One week after Clay Hickson graduated, he moved to Montreal where he only knew a handful of people and couldn’t legally get a job with not being a citizen. So he started a blog… the rest is history. These days Clay is busy running a press called Tan & Loose on the side of being an illustrator.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I didn’t actually have much of a plan. The week after graduation, I moved to Montreal where I only knew a handful of people and couldn’t legally get a job because I wasn’t a Canadian citizen. I had studied printmaking, but suddenly had no facilities to use. So with a ton of time on my hands, I started a blog and and gave myself the assignment to post one new image a week. I’d say 90% of the illustration work I got in that first year came about because of that blog. I had no plan to be an illustrator and was actually terrified by the idea of it. But a few people started asking and I felt like I had no good reason to turn them down.
What does a typical working day include for you right now? My days are spent bouncing between publishing projects and freelance work. Running the press usually takes a back seat to the illustration jobs because they generally have tighter deadlines, but it’s nice to have the publishing stuff to keep me busy when things are slow. I find that if I don’t have something to focus on during the slow periods, it’s much harder to get back into the swing of things when I get busy again. Luckily, I do all my work from home so it’s easy to move fluidly between the two.
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? I’ve basically given up on the idea of having a style. I’m constantly being pulled in different directions by the things that inspire me. One day it could be underground newspapers from the 1960’s and the next day it’s japanese airbrush illustration from the 80’s. I think there are certain qualities that tie all my work together, but it doesn’t feel as fine tuned or distinctive as some people’s work. The only real common denominator is that it’s all filtered through me. Personally, the idea of having one style feels too limiting. I like having the freedom to experiment with different mediums and trying to find the right tools for the job. That said, I also think having a distinctive brand is a huge advantage in the illustration and design world. I’ve just never been able to maintain one.
What role does digital design play in your studio in 2016, and how do you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age? More and more the line between digital work and traditional work is getting blurred. It might be impossible at this point to find a design job that doesn’t require some knowledge of Adobe programs. As romantic as I feel about design in the era before computers, I think it’s important to embrace new technologies. The real challenge is making digital work without losing the qualities of your hand. Now that almost everyone is working with the same set of programs and tools, how do you set your work apart and make it feel alive? I avoided digital work for a long time because it just felt soulless to me. Now I’ve spent the last 5 or so years trying to find that balance and utilize the technology in a way that doesn’t suck all the emotion out of the work.
What advice would you give students starting out? Just stay busy all the time. If you don’t have a creative job, give yourself assignments and deadlines. Start projects that have no end in sight. Just do anything that will force you to make work. Even if it’s just a half hour of drawing in your sketchbook, it’ll make a big difference. If you’re feeling stuck, go spend a day at the library. If you can’t find inspiration at the library, then it might be time to consider other careers.
What has been your highlights since you started out? Since starting the press, I’ve had the opportunity to work with almost every artist that I admired while I was in school. That was my sole reason for starting Tan & Loose and I’d say it’s been the most fulfilling part of this whole journey.
Also, seeing my work in print is almost always a special feeling. It doesn’t matter where it is – magazine, newspaper, paper bag, whatever – it always feels completely surreal.