Thought I'd share with you an interview that I did last night via IM with a high school student... regarding a career in illustration.
[Note: edits have been made for brevity, to keep things on topic, and because I -never- misspell a word. =P]
Li Smith: 1. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Laura: Hmmm, well I guess at the heart of it I just love creating art.... I mean taking a concept that is words or even just an idea and making it something visible.
Li Smith: 2. What's your salary like?
Laura: Hard to know yet, seriously, complex too. You see I think of my illustration business (and literally it is) as a "company" in its first few years.... So along those lines reporting a profit (after business expenses) to the IRS is my version of salary success at the moment. I won't give numbers, but I will say things are going up each year =) So much is based on "per project" so I'm actually quite surprised when I tally things up for the year.
Li Smith: What's it like in your workplace?
Laura: Comfy. I work from home. I've got a nice desk, fast PC and all the right equipment.... and hot tea whenever I want it. =) The commute isn't bad either.
Li Smith: 4. What kinds of things do you illustrate?
Laura: Fantasy... though I don't do the scantily clad chicks and dragons so much. I prefer the more children's-fantasy or the whimsical fantasy. That is not to say I don't take on a more "mainstream" project now and then.
Li Smith: 5. How long does your art process usually take?
Laura: Depends on what it is. For a full-color book cover, say, I tend to "budget" 40 working hours.... but then I also "run" the project along side others at the same time (so something like this can start-to-finish take 4-6 weeks).
Li Smith: 6. Have you got any particular pet peeves about your job?
Laura: Clients! No, seriously, it's the name of the game. Think of it as having many bosses at once. I often feel, though, like I am trying to "save" my clients from themselves (as they try to Art Direct... where they really don't know what they are doing!)
Li Smith: 8. What are your hours like--nine to five, eight to ten, etc?
Laura: I used to think of things more as sit down in the computer chair X hours. I now take a slightly different approach: setting project goals and deliverables rather than set hours. Generally, speaking you will find me at my computer doing art from around 9ish to 5ish all week days though. Sometimes it's heaven sometimes I'm cursing said art in front of me (not often).... it is nice to be able to bug-off for a walk mid-day though =)
Li Smith: Do you ever collaborate with other artists or are you a one-(wo)man show?
Laura: I don't collaborate per-see, but I am a member of a couple artists groups. The fantasy illustrators one is a tight-knit place for sharing our projects and getting crits from each other.... we're all freelancers so it helps us with a sense of community to. Sometimes freelancing can be a lonely business!
Li Smith: How free are you able to be with creativity, or do the restrictions vary from client to client?
Laura: Varies. I would prefer 100% freedom, but in reality it can be anywhere from 50-50 to 20-80 (flipped either way). It really depends on the needs of the client/project.
Li Smith: 11. What is your favorite genre of art, if you have one?
Laura: Children's fantasy. =) (Which I want to do more of.)
Li Smith: This is a little off-script, but do you do a lot of children's book illustrations?
Laura: Not enough for my liking. I've actually yet to do a picture book proper... though I am working on a huge NDA project right now that involves covers and b&w interiors for that genre =)
Li Smith: 12. What school did you go to for this career? Would you recommend it or another one instead?
Laura: I went to James Madison University. Because, quite honestly, they were close by, had a "decent" art program, and weren't going to leave me 100K in debt..... However, I am torn on the whole "college to do art" bit. In some ways I think my time at JMU was valuable in others I wonder how far along my illustration business would be now had I not gone and just started working fresh out of high school. I guess it really comes down to the individual. I would say: only go to school for illustration if there is a strong dept. for it at that college AND you realize that you are going for the skills not the degree. In freelance illustration no one looks at your degree. Period. They want to see your client list and portfolio!
Li Smith: 13. Why did you choose to do what you do?
Laura: Because art has always come naturally to me.... and for as long as I remember I've admired the art on books covers and in picture books. =) I can't not do art, if that makes sense. (As many a teacher can testify from my doodles in the margins of my notes!)
Li Smith: 14. What are the academic requirements for your degree?
Laura: Well, my degree is a BFA in Painting.... but from a liberal arts college so it was about 50% art classes and 50% academics. Basically a ton of hours in the studio painting for my degree... I would often literally be on campus from 7am to 10pm many days! That always "balanced" with gen eds and other academic classes.... enough to keep anyone busy!
Li Smith: 15. Are there academic requirements for keeping updated on the developments of your profession?
Laura: Not really. Think more professional conferences and conventions and reading things.... that "education" now is completely self-motivated.
Li Smith: 16. What professional organizations are related to your career?
Laura: Well the aforementioned SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), ASFA (Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists), New York Society of Illustrators, etc... also many online communities: like CG Society or ConceptArt.org
Li Smith: 17. What's your typical workday like?
Laura: Well once I sit down at my desk (after my long arduous commute...) I review what "needs to be done"... I currently feel like I have a pretty good grasp on how long things take me so generally it is a matter of deciding what to tackle today. I normally start out with whatever I feel most excited about and work on that until lunch time. After a bite to eat (and perhaps some ImagineFX)... I return to tackle the next thing on the list. My workday is generally a "wrap" when I've finished some nice chunks of work and gotten the "deliverables" off to the respective clients.
Li Smith: 18. How does it affect your family life?
Laura: Well, I used to be a major work-a-holic, I just didn't really take much time for anything else. Since meeting my (now fiancé) I make a point to keep my evenings and weekends work free =) It's good to have those divisions, especially when one works at home!
Li Smith: 19. Are there any online artists communities you would recommend?
Laura: CG Talk, Deviant Art, Elwood, are the three that come to mind... though I am not as active on those as I used to be I do at least maintain small galleries on a lot of "satellite" sites as I like to think of them =)
Li Smith: 20. What was it like getting started?
Laura: In many ways I still am ;) It's a challenge. It can be scary. It is also fun. Getting that first "job" is a leap of terror =P I kid. I actually got my first "job" when I was still in college..... started out small. It was a "cd cover" for a metal band -that I don't think ever saw the light of day- but anyway it was $100 and that first client on the list! =P It felt awesome at the time. I've definitely done my share of small and not quite related to my passion (i.e. fantasy art) jobs, especially at the get-go. Though, I've found that I am getting to do more and more what I want. I think experience sort of "earns" you the right to be more choosy in the projects you take. And the secret is: it's in your best interest to only take those projects most in alignment with what you want to do. Think about it: those projects BECOME your portfolio which then gets you more projects like what you've just done!
Li Smith: 21. What are your thoughts on the risks of your art being stolen? Has it ever happened? What did you do about it? What advice do you have for someone in that kind of situation?
Laura: Honestly, it has never happened to me... so not sure what to say there. I do hear it is good to formally register your artworks copyrights at the US Copyright Office. Though they are protected by law when they are created, without you needing to do a thing... registering just gives you a bit more legal protection. And it is looked upon favorably if you were to take a copyright violator to court.
Li Smith: 22. What do you think is the most important aspect of being an artist? The education? The skills? The discipline?
Laura: Not losing sight of the passion. Seriously, there is a reason you picked up that first crayon and loved it.... the trick is not to lose that enthusiasm under things like deadlines, contracts, and bills!
Li Smith: 23. How flexible are you with your mediums? Do you prefer digital, traditional, or do you enjoy both equally? Why?
Laura: I work 100% digital on client projects, it just allows the best flexibility for changes and tight deadlines.... I do enjoy acrylics and oils, but purely for personal art (I shudder to think of making major changes -client requested- to an oil painting!)
Li Smith: Have you ever tried traditional?
Laura: I did more traditional in college... many many classes worth. I still have an easel set up and my oil and acrylic paints though =)
Li Smith: 25. What advice in general do you have for someone looking into the career?
Laura: Experiment. Find what you most love (drawing) and draw more of it. Your portfolio is the single most important thing you have.... put stuff that you enjoyed doing in it. Don't be trapped into thinking that college is the /only/ way to go.... there are many fine seminars and conferences that could teach you more in a week than you might get in a couple years at college!
Li Smith: 26. What regrets do you have?
Laura: Well, I would say that I regret not going to an "art school" i.e. a private art college with an illustration program. But, honestly, I think half the reason I came out of college with such a strong portfolio was because I had so many independent studies.... I, literally, had complete control of my portfolio =) So a blessing in disguise for me.
Li Smith: 27. What sources do you draw inspiration from?
Laura: Movies. Books. Video games. Talking to and seeing the work of other artists in the field.
Li Smith: 29. Do you like drawing from life or out of your head more?
Laura: I do both.... I often find that when I look at things in "real life" I start imagining them with fantasy elements....and they serve to inform the drawings that result with more believability. I found in college I would start making up parts to still lifes because drawing them bored me so much!
Li Smith: 30. Have you ever had any specifically bad experiences in the business that stuck with you? Looking back, do you think they could have been avoidable? If so, what would you have done different?
Laura: Well, they say hindsight is 20/20. But I really prefer to look at the "bad" past experiences and just learn from them.... for instance my contract now has a number of clauses in it that it didn't start out with! It really all comes down to communication with the client.
Li Smith: would you care to elaborate on those clauses at all or is that private business matters?
Laura: Laying things out clearly, talking with them until you understand what they are looking for, etc. Things like "revisions" "rights" "timetable" etc.... my contract basically serves as a "every last detail" layout of the whole project. So that things are clear! Assumptions can spell hours of re-working. And that is no fun.
Li Smith: 31. How long did it take you to get where you are today? What did you have to go through to get here? Are you happy with where you are or are you ambitious to go even further?
Laura: Well, technically, it has been 4 years since I graduated college... though I've been doing art much longer. I went from interested in art high school student, to art major, to, now, young professional in my field. I'm always looking to grow and expand. That is the way of life. I'd love to get into more "self directed" projects that are my ideas AND art (like picture books where I am the author-illustrator).
Li Smith: 32. Who's your idol? What is it you like about their art? Are there any others you like?
Laura: Chris Van Allsburg: writer-illustrator extraordinaire (of Polar Express fame)... I love the magic he brings to his books. There are a ton of others I admire. Heck, I think I met most of them at IlluXcon last year! =P
Li Smith: 33. What was it that got you into this business in the first place? Can you pin down a specific reason or is more something that's developed in you over time?
Laura: Well, being recognized by my 3rd grade teacher and having my "coral reef" crayon drawing hung in the library was encouraging.... and later being an avid fantasy reader in high school and admiring book covers did the rest ;)
Li Smith: 34. Are you a fan of colorful socks?
Laura: Oh yes. I like the fuzzy kind and I tend to get immense satisfaction out of matching them with my outfits!
Li Smith: 35. What kinds of risks(in general, not just theft) are involved in what you do?
Laura: Mostly the "risks" are health related.... and it's a matter of taking breaks, getting exercise etc, what anyone in front of a computer for hours should be doing. There is also the fact that "paychecks" tend to come in spurts....things even out, it's just that you have to be mindful and keeping "padding" in your accounts =)
Li Smith: 36. How big a role do you think artistic style plays in determining an artist's success?
Laura: All of it. Or a lot. You see, a true style -one that emerges naturally from the way you see things and put marks on paper- is something uniquely you.... and you are one of a kind. Therefore, don't strive to be a second rate copy of anyone else! Be irreplaceable! =)
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