Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.
This month I’m super duper excited to be chatting it up with the rock star Illustrator & Designer, Holli Conger! I’m a long-time fan of Holli’s fabulous mixed media collage artwork (and by long-time fan, I mean like the better part of twenty years!) She’s an artist specializing in illustration for the children’s market, art licensing and three-dimensional found object art. Holli is a Nashville native. Three years ago, she left the land of Country Music for the land of Krispy Kreme, and currently lives in Winston-Salem, NC with her husband and two children. You can view more of her artwork here!
|Go, Crocodile, Go!|
Q: I absolutely love your adorable characters and whimsical artwork for kids! Dish with us a bit about your creative process: ideas, sketches, creating color digitally, adding and balancing patterns & textures—you know, all the good stuff!!
A. For any project, even if it's to make or build something around the house, I start with a sketch. Pencil and paper is always the first step for me. Many artists have switched over to working digitally for their sketches, but I like the feel of drawing on paper, erasing but still leaving a faint marking of what I've left behind. I like the process of layering pencil marks in different tones to get my shapes and details worked out. I just can't seem to have that effect when I try them digitally on my iPad or Cintiq. Also, I'm on the go a lot so paper and pencil are always easy and accessible and it doesn't need to be charged. I home-school my kids and I try and change up their learning environment when I can since I know how well that works for me as an artist. I work in the studio, different rooms in the house, coffee shops, the library, the park, doctor's office, etc. I like to keep a sketchbook of just random ideas. Inside are things my kids might want me to draw, a new found object art piece I may make or ideas for art licensing.
For sketches that need to seen by a client before final color artwork (my children’s publishing work or on-assignment work like licensing) I know it needs to be a little more polished and within the size format. For those projects, I use regular copy/printer paper. I'll box out the dimensions for the piece and start sketching with a blue pencil. This allows me to get loose with my lines in a much lighter tone than my gray pencil. That way my "thinking" lines don't distract from the final, more detailed gray pencil line. Once I have my shapes and details figured out, I go over it all with my normal, everyday, number 2 pencil. At this step I finalize my lines and add in details and rough shading if needed.
When it comes time to final artwork, most all my client-based work is done digitally. I work in a vector, painterly and found object style. My found object work is what I tend to do the most of since it’s my trademark style. I tend to do more vector and painterly for educational illustration (workbooks, etc.) and licensing. In my found object work I use a lot of different things. I love shopping at thrift and antique store and even garage sales to find "treasures" to use. I scan in or photograph the objects, papers, textures, etc.—creating a huge digital archive of things to use. Once they are captured digitally, they did go in my filing cabinet or in the many storage bins and they are free to use for my three-dimensional found object pieces.
In both my tangible and digital found object pieces, I rarely know what type of textures, pattern or objects I will use in a final piece, but if I have an idea at the sketch phase, say a button used as the nose of the dog, I will draw it as a button just so I can remember. All my client work (except vector art which is done in Illustrator) is done in Photoshop. I have a Cintiq that has allowed me to work quicker and with more detail than I have before. I was never a wacom pen user, just their mouse and tablet. I would always draw, cut out shapes, etc. with the mouse. Now it's much easier just to draw and cut with the pen directly on the screen.
|Bring on the holiday cheer! Ho, ho, ho!|
Q: You have a background in graphic design and advertising as well as a love for typography. Give us the scoop on how your background in these areas has influenced not only your artwork, but how you present your artwork to the world.
A. I graduated in 2000 with a Bachelors degree in Graphic Design & Advertising. I have always loved marketing and thinking through how I could stand apart from my classmates (AKA competition in the job market once we graduated). I started freelance designing toward the end of my freshman year, but didn't do much until my sophomore year. By the time I graduated, I have 2 more years experience and a portfolio of completely different projects than my fellow classmates had since their portfolios all consisted of the same school projects and assignments. I had wondered how many hiring Art Directors saw they same project come through the portfolio of job seekers over the years. I landed my design job with a publisher 2 weeks before graduation that was beyond entry-level and making almost double of what my classmates were being offered for their entry-level jobs. That same mindset has help me maintain a successful illustration career. Having that job for 5 years allowed me to do all kind of design work like web design, advertising, book design, catalog design, art directing photo shoots, etc. I was able to do so many different things I didn't get bored doing just one aspect of design. Whenever appropriate I tried to fit in some more of illustration work into it. It didn't happen often, but it allowed me to experiment with different looks and techniques.
I think my love for typography started in collage. We had a full semester on Typography and had so many wonderful projects using type. Around that time the internet began to boom with free font sites so I would always download them and use them in different ways and combinations. Today I love creating my own letters within my work or using words and letters from old paper clippings, packaging, signs, labels, games, etc.
When my daughter was born I decided to go into freelance illustration. I wanted a career with goals but still wanted to be home with her. Freelance design involved to many phone calls, face-to-face meetings and that just a little too much client hand holding that wouldn’t interrupt my mommy time. Sticking to illustration meant that most of my clients would be out of town, prefer email contact and diaper blowouts could be managed without a client even knowing.
Having a design background has been invaluable as an illustrator. I always tell young people that if they are on the fence about a degree in illustration or a degree in graphic design, go for graphic design. You'll be able to design your own brand and promotional materials, you can always do design work on the side if your illustration work slows down and most importantly (I think) is to understand the production process of what happens after your turn in an illustration. It helps to speak the Art Director's "language" in understanding why they may need things at a certain DPI, how to add a spot color or a foil layer to something, understanding bleeds and how a book will be printed or how your flat art ends up on a three-dimensional piece. With art licensing, I’ve had to lay out art and specifications for entire product lines for factories in China and I would never have known how to do that without having the technical design background. All that to say, it's just helpful to know the entire process, as it's benefited me greatly.
|Speedy shopping helper!|
Q: You create a lot of artwork not only for children’s publishing, but also for art licensing. How are these markets different? How are they similar? Describe your approach to each.
A. The artwork, clients and marketing are so different from each other. For children's publishing it's all assignment based. The client knows what they want. For art licensing I have to come up with the idea and concept and then try and sell it to someone else. Promotion for these markets is different and it is difficult to manage those two types of self-promotion. For publishing, I send postcard mailers, email tear sheets and post work online. That is all to entice an art director to hire me for their project. For licensing, I have to contact the manufacturer (by email or phone), get an idea of how they license art, what they might be looking for theme wise, and if it's even the right time of year for them to review said art. Then I have to go back and see if I have art that fits their need and reformat it to their desired format. If not, I decide if it's worth it to create art to fit their needs (because chances are that same art will be what another company needs also) or move onto another potential client and try and license what I have. With licensing it's best to build a relationship with clients and continually show them new work I've already created as with publishing, the work I've done for other clients is what I show to them. "Look what I did." vs. "Look what I can do for you."
Q: What is a typical workday like for you? Set the scene (workspace, materials, accessories) and describe your responsibilities (illustration, design, business stuff) and creative juju (rituals, inspiration, process).
A. Depending on what deadlines I have that day, I may get up at 3:00 am to get a chunk of work done before my kids start school. I may get you at 7:30 and work on emails from the couch and have a cup of coffee (or three!). Afterwards I head to my studio, which is an extra living space in our basement. It's filled with color and inspiration in the form of artwork, vintage finds and childhood toys. I’ve had other kids come to my home and think the room was a playroom for my kids. I tell them it’s all my things and this is where I work. I get a weird look from them like "you're kidding right?" I like to be surrounded with what I like and since I spend so much time there, I might as well enjoy looking at it all.
My messy workspace for painting and sometimes sketching is a big dining room table from IKEA. It's the perfect size and I can spread out lots of supplies when working on my big found object pieces. I then have a separate sketch table that keeps me in the studio, but allows me to work away from my computer. And then my main computer area looks like I could land an airplane from it. I have and iMac, dual monitor and a large Cintiq all accessible without scooting my chair around. It's a set up that works really well for me.
|Is this studio the coolest or what?! Total art pro playground!|
My day consists of mostly creating art for clients and self-promoting whether it be via social media, email or researching new places to promote to. I have an agent that handles most of the business side of things. Signing contracts and keeping up with jobs and payments is the only paperwork I really do. I multitask a lot and am able to turn out art fairly quickly. I know my time in the mornings will be interrupted with schoolwork so I allow for that. After lunch my kids are usually done with their schoolwork so I can focus 100% on my work. I'll turn on a movie or binge a TV show on my second monitor. I may not actually watch it, but the noise helps me set a pace for working.
I try to be done in the studio by 4:00pm each evening, but I’ll continue to work on things in the back of my head throughout the evening. Thinking though specs for a project, what all I might have to do the next day, etc. After work I usually go outside and walk while my kids play. Then it's dinner and family time and I'm usually in bed by 9:00pm. I just can't stay up late to work. I’d rather know I can sleep before working even if I do have to get up at 3:00am and knowing that coffee and probably a binge worthy TV show are waiting for me.
Q: You are a marketing rock star—so much so that you even offer 4 different paid consulting programs to assist fellow creatives with their own marketing! What are the biggest mistakes you see artists making when self-promoting? And what are your top 3 tips for effective self-promotion?
A. I love helping other artist with marketing. My consulting program has been a big part of my business over the last few years. It does take a lot of time since it's all personalized so I do have a limit of how many artists I can take on at a time. I learned the hard way of committing to eleven artist the first time I started offering it and it was exhausting. I didn't get much sleep those two months.
Understanding that some artist don't have the time or necessarily the money (especially if they are just starting out) to commit to consulting, last year I released an e-book of marketing tips, how to work smarter, what to expect in your career, etc. It's a totally interactive book and although it's and e-book, it's meant to be printed out and marked up with notes and ideas.
|Tear sheets: this is how a pro gets it done!!|
Most artists have similar problems in staying motivated and effectively marketing themselves. Some of the biggest mistakes I see artist doing with their own self-promotion is:
1. Not knowing where to start and not feeling that they're "ready."
My advice: You will never feel ready. Just start; get out of your head. Stop over thinking and over criticizing yourself. We are our worst critic. Even if you aren't 100% comfortable with your style, just start putting what you have out there and keep creating it, fine tuning as you go. Start promoting yourself to potential clients. Start to getting your name, your brand, out there. You're style will naturally change over the years. My style has change so much from my first professional illustration job thirteen years ago.
2. Thinking you're not good enough.
My advice: Comparison KILLS creativity. If you’re doing you, just keep doing you. If you love it and have such a passion for it, other people will too. They just need to find you so put yourself out there.
3. Getting hung up on social media. Thinking their worth is in the number of people who follow them and number of likes their post gets.
My advice: Don't get caught up in what others think. Easier said than done, but trust me, you can get there. The feeling creeps up on me sometimes and I have to check myself, before I literally wreck myself. I'll open Instagram and say to myself "here's your dose of depression for the day." I try and think of my social media accounts as a way to journal and document my process and journey so I can go back later and reflect rather than trying to post for people's reaction. Sometimes just posting and not looking at your feed is a good thing to practice every now and then.
4. Not knowing what main image to put on a postcard mailer thus never sending on out.
My advice: During consulting this is one of the main hiccups artist seem to have. They want it to be just perfect, but their definition of perfect will sideline their efforts. In the first year of consulting I worked with a really talented illustrator who had a very marketable style and I knew wouldn't have any trouble landing work, BUT, they could never nail down the perfect image for a postcard mailer, therefore they never were able to get one laid out, printed and mailed during our time together. They put in the time to research names, find addresses, know the submission guideline, but they could not decide on what image they wanted to send. Everything in their portfolio was perfect in my eyes so they have plenty of work to choose from, but they didn't have the confidence to see it. This goes back to #1 above. You've just got to push through it and get yourself out there. Send out a promotional mailer and forget about it. It's just one of many you'll be mailing in during your career. Let it work for you and move onto the next promotion.
|How totally fun is this 3D collage?! Love it!|
A few tips for effective self-promotion:
1. Stay active online and in the studio. Motivation will lead to creativity. Creativity will lead to creating more work. Creating more work will fine-tune your style, therefore you're more confident with your work. The more confident you are with your work, the more you will share (self-promote).
2. Do some type of promotion everyday. Email a potential client, connect with someone on LinkedIn, post to social media (but keep the mindset of my advice in mistake #3 above). Self-promotion can be that easy. Just get your work out into the world.
3. Follow-up. Any interest you may have had in your work, follow-up. People get busy, they get sidetracked, projects get postponed - those are all reason why you may not hear back from poetical (and even past clients). Follow-up and keep checking in with them, even if it's just a reminder that "Hey, I'm still around and would love to work with you."
Q: Describe your most perfect day.
A. Waking up knowing I don't have any deadlines that day (which rarely happens and I'm so grateful for that!) and the day is totally mine where I can work on any type of project I want or just have a day of nothingness. Coffee. A breakfast where biscuits are involved. I'm currently trying to perfect my biscuit recipe. I'm almost there. Baking them and eating them has become an unhealthy passion of mine. Coffee. Then doing any kind of creative project. One of my large found object pieces, some kind of project around the house (redecorating/rearranging/building something) or even taking a nap to refuel. My kids like to help with those things—except the nap part. Coffee. Then dinner delivered to my door (we have the best authentic Italian restaurant in our small town) and a good movie with my family. And maybe a decaf cup of coffee ;) To me, coffee just chills me out and it like a warm sweater for your insides, since I'm always cold.
A day like that would be total bliss—coffee, biscuits, creativity and rest!
Thank you so much, Holli, for catching up with us here at Bird Meets Worm!! You’re a total rock star!