How did you establish yourself as an illustrator?
I graduated from SCAD as a Sequential Art major, Illustration minor. Initially I focused on comics work and my illustration work was not very good. I went to a lot of small-press comics conventions selling hand-made mini-comics. I gave my minis to publishers and agents. I was asked to contribute to the short-story anthology MOME and I did a couple comics for kids – a short book, Stinky, where the publisher had seen my (primitive)
website, and a longer graphic novel called The Secret Science Alliance which I got through a book agent. I posted my work to livejournal & blogger and met other artists online.
After a couple years of this I realized it was impossible for me to draw comics fast enough to expect to live on the money I made from them. I also wasn’t enjoying the work I was doing; it was too hard, too stressful, and didn’t feel like my own voice anymore. However, The Secret Science Alliance was supposed to be the first in a series – I signed a two-book contract & only did one book. Telling my agent and publisher that I could not do a second book was an awful choice to have to make. Thankfully, the first SSA eventually paid out the small advance I had been given for both books, and several years later I was able to part ways with that publisher.
Once I stopped trying to do comics for money I got a job at a co-op grocery store working with farmers and generally being professionally friendly and happy. I started focusing more on personal work, contributing to art shows and learning to paint. I did a lot of art for fun. I finally made a clean, professional web site. In 2011 I was contacted by The New York Times to do an illustration for them. I did a good job and they’ve continued to call me up for work since then. Having one big client like The Times got me a lot of exposure and made me seem much more professional and hirable. I started getting more opportunities from ADs who’d seen my work on my web site, or who’d seen it in The Times or online, or who knew me from my comics work. In the summer of 2012 I started getting enough work that I didn’t technically need to keep my job at the co-op, so I quit.
I have several books published of more personal comics work. How to Be Happy, Libby’s Dad, BDSM, You and a Bike and a Road, Why Art? and The Hard Tomorrow. These books did not make me a lot of money on their own but they helped get my work out into the world and strengthened my illustration career, I think.
I inherited some money from my grandparents when I was young. This money was key in letting me focus on my work during school and directly afterward, when I was getting established. It currently allows me to pursue this very uncertain career with less fear for the future than many other illustrators have to face. Relatedly, I am also white, and we live in a society that privileges white people. I work very hard, and I’m proud of my work,
but the success I have had is definitely in part due to the advantages I’ve gotten from these two things.
How did you put together your portfolio and did you select your work based on the markets, subject matter or style?
I no longer keep up a physical portfolio. I try to maintain my website, putting my best and most recent work first. I try not to include work on my website that I no longer consider representational of the kind of work I do. I have several different styles – I’m not sure if this is a professional liability or not – and I try to include examples of all of them; I figure ADs can figure it out.
Who are your influences?
Tove Jansson, Joann Sfar, Lynda Barry, my dad, my bff Kate Alexandrite. John Porcellino, Jillian Tamaki, Lisa Hanawalt, Sophia Foster- Dimino, my husband Drew Weing.
What were the most difficult aspects of illustration in school, after graduation at the start of your career and now?
Making art is hard. It was hard during school, and hard after school. In school, my work wasn’t very good yet and I was just focused on making something that looked half-decent. After school I struggled with finding a more personal voice. I struggled to figure out how to enjoy making art, and how to make art I was proud of. Learning how to be fast, professional and confident was also a challenge. Figuring out how to be my own boss
without hating myself was very hard. Staying motivated was hard. Figuring out how to balance work and having a full, satisfying life that was worth living was very hard. Finally, money was always very stressful. For years it felt like no matter how hard I worked I would never be able to make enough to support myself on my own, and it felt like the work I did for money could never feel like “art” or make me proud. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I was able to make enough money that it wasn’t a constant source
of shame, and that I found my personal voice which is both marketable and something I can be proud of.
In 2018 and 2019 I spent much of my time working on my book The Hard Tomorrow, which gave me less time to focus on money-making projects, and that part of my career took a hit. I was also pregnant, which made working hard, and then I had a baby, which made it even harder. I am lucky that my husband and I both have flexible and opposite schedules that let us split childcare equally and give us both time for work, although not as much time as we had before the baby. If I didn’t have a partner who was willing and able to split childcare with me equitably I would not be able to work, at all. The idea that one can be a full-time parent of a young child and also be an artist – that one will “find the time” – I have big problems with.
What do you think of the current trends in illustration and where do you think this field is heading to?
I have absolutely no idea. I don’t think anyone does. A few years ago people told me I was part of a new wave of illustrators who got more professional jobs through art directors seeing their personal work. Now it seems like more and more of the available job opportunities are for low pay, demand multiple dynamic formats, involve animation or are looking for a bland house style. This is all concerning. I should probably get more proficient at making animated gifs. I should probably get a Tik Tok.
Describe your process from getting contacted by a client to finishing the project.
It really depends on the job and the AD. My very favorites are jobs I’ve gotten for The Times with extremely fast turn-around. I get an email inquiring about my availability at 10am, sketches due by 2, final due by 6. The piece is in the paper the next day. It’s all very thrilling.
Most jobs have a less tight deadline which mostly just gives you more time to fret.
I do all my sketches on my computer or ipad to save time & make editing easier. I usually do 6-10 thumbs and send off 3 – 6. If I send off less than 3 the AD gets jumpy and often winds up being more micro-managey, I’ve found. Often the AD has changes or suggestions, although the most professional ADs will try to make sure the direction of the piece is pretty concrete before you go to final. But I’ve also done comics for adults and kids, book illustration, and ad work, and those are all pretty different processes. I’ve found that – understandably – the more money you get paid the more finicky the AD will be.
I either do my finals digitally or in traditional media. I use photoshop and a wacom tablet on my desktop, and procreate on my ipad, for digital work. In traditional media I work in pen and ink, or watercolor and gouache. I use aquarelle watercolor, good hair brushes, and 300lb hot press watercolor paper. For pen and ink I use maru-pen deleter nibs, bombay black ink, and either Strathmore drawing paper or 400 series bristol board.
What do you think the best tools are to promoting yourself as an illustrator? Are book portfolios still in demand?
I haven’t had much of a use for my printed portfolio in the last 8 years, but I live in Georgia/Arizona and don’t go visit ADs in person much. In person it would be good to have a print portfolio or an ipad with a more traditional style 12-piece portfolio. I like making mini-comics and art books, which can showcase your work but also be a nice personal piece in themselves that you can sell or trade.
The comic books I put out do not make much money, but they have gotten me press and illustration work. Putting out a book is a mind-bogglingly inefficient form of self-promotion, but it’s good to remember that your personal work can be part of a virtuous cycle – your personal work gets you professional work which finances your personal work, etc.
I really don’t know anything about promotion. I entered the SOI Annual when I was starting out & won a couple things & I guess it’s gotten me jobs. I’ve sent out e-mail blasts and gotten some jobs. I’ve gone to New York and visited art directors. I’ve gotten most of my jobs by doing a lot of work, and making it easily available online. I have a clean, spare portfolio site that I update frequently, instagram, and twitter. My website is a wordpress. It was comparatively easy to build, extremely easy to update, and looks fine.
What advice would you give to an illustration student?
My advice is to have a simple, professional website that you update frequently, a decent web presence, and get your work in front of the people who might want to hire you. Figure out who those people might be, write them, email them, comment on their ig posts.
Constantly, constantly strive to produce the best, most interesting, most honest work you’re capable of. Don’t try to do what you think other people want. You simply won’t be able to produce your best work that way. Make art that speaks to you and comes from your heart. Be true to yourself. Remember why you’re doing this.
Also, live cheap and get a part-time job. Prioritize making good work, then start trying to figure out how to make money off of that. You might need to buy time, and in that case getting a pleasant low-key job that will get you out of the house & around people will take a lot of the pressure off.
Hold on to your sense of right and wrong. The world is hard, and it’s going to get harder. We’re going to be under increasing pressure to take whatever jobs we can get, even if they make the world worse still. There is no way to live entirely ethically (I wouldn’t trust anyone who says otherwise), but I believe we have to try – not just for others, but for ourselves. I believe when we act unethically, we hurt ourselves as artists. Clear sight, open hearts and commitment to truth is imperative in making good art. And we lose some of our ability to do those things when we go against our personal ethics.
Don’t undercut yourself. If you are the kind of person who has a hard time advocating for themselves, do it for the sake of your peers. When we demand fair contracts and ethical pay, we are also helping our peers who deserve fair contracts and ethical pay.
Don’t beat yourself up if other people inexplicably seem to have it easier than you do. They probably do. The myth of American egalitarianism is a toxic lie. Fight against what you have been taught and don’t blame yourself for the blows you take in an unjust system. If you are black or a person of color, poor, fat, a woman, a caregiver for a child or loved one, muslim, queer, trans, disabled: there are powerful forces trying to destroy you. Don’t be destroyed.
How do you come up with ideas?
I sketch in my sketchbook a lot. I walk a lot. I ride my bike a lot. I try to do most of my creative work in the morning while my brain is fresh and not overwhelmed with the various stuff of the day.
I personally find it important to eat right, exercise, keep a regular schedule and get enough sleep, but I know that’s not for everyone.
What inspires you?
I’ve gotten so much inspiration & direction watching my peers and other illustrators I admire. Right now there are a huge number of incredible women working in comics and illustration. They’re focused and serious and driven and value their own work. Watching them just totally own it reminds me I can do that, too, and keeps me strong. I think we inspire one another. It’s amazing to have this community I’m connected to online. I couldn’t do it without them. I wouldn’t be able to believe it would be possible.
Is there any advice you would give to yourself when you were starting out?
I don’t know what advice I’d give myself. My career trajectory so far has been irritatingly round-about and inefficient, but I think maybe I had to do it like I did.
Figure out how to be happy and have fun. There are easier ways to get love and money so if you aren’t having a good time you should try to rearrange your life and work process so you are having fun, or you should quit.
“Don’t try to imitate another artists’ voice. Find your own voice. And don’t go looking for your own voice. Just draw and think and draw and think. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t avoid pain. Feel those feelings and draw them. Your voice will come out on its own. Then, when it comes out, trust it.” That’s what I would tell myself. That’s what I would tell anyone, I think.
What is the most difficult part of being an illustrator and what is the most rewarding?
The most rewarding part is being able to draw and make pictures, and have people respond to those pictures. The most difficult part is everything else.
Best of luck to you, whatever you wind up doing. Make sure you’re happy. Make sure you’re proud. Take care of yourself.
/ eleanor davis / november 2013 / january 2015 / april 2018 / january 2021