A Dozen Illustrators Talk About the Past: Childhood Callings, Changing Lanes, & Getting Professional
WORKING NOT WORKING
We interviewed 12 illustrators to learn about their professional starts, their daily process and current challenges, and what they want to see more of for themselves and their field in the future. Below, as we focus in on the past, we hear why they pursued illustration in the first place, how they got started in a professional capacity, and with which project they first found their voice.
Header Work Sample by Eric Petersen
What led you to pursue illustration as a profession?
BEEN DRAWING SINCE CHILDHOOD
Several illustrators described their craft as a true calling since childhood.
Louise Rosenkrands: I've always been drawing ever since I could hold a pen, so for me there wasn't really any other option.
Mallory Heyer: When I was a kid, my mom got me this book called “How a Book is Made” by Aliki. I remember it absolutely blowing my mind when I got to the section about illustrators. I couldn’t believe that was actually a career path. When I was in first grade, all of my friends were saying they wanted to be teachers, firefighters, and the like. After reading that, I already knew that I wanted to be an illustrator.
Eric Petersen: Early childhood experiences with art led me to the desire to create it professionally.
ILLUSTRATION KICKED IN DURING HIGH SCHOOL
For others, the calling took hold a little later after exploring other arts.
Ellis van der Does: When I was 16, I did an art foundation course thinking I wanted to pursue photography, as I was thinking illustration was just cartoons and the like. However, at the first illustration introduction I found out how much broader the profession is and what a great storytelling tool it could be. I knew I wanted to be an illustrator from then on.
Emilio Santoyo: A friend had asked if we could stop by Art Center in Pasadena for a tour on our way to a concert. He was my ride, so I said sure. I joined in on the tour and learned what illustration was as a profession that day. My mind was blown that afternoon and a few years after high school I ended up going to that school.
Violeta Noy: I always loved creative subjects in school, and yet I studied for years to be able to do a completely different degree. Something that felt like a responsible choice. I got the grades but when I was writing down my university choices it just felt really strange not to be pursuing the thing I liked the most. So I gave it a try, and here I am today.
PRACTICAL, PORTABLE, AFFORDABLE
Illustration also has the benefit of being a field with only two necessary ingredients to start: a drawing tool and something to draw on.
Grace Miceli: Illustration was the most affordable medium for me to work in as young artist, so it began as a practical choice. I loved that no matter where I was I could grab some markers and paper and bring my ideas to life so quickly.
Fran Caballero: I had a graphics tablet way before studying painting at art school, so I felt relatively comfortable in that discipline. After I graduated, I realised painting would be a bit of a nightmare to sustain, so I just gravitated back towards illustrating. Once I started making my own work again, I found it easier and overall more satisfying than I'd found attending gallery openings and everything else that came with painting.
FROM SIDE HUSTLE TO PROFESSION
For some, it took envisioning a viable project to see their skillset’s potential as a profession.
Ruby Roth: I never made a choice. My career unfolded because I was making art since childhood, studying art, and was always drawn to improving my skills and knowledge—even when it was just a side hustle. Professionalism only became a factor when something I had already begun—a book—suddenly seemed like a viable project to pursue getting into the marketplace.
David Borrull: Realising that I had a natural tendency for drawing as a medium to express myself. After that animation came as a natural step to be followed, something that I feel passionate about still today after so many years.
Paul Garland: A love for creativity. I originally went to college with a view to a career in fashion, but hated sewing machines, so went on to study Fashion Illustration. It was there that I realized I wanted to draw for commercial and conceptual projects, so I switched courses.
What was the first project where you felt like you found your voice?
Violeta Noy: One of my first projects was to illustrate a personal essay about queer pregnancies for BuzzFeed. I remember thinking "this is it."
Grace Miceli: My "emotional eating" series, where I pair various snacks with existential phrases replacing the traditional branding. For me it was the first time I was able to express my sense of humor along with the more serious thoughts I had.
Ruby Roth: The first children's book I wrote and illustrated felt cohesive and genuine to me. Inspired by my elementary school students' artwork, I intentionally adjusted the subject and color palettes to be more "kiddie" than my normal body of work had ever been, but the voice, the shapes, and characters were still absolutely authentic to my natural style. I wasn't copying or overtly influenced by any other illustrators by this time. And in the making of a book, I was forced to stay very consistent throughout—this restriction was good for me, reigning me in where I could often be too varied. I felt like I had hit a mark, stylistically, because the art development was a true expression and professional at the same time.
David Borrull: A project I did for the MOFILM platform for the company Weber. I had to make a full commercial as a competition. It was a perfect excuse to put all my senses to it. I didn't win, but I really enjoyed making it on my own for the first time and not making someone else's artwork.
Ellis van der Does: When I illustrated Dutch literary agency SLAA's summer column back in 2017. They gave me great directions but also tons of freedom.
Paul Garland: Perhaps one of my final college projects which went on to be amongst the winners of the RSA Student Design Awards. That one gave me a huge confidence boost.
Louise Rosenkrands: Probably a commission for a magazine where I had to create my take on the city of Copenhagen.
Emilio Santoyo: I think working on the "wiggle type" project was where I found my voice. It was a mixture of all my strengths: hand type, illustration, and animation. This project then led to doing a lot more hand type projects and that hasn't stopped since.
Eric Petersen: My first personal project was of a portrait of my son at age 6. It was the first piece that I created in my current style.
Fran Caballero: I think each project feeds confidence in different aspects of your work, especially the more difficult jobs. I really enjoy the quick turnover of editorial work, those snappy design decisions normally inspire the best work.
Scott Balmer: My work has changed in some shape or form throughout the years, so that it usually goes by how I feel about what my work is at that point. Sometimes it's “maybe this is a bit too tight, I should loosen up a bit” or “this is too loose, got to tighten it up slightly,” along with the numerous style changes as I tend to experiment to see what interesting ways I can draw. It's really all about comfort and what feels good on the page. I've kind of moved on from seeing things as drawing buildings, people and objects and more that I am merely drawing suggestions of these things; once you get over seeing a person, a head, an orange, and seeing it as just shapes and suggestions, then you can pretty much draw anything.
Mallory Heyer: The first project that I found my visual voice was probably my illustration series for Refinery29 about beauty experts with acne. I feel like this is when I finally found a balance between the style I work in when I oil paint and my digital portraits.