ECHO NOUVEAU - ISBN: 978-0-615-45951-6

Frequently Asked Questions

Forging out a career in illustration is like feeling around in the dark. The only way that you learn much of what I’ve learned is by experience, or having others share their experience with you. There is no rulebook. The instructor in me loves to share with others, so here is a selection of questions that I get asked often with the hopes that they will guide you.

When did you know that this was the career for you?
I have drawn avidly most of my life. In my Junior year of high school, my parents sent me to a summer arts program - and told me that if I still wanted to go into art when I came back they would build me a studio in the basement. The day after I returned my dad set up his old drafting table and the rest is history. Actually, I had to share the space with our gun range but I learned to draw around the shotgun reloaders.
Do you feel that working for a client limits your artistic scope or enhances it?
What others see as “limits and constraints”, I see as a puzzle to solve. What is the best way to communicate the idea? What is the demographic? Where will this piece be featured? Do I need to create several versions? I thrive on solving visual puzzles and working with a team.
What did you learn in art school that prepared you for your career?
I know self-taught artists who are successful, and artists who went to school for art and are not. It is a matter of how much time and work you are willing to invest in yourself. I was fortunate to attend Pratt, a top-tier school. Pratt taught me to work in most media, and made me well rounded with art history and seasoned teachers. If you are fortunate enough to attend a good art school, focus on squeezing every bit of valuable knowledge that you can from the experience. If you are not, then you are responsible for developing your own learning base. Study art history, visit museums, learn techniques from other artists, and find open drawing sessions to attend and draw nude models. Drawing from life is invaluable. Once you can draw and paint in all media, you can develop your own path. Either road that you choose to go - you get out of it what you put into it. You do not make it in this field without dedication and the burning need to succeed. Pratt’s motto is “Be true to your art and your art will be true to you.” So study art history. Study your peers. Draw. Draw. Then draw some more. Learn to draw from life.
What did you not learn in art school that students should be prepared to learn elsewhere?
Business. I was fortunate that both my parents and brother were business majors, but there was a severe lack of training the freelance artist to excel at more than art. You must learn how to manage yourself and run a business including all of the paperwork, licenses, and bookkeeping that it entails. I am also lucky enough to have a Creative Director husband to bounce bids and proposals off of. He ran art departments for many years, and offers a great inside view to where a project is headed.
You talk about staying in the industry, what art related jobs did you do first, before succeeding?
Freshman summer of college I took on a fulltime unpaid internship at an ad agency. I also worked nights at Taco Bell to make up for the unpaid part. I learned a lot about how an advertising agency is run, including how to pull stats, and cut Rubylith. Junior and senior year, I worked at an art shipping warehouse on the west side of Manhattan. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase passed through while I was there (we all went to peer at it in the crate), and I had lunch next to a huge statue of Lenin each day. Lazarus and I both freelanced in NYC through agencies for many years as production, web and graphic designers in conjunction to creating work for roleplaying games. I would supplement my advertising illustration with web design and logo creation, but eventually weeded out such jobs as I became more in demand. There was a market fluctuation after 9/11, and I compensated with teaching illustration at Pratt and Skidmore. A second such fluctuation happened in 2009-10 with the housing market, and initiated my movement into fine art, fantasy and comics shows. Versatility and the ability to adjust your business plan is what keeps you afloat.
Do you ever do work for free?
There is a preconceived notion among smaller clients that “artists do what they love, so making art is reward enough”. Let me reassure you that the requests for free work thin out as you become more established. Creation of work with the intent to get paid if the client likes it is called “spec work”. Most of the time these jobs do not pay off. So, unless it is a project that you are collaborating on as a labor of love, then try to avoid spec work as tempting as it looks. You are a professional. You deserve to be compensated. On very rare occasions, I will create a style sample with the intent to win a client that I wish to work for. When we pitched Celestial Seasonings, I created a cloisonné-style sample as part of the proposal for presentation. Sketches and style-samples for client presentations are most often paid, with an additional amount to bring the art to finish, and an additional percentage on top of that if the art is used (this falls under licensing).
How do I turn my art into a business?
You are a business, and are going to need to learn about the paperwork involved with being a business. Most illustrators start out as a sole-proprietorship. You will need to create this sole-prop. by filling out forms with your local state to create a “doing-business-as” identity or “fictitious name” and set up a separate bank account. If you sell your art at art shows, you will need to register to collect and pay sales tax separately with every state you sell in. Tax law is a very complicated field so I did what any great businesswoman does - I hired professionals! There is nothing that says “audit me!” more than an income that fluctuates. I cannot stress this enough. You may also want to hire a book-keeper, but one thing that you do not want to skimp on is a good accountant and a good lawyer. Keep receipts for everything! You now live in the land of deductions. You can write off anything business related. This includes all of your art supplies, travel, your studio space and utilities - and even things that you do not expect, such as the open drawing class fee, magazines that you purchased for reference material, and art books. Your accountant may set you up with estimated quarterly taxes to pay. They may recommend that you incorporate. Save yourself a lot of trouble and hire professionals to help you set up your business structure! When in doubt, do an internet search on the subject and visit your state’s department of revenue web site. Don’t forget about health insurance. Call up a broker or call multiple companies yourself. They will seem very expensive but it is critical to never lapse in coverage. What most employees forget is that their employers pay for a large portion of their health insurance and so are protected from the full cost.
As a successful artist working with the gaming, publishing, and commercial fields, what kind of advice would you give to artists who share your inspirations and have the drive to succeed?
Work. Talent doesn’t make you succeed but it can be squandered. Work makes you succeed, and I’ve seen more successful average artists than you could imagine – all because they worked for it. My husband and I have each had art jobs and projects where we’ve put in 100 hrs or more in a single week. I’ve been paid as little as $2 an hour for an illustration – but why did I do that? Every project forced me to learn something new, expand my skills and experiment with my style. In art school my illustration professor told us that it takes 10 years to become established as a successful working illustrator. That’s not just 10 years of drawing – that’s 10 years of learning the business, writing contracts, developing a consistent style, marketing that style, and establishing a reputation of meeting deadlines.10 years later, almost to the day, I got my first illustration job that paid enough of my bills that I could put everything else aside. I haven’t looked back.
What are some of the designs you’ve done that you’re most proud of?  
I really like the Celestial Seasonings boxes. Mostly because it’s a landmark project (such a landmark name) but also because it’s shows my versatility with how I can decorate without relying on traditional art nouveau influences. Of course, my 3 Shadowrun covers are also close to my heart because I poured my heart and soul into them. I’ve been a fan of Shadowrun for almost 20 years, and my husband and I play religiously. Also, because I used those projects to teach myself a completely new style of illustration. I haven’t tried painterly realism since college, and they took WAY too long to do, but after 16 years of being an artist I proved to myself that I’m far from being stagnant or fixed in my career. If art nouveau suddenly goes out of style, while I’ll still continue to do pieces for myself, I’ll always be eligible for other things.
What made you focus/take a liking to Art Nouveau as opposed to any other art movement?
I’ve always been drawn to detail-oriented works of art. I love details. A part of the reason is that I have a very real problem remembering faces, so I love rendering them so literally (a la Chuck Close). I also have a deep-seated need to try hard things until I can do them well. Art Nouveau is one of the hardest styles of art in the world, considering the technical requirements and the artistic sensibilities necessary. Almost every artist tries an Art Nouveau piece, but few go beyond that one and almost all give up after just a few.
What attracted you to the style of Alphonse Mucha?
Mucha is the grand master of the movement – and what most people don’t realize is that the movement didn’t just include his style. It included many styles (e.g., Toulouse-Latrec, Parish, etc.) that didn’t look anything like his at all. What impresses me was his ability to transcend a medium. Lithographs were the digital art of his day. They were designed to be reproduceable en masse for clients – but he didn’t use that as a crutch for his art. He created art first, and forced the medium to his will. He did this for sculpture, painting, furniture, architecture, everything. Very few artists in history have been allowed that broad a stroke in their careers.
I am NOT a Mucha Clone. There are many fantastic artists out there doing great things  mimicking his style. Some of them better than I can. But they rarely if ever bring anything new to the movement. I bring several new things. First, I bring a more composed Neo-Classic sense of story-telling than Mucha did. Secondly, being a woman, I bring a woman’s thought-process to the character’s in my illustrations. Most of Mucha’s women are emotionless or maybe only vaguely pleased, weepy or miffed – all 19th tame century expressions and all simple emotions a man might project upon a female character. My women are much more complicated and it comes out in their expressions, their gestures and their eyes (I’ve been told over and over that it can be seen in their eyes). My women are 21st century women with power, purpose, sensitivity, sensuality, and a background story. 
What was your inspiration for the "FiveBar Swordtail"? More specifically, the idea of butterflies? Were the butterflies simulating Mucha's rose petals?
Five-Bar Swordtail was the first piece I’d done for myself in nearly 10 years. The idea came to me of a woman surrounded by butterflies, with an art nouveau influenced design. Eventually it evolved to be about a women inspired by the butterflies themselves. Butterflies are transient – they drift – they’re beautiful but a little tragic because they live for so short a life. I didn’t think of anything from Mucha specifically. I’m also a fan of his students and contemporaries. I shot the model for it along with shots for a client, but it took me awhile to get to them. When I finally sat down to do it, I became obsessed until it was done. Maybe 20-hour days for 2 weeks? It was arduous but I couldn’t stop. Ultimately, there is very little in that piece that reflect Mucha at all, except for the “idea” that it’s a love female figure surrounded by a decorative frame. But my rendering is more sophisticated because of the difference in the medium. She is carefully composed with an MC Escheresque break in the 3rd dimension, with her feet planted in the forest, but her torso in front of the border. I also avoided Mucha’s favorite technique of repetitive geometry, as I instead repeated organic forms.
How do you achieve such vivid and range of colors????
As I work on a piece a palette starts to develop. Sometimes it occurs in my imagination before-hand and all my decisions are based on that. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until late in the piece and I’ll actually have to go back and recolor elements to tie the piece together. They all end up with a range of 2-3 hue themes and let the elements dictate precise how they should fit within it. Five-Bar used the hues of the butterfly itself – green and gold, with black accents. That one was pretty easy. In Bubo v2.0, the dress the model was wearing was black and I painted it that way but it just didn’t work for the piece, so I changed it to red – and it all came to life. I already had the gold and the blues painted in and first I was concerned that the red would clash – but ultimately it made her look French and she’s received raved reviews.
Have you ever considered a self-portrait? Or incorporating an image of yourself into one of your pieces?
I use myself as a model all the time – but rarely do I use my actual face. I’m not shy or ashamed. My face just doesn’t fit the pieces I get commissioned for. Except once when I received a commission from the State of Illinois to promote their wine industry. The art notes described a women who looked almost exactly like me with the stress that “It should look like Alphonse Mucha actually created it”. When complete, the client actually panicked and told me their lawyers demanded proof from me that I didn’t just steal one of Mucha’s pieces. So, a little embarrassed, I had to send them the reference photo of myself in my underwear and a signed affidavit that I was not only the artist, but also the model. We all laughed about it once the lawyers backed off.
What artists inspire you?
Besides the obvious, I am also a fan of Neoclassic art (David), Russian poster art, Japanese and primitive art. Two of my favorite works of all time is Hokusai’s “Pearl Diver” and “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Goya. I’m also big into cyberpunk (William Gibson inspired) and other gritty futuristic genre art. I treasure the in-depth art history classes at Pratt, and the visits to the museums of New York City. There are some genres that I do not care for, but it’s important to understand their evolution, and their roots.
Have you ever tried other media for your artwork?
I am a traditionally trained oil painter and have worked in most media including sculpture and print-making. I prefer digital painting because of the flexibility required for the commercial art field.
If you didn’t become an illustrator, what else were you considering?
I was an E.M.T. in high school and seriously considered medicine, specifically brain surgery. I never wanted to do anything easy.
What do you think inspired you as a young child?
When I was young, my parents renovated a historic two family farmhouse. When naughty, I took my time-outs in a corner with a red and black painted door and gaudy peeling wallpaper. The wallpaper was a jaunty and monotone French toile straight from the 1960’s and of a blatant erotic nature. Lovely men and ladies frolicked about in Victorian garb performing unspeakable acts to each other. I’m not sure my parents ever looked too closely at that wallpaper or at least thought it wouldn’t affect me. I suspect that it may have influenced my artistic style ever so slightly.
What led you to decide on a career in illustration?
I never wanted to be a ‘starving’ artist and every artist in history that inspired me was did commercial work. Mucha, David, even Michaelangelo was a commercial artist. So in wanting to make a living doing art, I just followed the careers of the masters.
Was there a specific area of illustration you wanted to concentrate in? (such as editorial, book,poster, ect.)
Simply, no. I started my career in Role Playing Games because it was an easy market to get into as a beginner and I earned experience and a reputation. From there, I took whatever work came my way and did a little of everything. Once I started showcasing Art Nouveau, I started attracting the attention of ad agencies and design firms – even when they didn’t want art nouveau results. That’s just how my career developed. Everyone is different – and one’s style has a lot to do with that. Painters might get more book covers than I’ve done.
How did you establish yourself as an illustrator?
It took ten years of building a skill-set, a style, business sense and a reputation before I was able to make a living as an illustrator full-time. While honing my skills and style were very beneficial, learning the business skills and earning the reputation for quality and meeting deadlines were the most important.
How did you put together your portfolio and did you select your work based on the markets, subject matter or style?
Initially, I chose an industry (Role Playing Games) and custom built a portfolio just for them. I studied what was already in the marketplace and worked hard to prove that I could fit into that field immediately, but with my own twist. I didn’t try to convince anyone to take a chance on a new style – just on a new artist. That was key – and it worked. Since, my style has evolved and my portfolio is so broad from projects that I rearrange my portfolio for each pitch. Sometimes they want more art nouveau. Sometimes they want less women. Sometimes they want all vector. Etc. The client tells me what they want to see when they contact me. Otherwise, I just keep the best of my best on my websites.
Who are your influences?
Besides the obvious (Alphonse Much, et. al.), I am also a fan of Neoclassic art (David), Russian poster art, Japanese and primitive art. Two of my favorite works of all time is Hokusai’s “Pearl Diver” and “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Goya. I’m also big into cyberpunk (William Gibson inspired) and other gritty futuristic genre art. I treasure the in-depth art history classes at Pratt, and the visits to the museums of New York City. There are some genres that I do not care for, but it’s important to understand their evolution, and their roots.
What were the most difficult aspects of illustration in school, after graduation at the start of your career and now?
Difficult? Business. They didn’t teach business at art school. The art of contracts, negotiating, managing projects and client satisfaction were all things I had to learn from scratch. Luckily, I had some outside resources to help, such as my parents (who were business majors) and my husband who was a creative director and could clarify what my client’s might be thinking.
What do you think of the current trends in illustration and where do you think this field is heading to?
I don’t think there is a trend in illustration – there are hundreds. Every client today is looking to stand out, and when one embraces something new – another is trying to resurrect something traditional but with a twist. Editorial illustration might have more ‘Trend’-like situations, but there are so many out publications out there that any observation of artistic congruence would be completely dependant on the publications being compared. There’s enough work out there for every style – old and new.
Describe your process from getting contacted by a client to finishing the project.
That’s a very long answer. Briefly: The client reaches out to me to see if I’m available. They send me a confidentiality agreement and a document with the project specifications and we have a meeting. I submit a proposal of the effort, cost, licensing and timeline of the project for approval. We negotiate. I start work and they pay me a portion of the contracted amount up front to serve as a kill fee. They send me references. I shoot and gather more references. I submit sketches, they approve. I submit roughs, they approve and usually pay another installment. I complete the illustration and they approve and send final payment.
What do you think the best tools are to promoting yourself as an illustrator? Are book portfolios still in demand?
Anything to make you easy to find and stand out in a crowd. Web portfolios are the backbone of a modern illustrator’s promotion.I actually invest in multiple Internet portfolio sites, along with my own. I spend at least one day a week managing those (uploading new art, new introduction, whatever to make it fresh and inviting). Books are still mandatory – but only for the rare face-to-face meetings. I stay away from free sites like DeviantArt, because ANYONE can get a DeviantArt account and a lot of the art up there is stolen or posted as someone’s list of favorites they want to show off to their friends. I’ve actually found MY art posted up there by fans of mine giving me credit and promoting me for me. That’s not bad – but I have to wonder how many people are up there who’ve stolen art (even MY art) and I will never find them. My husband once had his entire portfolio website downloaded and reposted by someone else, who then got a full-time job based on it and his resume. We only found out because one of his former employees found it during a vanity search. Luckily for us, he got the offender fired within minutes and his reputation was salvaged. So a printed portfolio is also protection against identity theft.
What advice would you give to an illustration student?
Work. Talent doesn’t make you succeed but it can be squandered. Work makes you succeed, and I’ve seen more successful average artists than you could imagine – all because they worked for it. My husband and I have each had art jobs and projects where we’ve put in 100 hrs or more in a single week. I’ve been paid as little as $2 an hour for an illustration – but why did I do that? Every project forced me to learn something new, expand my skills and experiment with my style. In art school my illustration professor told us that it takes 10 years to become established as a successful working illustrator. That’s not just 10 years of drawing – that’s 10 years of learning the business, writing contracts, developing a consistent style, marketing that style, and establishing a reputation of meeting deadlines.10 years later, almost to the day, I got my first illustration job that paid enough of my bills that I could put everything else aside. I haven’t looked back.
I’ve written a book that is a combination coffee table art book and a helpful reservoire of information for up-and-coming artists who want to go pro. It’s titled Echo Nouveau and will be coming available from http://www.echo-gallery.com after March 28th, 2011.
How do you come up with ideas?
Creatively. Some just come to me alone, others I have a brain-storming session with the client.
What is the most difficult part of being an illustrator and what is the most rewarding?
The most difficult thing about being an illustrator is not knowing when the next project is coming from. The most rewarding is seeing your art on the shelves.