Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Great Work/Home Balance Question...Thingy...

Keith and I sat on the couch this past Saturday, both of us with a cup of coffee held firmly in our hands.  He casually looked over and asked, "Are you working today?"

"No," I said. "I don't think I am."

Truth is, I have been considering what a healthier work/home balance is for me. One would assume that being a self-employed illustrator working from home would be for the most part never  "work", but that is not true or possible. I love my art, and it is my passion. However, to maintain that passion and love, I do need to step away once in a while. When I was a freelancer earlier in my life, weekdays and weekends blurred together, and there was never any sense of being "off". Those who are self-employed know that you are never truly "turned off". There is always a client buzzing around in the back of your brain, or great ideas pop up when you're just trying to chill in front of the T.V. after dinner (in my case, usually watching House Hunters or some other "House Show" as Keith calls them). It can be exhausting when this so-called blurring happens. Physically, emotionally, and creatively exhausting.

What I can do is give myself permission to quiet those thoughts during the weekend. This isn't just about taking a break. There is laundry, dog walking, those positive things in your life called "friends", grocery shopping, house cleaning, and other responsibilities. This weekend I did dip a little into work mode- I played around with a new website, answered some emails, and caught up on some art/design blogs I have been ignoring. I also reconnected with some old friends, went on a long past-due date with Keith, and tried out a new recipe for dinner. As much as this new chapter in my life is about pursuing my art and new opportunities, it's also about appreciating the kind of life I'm trying to allow myself. That life is full of family, friends, discovery... but more importantly the chance to actually enjoy these things. So even though I did not go into my studio this weekend, I did rediscover things that I love, and that in return makes me excited to pop out of bed tomorrow and work on my latest creation.

Friday, January 24, 2014

My Best Advice For Illustration Students.

Take classes that work out your brain.

I am a believer that a good student has a balance of both technical and conceptual skills. That being said, you can never have enough classes that explore editorial and conceptual concepts. It doesn't matter if you want to do comic books, animation, or art for galleries- train yourself to have good ideas and be a problem-solver. Not only will you be a better artist, but you'll be smarter when it comes to other areas of your business- marketing, unique self-promotions, and being able to find opportunities where others don't. At my last corporate job, I realized my editorial illustration background gave me a knack for writing copy and thinking of marketing ideas, which propelled me into another area of the company and was a lot of fun. Not only did I learn a lot from those experiences, but it made me valuable as an employee with multiple skills.

Learn from good teachers, no matter what they teach.

Probably some of the most sound advice I got in college was to not focus on class titles when picking my courses, but rather who was teaching them. There were a bunch of amazing teachers that students flocked to, and you wanted to sponge up their knowledge as much as possible. Maybe they were teaching watercolor techniques, or maybe it was a class focusing on poster design. In the end, find out who the great teachers are in your department and try to have at least one class with each of them.

College is the time to experiment. Step out of your comfort zone.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to start a curriculum with a big fat label on yourself: Children's Book Illustrator. Fine Artist. Graphic Designer. Putting yourself in a box will make you miss out on classes that could help you in some way, even if it's not obvious (for instance, you could take a landscape painting class that revolutionizes the way you think about color, which influences your graphic design work). You will have a main focus in your studies, no doubt, but don't put the blinders on and ignore classes that could enrich your skills. Film majors should take print making classes. Illustrators should learn about industrial design. This in a way goes back to the idea of Style Soup, which I have discussed earlier. Remember, The only label you should be wearing during your education is Student.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014: A Wedding, Surtex, And Living In My Pajama Pants almost 24/7 (a.k.a "The Good Life")

Ok, 2014. Bring it!

I mentioned before that my blog was going to BLOW UP. This is because I have recently returned to my freelance illustration and teaching 24/7. Back in October I had started the transition, going to work only three days a week (a real blessing because it allowed me to have a steady income while working two days...frantically...on Part B of Lilla's Make Art That Sells class).

I learned a lot at C.R Gibson, which was my goal. Before the job came along,  I got accepted into an illustration Graduate program a month earlier, but declined it. The reason was that  I really wanted to learn more about licensing, and that's something that would NOT be covered in the program. It was a great program, of course, but I needed a violent shove in another direction.

So off to C.R. Gibson I went! Not only did I sharpen my digital skills and learned how that all worked (using design programs for a job is like speaking a native language in another country- you pick it up really fast!), I also had a great boss who didn't mind answering questions I had pertaining to the business of licensing. What royalty does that artist get? How about that one? What flat fee do we offer for Christmas cards? Why did you pick this art and not that art?

I can't tell you how INVALUABLE this was to my education and role as an artist/illustrator. Some key points:

* Realize that lots of art out there is bought outright by companies. This means if you want to license your work, it has to be special. What do you offer that no one else can? Your sense of humor? your hand-lettering? A unique style or medium?

* On top of that, it's sad how much decent illustration is popping up on stock photo/art sites like It weakens the market for everyone because art can be bought for insanely cheap (and unfair) prices. Unfortunately, this area of competition is not going away soon.  When companies can buy a chevron for $25 and use it forever, you have to up your game.

* I can't say this enough- you really don't have to worry about your art being sent in as a repeat. Seriously. I think maybe I got art in a repeat maybe 10% of the time working at CRG.  I encourage people to learn about repeats (they're fun and addictive), but don't delay sending art submissions because you don't have that skill. It's not a deal breaker.

* Sometimes the best art is not picked for a project. Logistics get in the way (time, the type of item), and at CRG there were times we had to go with art that offered more patterns in the collection or was easier to manipulate (layered in photoshop or vector).

* That being said, we worked with artists who had absolutely no digital experience beyond email, blogging, and Skype. There was one group of artists we were working with, and we had them actually mail original art to us and we photographed it in house. Yes. You know, like in the "old days". Why? Because we loved their work. I'm not trying to persuade anyone to not learn some digital savvy. Instead, I want to help remove the paralyzing fear some artists have over learning software. Learn digital skills, but know that you can still put your work out there and score some great opportunities in the meantime! Companies WILL help you with those sort of things if they love your art. Some products don't even need any elaborate manipulation (a notecard is a rectangle, folks. Give us bleed and we're set).

* Some of the artists CRG collaborated with were the most gracious, pleasant creatures on earth. Others, not so much. It's important to play well with others! You and a client are teammates, trying to bring something to life TOGETHER. This is not the time to be a drama queen and demand a bowl of m&m's with all the green ones picked out. And a creative team is full of designers, not minions.

So what does 2014 have in store for me?

* So happy to say that I will have a booth at Surtex this year! Booth #252. Look out for lots of updates on that subject.

* I am now part of Happy Happy Art Collective, a group of five talented artists I met in Lilla's MATS course.

* It's good to be working with Cricket Magazine again- I'm finishing up an illustration for their May issue.

* Working on illustrating CD packaging for a wonderful client.

* You can find me teaching Illustration at Watkins College of Art and Design CE program.

*Kekacase will be licensing my illustrations on tech cases for smart phones, Kindles, and iPads. The first run will mainly be phone cases, which should debut soon.

* My etsy store will be reopening soon. It will be full of mainly small original paintings.

I'm getting married!!! Nashville, on top of my new found artistic knowledge, also delivered me the great man I'm spending the rest of my life with. So lucky to have him.

Hope 2014 is starting off right for you!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Word About Style Part 2: What Is Leading Your Style and How To Use Trends

Part 1 of A Word About Style focused on how to analyze your interests to pin point what your personal style wants to naturally be. In Part 2, I want to focus on some common pitfalls that artists and illustrators face a lot, pitfalls that mislead your personal style and will only serve to trip you up.

Let's jump in. Here are two questions that can seriously complicate your mission to find your personal style.

1) What style is the most popular right now?

2) What style will make me the most money?

Don't get me wrong, these are completely valid questions to be asking yourself, but if they are the only questions or the main questions leading your art-making process, that's a big misstep. Let me elaborate.

Working in a style mainly because it is popular and "out there".

It seems logical, right? if a style seems to be EVERYWHERE right now, than obviously there is a demand for that style and you will have success if you follow suit. 

 First of all, just because numerous people have a certain style in their portfolio, it doesn't guarantee that they are all being hired for that kind of work. They could have had the same thought as you, when really only a fraction of those artists out there working with that style are the only ones getting hired. You may be entering an over-saturated market.

Another issue is that there are numerous trending styles happening at one time, and sometimes they heavily contradict each other. You could drive yourself crazy reinventing yourself constantly trying to "strike gold" when you should be focusing on what you can bring to the table, not trying to chase the Style of The Month.

Don't forget that when everyone is running left, it pays to run right. Being able to do something that not everyone is offering can work to your advantage. 

Picking a style because you think it will get you money.

This overlaps the first point to a certain degree, because if you want to produce work that will make you money, you probably will try to pick a style that is popular. The reason I want to specifically approach this viewpoint about financial success is that letting dollar signs lead your stylistic choices means you will be ignoring more important issues, like do you even enjoy making your artwork?

Let me state that being aware of the marketability of your work is obviously an important factor in your business as an artist. You should be conscious about what markets best suit your portfolio and how you can make the most profit. However, I truly believe that the steps to artistic success should follow in this order:

1) Make art that you enjoy creating (which will always be your BEST work).

2) Figure out what markets your portfolio is best suited for and start marketing yourself to them.

Most of the time, people skip the first step and just try to make work that they think clients want, instead of trying to introduce their own unique product. It's easy to get so focused on just getting hired that a person can find themselves doing work that ultimately they find very unsatisfying (and you've made sacrifices to take on this career path, so why would you settle for doing work you don't even like?).

So, we know that producing work that you enjoy creating is going to make you happier. That' kind of a "duh" point, but there's more to your success as an artist/illustrator if you follow this logic:

1) If you truly enjoy your work, you will invest more time in it and make a superior product every time; thus leading to more clients, more returning clients, and more recommendations.

2) You will be more motivated to get your work out there and seek opportunities, whether it's getting a gallery show or contacting a client you've always wanted to work with.

3) You will be excited to tell people about what you're working on, which will spread the word and improve your networking (My first year in Nashville, I pretty much got all my freelance jobs from simply meeting new people at social events and telling them about my profession).

It's absolutely natural to go through these sort of issues. When I graduated, I started in editorial illustration, mainly magazines. I can't tell you how many promotional images I made that were awkwardly forced into what I thought art directors wanted. Oh! I need a random business guy in a suit. Oh! I need a woman going shopping. I was trying to make things that I thought looked like editorial images because I was a new graduate (excited and anxious in the "real world") and too focused on someone-just-hire-me-already-dammit, when I really should have been concentrating on the fact that my art offered a unique flavor to art directors (and my personal work always turned out much better than these awkward watered-down promotional pieces I was forcing). I started to focus more on my art rather than a paycheck, and eventually my more personal work took off in both galleries and with clients, which made me realize that people were responding positively to the work I loved making naturally.  I just had to find the "home" for my art and not try to force it anywhere. Easier said than done! The point is it can be done.


I feel like now is a good time to talk about trends and how one should work with them. Earlier I was just talking about being mislead by popular styles, and naturally trends can be seen as a distraction or pitfall, too.  There are many opinions out there, many that revolve around the thought that trends could be viewed as an invitation to copy other artists or "selling out". Although many artists and illustrators choose to ignore trends, there are some markets (especially surface design and illustration for products), where it's beneficial to be aware of trends and use them to your advantage.

Using a trend in your art is like an Iron Chef using a Secret Ingredient.

I like comparing art-making to cooking (you probably noticed this in Part 1 when I talked about "Style Soup"). If you've ever seen or even heard about the cooking show Iron Chef, it involves two professional chefs that are battling it out and making several dishes to be judged. But wait! There is always the twist of the secret ingredient that both chefs must use. Now, the chefs are already established professionals and have their identifies. Maybe one is known for Asian Fusion food and the other chef has mastered seafood. Well, when they reveal the secret ingredient (Watermelon! Squid!), it's not like the two chefs just throw away all their strengths and completely change their views as chefs- they still cook the same way they do, but now they just incorporate the secret ingredient. Seafood guy makes a watermelon and salmon salad, and Asian Fusion guy creates a watermelon-based ponzu sauce.  In the end they just adapt the ingredient into what they already do well.

That's how you should use trends- as a secret ingredient. So whether it's Pantone's Color of The Year or woodland animals, this isn't about you copying someone else's version of a trend or letting that trend take over your art. It's about your unique vision and take on it. Moustaches are still popular, but don't think you have to regurgitate what you've seen out there. Do it in a way no one has seen before. If you like illustrating animals and that's your thing, maybe you do a series of animals in vintage suits with moustaches and monocles (note: I would pick an alligator or a walrus, I think. Those have a lot of class, right?) 

And it's ok not to use every trend. There are so many trends out there that you will only want to pick the few that interest you.

So there you have it. Thanks for reading! My blog is about to BLOW UP with activity soon. I'll explain in the next post...

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Word About Style: Making Your "Style Soup"

Many students and colleagues that I know mention the struggle of finding their "style" and the uncomfortable growing pains that come with it: fear, doubt, and confusion. They are worried about venturing too far from their comfort zone or "being all over the place" when they experiment with new artistic influences and interests.

One of the best ways I like to explain how visual styles come together is by using the metaphor of "Style Soup". When making soup, you take several ingredients and throw them together in a pot. The important thing is to give it a lot of time to cook. If you let it sit there for 5 minutes and then taste your soup, it probably won't taste very good, right? Let it cook all day and you'll have something delicious! Same thing with your own style- it takes a while for different interests and influences to meld together in your own way. This is how you can be interested in seemingly very different things (say, Renaissance painting and contemporary animation) and have it work for you. The challenge is to be patient.

I'll take this moment to point out that this "style soup" will give you a much richer point of view. Too many times people see something they like and say "I like that. I want to make art like that", and stop there. Instead, you should really be thinking "I like that. What in particular do I like about it? Compared to other things I like, are there similarities that point to my personal visual aesthetic?"

Let's take an example and see how different artistic fields and eras have influenced my work. I'll start by introducing some artists to you. You've probably heard of some while one or two might be new to you.

Yoshitaka Amano

I was introduced to Yoshitaka Amano at a very early age when I obsessively watched my brother play the Final Fantasy video games. Amano has done concept design for all of them as well as worked on several other Japanese titles, such as Speed Racer and Vampire Hunter D. In the meantime, he shows his paintings in galleries across the world. His work highlights qualities of Japanese woodblock prints and art nouveau, both sharing visual elements such as an abstracted sense of space and graphic, bold use of shapes and pattern.

Alberto Giacometti

Swiss artist Giacometti is best known for his elongated sculptures of the human figure, but his paintings are equally as explorative and full of texture. By the time he passed away in 1966, he had reached international fame. He preferred to use family members as his models, and I've always loved how direct yet intimate his portraits appear.

Mary Blair

With mid 20th century art and culture blowing up recently, Mary Blair has become even more popular. As a crucial concept artist for Disney on classic movies like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, she also has gained recognition for her role during a time when women were not seen in such crucial positions. Like many artists of the period, Blair pulled from influences such as folk art, which influenced her use of bright (sometimes unorthodox) color choices, use of iconography, and graphic compositions. In addition to working for the Big D, Mary Blair led a successful life as an illustrator producing children's books and numerous advertisements featuring her whimsical style. 

Egon Schiele

It's amazing to see how trendy and fashionable Schiele's paintings of women seem today, even though they are about a hundred years old. An Austrian painter and student of Gustav Klimt, his more provocative work actually landed him a brief stint in jail after being deemed pornographic by local officials. His work finally gained popularity before his untimely death at the age of 28. Focused on the human figure, his paintings are full of energetic linework and paint strokes.

Yoshitomo Nara

Chances are you have come across Nara's delicate and somewhat mysterious paintings of feisty girls and animals in the forms of books or postcard sets somewhere. Born in Japan, Nara sites pop culture as a heavy influence in his large paintings and sculptures. Currently his work is shown in galleries around the world and is also licensed on everyday products you can find in specialty stores.

Whereas some of these you can probably see connections right off the bat, other images probably seem very different at first glance. But, are they??? When you really break down the elements of each artists, many of them overlap in their stylistic choices.

Abstracted interpretation of space

All of these artists design their compositions by activating the space more with color, negative space, and pattern rather than realistic or naturalistic environments. Hand-lettering pops up as a design element, and things are heavily stylized or become icons rather than needing to be realistic interpretations, like Blair's flowers or Nara's girls.

Characters as focal points

Probably one of the more obvious connections between these artists is there focus on unique characters and the impact they have on the viewer.

Unique color story

Since space and figures are being abstracted by these artists, naturally color is also being abstracted, too. It's in these visual worlds that colors are chosen more for their design sense rather than what's actually there in reality (resulting in blue skin or a pink sky, for instance). Whether it's bold and high-constrast...or delicate and very limited, color is used in unexpected ways.

Texture and Pattern

Finally, we see how these artists create interest through texture and pattern. Blair and Amano's pieces are full of pattern, which in itself creates texture depending on the size and nature of the pattern(s) used. Schiele, Nara, and Giacometti's work all feature wonderfully raw texture created by brushes and various mediums. Many times these two elements can be one in the same, with Schiele highlighting the bold print of a woman's dress or Giacometti's strokes turning into a pattern of vertical and horizontal lines as he sketches out the details of a room that his model is sitting in.

In conclusion, when you are able to dissect the pieces you are attracted to, you start to see little connections that reveal more about your personal style. From these artists that I have grown up with, I know that I like character-based images with stylized environments directed more by color and pattern rather than a literal/realistic environments. 

You can start to see how these things influence my work when you take a second look.

Let me point out that it took me a while to see these connections. However, over time I eventually got there (remember earlier when I said time was an important factor in this process?) With each piece of art completed, you get one step closer.  

Let's see some old stuff from my college days and what I was playing around with.

A little different, huh? You can see I love characters and am playing around with how to handle the rest of the composition. There are also different takes on stylizing my characters- some more simple and cartoony, others more rendered.

I will end this post by saying that I believe your style is like your sense of taste: it matures, grows, and is constantly evolving. Remember that this process is about discovery. It's an adventure. Try new things, take a class once in a while, or just play around in your sketchbook. 

And have fun! Thanks for reading. I will be following up this post with another entry about style. More importantly, about what I feel like should not be leading your personal style.