Rachel Suggs grew up in Texas, where she attended an arts magnet high school. She also benefited from the encouragement of her creative parents. “I was really privileged to have a family that supported my work. My mom’s a painter, and my dad’s an architect. Having that early was a really positive experience as I began to take art more seriously. Creative activities are what I excelled in, and I’m thankful my family recognized that,” she said.
Attending an arts magnet opened up many doors for Rachel, and she was exposed to some of her earliest influences by an instructor there. “My printmaking teacher gave me this magazine with some of Jillian Tamaki and James Jean’s work in it. They became early influences when I was a teenager,” she said. Another teacher recommended the Maryland Institute College of Art’s pre-college program in Baltimore, and Rachel ended up taking college-level illustration classes there between her sophomore and junior years of high school. This summer program was her first introduction to the school she would later attend and graduate from. “A lot of the students at MICA really had their own voice and unique work. That really attracted me to the school,” she said.
During her time there, Rachel overcame many struggles to become the successful artist she is today. "My college experience had a lot of ups and downs. Even though I met a lot of wonderful people and my work grew a lot, I remember my junior year felt like a dead end. I had gone through several years of depression and anxiety, and that was the year it hit its highest peak. My own mental health along with MICA's unchecked toxic culture and staff played a massive role in my struggle there,” she said. “As an artist I think you need to be self-critical to improve, but there came a point where my own self-criticism had become exacerbated by the environment I was in. You need to be kind to yourself and put your own needs over the art you make first. It’s something I continue working on from time to time, but when I slip up it absolutely shows in the work I do.”
While Rachel grew as a person, her work also evolved with her. “In college I didn’t know if I wanted my work to be more realistic or stylized, but then I got into screen printing. Just the challenge of working with a really limited two or three color palette, and working with shapes and flat colors, really helped inform the style you see now. I ask myself which shapes are really satisfying and exciting for me to draw. It’s a really organic process,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve been drawn to different colors, too. In college my palette was cool and dark, but more recently I like a warmer palette. When I start a piece I usually start with just two colors and then, maybe halfway through the process, I start adding more colors on top of that. It’s limiting, but it makes it easier for me to pick a direction. When I have too many options, it’s intimidating to figure out a palette.”
Rachel follows a similar philosophy when it comes to choosing her subject matter and overcoming creative blocks. “In college my former professor, Jaime Zollars, taught us to make a long list of things we love or know a lot about. If I’m stuck I’ll go to that list and try to incorporate those things I’m excited about into personal or freelance projects. It really helps if I feel uninspired or stuck,” she said. “I like drawing at museums or the conservatory for inspiration as well. Just leaving your apartment, getting coffee, hanging out with friends and enjoying life is important. Sometimes I’ll even go back to old sketchbooks from high school or college and I’ll find something really interesting I can work with.”
Sketchbooks played a huge role in Rachel’s development as an artist, and she started using them when she was a child. "My ‘style’ happened through a lot of experimentation and failure. I found sketchbooks were a safe place to do this without having to show anyone or get embarrassed,” she said. However, she believes sketchbooks aren’t the end-all, and her advice to new artists finding a voice is to fearlessly experiment, learn from mistakes and see what sticks. “A person’s style shouldn’t remain static ten years later. It’s normal for your art to change organically, and I think these habits are useful in order to keep from feeling stale.”
She also recommends posting work online. “Using social media has been helpful in getting freelance work and selling prints. I think my presence started to grow post-graduation, and a year after that I got work from Cartoon Network on a Powerpuff Girls campaign. I used to wake up early before school and watch that show with my dad, so it was surreal and really unexpected. I asked them how they found me, and apparently it was through my internet presence and social media.”
Rachel sells prints online at INPRNT. “I found INPRNT through Sam Bosma and Kali Ciesemier. They would order your prints and sell them at SPX, and they told me what a great experience they had with you. I liked the quality of the prints, and that artists make more profit here compared to other places. Y’all really seem to care about the artists you work with and that’s what attracted me to INPRNT,” she said. Besides selling prints, Rachel’s a full-time illustrator at Duolingo and previously worked as a freelance artist for clients like The New York Times, TIME, Quanta Magazine, Polygon, Macmillan Publishing and Little Bee Books.
She began working at Duolingo’s Pittsburgh office in August of 2019. The team there consists of several product designers, two illustrators, two animators, a producer and an art director. Lately, though, Rachel has been working for Duolingo from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “While it’s nice working at home with my dog, Una, I do miss the perks of being at the office and the company and presence of my team,” she said. “I also miss the separation between my home and office, because that dynamic helped a lot with my productivity. “
Rachel usually starts her day by checking her calendar and cuddling with her dog. She used to take the bus to work, but while working remotely, she makes a cup of coffee at home and checks in with her team over Slack and Zoom, with Una by her side. “Most of my day is on the tablet, so I’m grateful for my dog’s companionship and that encouragement to step outside once in a while,” Rachel said. She has also taken this time to pick up a new creative hobby: weaving. “I built my own loom with some nails and stretcher bars. It’s a great thing to do if you have patience and need something that’s easy to learn. It's also perfect with a podcast in the background.”
When she worked as a freelance artist, Rachel supplemented her income with jobs at a book store, coffee shop and print studio. Today she really likes the security of working as full-time illustrator for a successful tech start-up. She was also happy about the opportunity to move to Pittsburgh. “It’s not a place I anticipated arriving at, and prior to my interview at Duolingo I had never visited, but I’m so grateful to be here. It’s fresh, but there are some familiar, historic and quirky details that remind me of Baltimore,” she said. Rachel has made an effort to meet all types of creative people there, including those outside of the illustration world. “For the most part though, I just relish having a place for myself and embracing an independent lifestyle.”
Tuomas Korpi lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he is the Creative Director of an animation and illustration studio, Piñata. His lifelong interests in drawing and painting, combined with his skills in computers and architecture, have led to a body of work with a special focus on landscapes and lighting. “What I enjoy the most are environments and nature, especially the lighting in different seasons," he said. "I would describe my work as trying to capture something that I see in nature every day, and introducing a story with the images at the same time. I have always been really keen on the things I see and maybe that’s part of the reason I started painting: seeing the light and how it travels in space. It’s always been a part of me.”
Many of Tuomas's ideas come from observing the world around him. He likes to use his notebook and take photos using his phone to keep track of his image ideas. “Usually I get ideas from something I see around me. From that basic idea I start exploring further with thumbnail sketches, figuring out what would be the best composition and angle to paint, trying to explore if it’s possible to show in one frame what I see in my head. If I’m happy with one sketch, usually at that point I already see how it’s going to look when it’s finished. When working on a painting, at each step of the process I try to explore if I can push the colors or the lighting a little bit further.”
His piece Heart of the Forest fuses Tuomas's love of environments, lighting, and story. The image depicts a man carrying a lantern, surrounded by large, gnarled trees with orbs of yellow light in their branches. Even the water at his feet appears to glow. “With this piece I started playing around with an idea that there are sources of light growing from a tree. This light is oozing from the ground, and the man in the image just takes this light, this essence, and collects it." said Tuomas. "This is how I sometimes feel when visiting a forest, how I experience this peaceful, nice environment.” Spending time in nature is one of Tuomas’s favorite pastimes, whether he’s hiking in the forest or cycling along the Finnish coastline.
He also has a longstanding interest in computers, which has influenced his work through the years. “As I grew up I used to play video games, and I was really this computer geek almost. At the same time, I was drawing and painting a lot, and those two things eventually came together. Sometimes I was more interested in computers and doing homepages or writing some code, and other times I was more interested in painting and drawing. When I was in high school in the early 2000s, one of my friends was doing an indie video game and he wanted someone to create some artwork for that. I had some experience in using Photoshop back then, but that was the first project I worked on in digital media and created something entirely with a computer.”
Tuomas prefers to get most of his creative work done in the mornings, tackling other tasks in the afternoon. “Whether I’m working at the office, or painting at home, it’s the same; I’m really more of a morning person than a night person. I wake up, and then after breakfast, usually from 8 until around noon, it is my most productive time. During the afternoon, if I am at work I try to be more involved in meetings, helping others, brainstorming and writing emails."
As one of the founders and as a Creative Director of Piñata, Tuomas has an important role that allows him to be creative and work with a diverse team. “Directing a creative studio is a lot of fun. We have a lot different projects and a lot of stylistic variety between them. We may do something that is very technical and photorealistic, or something cartoony that is heavily stylized," he said. "As a creative person it is really fun to be able to work in that kind of environment, but also it’s an amazing opportunity to get to work with different kinds of people, and people with different talents. Together, we can create something that we couldn’t do by ourselves. ”
Piñata is a thriving illustration and animation firm, and Tuomas tries to give as much freedom and responsibility as possible to the artists in the studio. “If I get a certain feeling from the client about the the direction they want to go, I will jump in to help, but it’s always teamwork. I guess my strongest areas are composition and color palettes, so I try to support the projects particularly on those areas. However, one of the principles I have is that I try to give as much creative freedom as possible to everyone, to give them ownership of the project. It’s really hard to be creative if someone else is micromanaging you and trying to influence too much. If I really want to grow as an artist, then it’s hard if someone is telling me what to do.”
About half of Piñata's projects are done for game companies, and the other half are for marketing and advertising. The team gets together outside of work sometimes. “We try to think up activities to do as a group, especially in summertime," said Tuomas. "Maybe mushroom hunting, playing basketball, or seeing some sort of cultural event, like the opera. We had a tour of the national opera and got to see how the costumes are made and so forth. We also have a weekly Crossfit class for everyone who wants to join. It gives a real nice boost to the whole day!" The creative community is one of the reasons why Tuomas is happy to live in Finland, along with its natural beauty. “I also like the nature here, the walking and biking routes around the coastline. It’s a really nice place, a lot of nature. We get to see the four seasons.”
He got started as an artist by sharing his work online, and although a lot has changed since then, he would tell newer artists to do the same thing. “Some ten or fifteen years ago, the internet art scene was smaller. I published my artwork and it was more easily noticed, but I think the same principle still stands today: If you want someone to get interested in the work you do or about you, then you have to show the work somehow. There is so much incredibly good artwork available everywhere that people are hesitant to post anything, but that is really the only way for people to notice you,” he said. One place where Tuomas has shared his work since 2013 is INPRNT.
“I saw my colleagues and friends using it, and I thought, why not try it? I really enjoy the high quality of the INPRNT products, and I think it’s a great platform because it’s easily available," he said. "One really nice thing that happened a couple of years ago was when there were a lot of people on Reddit asking where they can get my artwork. Just in time, I posted my INPRNT, and people could buy my artwork through the link in that thread. I think it’s really good to have because if a particular painting is catching a little bit of fame, I can give people the opportunity to buy that. That is a really nice thing to be able to do.”
Felicia Wahlström lives in a small Swedish coastal town called Gävle. Known online as Harteus, she is a digital painter whose classical style is made unique with a dark modern touch. She is one of just a few artists in Gävle. “My city has always painted itself as a culture hotspot, but I don't know if that's necessarily true,” she explained. “We have a small community for artists, a couple of places to check art out and workshops here and there. It's not a large community, but the ones that do exist are really dedicated and full of love and passion.”
Harteus has found connections with other artists and supporters around the world by sharing her work online. “I think my entire art career is based on my online presence. Without social media no one would see my paintings, so I owe everything to it,” she said. “I think it's not uncommon today to base your career around Instagram or other image sharing sites, it's how you get out there today, but it also adds the dimension of being able to handle your accounts and updating regularly, which I'm bad at doing. It's not only about art, it's about marketing yourself as well.”
She originally started painting with watercolors and drawing with pencils as a child, then transitioned to digital mediums at 13 years old. “I made the switch in my early teenage years, mostly driven by the inspiration I had gotten from other digital artists that I had seen online. I wanted to try it out myself and it stuck with me,” she said. “My first ever digital drawings were made with a mouse and rendered completely with the dodge and burn tools. I got my first tablet not long after. The first years of trying digital painting was such a hit and miss process."
At that time, Harteus envisioned herself growing up and going to art school abroad. She enrolled in an art-oriented high school, but soon faced personal difficulties that caused her to leave. “I went to high school with an art orientation, which meant we had a lot of different art classes. Unfortunately I only went there for about a year until I had to drop out because of mental health issues,” she said. “When I realized life wasn't going to pan out exactly the way I had imagined it, it broke something inside of me. Since then I've absolutely learned that it's okay to walk the longer path.”
Harteus never gave up on becoming an artist. She received art education through local folk high schools and is now in an online education program, balancing personal work with her studies. “A typical day for me is sleeping in a little longer than I probably should, cruising around in my underwear and studying or drawing with breaks in between while listening to music,” she said. “Since I'm currently studying on distance I don't really have anywhere to be at the moment, so I do spend a lot of time at home. I do get a lot of work done though! I have a desk set up by my window where I have my laptop and tablet, so the best place for me to work is definitely at home, by my desk.”
She strives to incorporate traditional techniques into her digital work. “I'm a digital girl through and through. It's been a long time since I sat down to paint or draw traditionally,” she said. “It makes me sad sometimes though. I do struggle a lot with the idea of digital art not being ‘real’ art, something that has been implied over and over by countless art teachers and others around me. Since I also truly love the technical craftsmanship of traditional art, I've sometimes felt like I have cheated my way through with my digital art. The only kind of middle way I've found that works best for me is trying to apply some of the traditional techniques to my digital work.”
For Harteus, the misconception that there is a lack of craftsmanship in digital art is one of its biggest downfalls. “I know it isn't true,” she said. “Digital art is just as any other medium. You still need skill, technique, and knowledge to be able to pull it off, just as it is with traditional painting.” She acknowledges that working digitally allows artists more room for mistakes and experimentation. “One of the advantages with digital work would probably be how easy it is to redo, undo, or edit something that's off. In those rare occasions where I actually sit down to draw with a pencil, I almost instinctively look for the undo button when I make a mistake.”
As she developed her technique, Harteus also began to establish her style and discover which themes she enjoyed most. “I've always been inspired by Renaissance art, romanticism, and the classical world. Myths, history, and religion all have fantastic imagery associated with them, something that I've always felt very inspired by. I'd say my art is a kind of combination of all of those things, but made digitally and featuring subjects and themes I find interesting, be it a TV show or feminism.” She usually chooses dark themes and a color palette of jewel tones. “I would describe my color palette as warm and deep. I mostly work with deep yellows, golds, wine reds, and bottle greens.”
She has a distinct and recognizable style. Her evolution as an artist has happened organically, with Harteus trusting the process and learning from each piece without internal pressure or perfectionism. “I've always felt really secure in the thought that as long as I continue, I will get better,” she said. “Whatever I make I know I'll learn something from it, and without even really trying you pick up on all these little clues and mistakes which will help you with the next piece. For me it's a very carefree, fun process where I fully trust the knowledge that I'm constantly evolving as long as I keep going.”
Harteus is also inspired by seeing her work in print. Her piece called Vampyr was included in a compilation artbook in 2015. “It was a huge deal for me and I'm still so thankful for that opportunity. It was, not surprisingly, an artbook with a vampire theme, something that's absolutely up my alley. It's dark, romantic, mythical. Themes I adore. I put so much effort into that piece, and seeing it in print was something out of this world.” Vampyr and other works by Harteus are also sold at INPRNT. “When I was researching which print site to sell my prints on, I decided INPRNT was the best one. It's so easy to use, straight forward, you get a great cut and the quality of the prints are amazing.”
Commissions are another important source of income, and Harteus embraces challenging requests. “I enjoy everything about working on commissions. I love getting a task and to then try and make it my own. I love the contact I get to have with the client, discussing the art and what changes to make. I've always felt like some of my biggest moments of learning has been through commission work, and I love it when I get the really big, complicated ones. It forces me to think outside what I usually do.” Besides commissions, Harteus pushes herself artistically with sculpture, knitting, and origami. She is also expanding her online presence to include video content, such as speedpaints and live streams.
“I believe I started streaming live sometime during 2014, which eventually turned into making speedpaints. I haven't done a speedpaint in a while now, but I aim to make more in the future and make it a bigger part of my artistic presence,” she said. “It's something special to see someone's process from start to finish. It's quite intimate to let people see the mistakes you make before ending up with the final piece. I have one in particular that I actually haven't posted yet. I like it so much because it starts as something completely different from what I end up with. It's such a long process and you can really see me changing my mind several times.”
Seeing an artist grow and change is like watching a painting come together step by step. Harteus likes to reflect on her older work, relishing in the memories and feeling inspired by her progress through the years. “I really enjoy looking back at my old work, not only because it lets me see how far I've come, but also because I feel like they're reflections of myself from the time they were made,” she said. “When I look at my old work I can really feel what was going through my head when painting it. They mean a lot to me, and I regularly look back to get a sense of myself and where I'm heading.”
Deborah Lee was struck by a spontaneous idea on April Fool’s Day years ago. She browsed over to Facebook and began typing a new post, letting her friends and family know that she was quitting school and going to Pixar to work on Toy Story 4. “Within an hour there were at least 200 people who believed me. My dad called me, my high school teacher—like you’re getting your dream, congrats!”
It was a successful prank. The reality was that Deborah hadn’t left Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she was studying communication design. It’s a branch of graphic design with a primary focus on conveying information, with less emphasis on aesthetics. Deborah chose the major and her university because of the opportunities in academics, which she had always balanced with her creative side. She grew up drawing and had dreams of becoming a concert violinist or an animator before choosing communication design as a compromise with her parents.
Now Deborah’s career is taking off while she grows as a visual artist and explores her identity as a Korean-American. She was born in Seoul, then moved to the United States and lived in several different cities across the country as she grew up. Some of her earliest memories are of reading comics and making her own. “When I was in elementary school, I would make zines—oh man, I was so cool, I made zines when I was 8 years old! I would make zines or comic books, and I was so proud of my collection. I was really into writing stories. My mom used to have me write in a journal every single day, which first of all gave me some mad callouses, but also made me a better storyteller."
Eventually Deborah realized that drawing and telling stories made her feel alive. “There’s a part of me that was always supposed to be there that I kind of forced out,” she said. Years after moving on from comics and dreams of animation school, Deborah’s April Fool’s Day prank inspired her to pick up a drawing pencil again. “I was like, so many people believed that I can do this. Can I do it? Can I make it as an artist? I remember feeling this longing to get better at something that I hadn’t felt in years. I just started drawing and I haven’t stopped drawing since. It’s crazy."
Feeling motivated, she began to seek out inspiration on sites like Pinterest. “The way they would give you image after image was addicting and drew me into illustration more and more,” she said. Becoming energized by the endless array of work by other artists was a big turning point for Deborah. She also found herself swept into social media challenges and themes like Inktober. “Part of it is to hop on the bandwagon, feeling like everyone is in this together. I think that’s a really big part of it,” she said. Deborah created a series of tarot-themed ink drawings, now sold as prints at INPRNT.
Her parents encouraged her along the way, and she was influenced by other artists in the family. During her teen years she was focused on playing the violin, but people encouraged her to be a visual artist instead. “In high school there was a point where I wanted to pursue concert violin, but my parents thought I wasn’t good enough. Even my violin teacher said, ‘Deb, you should draw, you would be really good at it.’” Deborah considered animation school before deciding to study communication design, and the techniques and principles she learned as a designer are ones she uses today as an illustrator and comics artist.
As Deborah’s work progressed, she decided to submit it to the Society of Illustrators. “I first applied to Society for their annual, which is not a student version, and I actually didn’t get in at all. I was like, well, I guess that’s the end of my illustration career. Goodbye! But I kept going and a few months later I entered the student scholarship competition.” At the time, Deborah doubted her chances. She wasn’t an illustration student and she thought the other applicants were much more talented, but she decided to see what might happen. She ended up receiving one of the highest awards. “It was unreal to me. I thought that they would call the next week and be like, sorry, that was supposed to be for someone else. I had dreams where they said, ‘We’re going to take away your scholarship.’
“That moment was when I was like, okay, I guess my professors were right when they said these competitions are really subjective, and I do have a chance of making it in the industry. Even though competitions should not be how I define my self-worth, it was still uplifting. There is somebody out there who thinks I can do it. It’s a validation that I think I needed at that point, as embarrassing as that is to say out loud. I was screaming. I was in denial. I yelled, there was a lot of yelling that morning.”
After graduation, Deborah moved around the country for opportunities at NPR and LinkedIn. She was already used to fresh starts in new places, having moved from Seoul to New York City as a child before living in Alabama, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Moving around so much exposed her to different types of people and places, some of which were less than welcoming. “It influenced my work a lot, thinking about how I grew up as an Asian-American in such drastically different environments in the States,” she said. “I encountered a lot of racism. I have a legal first name that is very different, Jung-Jin. People made fun of my eyes, made fun of my name.”
Deborah’s experiences have led to her graphic novel memoir, In Limbo, about the intersection of Asian-American diaspora and mental health. “All of that really influenced the work I am making right now. I’m making sequential pieces about what it’s like growing up Asian-American. It’s what I’m thinking about recently and where I plan on taking my work.” The book will come out in Fall 2021, a memoir sharing Deborah’s own personal experiences. Deborah developed the idea for the book after making a comic about the language barrier between her and her grandparents.
Besides her personal work, Deborah also works at a day job as an illustrator and takes on freelance work at night. She lives in Oakland, California, and being in the Bay Area has inspired her to approach her work in new ways. “A while ago I started working in sprints. It’s a very Silicon Valley way of getting work done. At the beginning of a couple of weeks, you write down a few things you would like to finish. I label those in terms of priority and get started, working from when I get home until I go to bed. I love making these lists because it makes me feel more productive,” she said.
Sprints allow Deborah to break down a large project into tasks like storyboarding and character design. She says that comics are harder to make than they look: “After making these things I have so much more respect for comics artists. You have to draw the same person over and over and over again. In a way it feels like you are watching a movie, but you have to draw every frame of that movie to tell the story the way you want to. You have to be consistent between each panel, too. You can’t slack off because that will mess with the story. It’s a lot harder than I expected as someone who as an illustrator drew one image and was like, bam, I’m done.”
Deborah also makes time to stay active on social media, sharing her work regularly and interacting with other artists. “My friends from school and I like to joke that your Instagram is basically like your business card nowadays. Social media is really, really big. Some of my work comes from there, and it is how I make a lot of friends and kind of see what everyone is up to. It was the best way to wiggle my way into illustration, just by talking to people, reaching out, being engaged, being interested without being fake. Being like, hey, I love your work, and I actually do love their work.”
An active artist community is also one of the reasons Deborah sells her artwork at INPRNT. “I have a lot of friends who use INPRNT. It’s really nice that this community is here.” The service works for Deborah by easily fulfilling the requests she gets for prints. “I just let it do its thing honestly, like if someone asks for a print, I upload it and I’m like now it’s there, all good, ready to go. It’s also a really nice way of finding art,” she said. “A lot of the artists under the featured prints are artists that I recognize.”
That support and connection mean a lot to Deborah. “I want my friends to succeed even though we are going after the same jobs,” she said. “They should get the job, because they deserve it. I want them to grow.” She is also open to taking chances for herself. Whether she is moving across the country for a new job, or inviting an artist she admires out for coffee and conversation, Deborah pursues her dreams with optimism. “A big part of it is having confidence in your work,” she said. “While you are always a work in progress, you are good enough, and you will work hard. Don’t doubt yourself.”
Erik Johansson celebrated his 15th birthday with his family on the farm where he grew up. The digital camera he received as a gift from his parents was a complete surprise, and Erik began experimenting with it right away. His first subjects were his family members and the surrounding scenery in rural Sweden: little red houses and rolling green hills, subjects he is fond of to this day.
It was the year 2000, so digital cameras were quite new and miraculous at the time. With no film to develop and process in the lab, for the first time photos appeared instantaneously at the push of a button. Erik was hooked, and he wanted more from this emerging medium. Combining his interest in drawing with his knowledge of computers, he began manipulating the photos in a way that looked real, yet impossible. It was the start of his career as a photographer and artist best known for mind-bending photorealistic scenes.
“I discovered photography and photo manipulation at the same time. Being used to drawing, it was quite natural,” Erik said. “I didn’t want to just press the trigger of the camera and be done. I wanted to see what more I could do with it." He started thinking back to his childhood drawings and the imaginative scenes he would come up with. Could he do the same with a camera? “I have always found reality a little bit boring,” he said, “so I wanted to see how much you can modify a photograph and have it look real.”
Now in his 30s, Erik’s work still conveys childlike wonder. As he goes about his daily life, he emulates the natural curiosity of childhood by asking impossible questions. He keeps children’s books in his studio for inspiration, along with playful objects like a light-up globe of the world. And when he exhibits his work, the interpretations he hears from kids often mean the most to him.
He rarely comments on his own pieces, preferring to leave them open for others to look at and understand in their own ways. In his latest image, Stellantis, a woman is holding a giant pair of tweezers up to a sky full of stars. Is she taking the stars down, or is she putting them up? Erik prefers to leave the question unanswered, but we do know one thing with certainty. Every part of the image is 100% real, captured by Erik’s lens. Nothing is computer-generated or sourced from stock photography.
In order to do this, sometimes he commissions local craftspeople to make props for his images. The tweezers were forged by a local blacksmith in Prague, where Erik lives. The city has a booming film industry that attracts many talented artisans, but Erik also enjoys making his own props. “I already spend a lot of time in front of the computer, so any time when I can sculpt or build something is good. It looks real, it’s more fun, and it saves a lot of time in post-production,” he explained.
These aspects of Erik’s process are revealed in behind-the-scenes videos that show his audience the hard work that goes into each piece. In one video, Erik constructs a building out of cardboard and creates the effect of a landslide using oatmeal. All of this takes place in his studio, which he mainly uses for post-production work and storage of props and equipment. “It’s actually just around the corner from where I live,” he said. “It’s nice to have work and your free time separate, but at the same time I like to be able to come here even if it’s for something small.”
The studio is decorated with inspiring objects for a comfy, creative atmosphere. “Most of the things in my studio are in one way or another useful to me. I have some children's books for inspiration, I have different lights and props. The other stuff is basically just to create a certain mood in here, because I don’t want it to look like a traditional plain white boring studio. I want it to feel like a cozy place where I can go create stuff. It’s more of a living room to me in a way than a studio.”
Having this space close by is helpful for Erik as he tackles multiple projects at the same time. “I usually have from two to three, to up to ten projects at any stage at any given time,” he said. Some of them come together quickly, but others take much longer, even years. Erik had the tweezers made a long time ago, and he said they are his favorite prop he’s used so far. The dreamlike image of a woman holding them against a sky full of stars has finally come together after years of planning and preparation.
It all started with a sketch, which is how Erik keeps track of his ideas. “I have always been a very visual person, so it usually comes down to the sketch. I have a lot of different sketchbooks that I carry with me. An idea is not just born in an instant, it’s usually small little things that I find interesting, and as soon as I think of something I try to sketch it down. You never really know when the creativity or inspiration will strike you, so you just have to be ready with a pen and paper when it comes,” he said.
Erik's ideas eventually come to life in shoots on location and many hours of post-production work. With multiple projects going on at various stages of planning, he stays very busy. “I may spend around one month per image, but planning is what takes the most time,” Erik said. “That’s a quite abstract part of the work, looking for locations or thinking about props. The shooting takes about a day, and the retouching usually takes about a week, spread out over several weeks or months sometimes.”
He frequently travels back to his hometown in Sweden for shoots. Growing up on a farm shaped the way that he creates, he said, and to this day he likes to use familiar locations from back home. “I have always been very close to nature,” he said. “Somehow it’s something I keep coming back to. When it comes to shooting and inspiration, I always try to visit the countryside." Similar locations also create a certain consistency in Erik’s work by uniting many of his wide-ranging ideas into a connected universe.
One recent example is Full Moon Service, a photograph Erik took in the area where his family lives. “I found a field with a little hill, so I went out there with the car and models and some lamps. The night was getting darker and the light from the lamps became stronger in relation to the environment and the ambient light. I knew at some point the lights would be the perfect strength in relation to the surroundings. By that time, I knew what position I wanted the models to be in.”
He envisioned uniformed moon service people with a transport vehicle containing tools, calendars, and checklists. “I wanted to put a little bit of magic back into the world with this image, like the kinds of things that you imagine when you are a child. What if the moon is not just a big rock floating in space around the earth? What if it were some kind of profession, and there were people changing the moon every night?” On the day of the shoot, Erik’s models, props, and location came together in front of his lens after months of planning.
Details like these make his work look simultaneously realistic and magical. “Full Moon Service was an idea I had for quite a long time before I started to realize it,” Erik said. “Over time it kind of develops, and that’s why I think it’s important that the ideas take time. Small details make the image interesting.” Capturing as much as he can on location also makes the final result look grounded in reality. “I have certain limitations on myself, and I think it’s a good idea creatively to force yourself in a certain direction. One of them is that I have to photograph every part of my work. I don’t use any stock photos or anything, so I am limited to locations around me, usually in Prague or somewhere in Sweden.”
After shooting in familiar places, Erik travels all around the world to exhibit his finished pieces. When we spoke with Erik, he had just returned from an exhibition in Moscow. Many of Erik’s supporters follow his work online, but he said it is especially satisfying to share his photographs in person. “I love tactile things. I love making prints of my work,” Erik said. “Even though I’m really a digital artist in the way that my process works, I really think the end product is something physical.” Erik sells limited edition prints of his work on his website and open edition prints at INPRNT.
He said prints give him more control as an artist. “Print has so much more to offer than screens,” he said. “For example, the way that the colors are represented, you can never really control that on a screen. Everyone’s screen is different in some way. But when you print something, the artist has decided that’s what it should look like. The artist has decided that this is the size that this would be presented in and that this is how you should experience it. I just like that idea behind a print.”
As his work spreads throughout the world, Erik hopes to continue improving. He also enjoys seeing others contribute to the genre and watching it evolve. “I have realized that you never really become satisfied. Being a perfectionist, you always feel like you can develop and become better,” he said. “Somehow I always try to challenge myself with the work and try to create more and more complex things just to see how much I can push myself. The projects tend to become more complicated and harder over time. I hope to see more of this, and I hope that this art form will keep growing.”
Diverse interests outside of art and a willingness to seek out art mentors have helped shape Launt Saint-Onge's career as an illustrator. Her interest in art began as a child growing up in a rural area of New England called Woodstock, Connecticut. “It’s really just woods and a couple of schools,” she said. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere and I was starting to think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
As Lauren’s high school graduation approached, she began to seriously consider becoming an artist. “I decided to apply to Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, and I actually got in by the skin of my teeth. It was the first time I would ever move to a big city. It was really intimidating at first, like okay, you start your career in art, and everybody tells you that it’s a risky business, right? There’s that stereotype of the starving artist, and you go into an art career not always because of the money, but because you love it and it’s the only thing you can imagine yourself doing as a full time job.”
Art school was a formative experience for Lauren. The sense of community and the critiques she received were as valuable as the technical skills she learned. “I think art school really helped me grow a bit of a harder shell when it comes to being critiqued, and knowing how to talk to other artists, knowing how to talk to other people. I think it’s a really interesting and helpful social experience as much as it is an educational one. I think college was a great growing experience in terms of getting a basic education and foundation as an artist, while also learning how to work with other people in person. It was a really important lesson for me.”
Where there were gaps in the curriculum, Lauren approached working industry artists for mentorship and advice. "I got into college knowing I wanted to be a concept artist for video games or film, so I spent time researching those industries. At the time, my college hadn't had a full grasp on what kind of work that entailed, and at first, neither did I." She took opportunities at conventions and other events to talk to artists she admired, even when she felt scared. "Those experiences were the most valuable to my career. I think that the wisest thing an artist can do is to show their work. Don't hide it. I went with my portfolio, up to some very intimidating people, and asked to show them where I was and where I wanted to go in my career. I said, please, just give me any and all feedback you have for me to succeed."
She also asked those seasoned concept artists for insight on their work routines and daily lives so that she would know what to expect, as well as the steps to get there. All of this preparation as an art student led to a job offer from a major video game company. “When I got out of college I was hired by Harmonix Music Systems, who are well known for the Rock Band series and Dance Central and a couple other properties as well.” She said that it was gratifying to work on beloved games that make up an important part of people’s lives. "It's incredibly rewarding to work on projects that people love, like their favorite book or video game. You realize how much people invest in the things that you're contributing to, and it makes you want to put the same care and attention into it that they've invested. You definitely want to put in the same amount of effort as they put in their love of these things." Lauren worked for Harmonix in Boston for about six years before moving to Seattle, where she worked for Microsoft before transitioning to freelance work.
Moving from Boston to Seattle meant a huge change in culture and environment. “You drive thirty minutes outside of Seattle, and you just see mountains every time you look outside," said Lauren. "For me, I really enjoy hiking as a hobby, especially since I moved out here. It’s a nice way to clear my head and take a break from being in an office or in front of a computer all day, which is kind of the life of a digital illustrator most of the time. Moving here, it’s definitely a lot more relaxed than in New England in terms of being able to kind of work and play and have those really balance out. I find that I really think about what makes me happy out here, and what my next steps are going to be as an illustrator and as a person. It’s kind of a different way of thinking. I’ve heard the expression before that New Englanders live to work, and the West Coast works to live. I actually kind of think that’s true. Out here I think people really take advantage of the scenery and their time.”
Lauren believes in artists taking up active hobbies. It helps to counteract the sedentary nature of working on art for long hours, and the exposure to new experiences can be an important contribution to the artist’s work. “Its really helpful to get up close and personal to the things you normally wouldn’t consider getting close to or even trying out. Everything is worth trying at least once just to see what its like first hand.” At one point, Lauren spent four or five years on a personal project exploring the American Revolutionary War. She found that horseback riding helped with her historical drawings of horses. Even if the activity doesn’t directly lend itself to the artist’s subject matter, it encourages healthier creative habits. “I think there's a certain point everybody experiences as an illustrator or concept artist, where you’re sitting in front of your desk for hours and hours, and sometimes you don’t go outside for a week on really bad occasions,” she said. “It’s not natural for somebody to be chained to a desk for so long, and there’s always more to an artist than just their art.”
By selling her prints at INPRNT, Lauren has made more time for herself. “I remember when I applied for the first time and I didn’t get in, and I kept applying until I got in, I got approved. And it ended up being a really, really awesome experience for me. Having INPRNT, for me, just made my life a lot easier. It let people have access to my work more easily. All I have to do is proof one piece, and I know that each piece will be consistent for people who are buying my prints. I don’t have to go back to a print shop every 30 days to get more prints done. I find that I also put a lot of stock into how are people receiving my prints. Are they of good quality, do they have weight to them? I feel like INPRNT has that kind of weight and texture and quality that I want my art prints to have when someone receives one in the mail. I want the print to feel like it’s valuable, that it’s worth somebody’s time, and I think INPRNT does that really well. I really appreciate what INPRNT does. It’s awesome.”
Her schedule also freed up when she transitioned from a studio concept artist to a freelance illustrator. "Working in an industry with unpredictable hours and traffic, by the time you get home, you're pretty much beat. Managing your own schedule can be a great way to get back in touch with yourself again, make the art you love, and remember why you got into the business in the first place," she said. “I’m finding out that I’m getting way more sleep as a freelance illustrator. I’m happier because it’s a healthier way of living, and I’m managing my own time. I wake up around 9 o’clock, have breakfast, then if I’m in a groove I’ll just work until 8 at night.” That said, leaving the studio environment also meant losing her daily interactions with other artists, as well as their feedback. "Working in a studio as a concept artist, you're constantly working with other people from different disciplines, and sharing your work with them every day. As a freelance illustrator, I definitely think it’s more of a lone wolf situation. You’re sitting at your desk a lot more thinking about what you’re doing and conversing mostly through email.”
With that in mind, Lauren takes steps to maintain creative connections outside of work. She said that going to local art meet ups is a great option, along with keeping in touch with other artists online. "I think the most helpful thing you can do as an artist is have a community that you're a part of, where people work with you and you work with them on figuring out how to continue learning and growing alongside one another," she said. It’s a continuation of the critiques Lauren learned to give and take in art school, as well as the steps she took to seek mentorship as a young artist. “I’ve always found that there’s a ton of generosity and sharing among artists. Everybody is of course competing on some level, but you can’t succeed by constantly competing with others. All the artists that I've met have been incredibly supportive in both personal and professional realms. They're not only your colleagues, but your friends. And even if feedback that you might be offered may seem harsh, it's exactly what you need to progress and to grow."
Multidimensional performer and visual artist Dom Wise sees the world as a utopia. His positive outlook is both the message and the muse behind everything he does creatively. “I use that word, utopia, a lot in my art, whether it’s my photography or my music. I like to capture the world as I see it and that’s why my pictures are all bright and high-contrast. In my mind, it’s kind of like a wonderland,” he said. Besides making music, Dom is also a photographer who works both digitally and with film.
He started out as a kid in Boston using whatever he could find to take pictures, like old cell phones. In 2014, he started to take photography more seriously. Today he uses a Canon 7D Mark II and some film cameras too, like a T70 and an old Polaroid. He prefers digital for gigs and photo shoots, and he likes to use film for special occasions like birthdays and holidays. “I feel like film is more of a ‘real’ feeling, like it has texture. It kind of brings it back to a classic style,” he said.
Dom still lives in Boston as an adult, but much of his photography documents his travels. As he grows in his artistic career, he hopes to continue to explore new places. “When I was growing up I was always poor, never had money, never went on vacation until I could afford it myself, so seeing the world is a big influence for me,” he said. “Being a photographer and musician, I want to create this kind of cyclical pattern where I travel, get influenced, create, put that together, distribute it, go on tour, and then while I’m on tour, get inspired and create again and just keep going in a circle. Performing live is amazing, I love it. I love the energy, the people, I love reiterating the songs in a different way so people get what they don’t expect.”
He has a passion for creating large-scale projects that incorporate all of his talents. “I want the music and the visuals to tie together and blur the lines, like is he a musician, a singer, a photographer, a videographer? I’m me. What I do is create. I’m always on. I want to be seen as an artist. It’s like the full spectrum of everything I need to do so that it’s a full package,” he said. “It’s kind of like a contribution. I want my music to be listened to 100 years from now. I want to inspire people.”
Fortunately for Dom, inspiration comes easily to him. He takes nothing for granted and has a deep appreciation of the world around him. “Everything inspires me. It’s fun to experiment. The best part is seeing what I’ve had in my mind come to life in this utopia,” he said. “This world is Utopia—I don’t care what anyone else says. This is it. There is nowhere else to go that we know of. Every definition that we have of a utopia is this place, and it’s being messed up because of climate change, because of plastic in the water. We have to take care of it, and we have to take care of each other. If you’re always being positive and giving out positive energy and treating people well, you get showered with all the good that you put out. It’s beautiful.”
Some of Dom’s work involves collaborations with other people, like the models featured in his photography. He meets them at events around the city or online through social media. “I love the models who know exactly what to do. It’s like snap, pose, snap, pose, snap, pose. Like the picture of Rebecca in the pink background, it’s on my INPRNT profile, the one that I got into Vogue Italia. That shoot was 30 seconds long. We were at an art event and there were these installations with pink curtains and a pink phone. She had some pink hair and a pink jacket, and I was like, Rebecca, come here! She comes, picks up the phone, I snap four photos and each one was a different pose, and that was it. I sent it to Vogue Italia and they published it online. It can be something like that or a long planned shoot, but I love candid, impromptu shoots the most.”
He has found many friends and creative connections in Boston. “The scene here is really good. I’ve met photographers, videographers, musicians, painters,” he said. He met most of his friends there around 2011 and is still spending time with them working on creative projects today. He also likes to travel to other cities, like Los Angeles, to collaborate on projects with other artists. Sometimes he makes new friends online and they invite each other to collaborate. “I’ve been in LA for a few weeks, a couple weeks, a month on different trips. Every time I go it’s different, I meet new people and have different things to do,” he said. “I found INPRNT through another photographer out there, and I love the quality of the prints.”
Dom also appreciates how platforms like INPRNT encourage and inspire artists. “There needs to be more creative platforms and outlets for people. I feel like they don’t teach kids art anymore in schools, so kids don’t have a way to cultivate a passion that they may have,” he said. “I haven’t always been a full time artist, but if I really want to do it then I have to just do it. For me, if you want to be successful in what you do, then you have to do it all day long. You have to live that role. I’m an artist, so I’m going to be an artist all day and work towards my goals, which is to have freedom to be an artist. There’s nothing else to do in this life. We’re here for a reason. Everybody has a passion, it’s just about finding that passion and working towards it.”
This wasn’t always the way Dom felt. He said that he struggled a lot when he was younger. “For me growing up, I was very negative and pessimistic and complained a lot and was just like anxious all the time, but I got through it and now I see the world differently,” he said. “Life can be fun and beautiful. When I was a kid, I would think to myself that suicide is an option, like do I have to live here? But I would never do that now. If you don’t already see the world as beautiful, then make it beautiful. Sometimes I feel good and sometimes I don’t, but you can either spiral up or you can spiral down. Spiral up! It can take a bit of time, you’re going to be working against something for a bit, but that spiral is going to open up.”
Dom credits his family with helping him along the way. His mother raised Dom and his siblings on her own. “She’s been working her whole life for us,” he said. Dom also has a special relationship with his sister, who helped take care of him. “My sister kind of guided me in life, showing me what’s wrong and what’s right. She actually bought me my first microphone for music.” His family has encouraged him to work toward his goals, but he wanted to share some advice for artists who don't receive the same level of support. “If you feel passionate about something and people are trying to sway you away from it, don’t give up. It might be tough, but stick to whatever you want to do. I’ve learned that clichés are the most beautiful things to know, because they’re true! Like never give up, anything is possible. That’s all true.”
Part of sticking to it is having patience. “Nowadays in the society that we live in, with the internet and high-speed everything, people are used to instant gratification. But that not the way things are. You’ve got to be patient,” said Dom. He keeps steadily working to reach new milestones in art and music, and when he’s not busy with a project, Dom enjoys time with friends. It’s an opportunity to rest and recharge, as well as become inspired for his next endeavor. “When my friends and I are not creating, we’re probably relaxing. Listening to music, going out to the museum, going out to eat. We’ll probably just go to the city and walk around and meet people and create opportunities. My mind is always focused on creating, or getting inspired in another way. I think a lot about the future. I kind of let that inspire me and not scare me.”
The future looks bright for Dom, whose positivity and eye for beauty have led him to experience the world as an exciting place full of adventure and potential. As an artist with multiple fields of interest, he enjoys it when people discover one aspect of his work, only to find out later that he also has other talents. “Music is like my lifelong aspiration, but photography kind of supplements it in a way, just to be more creative. I love that people are like, oh, you’re a musician! They might know me for music, then they find out that I do photography and they’re like, oh my God, this is beautiful, and vice versa,” he said. “It’s fun to surprise people with those abilities and I would like to learn even more. Knowledge is power.”
Rachel Merrill grew up in Louisiana, where she never quite felt like she fit in at her school. The art department was underfunded, and female students seemed to receive unfair treatment from school administrators. These days, she she has finally found a place to call home. It has been a long journey that started with Rachel attending art school in Florida before eventually moving to New York and getting to know other creative people to whom she can relate.
Although she was creative from a young age, her early passions were ballet and acting. She eventually lost interest in both, but her mother encouraged her to find something else to pursue. “I did ballet for 11 years and I did acting for almost 10, and I kind of burnt out on them in high school,” she said. “My mom was like, you can’t just sit at home and watch cartoons all day, which is what I wanted to do. So I started drawing, which is a lot easier on my feet! And that’s kind of how I ended up going into visual arts.”
She has been a practicing artist since she was a teenager, taking her first serious steps toward becoming an illustrator at the age of 17 when she attended Pratt’s summer pre-college program in Brooklyn, New York. “My buddies and I, we would just ride the subway and get lost in the city. It was an amazing experience. In most of the South, it’s not pedestrian friendly. I was not used to being in a place where you could just walk everywhere. Just being on the street was amazing for me, and it was amazing to get a taste of art school. I got a lot better as an artist. I took legitimate college courses on editorial illustration, figure drawing, all sorts of different stuff. It was amazing, I was just pinching myself.”
That experience solidified her desire to study art. After finishing high school, Rachel enrolled at Ringling in Sarasota, Florida, eventually graduating with a degree in illustration. “The first year basically felt like summer camp for 18-year-olds. It was great. It felt like an extension of Pratt pre-college because there was very little at stake and you were mostly just getting to know everyone. That was wonderful. Second year got really tough because they started cutting people pretty hard. Then you’re like, oh shit, I better make my grades or I’m going to be out on my butt. I made it through, but it was quite a jump to go from a summer camp vibe to having three or four studio classes and two hours of homework for each class every day.”
Rachel decided to move back to New York after graduation, eventually settling down in Astoria, Queens. At first, she tried to leave her Louisiana roots behind. “When I first moved here, I very much kind of disavowed where I was from and didn’t really want to acknowledge it, but over time you can’t escape where you’re from,” she said. “I sort of feel like I’m a little bit between worlds. I don’t really feel super Southern. I feel very much like an outsider when I go to there, and there are certain cultural things in New York that I don’t quite relate to either. I get really excited when I meet other Southerners that don’t live in the South because I feel like those are my people.” Rachel also finds a similar camaraderie with others in her profession. She appreciates their inherent understanding of the work she does.
To maintain those connections, Rachel tries to go to a figure drawing session almost every weekend. “I’ve got some buddies there, so we’ll go out and have some drinks afterwards and talk about art,” she said. It’s a welcome break from working from home, and the conversation with other artists is motivating. “When you find people that you can talk shop with, it feels very freeing in a lot of ways. I might go to a figure drawing session and people are like, Rachel, how did you draw your figures this way? When you’re around people that don’t do your line of work, you don’t really get asked stuff like that and you don’t really feel as important about it,” she said. “When you are around your peers, or people who are interested in what you do, it makes you remember that you have this really unique thing. It feels liberating when I hang out with another artist, illustrator, designer."
With its large creative population and vibrant artistic community, Rachel feels welcome in the city. People in New York tend to embrace her as an artist and understand what she does for a living. Back home, she faced some rejection and alienation. “People like the weirdos here in New York, and I was always considered a huge weirdo, so I really like to live in an area where I’m a little bit more welcomed. When I would go visit back home, being a visual artist was considered more strange and suspect than anything, so I like that here people actually like that about me, they think that’s kind of cool. My social capital is through the roof compared to other places.” Being in the city has also helped Rachel discover a niche as a fashion illustrator and humorist. In a place where self-expression is often communicated through style, she is inspired every single day by the people she sees and the clothes they wear.
“The work I have at INPRNT is fine fashion illustration and single-panel comics that are humor-based, but also about fashion,” she said. Rachel began with an interest in street style photos, where she eventually noticed the potential for humor in some of the more outrageous outfits. “I kind of realized there’s a lot of funny shit people wear, especially when they are trying to stand out,” she noted. Her work is therefore very observant of people and trends, especially among her fellow New Yorkers. “That’s one of the best things about being here. The people-watching is pretty spectacular. I was on the Upper East Side recently and I was amazed to see how all of the women there had a fur coat on and a little dog to complement the fur coat. I wonder if they walk into a pet store and say, ‘I’m looking for a dog that matches this fur coat.’ I’m constantly thinking of silly things like that.”
Even as she pokes fun at some of the things she sees, her drawings are meant to celebrate them, too. Rachel loves nothing more than to see people wearing outfits they honestly believe in. “My message with the comics is: don’t take fashion too seriously. When it comes to style, even if someone is dressed utterly ridiculously, if it’s genuine from their point of view then I really enjoy that. The only thing I’m not a big fan of is when someone is dressing for someone other than themselves. Generally in New York most people are very individualized, and I like the eccentrics. Even if it’s going to look crazy, I like that more than the New York uniform of what is cool and acceptable.”
Rachel also makes a point of including a variety of body types in her work. She wants to show off different styles as they appear on all shapes and sizes, which is somewhat unusual in the world of fashion illustration. Featuring different types of bodies was an intentional choice, and one that initially drew criticism from others in Rachel’s field. “That was one of the first things that other fashion illustrators would criticize me about,” she said. “They were like, why don’t you make your people nine heads tall? And I was like, because I’m not interested in that, it’s boring and everyone does it, and I find I’ve seen plenty of stylish people in all shapes and sizes. I’ve also seen people who are tall and lanky and have no sense of style.”
Her ability to notice things like that helped Rachel turn her observations into comics. It’s a relatively new genre for her because she experimented with watercolors as a teen and was an oil painter in college. “I actually never thought I would be doing comics, even though those are my first love. At Ringling, I was more of a fine artist. I did large scale oil paintings, so when I started moving more into comics, I just remember being so surprised. I liked reading them, but I thought I couldn’t make them. Total nonsense! If you like something and you put enough time into it, then of course you can do it.” Rachel eventually started a blog for her comics at the suggestion of a friend. It was an easy way to showcase her drawings and make people laugh.
She also joined the artist community at INPRNT, where she sells prints of her work. “I had heard really good things about INPRNT's quality. I ordered some for myself and was like, these are way better than everything else. I also heard that the people there are really good to work with. I’ve been really happy with the experience,” she said. “One of my favorite pieces I’ve done is on INPRNT. It’s called New Years Walk. My boyfriend and I were walking down the street in the West Village, and this girl came out in this sparkly dress with this big fur coat, and I was just enraptured by her. As my boyfriend was talking to me, I slowly took out my phone and started creeping up behind her to snap as many references as I could. It’s a really glamorous image, but I also think it’s hilarious too. She was covering up the sparkly dress, but her coat was so shaggy she was still going to stand out no matter what.”
Scenes like this one provide Rachel with plenty of subject matter for her drawings. “If I’m ever looking for inspiration, I’m probably already outside, and I’ll probably already see something absurd. I think that’s one of the great things about New York. There’s so much visual stimuli that you don’t really get the chance to not be inspired.” When Rachel does hit a creative block or simply decides to take a break from illustration, she turns to cooking. “If I need a break from drawing, cooking is more relaxing for me. I don’t put nearly as much weight on it as I do art, so it’s a nice creative thing to do that has very low stakes, like if something doesn’t turn out right it’s totally okay. My mom passed away last year, and she wasn’t a visual artist herself but her creativity manifested in cooking. She was probably the best cook I had ever known, so it kind of feels like I’m connecting with her. I’m trying to keep that alive.”
Having an outlet outside of art is an good way to stay grounded. Pursuing a creative profession isn't always easy, and struggling is part of the process. “I’ve heard that when you go to art school, and probably a few years afterwards at least, most people aren’t going to be that amazing. They’re going to be really frustrated by that because they have the taste level to know what is good but they don’t have the technique to get it there," she said. But Rachel has never given up, and today she has a lot of fun working as an artist. Sometimes when Rachel draws people she gives the finished pieces to them, and she loves to see the joy and excitement on their faces. And she savors her career achievements, too. “I love the days where I get a really great client job and I just pinch myself, like I can’t believe I made it this far. Just seeing your work out there and seeing people’s reaction to it is pretty inspiring.”
Elena Resko has evolved a lot since she first started out as an artist. For one thing, she moved from her small hometown in Russia to Berlin, Germany. It was a dream fulfilled for Elena and her husband, and it proved to be a positive change artistically as well. “We had a dream to move to Europe for a long time, so we just did it, and we are more than happy," she said. "I didn’t have access to all those artistic things growing up in a very small town, and here there are plenty of them. Especially as an artistic teenager like I was, there were just no events and not a lot of like-minded people, so it was rather hard and that's why I wanted to move to the big city.”
The area where Elena lives is Pankow, a large borough of Berlin. It is a quiet place with lots of greenery, the perfect setting for Elena to create her signature illustrations which often feature nature. “I am a big fan of flowers and plants,” she said. “I think nature is a major inspiration because the shapes and the colors are always so wonderful and so nice, and you could never get anything made by a human this sophisticated.” The other aspect Elena loves about drawing plants is simply how good it feels. She explained, “I don’t think about it, I’m just drawing and it goes very organically and naturally. I so much enjoy the process of drawing plants that it just brings a lot of warmth inside to do this.”
That warmth is an important aspect of Elena’s work because she wants her art to spread happiness. “As I grew up, I realized that the more positive emotions I could put inside my work, the better it would be,” she said. “I don’t think art should be showing something which is not cheering and encouraging you.” Her color palette has evolved in much the same way: “I’m fond of violets and pinks and so on, and I hated pinks in my childhood. I don’t know why. But now I’m using all the things I would never use when I was a teenager!”
Elena also stays positive by having her workspace decorated with meaningful mementos. In her cozy home studio she displays tickets from museums, works by other artists and illustrators, and various things which bring up good memories and feelings of happiness. This space is important to her because she almost always works from home. “It’s just a table in my living room, a small corner with all my things and some inspiration pictures on the wall,” Elena explained. “I have all my things around and I sometimes use bulky things like Cintiqs and so on, and it’s just not convenient to go somewhere."
Having unfettered access to digital mediums is one reason why Elena prefers to work from home. The equipment can be bigger and heavier, but the artistic advantages are worth it to her. “I think digital work is making everything simpler because you can make a lot of adjustments and you don’t need to be worrying about how will it go, will it be spoiled or not or something like that,” she said. “As I don’t have a lot of control of traditional media, I’m always worrying, will it be good or not?”
Taking away that pressure by working digitally is a big relief. And when Elena does use traditional mediums, such as inside her sketchbook, she has an unique way of getting started: on the very last page. “When you are starting on the first page, you are so much obsessed with getting it very nice, because everybody who can open it should see it’s beautiful. But when you are starting on the last page it is much easier,” she explained. From there Elena flips to other pages, filling them in randomly.
“Sketchbooks are tricky things. I used to think that sketchbooks should be something you can proudly present to an audience and they’ll be like, oh wow, that is so nice and beautiful. But now I understand that it is more like a technical tool,” she said. “You can draw whatever you want. It can be ugly, messy, whatever, but you are trying over there and you are collecting your ideas. Maybe some things you will forget, but then you can look back and see them. You can get inspired for future projects.”
Re-doing older illustrations, like the ones in her sketchbook, is part of Elena's art practice. As she progresses as an artist she becomes more content with her work, which allows her to revisit favorite concepts and ideas. The end result is extra satisfying because she comes to see how much she has advanced. “I’m liking my work more and more, which I think is a normal thing. Then when I’m seeing some older pieces, I’m thinking it can be made technically better, but the idea is still so nice. With my abilities these days, I can do it much more beautiful.”
It’s a useful way for artists observe personal growth that might otherwise go unnoticed. From technical improvements to evolutions of style and theme, an artist is constantly learning and changing. “Sometimes you don’t notice, but all the things surrounding you are just getting inside, and you are growing and evolving as your life grows and evolves somehow,” Elena said. “Maybe sometimes you don’t think about this, but all the things you see make some impact on your style and work and so on."
Elena’s biggest change was going from graphic designer to illustrator. She always had an interest in illustration, but she focused on design while attending art school in Russia. “It was a good choice for me because back then I wasn’t sure I could be a proper artist or an illustrator. I was looking for a more technical profession, and graphic design was something I was inspired by at that time,” she said. “It was very useful because it gave me a lot of knowledge in composition. I know how to put dynamics in a picture, I know how to use colors properly.”
She worked day jobs as a graphic designer while practicing drawing at night. It was a lot of hard work that paid off. “It’s rather difficult to transition from graphic designer to illustrator,” Elena explained. “In graphic design you don’t need that much drawing skills, so you need to put in effort to transition because there is another set of skills you need to use. You need to constantly train yourself, and if you have a job as a graphic designer, you only have your evenings to train this skill. Sometimes it gets tough because you’re tired and you don’t want to do anything else.”
Even with this transition behind her, Elena’s schedule remains very full as a full-time illustrator. Just as she practiced drawing at night while working as a designer, now she makes time for personal work in between freelance assignments. “It’s tough to balance freelance and personal work. When you are so busy with all the working projects, sometimes you are sitting late and you just don’t have any time for something personal. I try to at least do it during the weekend, and of course sometimes in the evening if I have time. I’m basically trying to do it every day, even a bit, even 15 minutes are enough to feel you are doing something," she said.
With barely a moment to spare for personal projects, Elena entrusts INPRNT with running her print shop. What set the site apart for her was the quality of offerings. “I was looking for the best print on demand service which is not offering an overwhelming amount of products. I hate mugs, and I hate carpets, and so on,” said Elena. “I just like beautifully printed prints and cards. I don’t want to see my things on a bathroom curtain or something like that.” INPRNT prints in-house, which means the highest quality reproductions and top earnings for artists.
All of this is important to Elena because managing a busy schedule is part of being a creative professional. She tries to follow a daily routine; without one it becomes difficult to get everything done that needs to be done. “I try to work normal working hours from morning till evening, sometimes a bit later if I have a lot of work. But I also enjoy doing things like going outside for several hours in the middle of the day just because I want to, and then working in the evening. It’s a very nice thing for freelancers to have this type of freedom.”
Having this flexibility while being able to follow her passion makes Elena’s career very fulfilling. “The best part of being an artist is that you don’t actually have a job. You’re having a day-long adventure in your drawings and illustrations and other related work,” she mused. Elena also loves to get out of the house and explore her surroundings for inspiration. She especially enjoys browsing comics shops, where she’ll look for “something which really sparks from the shelf.” Once she finds it, she tends to take it home and read the entire thing immediately.
Another major inspiration for Elena is food. “Food is something I’m very much addicted to! I’m very much fond of trying a lot of new things connected with food, like going to new places and trying something new and exotic and so on,” she said. Food as a subject complements Elena's theme of making artwork that makes people happy or has positive associations. A closely related inspiration is her love for coffee. “Coffee is something that you can prepare in so many ways, you can try so many tastes and it just gives you such positive energy. That’s why I’m really obsessed with it!”
She also relishes the opportunity to check out new cafés. Each one provides fresh scenery and distinct flavors, plus great people-watching. “I very much like hanging out in coffee shops. I’m spending a lot of time in different places, trying new things, and I think it’s my fuel actually,” she said. “Every time you are visiting any place, you can observe a lot of things. You can watch people, you can see some new situations happening. Just maybe you can process some things in your mind, and that’s why it always gives some bit of inspiration.”
It’s all part of the lifestyle Elena has created for herself as an artist. Whether she is working from home or soaking up new experiences in the outside world, everything Elena does is dedicated to her growth as an illustrator. “If you want to grow, you need to do things all the time. Nothing will happen if you’re just sitting and doing nothing and wondering when will I be successful or good or something like that," she said. "You just need to do something. Even if you’re tired and not in the mood, you just need to take this pencil and go and draw!”
Robert Sammelin likes to borrow a word that his wife often uses to describe his artwork: funky. He thinks of it as a quality-assurance test. If she looks at one of his pieces and says it has funk, then he knows it’s good.
He and his wife share the same hometown in Sweden, located above the Arctic circle. It is perpetually dark there nine months out of the year, and perpetually bright during summer when the sun never sets. The couple eventually moved to Stockholm, where they now live and where Robert developed his skills without any formal training and having never attended art school. He has been drawing constantly since he was a kid, resulting in what he called “a mishmash, a hodgepodge” of the multitude of influences he has absorbed over the years, including comic books, movies, music and fashion.
Robert landed on his current trademark style in his late teens. Years later, he’s well known around the world for his work that he thinks of as slightly subversive, kind of a play on gender stereotypes. Many of his subjects are strong women who ride motorcycles or tote large weapons. As for his technique, a surgery on his wrist helped him discover a new favorite medium that helped him grow as an artist. He started using brushes more often because of physical limitations after the operation. He said that at that point, everything just clicked.
Today Robert still likes to base his personal work around traditional mediums like ink, though he often adds color digitally. “I like to mix things up and experiment,” he said. After choosing a medium to work with, Robert simply lets loose and has fun by allowing his subconscious to take over. A fan of comics since childhood, he likes to think of each of his works as a story, building a plot and a world behind each image. He lets his hand just work its way around the page while soaking up his surroundings and conversations with family.
One of his favorite past projects is his collection of mock horror movie posters. The one titled Mutantiliation was inspired by his son, who mashed up the words “mutant” and “mutilation” to come up with the name and concept. The youngster served as art director for the piece, asking Robert to include zombies, “a guy with forks for teeth” and burning cities across an apocalyptic landscape. He also told his dad, “You can draw a cool lady, because I know you like those!”
Powerful women are among Robert’s favorite subjects, fueled by a desire to portray something different from the drawings he saw when he was growing up. He said that back then it was like “he is always strong, and she is always at his feet.” He never liked that disparity. That’s why today he wants to turn those ideas around in his art. “It’s important to me, and it becomes more important as people take note of it,” he said. He appreciates watching social changes unfolding and awareness increasing over the years, especially as a father raising a child, and he credits the strong women in his life for inspiring him daily.
Robert also likes to choose subjects that are technically difficult and challenging to draw, from mechanical objects to architecture. That’s how he started drawing one of his favorite subjects: vehicles, especially motorcycles. He thinks of motorcycles as a sort of modern horse and believes they represent nostalgia, freedom and a tantalizing subculture. However, these days he finds himself drawing fewer vehicles and focusing more on complex architecture, though he has not published many of his architectural pieces to the public.
His interest in architecture is an extension of his day job in video games, where he works with 3D environments. Robert enjoys the polish and realism that he and his team work toward in their games, but also likes experimenting with personal work where his subjects can be “a bit wonky, a bit off. That adds to the fun factor of it.” So he chooses not to use tools like rulers when drawing because they tend to take away some of that uniqueness. “I’m too impatient to make it look perfect. If I do it by free hand, it still has that fluid kind of imperfections that go along with how I draw,” he said. The one time he does use a ruler? To draw the panels of his comics.
He is currently working on series of comic books in collaboration with a writer friend. For this work, titled The Kali, Robert has chosen to use a signature color palette with a foundation of reds, blues and purples. He’s also updating the way he uses digital color, adding texture as a way to make it feel more real. “I think I mimic what it would look like if I was actually to color it on paper,“ he said. He has been working on The Kali in his spare time, and when it’s finished they expect to have five issues. Robert works on personal projects like this one at night and on weekends.
“It becomes deeply personal, the things I do in my spare time,” he said. The work he does for fun is very different from what he does as a concept art director, managing a team that works collaboratively on large video game projects. “Predominantly we make action games, shooter games, these kinds of titles that are blockbuster, mainstream things,” he said. So when he has free time, he takes the opportunity to make artwork in his own style. After a long day, Robert comes home to make dinner and enjoy time with his family. He’ll usually draw for three hours before going to bed.
“My whole life revolves around drawing, it seems.” He said it helps that the work he does at home is so different from what he does at the office because he feels he is getting the best of both worlds. With a busy career as an art director and his free time devoted to personal artwork, Robert relies on INPRNT to create beautiful prints of his work. “I was immensely impressed with the quality,” he said.
One thing Robert does not do is use a sketchbook. “I ruin mine instantly,” he explained. Taking a more relaxed approach, he prefers to get his ideas down on a single piece of paper as quickly as possible—just a loose framework in pencil. He gave the example of a musket combined with an axe as something that might pop into his head that he would feel compelled to draw in the moment. “I try not to overthink anything. I do most of it just because it’s fun, and I do sort of whatever pops in my head, but I always want to try and twist it.”
Robert has had his current job in the video game industry for over a decade. Previously he worked all kinds of jobs, from train conductor to teacher to record shop manager. Meanwhile, he was teaching himself art without any outside help due to a stubborn streak he said he inherited from his family. As a teen, he decided that he would teach himself to draw so that if he became really great one day then nobody else could ever say, “I taught him everything he knows.” But by working various jobs and only drawing on the side, he found his career going nowhere.
So he stopped drawing entirely for five years. “I didn’t touch a pen or anything. I just got fed up with it not heading anywhere.” He said it eventually led to a breakdown. That’s when he quit all of his other jobs and suddenly resumed furiously drawing. He wanted to follow his dream. “It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “My wife just said, you used to be really good at this, why not give it a go?” So Robert put together a portfolio of concept art, then landed a job in video games.
As an art director, Robert follows one simple rule of leadership: “If everything goes really well, it’s the team’s credit; if it goes to hell, it’s my fault.” This gives his team a sense of security and makes them feel more comfortable trying new things, taking risks and experimenting. Robert is responsible for leading the group as well as hiring them, having handpicked most of the artists he works with. “I have a really great team that inspires and spurs each other on. I am far from the best painter in that group, I’m far from the best illustrator, but the reason I am where I am is that I have a drive, a will to just move forward and really think about things.”
Robert said revising or redrawing old work is one way he likes to practice, along with seeking outside influences for unexpected inspiration. “It’s the nature of the entertainment industry to be super derivative, and that’s why I try to always encourage myself to do the opposite. At least you will find an edge that you don’t see somewhere else.” That’s one reason he loves fashion and music as sources of inspiration. “Leafing through fashion magazines while listening to punk rock is super interesting, because every once in a while a phrase or word will pop up, and you’re looking at a weird polkadot dress, and you can sort of mix and match those around.”
His style may be inspired by a blend of influences, but the result is uniquely his own. “I truly can’t stop drawing. I think that’s the thing,” said Robert. At home or at work, listening to punk records or watching an old horror movie, he is always creating freely. “That’s my job. My job is to hold a pen.”
Tristan Henry-Wilson grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire, where as a child he gravitated toward many of the same things other young boys love: comic books and cartoons. Along the way he decided to become a professional artist, transforming his passions for painting, design and animation into a successful career. In high school Tristan realized that while he loved drawing and art, he was not yet the skilled artist we know today. Instead of being discouraged, he doubled down.
“I wasn’t really that good at art. I didn’t really stand out at it,” Tristan said. That realization only made him work harder. “That’s when I started taking private art lessons and becoming obsessed with it. I was introduced to oil painting and decided at that early age that this is something that I wanted to be really good at.”
His self-described obsession with art led him to apply to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, but he ended up going to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia because it was more affordable. His dream at the time was to become an animator for Disney, but reality would soon get in the way. “I’m from a very lower income family. Both of my parents are Jamaican and I’m first-generation,” said Tristan. “I didn’t have an understanding of money.”
It turned out that Tristan didn’t feel a strong connection to SCAD, so he transferred to Ringling. “My whole mentality as an artist is to be better than everyone else. I wanted a painful experience. I wanted everyone to be obsessed with art.” At Ringling he studied illustration, deciding to become adept at the technical aspects of draftsmanship so that he could later teach himself 3D and animation. Like many in his generation, Tristan graduated from college with a lot of debt and no clear path forward. After college, Tristan bounced around a lot of low-wage jobs in Florida and New York City while struggling to find a way to turn his talents into a career in the arts.
“The story of my life has pretty much been looking around seeing how other people are doing it and imitating it on the fly,” Tristan said. “I started landing freelance graphic design jobs. I realized that if you act as if you’re something then you become that something.” This strategy worked and Tristan won a design job at Godiva Chocolatier. Within five years he had gone from a junior designer to an art director at the company. Always looking for a new challenge, Tristan decided to make the jump to an advertising agency where he could work with more creatives.
At that time, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had recently gone viral and was making the rounds online. Tristan loved the concept behind the videos and decided to participate. Wanting his video to stand out, he used the challenge as an opportunity to learn something new. So he taught himself video editing and motion graphics software like Adobe After Effects and Premiere. “I learned more about motion design and motion graphics and quickly became obsessed,” Tristan said. “I essentially became an animator within a year. I found a way to take my passion for design and make it move.”
People are often surprised when they hear that Tristan started with oil painting and illustration, then taught himself all the digital tools he needs to be a graphic designer and animator. “I show people my work and they wonder, you’ve been doing this for how long?” Tristan said. “Draftsmanship is so hard and requires so much discipline that it helps you pick up anything else. It can’t be harder than drawing. We’re so lucky to have so many resources available for free or next to free. The only thing stopping you is your own sweat equity.”
But Tristan’s shift to digital hasn’t stopped him from working in oil paints. He’s currently creating a series called Nebula Dresses that combines his love of painting with his interest in the cosmos. “It marries my love of painting with this newfound obsession with space. I just wanted to paint this series,” Tristan said. “It’s a reset button on everything I’ve ever done to make this short body of work. In the last year as I’ve become obsessed with animation, I look at painting less as filling that artistic part of my soul. If something doesn’t move, I just want to make it move. I want to create an animation for the paintings, to bring them to life.”
Tristan hasn’t released the Nebula Dresses series for sale as prints yet, but when he does, they’ll be on INPRNT. Tristan has known INPRNT’s founder, Joshua Zika, since they both attended Ringling. They each had a different focus in school but respected each other’s creativity and feedback, staying in touch after leaving Sarasota. “After I moved away, Josh would always comment on my work, giving positive feedback or critiques,” Tristan said. For a while, Tristan left oil painting behind to focus on working digitally. When Tristan returned to the traditional medium for a new piece, Joshua encouraged him to keep going. “He was like, this is what you should be doing. Then I did it and that was it. I hadn’t worked digitally for another 10 years. So when he started INPRNT, I will never even consider running prints from anything else for any reason.”
In addition to his interest in space, Tristan is inspired by the natural world here on earth. He now lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter, where he has come to appreciate the state's beauty. “It’s not uncommon to see bald eagles outside in my backyard, or bears and deer,” Tristan said. “Those are things that I find really inspiring. Being alone with nature is an opportunity I get to have.”
But Tristan is also inspired by a darker force. “What pushes me the most is that a couple of years ago, I had an existential crisis,” Tristan said. “I gave up a lot of the belief systems from my upbringing and gained an appreciation for the finality of life. You only have so much time to get things done that you want to get done. If they were important to you, you need to do them now.”
To that end, Tristan can’t remember the last time he was creatively stuck. He’s always working on building his skill set or painting a new project. It’s what keeps him sharp and creatively engaged. “When it comes to painting, all art really, you do it and you keep doing it and you like what you’re doing because you’ve put your hand down and come up with something that at least some of the time pleases you,” Tristan said. “You gradually get better by just doing what you like doing every day. Practice becomes effortless. That’s why artists are so talented. They like practicing.”
And while that can be enjoyable, it’s when things get hard that you really grow as an artist and person. “This is something that I want my daughter to learn: embrace the frustration,” Tristan said. “I enjoy the frustration. If I’m frustrated working on something, I love it. I know that I’m going to come out learning something at the end. It feels better when you get that payoff. It makes you want to try that much harder and figure out how to do it. It prevents you from backing off and closing doors that you just wouldn’t have gone down. And it’s applicable to other areas of your life.”
Photo by Amber Renee, courtesy of Megan Kott
Work and life blend together as seamlessly as the watercolor paintings of husband-and-wife illustrators Justin DeVine and Megan Kott. They often parlay their shared interests, including painting and animals, into artistic collaborations. After falling in love while founding a popular Drink and Draw together, they've continued producing new creative projects and events as a married couple.
The pair met several years ago working in California’s Bay Area as graphic artists painting signs for Whole Foods. They were part of a team that traveled to help open new stores with colorful artwork and signage, and it was during one of these trips that their relationship—and artistic collaboration—took off. “We were talking about a Drink and Draw in Austin,” Justin said. They both thought that “would be a cool thing for us to do. [A few weeks later we] met up in a funky little bar in Oakland to drink some drinks and draw some stuff. At first a few friends would come. When we left the city last year, we had 50 people coming a week.”
Creating Oakland’s largest Drink and Draw is just one of the ways Megan and Justin have found to share their passion for art over the years. “That’s where we really built up our creative community and fell in love,” Justin said. “Probably the strongest example of work that we have done literally together is Chimera.” For this project, which you can view in Megan and Justin's INPRNT shops, one artist painted the head of an animal and the other painted the body of a different animal. It led to some mesmerizing combinations, like a praying mantis head on a fox’s body or the head of a goat on the body of a duck.
Megan and Justin have also collaborated on producing and curating art shows. “The biggest project we undertook was a David Bowie tribute show,” Megan said. “It started as a life celebration show tied to his album release on his birthday.” But while they were in the process of securing a venue, Bowie passed away. The show went on with 20 different artists participating, 400 people attending, and an all-female David Bowie cover band playing tunes all night.
Although Megan and Justin were part of a flourishing creative community in Oakland, the rising housing costs and long commutes there ultimately led them to Megan’s native Michigan. They now live in Detroit’s vibrant Corktown neighborhood. It's a historic residential area established in the 1800s that's famous for its colorful Victorian homes and annual St. Patrick's Day parade.
“We lived in a small apartment [in Oakland] and couldn’t afford a studio on top of that,” Megan said. “It was hard because we wanted more space. So we decided to try Detroit for a couple of years and it’s been a really good landing pad. We have a studio and we have a painting area in the basement, too.”
This studio is where Megan and Justin now work. Megan has done a lot in the area of children’s textiles and graphics, and she has two new projects coming out this fall from Chronicle Books. Previously, she partnered with the same publisher to create a collection of temporary "cattoos" featuring her signature humorous cat paintings.
“I also run my side gig of doing pet portraits and cat drawings. That’s been my big thing,” Megan said. “The cat thing, that’s just been the most successful. It’s so much of the zeitgeist right now. I really would just be happy if I could paint animals for the rest of my life.” Megan's custom pet portraits range from simple busts to complex renderings of elaborate fantasy worlds where companion animals can surf waves or explore outer space.
Megan primarily works in watercolors after having been introduced to them as a child by her aunt, a prolific watercolorist herself. “When I was seven or eight, we had a family reunion and I had the chickenpox,” Megan said. “She stayed at home with me and taught me really rudimentary watercolor techniques. I went to art school hoping to study that more, but was told that watercolor isn’t a serious painting medium. So I dropped it for a good ten years. I picked it up again around the time that we started Drink and Draw.”
Justin always liked to draw as a kid and studied painting in college. Prior to leaving Oakland for Detroit, Justin was working full-time as an illustrator at Amy’s Kitchen. He has kept them as a client and does work for them most weeks, along with his other clients in industries ranging from retail to arts and entertainment. On the side, Justin likes to stay fresh with daily drawing challenges. He primarily does pen and ink drawings that he colors digitally or with watercolors. Like his wife, Justin often makes animals his subjects, more often focusing on wild animals. In some of his other work, he invents parodic mash-ups and re-interpretations based in pop culture.
“I’ll do sort of regular projects to keep my hands busy,” Justin said. “For two years in a row in September or August I did 31 fictional characters in a row. On days when I don’t have commissioned work, I’ve been really enjoying going through some of my old sketches and figuring out which of those I can develop further.”
Megan and Justin are both established in their artistic careers today, but they still remember what it was like when they were just starting out. To anyone in that stage, Megan has some advice. “There’s room for everyone. People get worried about not doing something that’s already been done before. No one is going to have your take on it. It’s going to be completely individual coming from you. I’m big on helping people and not keeping art secrets.”
Justin echoes that sentiment, addressing a concern that is common among beginner artists. “It’s important not to compare yourself to other people’s skill levels. There are lots of people who look at people who are incredibly talented and think, ‘I won’t be able to do it like that, so it’s like why bother to do it at all.’ That’s counterproductive and hurts all of us creative types.”
One of the ways Megan and Justin spread the word about their art is by attending conventions; they’ll be at a different event every month for the rest of the year. It’s all this convention-going that got them started with INPRNT, where the couple has been selling work since 2013. “We wanted something where we could buy our own prints,” Megan said. “It’s a really great resource for artists to bring nice prints to conventions. It’s the best quality, least expensive option. I recommend it to people.” Justin agreed and said, “Before when I would pay to have my own prints, I could never afford nice prints and the qualities would vary wildly. The first time I tried INPRNT I thought the quality is so great and it’s so consistently great.”
Their most recent convention was Cat Camp NYC, where Megan displayed her cat-themed wares including prints, pins, and pillows. Next month, their itinerary includes events in Chicago, Los Angeles and Cincinnati. Collaborating is an ongoing part of this artistic couple's relationship, and their work is often inspired by their love for animals. When they're not attending conventions, they will continue their work together under the watchful eyes of their three cats: Griffin, Thessaly and Davos.
Like most kids, Lily Padula loved to draw. She spent her childhood growing up in a beach town outside of New York City where she excelled in school and imagined she’d take a pretty traditional career path. Then an art teacher encouraged her to pursue art professionally. Her parents were also very supportive of the idea, so Lily went to the School of Visual Arts in New York City to pursue a degree in illustration. One sought-after position when she was starting out was being an editorial illustrator for newspapers or magazines, but shrinking budgets at many of these organizations had led to staff cuts. Lily didn’t let that discourage her. Instead of trying to land a staff job, she went the freelance route.
“To be a freelancer, to be an illustrator, you have to be multi-faceted and wear a bunch of hats,” Lily said. These days Lily does a lot of editorial work for major newspapers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe. But she also works online in the world of native advertising and sponsored posts. Lily has a diverse client roster, which includes companies like Universal Pictures, Spotify and Converse. She encourages young artists to carve out their own careers. This could mean drawing comics or zines, as Lily and many of her friends do either for clients or themselves. “Find what makes you happy drawing-wise,” Lily said. “More likely than not there’s a way to make money at it.”
Lily knows this firsthand. She said that in college she wasn’t the best draftsperson, but over time it became clear to her that you don’t have to draw a human figure perfectly to be a successful illustrator. It’s more important to be able to work with color and have good composition. Lily positions herself as an ideas-oriented artist, which helps a lot when she’s working with clients. When Lily starts on a project, she comes up with word lists and associations for the idea she’s trying to convey in the image. Then she creates lots of small thumbnails to nail down the major elements of the composition before taking it to the sketch phase. She used to do this with paper and ink, but now Lily does all of her work digitally.
“I tend to take more time in the sketch phase in client work and less in personal work,” Lily said, “My personal work tends not to be so much about quickly communicating a specific idea. It tends to be more about mood and narrative. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that more in my professional work.” Lily’s professional and personal work have different styles, which is important to her. In her client projects, she tends to use brighter colors and more complex compositions, while her personal art focuses more on darker, more eerie themes, like a zine she did about UFOs and the paranormal. Pursuing her own work on the side is critical for Lily. “It’s really important to help your professional work grow," she explained. "You have to keep yourself interested.”
Like many freelance artists, Lily works out of her home, which is in Brooklyn. She lives with her boyfriend, who is also an illustrator. Lily finds both support and inspiration in the New York City artist community. “A good portion of my friends are illustrators and we refer each other for jobs,” Lily said. “I go to them with struggles, to get some extra eyes on [my work]. In general there’s a lot of other illustrators here and it’s inspiring to be around that energy.”
Illustration tends to go through trends and styles that go in and out of popularity. So while Lily does draw inspiration from her fellow contemporary artists, she also looks to other time periods and mediums to get the creativity flowing. “The museums here are incredible,” Lily said of living in New York. “You can go to the Met for free and look at beautiful paintings to get inspired.” Even when inspiration isn’t at hand, though, sometimes you just have to keep going. “There’s a myth going around that you can only work when you’re feeling inspired,” Lily said. “But you just have to power through no matter what and keep making work.”
Sometimes creative hurdles need a little more breathing room. Then it’s time to walk away for a bit to let the project breathe. “Being in nature is helpful, if you’re feeling overwhelmed,” Lily said. “My parents live in a small town near the city. I go out there and clear my head, to get away from the usual grind.” It also helps to have hobbies outside of making art. When the weather is nice, Lily enjoys walking and riding her bike around Brooklyn. She also loves cooking and reading science fiction, dystopian and true crime books. She recently finished The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Travel is also important to her, whether she’s jetting off to London, Los Angeles or Toronto for work or play. And when Lily is really stuck, she relies on some advice she received in college. Someone told her to “make lists of things you like to draw. Go to that and make some doodles. You’ll have an ever-expanding vocabulary of things you can draw.”
This helps a lot when Lily is between projects; a freelance career comes with a lot of work that has nothing to do with making art. “The running the business aspect of it, doing promotion, being productive. It’s striking a balancing act between creating and managing,” said Lily. “You gotta keep at it and not be discouraged by the nature of freelancing.” This is what attracted Lily to INPRNT, where she’s been selling art prints since 2013.
“I had seen other illustrators and artists selling prints there,” Lily said. “For a while I was trying to make and ship prints myself, but it was a huge time-suck for not that much money.” Lily also appreciated that INPRNT was curated, leading to a higher level of work across the site. “It also had a better rate between artist and supplier. I was impressed with the printing and how easy it is. It’s totally worth the fee that they take.” Being a part of the INPRNT artist community also helped inspire Lily to create Artists for the People, a community of artists selling affordable prints to raise money for organizations doing important work in the US. Each month, a new group is chosen to receive all of the profits from the prints sold through Artists for the People, plus a 10% match through INPRNT's charity donation program.
“I was horrified on Election Day. I woke up feeling sick and wondering, what can I do? I’ve been using INPRNT for a while for my own personal shop, so I’m going to contact them and see if I can get people together to raise money this way,” said Lily. Artists for the People has already had a great response from artists who want to contribute their work to raise money for important causes, listing dozens of prints for sale in a variety of styles and themes. Some of the prints are political, but many are not. All of the prints will help the work of groups like the ACLU, which was the project's first beneficiary. “Art can have an impact on the world,” said Lily, “and I wanted to help raise some money and stand up for what I believe in.”
There’s a seemingly endless supply of inspiration for artists online, whether it’s on Instagram or Tumblr, or even through podcasts. But all that browsing can have a negative effect too, especially for young artists looking to find their footing in a competitive creative space. “The hardest thing when you’re just beginning is that it’s not going to happen right away,” said Jimmy Bryant. “Being creative is a struggle, that’s part of what makes you a good creative. The biggest thing is you’ve got to work really hard. It’s going to take a while and as long as you’re putting in the work, it’s going to work out.” Jimmy, a member of the INPRNT artist community, has spent the last several years working as an art director at AMB3R, a Denver apparel company. Jimmy also does personal and freelance design work under the name Atomic Child, which he’s used since 2007 after being inspired by Keith Haring’s iconic work Radiant Child. Growing up in Sturgis, South Dakota, Jimmy loved drawing and was encouraged both at school and at home to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional artist. He devoured comic books, and after high school, Jimmy moved to Denver to study illustration at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. He used his degree to do freelance illustration work for nearly a decade while holding down a “regular job.”
“I turned 29 and thought, what am I doing with my life?” Jimmy said. “I’m not going to be 30 and not doing what I love.” So Jimmy quit his job and started freelancing full time, focusing his work mostly on music merchandise, like T-shirts and hats. At the time, Jimmy’s style featured a lot of gore and monsters, which were popular in the mid- to late 2000s. “T-shirts and music merchandise are based off trends,” Jimmy said. “Now it’s evolved into one-color, simple, clean designs. You’re only going to get paid for what you get approved. So I slowly moved my art toward that direction.” Today Jimmy’s art has a more graphic look with simple shapes and colors that evoke stained glass. Living in Colorado, Jimmy is inspired by the outdoors and adventure, themes that occur often in his work.
“When I get to do my own thing, I like to draw nature or do graphics from nature,” Jimmy said. “I really love the beach. I’ve always been drawn to that, since I grew up in the middle of the US with no beach.” Jimmy doesn’t have easy access to a beach in Denver either, so he heads up to the nearby Rocky Mountains instead to go camping. “I love getting out of the city, hopefully somewhere where cell phone service is a little rough,” Jimmy said. And while he still finds inspiration in nature, Jimmy’s work continues to evolve. “Recently, I really love to draw food. It’s my new thing, doing detailed illustrations of food.” That’s all part of a challenge he set for himself this year: to grow his Instagram account. In his day to day, Jimmy spends most of his time at AMB3R, where he parlayed his experience designing T-shirts into a job as an art director a few years ago. Then he comes home from work to pursue his freelance career, which he’s recently put more of a focus on. “I still really want to work for myself,” Jimmy said. “I want to be my own boss, to be in control of my own freedom.”
After he’s met any pending deadlines, Jimmy puts on one his favorite podcasts, like Adventures in Design, and spends a few hours working on his personal projects. He’s set a goal to create one new piece of art every day this year. To do that, Jimmy created a system that allows him to find simple shapes and apply different landscapes to them. “I just like to open that new file in Photoshop and just create from there,” Jimmy said of his process for creating personal work. “I find some color palette inspirations and create without a sketch.” Jimmy’s years of work as a freelancer and art director, and the time spent creating his own work, have paid off. He now has freelance clients that range from professional sports teams like the Orlando City Soccer Club to musicians like The Grateful Dead. Even though Jimmy has found success, he hasn’t lost the excitement that made him want to become a professional artist in the first place. “In the beginning, the most surprising part was that I was actually creating things out of my own mind and people were paying me to create those things,” Jimmy said. “My art actually has value. When those people come to you asking you to work for them you feel like you belong in that system. It’s still kind of surprising to this day. Now it’s just bigger clients, like national sports teams. Now I’m into creating my own products. I put it out there and get orders in and it’s the best thing in the world.”
But making a living in a creative field hasn’t always been easy. As any freelancer knows, there’s a lot more that goes into having a successful career than just creating your work. “The most challenging part of being a professional artist is realizing that you have to spend a lot of time not doing art,” Jimmy said. “You have to try to be a business person so you can be an artist.” That’s one reason that Jimmy started selling his Atomic Child prints through INPRNT this summer. “I was trying to create different streams of revenue and I really wanted to do prints. Now I have another avenue to sell a different type of product to people who are following. It makes it so much easier.” That’s a very good thing for someone who says his whole life is centered around his art. “I really spend a ton of time creating artwork,” Jimmy said. “It’s my hobby, it’s my passion, it’s my job, I don’t want to do anything else.”
The foundations of Jeremy Aaron Moore’s professional art career were placed way back when he was a child growing up in Cortez, Colorado. But his path from being a kid who loved to draw to becoming a full-time artist with a roster of clients wasn’t a straight one. After participating in a competition for young artists in high school, Jeremy attended Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design to study illustration. But he became disillusioned when he realized that most of his peers weren’t finding work in their fields after graduation. “I have nothing against art school as long as you have the money. I went and learned a lot in art school. But there’s a lot of really great alternatives available now,” Jeremy said. He would encourage young artists today to take workshops or even reach out directly to their favorite artists to learn right from the source. Jeremy's advice for young artists is, "Get a sketchbook and fill it up, get another sketchbook and fill it up until you have 50 of them.”
But back then, Jeremy wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do. So he left school and became a cave guide. “I’m really into outdoor stuff,” Jeremy said. “I grew up where it was pretty much required to go rock climbing, hiking and rafting. Being in Colorado is awesome for that.” While Jeremy didn’t make any art during this time, he wasn’t done with creative pursuits. In 2005, he went back to school at Fort Lewis College to pursue a degree in art education with an eye to being a teacher. But Jeremy yearned to make his own art. “I tried to get away from it, but I can’t. I tried to teach, but I just couldn’t do that. I can’t really do anything but this,” Jeremy said of becoming a professional artist.
In the past, Jeremy had mostly focused on painting, working in acrylics and oil. But it was around this time that digital art was really taking off and once Jeremy got hooked on it, he couldn’t get enough. One of the first digital artists that really inspired Jeremy was Jason Chan. Followoing Jason was also how Jeremy found INPRNT, where he now sells prints of his own work. Eventually Jeremy switched to doing digital art full time. And while he sometimes misses the tactile nature of painting, he doesn’t miss cleaning brushes. Over the years, Jeremy continued to build his portfolio and started freelancing for various clients. He learned the stuff that they don’t teach you in art school, mostly about the business of art. “When I started out, I didn’t know the difference between what was popular and what was being bought, what’s marketable and what will sell. I had to find a target market,” Jeremy said. Now Jeremy works mostly with clients in the publishing industry and pursues his own art on the side when he has time. And when Jeremy needs a break from the studio, he heads outside to work on his vintage cars. A few years ago, he bought an old Volkswagen bus that broke down on him almost immediately. He learned to fix it himself, which turned out to be a sort of zen experience. “The confidence that I got from learning how to take apart and put the engine back together was huge,” Jeremy said. “I thought, maybe if I can do that, I can figure out how to make this career work."
Jeremy is heavily involved in the local art scene in Denver, where he now lives after having resided in Portland, Oregon. He recently moved into an art studio in the RiNo district, an up-and-coming area with lots of galleries, breweries and other craft businesses. “In Portland, the music and art scene is so cool. It’s saturated with artistic types,” Jeremy said. “With Denver, I’ve kind of been waiting on it. Out of nowhere this last summer there was this growth of murals and artwork. There’s a really cool scene happening here.” And Jeremy has been a part of that growth. He runs a group called the Denver Illustration Salon, which began three years ago with a few illustrators and now has 2,000 members who are artists of all types. The group meets regularly to sketch together, often at some of the local galleries. The community Jeremy has found in the Denver Illustration Salon has been invaluable. And so has the one he’s created at his new shared art studio. For years Jeremy worked alone out of his home, often in the basement. But having a space to go to has been a real game-changer. “Having a studio is really nice. I have some studio mates that are really cool, friends in town who are also illustrators to bounce ideas off of and get feedback,” Jeremy said. “As an artist, working from home can be a struggle. All of those years, I always thought that would be the best part.”
It turns out what Jeremy really loves is being able to work for himself, especially the flexible hours and control over which projects he takes on. But being a freelancer has its challenges too. “It’s a little different than I thought it would be. It’s more of a job,” Jeremy said. “It was always kind of a false summit. There’s always so much work to do to go higher.” To stay on top of his game, Jeremy is always looking for inspiration. He finds it in all sorts of places, like the podcasts One Fantastic Week and Your Dreams My Nightmares by one of his favorite artists, Sam Weber. Jeremy also finds inspiration scrolling through digital portfolios of fellow artists or attending trade shows like Spectrum Fantastic Art Live or Comic Con. And when the muse just isn’t coming? “I bang my head into the wall. I just keep working,” Jeremy said.