Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Getting Started...Again

In the past few weeks I've been in a bit of a creative rut. While I've been working on commissions, I haven't created any personal work or any sketches. This is partially because all my client commissions happened to be in the rough/revisions stages, which for me is the least fun part. I want to skip all that and just render, render, render.

When creating personal work I tend to get caught up on what I "should" draw. What would enhance my portfolio? What would look good on a postcard? What would bring me the kind of work I want to do? What will get me attention online? Is it dynamic enough? Is it dramatic enough? Is it enough enough?

I was starting to avoid drawing.

Thankfully, ICON came to save the day. In my experience, conventions are always helpful for restarting motivation and inspiration, and ICON was no exception. I saw artists who seem to exhale sketches and doodles and little sculptures like carbon dioxide. It was a wake-up call. I made myself do some sketching, and I started a new personal piece yesterday, which I will post here when it's finished.

It's not much, but I'm getting started.

Hey look, it's Helena from Orphan Black!

I would so wear this as a Halloween costume, if I actually went out and did things for Halloween.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ICON 8 Portland - post-mortem

Last week I attended ICON: The Illustration Conference in Portland.

The conference began with a bang with a performance from "the Circus Project." The most insane marching band I've ever seen stormed into the auditorium, followed by breakdancers, acrobats, people hanging from the ceiling on silk scarves and a girl who could shoot a crossbow with her feet. It was wonderfully bizarre.

ICON is a conference about "illustration" in general, and the theme of the show was "Work and Play." All day long we'd listen to an hour of lectures, then go downstairs for coffee and snacks, then upstairs for more lectures, repeat repeat repeat.

That's Victo Ngai in the middle, who looked like the rock star I've always imagined her as

Children's book superstar team Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett were hilarious

I went into ICON with one old friend and some new friends. By the end of the conference we had bonded over our mutual experience of sleep deprivation and information overload. During lunch breaks we went to the famous Portland food carts and enjoyed the summer breezes. We ate lunch in the park and talked about how illustrators are the nicest people in the world.

We saw the famous Portland Unipiper, who pedaled around us in circles while playing the Game of Thrones theme song on his bagpipes. Yay Portland!

On Thursday evening was the Roadshow, where 60 artists had tables selling their wares. Across the board, all the artists were very talented people and I felt honored to be among them.

The show lasted for three hours, and was incredibly crowded and loud since pretty much everyone at the conference was there. (At one point I started singing "Let It Go" at the top of my voice. No one noticed.)


I met a girl who said she reads this blog. (You know who you are, hi!) But despite the turnout and the presence of alcohol at the show, I sold very very little. So that was disappointing. I don't know if my art just wasn't a good fit for this show, or if the attendees were just mostly broke artists. When I got bored, I started keeping track of comments people made to me. Ten people told me that my work "looks traditional," and two people told me that I "look young."

Like a little tiny baby

On Friday evening was the "Work and Play" show at Land Gallery. I created my "Busyness and Inspiration" illustration for this show, and it hung on the wall with the other selected pieces. This was the first time my art has been in a gallery!

On the final day the keynote speaker was Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK GO - and although his talk wasn't illustration related, he still had some interesting insights into creativity and the balance of work and play.


At ICON, most aspects of illustration were at least briefly touched on - animation, surface art, editorial, children's books, concept art, comics, graphic design, fine art, art direction and art education. On one hand, it was cool to learn about the diversity of artists in all types of industries, and how they balance work and play. On the other hand, talks that were applicable and informative for my own career were few and far between. (For example, a talk about the history of LGBTQ in comics was interesting, but not very useful for me personally.)

Some of the best speakers were Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen, Robynne RayeLinda Joy Kattwinkel and Andy J. Miller. But there were quite a few boring speakers. Their talks followed a pattern I named "The Chronological Model." First they would talk about their childhood. "I lived here, then we moved here, then I went to school here, then we moved again." Next they would show photos of projects they were working on. "Here's a thing I'm drawing. Here's another thing. This is a thing I painted. Here's my studio. Here's a statue I made. Here's a drawing of my dad. Here's a show I did." It was like listening to a 2nd grader do show-and-tell. I don't want to be too harsh, since most artists aren't professional public speakers, but it did seem like they were pretty unprepared and even unsure of why they were up there.

Overall, I enjoyed ICON for the inspiration, motivation and the chance to meet cool illustrators, who are the nicest people in the world. However, I don't feel like I left with a lot of practical information that I can apply to my own career. The scope of the conference was just too broad. Basically, inspirational, not practical.

What I got out of the conference the most was the importance of creating a huge quantity of work. I was stunned by the amount of artwork some of the speakers produced. Even for the artists who were not very good speakers, it was still clear that creativity permeated every hour of their lives. It was definitely the kick in the pants I've been needing lately, and I'm returning to work feeling refreshed. As my friend Johnny wrote in his conference notes:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Interesting Links for Illustrators

  • When you first graduated, did you manage to find illustration work right away or did it take a while? by Teagan White. "What I’m saying is that you have so many options beyond sending out mailers and waiting for responses, that you are in control of how you spend your time and where your money comes from, and that drawing literally anything at all will move you the littlest bit closer to your goals."
  • Sheridan Portfolio Tips by Amanda Zima. An impressively thorough article on developing a character design for animation portfolio.
  • 5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Coloring by Melanie Gillman. You know you're an artist when your class handouts are decorated with charming cartoons and hand-drawn text.
  • A Few Thoughts on Editing Your Portfolio by Andrea Offerman. A great post about editing your physical portfolio, from the winner of SCBWI's Portfolio Prize.
  • Surtex 2014: Let's Break it Down, My Art Peeps! by Lauren Minco. If you don't know, Surtex is THE big stationary/greeting card/decorative illustration convention. Lauren gives a good post-mortem of what it was like to have a booth there. Useful advice for tabling at any convention, not just Surtex.
  • The Myth of Ready by Jennifer Ely. "It does not matter if you are READY. Ready is a lie. It’s a finish line we point to, always far in the distance, where the weather is always sunny and a roaring crowd waits to give a standing ovation."
  • Unfinanced Entrepeneurs by Mark Evanier. A rant against working for free on the promise of royalties. Written in 1998 but still relevant and very funny.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Nest of Snakes book cover

This is the third book in the Blackwater Novels series of middle-grade books by author Allen Johnson Jr. (See previous blog posts for the other books in the series, My Brother's Story and The Dead House.) The series is set in the south in the 1930's, and follows the lives of several boys as they have various adventures involving a labyrinthine swamp, man-eating alligators, buried treasure, and other excitement.

In A Nest of Snakes, the main conflict involves the KKK who are threatening one of the protagonists of the series, a kindly black man named Linc. But since that subject matter was too heavy for the cover of a children's book, Allen and I agreed that we should depict one of the book's many nostalgic outdoors scenes, where the boys are camping by themselves on an island in the swamp.

Allen is quite the stickler for detail, so this scene had to depict the text very accurately. It had to include:
  • The four characters, who are poking at the fire with sticks
  • Their black labrador
  • An army surplus tent
  • The swamp at night with pine trees
  • A campfire with pork chops being cooked or prepared
  • Chopped potatoes cooking in a frying pan
  • Logs being used as benches

I had to came up with a lot of thumbnails until I found three arrangements where all of these elements worked together. It was quite a challenge. Allen decided that he liked the last rough, which featured smoke disappearing into the open night sky. However, he wanted the dog to be a more active part of the scene, not sleeping off to the side.

This was the color rough I sent to Allen. He pointed out that the boys were dressed too nicely and I needed to rough and dirty them up a little.

I'm very happy with how this turned out. I think it captures the fun and coziness of having a campfire at night.

A Nest of Snakes also includes a whopping 26 black-and-white chapter illustrations by yours truly.

You can buy a copy of A Nest of Snakes at the Blackwater Novels website. (I do not receive any royalties from sales of the book.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Brutally Honest Art School Survey Results

Almost one year ago I graduated from the Academy of Art University. This upcoming anniversary made me wonder: how are my fellow grads doing? How do they feel about art school now that they've had a year or two out in the real world?

So I put together this survey based around the question: has art school been beneficial for your career? How are people doing emotionally as well as financially?

First a disclaimer - this was not a professional or scientific survey. This is just something I did to satisfy my own curiosity and provide some interesting material for my blog readers. Since I'm not a statistician, I wanted to keep this survey simple. In one week I received over 200 responses, from grads from many different art schools.

PART 1: The Multiple Choice Questions

About 55% of my respondents graduated from art school 4 years ago or more. In future surveys I think I would require participants to have graduated less than 10 years ago, since the world of illustration and art schools has probably changed significantly in the last 10 years.

74% of respondents define themselves as having an art-related job - although this question does not specify whether that job is employment or freelance. Among those who graduated less than 4 years ago, that number drops to 66%.

About 62% of participants reported working in jobs that are related or somewhat related to the field of illustration they studied for. Among those who graduated less than 4 years ago, that number drops to 59%.

76% of participants reported doing freelance work, although the majority of them described it as "a few sporadic commissions here and there." 21% are full-time freelancers. Among those who graduated less than 4 years ago, 71% are doing freelance work, with 48% describing it as "sporadic" and 14% doing full-time freelance.

Ok, so, although 74% of respondents said that they work in an art-related job, 42% reported making less than $10k per year from their art. Obviously, this is not a livable wage. Either participants had different interpretations of the question, or their income is being supplemented elsewhere, which I should have asked about. Either way, my question was not clear enough to give us an accurate idea of whether people are making a living off of their artwork. (I added the "including art-related employment, freelancing, etc" after I began noticing this trend in the responses.) I'm retracting it in order to prevent spreading misinformation online, but I think we can all agree that art schools aren't creating millionaires.

Among all respondents: 39% of respondents said they had no unpaid student debt from art school. The second largest group, 24%, had between $1-$30k in debt. 16% had between $30k-$60k, 10% had between $60k-$90k, and 11% had more than $90k.

For those who have been out of art school for 1 year or less, $1-$30,000 becomes the majority category at 29%. Meanwhile, 25% reported no unpaid student debt from art school.

As you can see, the responses were pretty spread out here, but 33% of respondents described themselves as "mostly happy" with their careers. Only 5% chose "very unhappy." "Very happy" and "mostly unhappy" were tied at exactly 16.58%.

Generally these responses leaned towards the positive. The largest response here was "somewhat helpful, somewhat unhelpful" at 32%, with "mostly helpful" close behind at 30%.

PART 2: The Open Comment Box

In the last question of the survey, I had a text box where I invited people to share their thoughts about art school. People had a lot to say! Responses ranged from very positive to very bitter, but four statements kept emerging in both positive and negative comments:

1. There is a lack of business skills taught in art schools.

"The Academy does a very poor job preparing students for careers. I was told to 'make a website and send out a few postcards.' That's it. How pathetic is that? That's not what it takes AT ALL and that attitude combined with my own lack of self-confidence meant that it took years for me to be able to make any money at all from art." 
"I do wish they had taken a much more serious approach when it came to teaching Business of Art, or how to promote yourself as an artist. The most we got was an introduction to accounting." 
"I am glad that I attended, but I wish I would have done some things differently. My school could have had more/better classes for the business/marketing side of fine art. I would say to prospective students that they should take classes not in their selected major. As a Fine arts student I mostly focused on studio arts and not photo, digital design and media, video/audio, and other commercial type avenues of art and design. I think it is very important to be proficient in your chosen major/medium, but have the knowledge and ability to work in other skill sets." 
"I don't think I was prepared enough for the business side of things. I think the grad students got a lot more (understandably) but undergraduate only had 1 class regarding portfolio, not the everyday life of running your own business." 
"Pretty good training on skills, pretty poor training on the business and career side of things. In particular, the faculty seem (in hindsight) pretty clueless about how you go about getting work these days, and the school did a haphazard job setting up its graduating students to make a living (way too much emphasis on that fabled Spring Show rather than encouraging students to publish and promote themselves). Advice to prospective students would be to start building their careers right away rather than waiting for the teachers to tell them to, because they never will."

2. Getting to meet people was one of the biggest benefits of art school.
"Art School helped me meet like-minded people, and make life-long friends. If I hadn't attended art school, I wouldn't have met two of my best friends who I eventually moved to New York City with and have continued to push each other artistically ever since. So I don't think I could trade that for anything." 
"In the end being good at art is still largely down to you doing the necessary work on your own, though school may provide the structure you need to do so (I have heard of schools that actually do this well) and it will also provide you with an environment of peers, which may help build your confidence should you lack it." 
"I am very glad that I attended art school. I think what helped most about being at an art school versus a traditional institution is that you are surrounded by people that will be better than you, and being around that type of talent will make you so much better if you allow it to." 
"The only redeeming factor of art school was meeting my classmates and the friendships that developed. Otherwise a total waste of money." 
"While I had a great experience and wouldn't trade the friends and connections I made for the world, I have to admit that much of what I paid to learn is actually out there for free, and if you are a motivated self starter then you could get way more mileage for your dollar than what traditional art colleges charge." 
"I definitely thought my education was worth it. It strengthened my skills and taught me so much in such a short amount of time. Faculties and instructors mostly try their best to help or give advice even outside of the class that I took with them. Met a great group of artist, and having that support from my artist community means a lot, especially since freelance can be such an isolating career."

3. Regret and stress over the amount of student loans.
"Loved the school but it was way too expensive. Not worth the excessively expensive cost honestly, as wonderful as it was." 
"Right now, I've got a job as a barista at Starbucks and I draw between breaks. I have a huge student debt and I'm thinking about borrowing money from the bank to help pay it off. I kinda wish I could have foreseen the debt before attending, and I should have listened to my parents when they initially refused to pay my way through art school. I feel like the poster-child for the coffee-brewing, burger flipping art school graduate." 
"The likelihood of an artist seeing a return investment from going to art school is low. If you want to be an artist, get a business degree. I regret going into $90,000 of debt for a struggling career. If I could do it again, I would not go into crippling debt to go to art school." 
"I'm glad I went for the experience and education, but regret it because I really couldn't afford the price tag to attend and am paying way too much now for it. I would suggest not going to any school that you can't afford and think it's just as likely to learn how to be a great artist now with the endless amount of resources that doesn't include paying a ton of money to learn at an institution." 
"My husband and I both attended art school. I majored in illustration, he in photography. I still feel that my education was beneficial, he does not. I do wish the outstanding student loan debt was not so crippling and I so wish I had made better loan choices. What I would say to future students is go part time so you can work and not take on unnecessary debt. Oh, and watch those interest rates!" 
"I want to suicide because of debt."
4. Art school is what you make of it.

This was by far the most common response, in both positive and negative comments.
"You get out what you put in. If you want to be successful, you have to work hard; success doesn't just get handed over on a silver platter." 
"It's far too easy to blame art school for a lack of traction after graduation. Anyone can pass through art school with good grades and learn not too much. The superstars have laser focus, monk-like work habits and use art school as a jumping-off point." 
"I wish I was harder on my teachers - I was an inquisitive student and I asked lots of questions, but I never felt confident enough to speak up when class instruction was unsatisfactory. My art school experience would have been much better if I had taken more initiative in general." 
"Straight A's do not in themselves guarantee a job or even suggest sufficient skill, as harsh as that may sound. It's not all doom and gloom, it's just a reminder to stay honest with yourself and never get complacent! There is always more to learn." 
"Push yourself, do the best that your talent will allow, and try to do better and never ever give up.What you love to do needs to be in your blood and the air you breathe. I've known students that went to art school and crapped out their first semester because they didn't have the love for art that they thought they did. All in all art school can be one of the best times you will ever have in your life. P.S don't party too much."
Thank you to everyone who participated! I hope you found this interesting. In a year or so I'd like to do this survey again, with more thorough and in-depth questions. If you have any suggestions, feedback or ideas, please leave a comment.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Highlights: The Water Chase

I have some illustrations in this month's issue of Highlights magazine! They asked me to create two illustrations for a story called "The Water Chase." It's about the Armenian holiday Vartavar, a day when you are allowed to throw water on anyone who is out in public.

These are the two roughs that I sent them:

They liked the first rough, but thought that the second one needed more work. They wanted the boy to have a more masculine haircut and be holding a water bottle. The girls needed to be wearing backpacks and also holding water bottles, and they wanted to see the alleyway setting around them. Here's the revised rough.

From there I was approved to go to the finish:

Here's how it looks laid out in the magazine:

I'm particularly happy with the way these two girls turned out. I'd like to use them on a promotional postcard.