NEWS: I just completed my second collaboration with Reunion Goods & Services on some wall art a the new Upper East Side location of Quality Eats. Their photographer, Liz Clayman, was kind enough to let me post some of her photos of the interiors. You can see more of the art I did for this location as well as the original East Village one here.
Just a quick follow up to my last post. I've been thinking more about this (as I do when I share my thoughts with the Internet) and it turns out there is a justification for doing work for a client who wishes to restrict your ability to show it after its creation. That justification is less about business smarts and more personal. It is an attitude shift, a different way of seeing the work. Although I feel very strongly about retaining the right to show the work I make for clients, there is some room for seeing things a bit differently.
It should go without saying that, if I need the cash and have the time, I would be stupid not to momentarily suspend my hard stance on issues that are not ethically vital. But on a more honest level, there is a lot of work I never show — sketches in my journal, process work for clients I deem unfit for public consumption, and that kind of thing. In essence, I am always making work I can't (or at least won't) show. So if I viewed the odd client job as a paid sketchbook exercise, perhaps I can live with it the possibility of it never being seen. There may be some jobs that we must take on, or want to take on, for practical reasons, even if they fall under unfavourable terms and conditions. Co-opting client work for my own purposes, viewing it as being paid to do something I would be doing anyway (sketching, thinking), can be all it takes for me to reconsider my position.
Am I undoing my arguments from my last article? I don't think so. Rather, I need to post this to reflect another some of my other values: having a good attitude, being adaptable and flexible, and choosing my battles wisely.
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.
You know the feeling. You’ve just stayed up almost all night perfecting your illustration. After standing back to admire your accomplishment, you send it off to the client and go to bed for a few hours of sleep. When you wake up and check your email (after a well-deserved sleep-in), you find a long list of feedback from the client. As your heart sinks, your temperature rises. You fume inside, angry at an unappreciative client who just doesn’t get it. All the euphoria of the night’s work evaporates into nothing. You are discouraged, tired, and angry.
Like me, you might want to get right to business and hit that reply button. You want to explain and justify your decisions and convince your client that the work as you’ve sent it is the best possible solution to the problem. Or perhaps they’ve pointed out an error on your part, and you want to excuse yourself — perhaps it was sleep deprivation, or the client rushed you, or you have a lot of stressful things going on in your life right now. We blame the client for being ignorant. We blame our computer for crashing. We blame the accident of being born “right-brained”, a creative artist who can’t be expected to pay attention to details. This is our instinct — to react to the feedback in a huff instead of responding to it thoughtfully.
We immediately feel the need to be right, and anything that isn’t is not really our fault. And this, not the client feedback, is the first problem we need to face when undesired feedback comes our way. What if, in this instance, you are not right? What if you have more power to overcome whatever is in your way to meet the project goals and deadlines? Client feedback can be annoying. In fact, it almost always is. But the same can be said of anything that challenges us to think or feel differently from what comes naturally. While such a challenge is often uncomfortable, if it met with an open mindset, it can be our teacher and friend.
What to Do When You First Get Feedback
On receiving client feedback, our first task is to check in with on ourselves. Our first instinct is often to react immediately. In my experience, this urge is a palpable feeling, in my chest, somewhere between my mouth and my chest, a sort of negative pressure that pushes against the inside of my skin. Some might just describe it as a ball of anger. When feedback rolls in, pause and try to identify this feeling. I can tell you from my experience, that, as long as this ball of anger is present, I can only respond negatively. Thus, I do not permit myself to write emails until the negative feelings dissipate. Nothing good has ever come out of forgetting this.
1. Step Away
Take a walk, drink some water, or do whatever you do to calm down. While you’re waiting to not feel like you have to break something, put the email away. Defer dealing with it until you’re in a better mindset. If you are bubbling over, talk to a friend, call your mom, or if it's really serious, write about it in your journal.
2. Get it All Out (First Draft)
When you feel better, return to the email and read the feedback carefully. Hit reply and carefully, without pressing send, go through the client’s feedback, point by point, and write your responses. Be as thoughtful as you can be, but don’t hold back from defending or excusing yourself at this point. Simply write your rationale back to the client. But DO NOT SEND YET! This is your first draft, and you still have some editing to do.
3. Filter Out Negativity (Second Draft)
Now it’s time for your second draft. Go through your responses and look for any place you’ve excused, defended, or otherwise justified yourself or reasoned against the client’s thinking. Now ask yourself why you feel so strongly about it. Does your point really matter, or are you just feeling a loss of control? Is the client’s feedback really that unreasonable? Is it something you can at least try, or even try secretly just to prove yourself right? Consider your tone — do you sound difficult or impatient? Or even rude? If anything, simply ask yourself — can you solve the problem or not? The client is not at all interested in your feelings or your life, no matter how difficult it may be. (Seriously). They have a problem that needs solving, and they have offered to pay you money to do just that. No matter how annoying you think the client is, you have to see past their transgressions and look at their feedback as objectively as possible. What is the problem, and how are you going to solve it?
One angle I often take is to make sure the client and I are framing the right problem. So if I get feedback about colour, I might ask what it is about the colours I have chosen that aren’t working. I probe the client to look for a reason, to tell me why. This gets everyone thinking more logically about the problem and often opens up a real, constructive conversation. If the client can reasonably tell me why they need something changed, it makes me feel like I can reasonably accommodate their request.
Of course, some feedback may be unreasonable. In this case, identify that which you feel is out of line. But bluntly saying so will not convert your client to your way of thinking. Best if you ask the client why this feedback matters to them. You might learn something about the project that never came up in the brief. Everything a client says, reasonable or stupid, can give you valuable insights into what the client really needs and into possible solutions.
Perhaps the feedback is annoying simply because it takes the job out of scope. It adds more time to the project that you weren’t planning for. In this case, if the client is asking you to do more than what you agreed to, again, don’t get mad — solve the problem. In this case, you may be entitled to invoke the original brief or scope and ask for more time and/or budget. Don’t charge at the client, simply charge them more (with fair warning of course)!
4. Read it from a Recipient's Point of View before Sending
So by now you’ve 1) calmed down, 2) written unfiltered feedback, and 3) gone back and edited your feedback to be more solution-driven (rather than ego-driven). Your last step is to read through once more, just to make sure you’ve given everything your client is asking a fair shot, at least in your head. Read it as though someone else sent it to you. Is it demeaning? Belittling? Too long? Is the tone friendly? Is it respectful? Does it build rapport with you and the client?
In all this, it’s easy to think that I’m suggesting that you compromise at the expense of what’s important to you. But what I’m really saying is know what is important — what your non-negotiables are — but also be flexible and empathetic. Your paying client needs you to solve their problem. How will you help them all the while providing the service/product that you are best suited to provide? For instance, if a client seems to want me to do a style that isn’t mine, I kindly but plainly explain that I wouldn’t be very good at it, and I provide references of illustrators who would be way better at it than me. I explain what my strengths are, what value I can add, and then check and double check to make sure they understand that.
We are experts at bringing our unique approach and perspective to a creative problem. Clients are experts at knowing their business and what their goals are. Let them teach you what is important to them, and, having communicated what your value and perspective are, they will better value what is important to you. Some of my favourite projects are those where I received a lot of pushback from clients I respect, or learned to respect along the way. In almost every case, I became a better, stronger illustrator, and understood commercial art from the client's perspective in more profound ways. And ultimately, this gives me a competitive edge and makes me more profitable as a business.
How do you respond to annoying client feedback? Do you relate to this article? What would you do differently? I'd love to hear things from your point of view in the comments!
Remember January, when we all made those resolutions and goals for the coming year? It’s June, and that means we’re pretty much halfway through 2017. We're as far from the start as we are to the end. It can be a challenging time, with many projects and goals in progress and seemingly nothing to show for it. The excitement of the idea of the goals themselves has long evaporated, and their results — the juicy stuff you and others can appreciate — have not quite materialized. The middle is always a hard because it takes the most energy to push through without the encouraging sight of the finish line.
At this time, one of the best things we can do is check in with our goals to see how we're doing. We can assess whether we've steered off course, or whether our goals themselves need a bit of redirection. In this middle season, I decided it would be a good time to review my own goals. I'm definitely encouraged to say all of these goals have had some serious action, although they are certainly all works in progress. I am actively doing things toward each goal, but none have been truly achieved just yet. As one might imagine, six months into the year, my goals are definitely a work of progress.
Goal 1: Book Pitch
I declared to the universe that I wanted to illustrate a kid’s book. The universe heard and said, “let me help you with that”. For 3 or 4 years now, I have been hoping to turn a good friend’s brilliant poem into a children’s book. 2017 was going to be the year of action. I had a strong start but ran into a little problem. Almost as soon as I started getting serious with my book idea, a publisher came to me to work with them on a new book. This is really a dream come true for me. After all, a huge reason I wanted to develop my own book was to break into the publishing industry. So the choice to set my passion project on the back burner for now was not so hard. I get to illustrate a kid's book, get paid, and learn a ton about publishing. I’m learning a lot about the book illustration and planning process, and gaining more of a sense of my voice and style for the genre. By the end of July, I will have completed my first published book. I cannot wait to share more soon!
Goal 2: The Canadianist Issue 2
The Canadianist is a series of letterpress prints by top Canadian illustrators. Conceived by Everlovin’ Press and me, our first series was released in 2015 and was a huge success for us. The Canadianist Issue 2 is well under way: the work is on the press as I write — but not without a few snags! We had intended on launching in May but had some unexpected issues on the press (as a craft technique, letterpress is not always a smooth process). I’m pleased to say our exciting lineup, which includes Ray Biesinger, Banquet Workshop, Sandi Falconer and Doublenaut, is on the press right now and we expect to launch this month, just in time for Canada’s 150th birthday.
Goal 3: Colour Class for Skillshare
Oh, Skillshare. This class has been a thorn in my side, to be honest. I want so badly to get this class out there but it has not been shaping up as easiliy as I’d hoped. Not at all. After months of writing and rewriting, and even a false start with recording the footage, I’ve decided to step back from this for now and reevaluate my approach. I’m not saying I’m cancelling this effort, but I do need make sure the time I’m spending here will pay off. If I keep hitting a wall, I will definitely need to change directions here. I have so many other things I feel more confident about teaching, so it may make sense to simply start writing on a different subject. Does this mean I'm failing this goal? It's too soon to find out. If I do fail though, it won't be without its own hidden win. As long as we're trying our best, failure can be our best teacher.
Goal 4: Speaking Engagements
I love speaking to groups about what I do. I love sharing my experience and shedding light on processes and ideas that may otherwise be inaccessible to people. It also is a great way for me to connect with fellow creatives and tap into that beautiful creative energy we all need to do our job! I currently have one speaking engagement in the works and look forward to letting you know more as the event approaches. Meanwhile, I have also had the pleasure of mentoring an illustration student and judging a design competition, both of which tap into my drive to share and teach.
It's encouraging to see how my goals are coming along, and it's also a kick in the old arse to keep up the effort. None of these things will happen without sustained and focused effort. And it's not just about doing the things, but doing them well. That just might be the hardest thing of all — not simply ticking off my goals for their own sake but actually making what these goals are about count.
Whether you are working directly with your client or through an art director, how you present your work will significantly influence the final illustration. Whether in sketches or final art, presenting the right thing at the right time — in the right way — can mean the difference between a good concept being rejected and it being fully realized in the finals.
As an illustrator, I rarely find myself on the receiving end of this transaction. But from time to time I get to commission art from fellow illustrators, and I get to see things from the other side of the table. While it's not perfect, I'd like to think I have a pretty effective process for submitting my work to my clients — one that works for both client and artist. Sadly, I wish I could say the same about some of my peers.
Better Presentations Mean Better Work
Ultimately, we all want to make awesome artwork and get paid. We want our clients to be happy. Along the way, the process can be easy or hard, and there's no avoiding some degree of sweat each time. But in order for a project to be profitable, we need to mind our time. We need to engineer our process to require as few revisions (back and forths with the client) as possible. And if we're all honest, we need to be in control of our own process. We don't want the client calling the creative shots, because at a certain point, they will lose trust in our abilities, and we'll lose ownership of the work. It's in the mutual interest of client and illustrator to have a smooth, well-directed process, where everybody gets to operate from their post of authority. Illustrator = authority in making effective images. Art director = authority in defining the visual problem and harnessing the unique skill of the illustrator. Client = authority in their business and brand.
I believe my process achieves the above goals by being professional, clear, and concise. It also has clear, incremental stages and leaves room at each for improvement. For instance, I never show finished-looking art before I've shown sketches, and those sketches have to be approved by the client before moving into finals. It is far easier to make changes to pencils before too much effort is spent in the execution of the final. There is also far more room to surprise and delight art buyers. Earn their trust with a good concept, and then sucker-punch them in the face with an amazing execution.
Never Bypass the Sketch Stage
My process has two stages: sketches and finals. No minds blown here, right? But you'd be surprised how many times, as an art director, illustrators have sent me finals without sketches. While some might argue that they don't do sketches — they jump straight to the computer or canvas — I think it's risky. It's risky because the client may not like the concept, and then what? Do you make little changes to your artwork, bit by bit, hoping to convince them? Or do you have to go back to the drawing board, over and again, until you please the client? This drains you of your creative energy, and it strips you of your creative authority. With each fumbly revision, the client gains more authority over what should be your domain (creativity) and losing trust in you. It's an inconvenience to them that they should have to spend any time doing what they're paying you to do.
Give the Client Options
Just as important as showing rough work before anything too final-looking is presenting options. You'd be surprised at how often I get just one sketch (if I get a sketch at all). For some simpler projects, one sketch will do, but for most projects, I always present two or three sketches per illustration. This demonstrates my understanding of the brief to the client (showing how I can see the problem in different ways), and it also gives them a chance to participate in the creative work, which at this stage is something they should feel completely entitled to. You may have a favourite concept, but you can almost be sure they won't choose it! The challenge for you is to present a) multiple options, and b) only options you like. There is an unnamed law that states, The client will always choose your least favourite concept. Be sure your least favourite is still exciting to you. On the other hand, by opting out of sketch options for the client, again, you risk losing control of the creative work. The client, not pleased with the only sketch you show them, has to ask you to go back to the drawing board. That's a lot harder to stomach than preemptively giving options, since it's likely they'll want to see more anyway.
Earlier I mentioned how being professional, clear and concise helps me maintain control of the process and my artwork. Being professional doesn't mean you need to wear a white shirt and khaki chinos and sit in a beige room (or I hope you don't). It's actually more likely you will never be in the same room as your client. Rather, simply present your work in a way that shows that you take it seriously, and by extension, that the client should too. I always present all work, sketches and finals, in a branded deck. A deck is a PDF presentation that has a cover page and the actual work to be presented on interior pages. It is branded in that it is consistent in layout, colours and type each time I use it. It can be emailed to clients, or presented on a screen or projector. The cover page should have the client name, project title, stage (i.e. Sketches or Final Art) and date, and of course also include your name or logo on the page. It should look handsome and understated, being sure to let the work speak for itself. The interior pages of your deck should have your sketch or art (obviously), with at least a descriptive title. Finals rarely need describing, but each sketch/concept should always come with a short paragraph that helps the client understand what is going on. Because sketches should be loose, absent of flourish or colour, some verbiage helps point the client's imagination in the right direction. Don't forget page numbers. If you think any of this is overkill, ask anyone who had to present their work to clients before the Internet.
Your sketches should be clear, and the same should go without saying as regards finals. They should be well thought-through, and easy to understand and describe. I actually find many of my concepts either pass or fail at the part where I start writing the little paragraph. If I have trouble describing a concept or I don't like how it sounds, I know I have to go back to the drawing board. As my writing teacher in university would say, if you can't articulate what you're thinking, you don't have an idea. This can apply to concept pieces as well as more abstract ones. If not in the concept, the clarity should be in the intention.
Finally, your overall presentation should be concise. If there was anything I resented in my days as a full time, employed designer, it was the countless options we had to present, as though showing tons of variations and iterations was helpful to a client who has hired us for our creative counsel. First we would present as many as 6 or 7 initial concepts (say, for a package design), and then we would go into dozens and dozens of design options. While I believe it is important to do tons of exploration work, it is not necessary to show the client all of it. Our job is to do the hard work of ideating, and then to curate the best ideas for the client.
I usually aim to show two or three options per sketch. "But you said show options" (says the Jim Gaffigan high voice). Yes, but showing too much process demonstrates a lack of judgment on your part and risks confusing the client (or even making them decision anxiety (I highly recommend reading Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice). Do yourself and your client a favour and step up to the plate as the one to decide. If you need help whittling down all the brilliant sketches you've made, call in a friend, wife, or colleague their opinion. Whatever you do, as a rule of thumb, never show your client half-baked work. There's actually a good chance doing so will derail the creative and take you in directions you really don't want to go.
Now, Go Present Like a Badass!
Aside from your emails, the only face your client sees of you is your work. Whether sketches or final art, your work is your face — an extension of you — and you should take it seriously. While you may actually be in your pyjamas in your studio, dress your presentation up, put a handsome pair of specs on it. Make it look smart. And don't stop at looking smart — be smart too. Clients want to participate in the creative work. Be sure to include them early on so they have the satisfaction and then hand over full control to you in the later stages where you are truly the expert. Present sketches first, and always a few options. Meanwhile, help them navigate the high seas of your creative vision by being professional, clear and concise. By so doing, you will retain more control over the creative process and more ownership over your work. The client will have confidence in you and the work you created, and you have a better chance of ending up with something you're truly proud of.
Back in 2015 I went to a branding conference and wrote about it here. You can read about it if you want. But the premise was that there was a lot to learn by going to an event with creatives who are outside of my illustration bubble. There are also some business advantages to making friends with people who are more likely than your fellow illustrators to hire me!
Last year, I finally went to ICON, a real illustrator's conference. That, for sure, ended up being my favourite conference for all kinds of reasons. I should definitely follow up on what has transpired since then. If there was an ICON every year, I would have planned to go there this year too. But since ICON is a bi-annual event, I had to find a new conference to attend this year. And out of all the conferences that most interested me, Yeah Field Trip came out on top.
Yeah Field Trip took place at the end of February, in the cold and unexpectedly snowy mountains just east of LA. Now, Yeah Field Trip bills itself as a conference for "artist entrepreneurs", and under that category I most certainly fall. But it is mostly a conference for photographers: most of the attendees are photographers, and most of these are wedding photographers. On the surface, there couldn't be a less relevant creative profession for me than wedding photography. It's not that I don't admire and appreciate the line of work, but from a strictly business perspective, it's not likely that I will be working in the wedding industry. My work is decidedly commercial, and in many ways, it is anti-photography (in that people choose either photography or illustration for commercial work).
So why on earth did I sign up for a trip I knew was not for people like me? Well, for one, I took to heart their "artist entrepreneur" language. I had the sense that they were looking to expand the scope beyond photography and more into a broader category of creativity, and I felt that I could be a voice from the frontier. The idea of a pan-creative conference, where commercial creative disciplines could cross pollinate appeals to me. Designers, photographers and illustrators have a lot to teach each other. Perhaps the most important things to learn are the things we don't even realize exist. I'm not talking about learning about f-stops and new portrait lighting techniques. It's more about about going with an open mind, with no specific questions, and just seeing what happens when I go hang out with a bunch of people who are decidedly not like me.
A huge component of my decision to attend YFT was just this: going somewhere where who I am and what I do doesn't matter. I have less credibility and fewer bragging rights, and certainly a less relevant repertoire of conversation topics to bring to my fellow attendees. Not that I feel like a big deal at illustrator conferences, but I can at least expect to meet people who care about what I do, and I can expect to find mutual admiration. Instead, at YFT, I went with the question: what happens when I take myself far outside my comfort zone?
For five days and four nights, I was faced with a lot of discomfort. Some of it directly related to being an outsider, and some of it more incidental, such as being away from my wife and kids for so long. The most striking thing about the trip for me was the feeling of vulnerability and insecurity. Back at home, in my daily life, I am actually pretty confident, happy and comfortable. I am surrounded by people who know and love me, and I don't feel the need to vie for anyone's attention. I don't worry about whether people know what my accomplishments are. If every I feel unsociable, I can hide in my studio or in my cozy, quiet house. I don't experience much loneliness or of not being needed. All these essential needs humans have that I take for granted. And for some reason I deliberately jettisoned myself far outside this for almost a week. And the feeling of vulnerability and discomfort that I felt was in fact what I had sought.
One of the most important questions I left asking myself was, What matters most to me?
The best way to summarize my experience was about halfway through the trip, when my wife asked how things were going. I said I wanted to hide. She seemed sympathetic. I followed up by saying "I came to feel this way". As all artists know, feeling is essential to creativity, and complacency kills it. I went there to unhide from my feelings, these feelings that were deep down inside me, buried underneath all the comfort and safety of my day-to-day back home. Perhaps that is a lot to ask of a conference that actually feels more like summer camp than a spiritual retreat. But it was the perfect recipe, for me, for teasing out real feelings (something that is hard to find when things have been going well for so long). The recipe was: lots of people I didn't know, whom I couldn't assume cared about what I do, or who I am, and somehow try to make meaningful connections and share meaningful moments. In another word, empathy. This is probably more about travelling in general than any specific conference, but being outside the safety and comfort reminds us how it feels to not have these things.
It should be clear that I wouldn't have gone to YFT if all they had were photography workshops and photographer keynote addresses. One of the most enticing things about the event was that a sizeable portion of their workshops were more on the life and metaphysical side. While I did join in classes like Photography 101 and Colour Correction for Portraits, I expected to get more out of such classes as Discovering Beauty Through Pain (Ruthie Lindsey) and Life is Magic, Death is Magic (We Are The Parsons). My intuition was right. The latter workshops were intensely meaningful, poignant reminders of what is most important in life; they were also a call to reevaluate the very reason I do what I do as a profession. It seems so obvious, but one of the most important questions I left asking myself was, "What matters most to me?".
Of all the workshops, Life is Magic, Death is Magic was the most life-altering for me. I was interested in the workshop mostly out of intrigue by the speakers, We Are the Parsons, a family-based wedding video studio. My interest was not so much in their trade, but that these world-renown creative professionals have eschewed social media. Don't we all at least sometimes wonder if it would be possible to get off social media, to escape the online rat race? Don't we all have a secret desire to jump into the void of social media death and for once be free? So I was eager to hear how these people did it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn't really teach me anything I didn't already know. In fact, their presentation was largely borrowed content, including a clip from the film The End of the Tour and another of Louis C.K's Forever Empty bit on Conan O'Brien. Through their various media clips, quotes and personal story, I was simply reminded that we are wasting so much of our lives staring at these little screens in our hands. It sounds overly simplistic, almost trite. But what gave gravitas to their presentation was that they are living out their principles, not just talking about them. They curated an atmosphere of attention and reflection that exposed my deepest convictions about how I spend my days, my life. And often, this is all we need to reconnect with our deepest selves, and by extension, with our fellow brothers and sisters on this wet rock we call Earth.
Personally, I reconnected with my feelings. With feeling things, in a way that can be so alien when you have a life that you feel you are in control of. I have my routines, both at work and at home. Work at 9 am. Home by 5:30 for dinner with the family. Kids in bed by 7pm. Saturdays at home, Sundays at Church. Professionally, creatively, it's harder to say whether this trip gave me a boost. I didn't improve as an illustrator nor did I learn any new techniques. However, there was one shining moment for me, the lone illustrator at the wedding photographer conference: doing bad portraits on the last night. My friend James Moes thought it would be a good idea to set up an impromptu portraiture station at some point over the event, even going so far as to buy me some art supplies in LA on his way into the mountains. I kept those supplies on my person throughout the conference but was never quite sure I could naturally work myself into the flow of the weekend's activities. But after a few days of letting go of control and self-consciousness, I decided, on that fateful last night, that it was now or never. I grabbed James and said I was ready, grabbed two chairs (one for me, one for subjects), and James hyped me up. In minutes, I found myself drawing new friends and strangers, and a long line of willing subjects waiting for their turn. I can't tell if it lasted 30 or 45 minutes or longer, but it felt like forever. And the drawings were terrible. But it was for me a satisfying culmination of the trip, where I found a place as an illustrator among photographers. I had built that bridge, and at least in part, answered the question, "what happens when I go hang out with a bunch of people who are decidedly not like me?".
p.s. In another, deeper sense, I shared a common experience with these photographers. Unlike illustrators like me, who can hide in a studio and literally never actually meet my clients, photographers have to build a real, physical, personal connection with theirs. Drawing realtime portraits requires similar interpersonal engagement. I have to sit there and look at the person for as long as I'm drawing them, and they just have to sit there looking back at me. It's intimate in a way I am not used to. If there's anything that makes me squirm under normal circumstances, it's being watched while I work. So it's extremely vulnerable. I have to create this thing and show it to someone right away. I have no time to edit or polish it up. I also realize how much pressure there is on photographers to represent their subjects in a positive, flattering light. There were definitely a few drawings I did that night that were possibly unflattering. It was all in the spirit of fun, but I was nervous about offending people. They may love it or hate it, but once it's made, there's nothing I, nor they, can do about it.
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!