My illustrations have always been heavily based on my daydreams, and this was true even as a kid — I went through hundreds of those Crayola blank sketchbooks. My mom thankfully kept a lot of them, so I can look back and see what was going through my mind at various times of my childhood. For a while, I vividly imagined that my dog could talk and had a thriving social life: I illustrated tea parties, sleepovers, and sports practices with her and all the dogs in our neighborhood, and I think part of me really believed it was a possibility.
I went into school as a Photography major. I’d been passionate about photography for most of my teen years, and I thought it was my best chance of professional success (I didn’t think I could make it as a fine artist/illustrator.) A year into my program, I realized I could add a second major in Digital Media and still graduate on time, so I did — and that opened the door to Graphic Design for me. I realized I didn’t see myself thriving in a career as a photographer, so I put a lot of my time and energy into internships and part-time jobs in design. I ended up graduating with that double major, moved to Portland about two months later, and started looking for a design job. I had no idea at that point in time that I’d ever pursue illustration professionally.
When I realized I wanted to pursue design in my sophomore year, I immediately applied for an on-campus internship with the school’s communications department so I could have some work experience on my resume. After that semester, I reached out to the internship director to see if she knew of any entry-level job opportunities in the field, and she referred me to my first outside design job — I worked as a graphic designer there full-time over the summer, and continued part-time into the school year. I also made sure to volunteer for any student design projects that came up in the digital media department; if someone needed a poster, I would put my name in the hat, and that helped me build my portfolio with projects that weren’t just personal work. The most important factor was simply that I made time outside my regular studies for additional design work, because that helped me hone my skills and get a taste of how the industry works outside of school.
Living in Portland is a double edged sword when it comes to freelance. It’s such an artsy city — even big businesses have an interest in standing out, and are willing to hire freelance creatives to bring a bit of extra oomph to their projects. However, there’s also a huge population of said creatives living and working here. It can be hard to stand out above the clamor of so many talented people who are all competing for the same job. Offering one-size-fits-all work doesn’t cut it; you really do have to find your niche, own it, and build relationships with clients who are drawn to what you can offer.
The best advice I ever received about my creative practice was actually from my high school Spanish teacher. He asked me to paint a mural in his classroom, so I spent a lot of time working on it over the summer, and he asked me a lot of questions about my plans to go into the art field. At that point in my life, I didn’t think I had the skills to succeed as an illustrator or fine artist; I told him I wanted to study photography or design instead, because I thought I had a better chance at success. He later gave me this quote by Ira Glass (talking about writing, but applicable to all creative fields) which I still think of often:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Time, intention, practice, and more practice. When I was just drawing as a hobby, my style was really vague and undefined; I wasn’t putting a lot of time or forethought into my drawings, I was just doodling. I would get discouraged when I didn’t like something and stop halfway through. Once I set an intention to practice illustration for at least an hour every day, the consistency not only allowed me to practice my skills, but also let me see recurring patterns through my work from day to day. I’d start to notice a certain textural technique that was working well on multiple pieces or a color scheme that I kept repeating. Those repeated elements are the foundations of a personal style, and once you’re able to see and name them, it becomes much easier to refine and build upon. Make time for illustration daily and look back on your body of work as a whole to find what speaks to you. Play to your strengths and your style will start to emerge!