illustrator, I would love to hear it.
Illustration Friday has artist interviews from myself and other professionals. They’re very nuts-and-bolts industry questions, so that might be helpful.
These days, with so many illustration resources online, there’s no lack of information for those who seek to find it.
How difficult it is for an artist with a fairly recognizable “style” to approach art directors with something new/different?
It can be hard to introduce something new. But with some regularity, art directors will cite work from the blog (not the “professional portfolio”) as the direction they would like for the job. That is always very encouraging. Sketchbook work always filters into my paid work, even if in subtler, less raw ways. That’s natural. Perhaps a nice segue is to add a 2nd section to your site if you feel the work is really so different. “Paintings” and “Line Drawings”. Or “Digital” and “Watercolour”.
Have you always approached your sketchbook so experimentally or is it something you have had to learn to do?
I keep reading opinions from illustrators that art directors today have become very cautious in what they publish and that illustrators are being censored more and more. Have you felt the impact of this “trend”?
I have spoken to veteran illustrators who say that. I think I haven’t been in the industry long enough to truly say yes or no. The word “censor” is too-strong language I think. We, as illustrators, have ALWAYS served a client. And the client needs are really important. That said, it’s a shame publications are sometimes unwilling to be sexy or funny or risqué or thought-provoking. I think they end up with middling work.
How have you managed to get a hang of the business side of illustration? Did you take some kind of business course or did you just jump in after you built up your portfolio/clientele?
We did not have a business course at ACAD. 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.
Also, here are some interviews, recent and otherwise, that may be of interest.