Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Super Star Interviews: Sarah Ehlinger

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 happy to be catching up with the sophisticated, ever-lovely Designer/Illustrator/Artist, Sarah Ehlinger (aka Very Sarie)! I had the absolute pleasure of being her booth neighbor at Surtex awhile back and am in love with her gorgeous work. (Plus she’s a fellow SoCali girl! Very yay!) Sarah’s work has spanned branding, packaging, in-store retail campaigns, and can be seen on greeting cards, stationery, wallpaper, kitchen tiles and ceramics. She has years of design agency experience working as a Graphic Designer, Creative Director and Creative Strategist with big name brands. She happily brings that experience to her current work—except now, she gets to do it in yoga pants instead of heels. You can view more of her artwork here!

Flowering succulents are a desert beauty!!

Q: Your beautiful artwork has a distinctly Southern California esthetic (which I totally ADORE!). Tell us a bit about how living in Los Angeles has shaped you as an artist from trends to colors to subject matter and everything in-between.

A: It definitely has influenced my work. I'm originally from Iowa, and I lived in Minneapolis for 12 years, so I do think there is part of me that gravitates to things that are distinctly Southern California because it's a (relatively) new experience for me—in particular, the desert life. I've found that my favorite weekend getaways around here are to the desert: Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, Ojai. The colors in the desert landscape just blow me away—so many subtleties.

And certainly there is a strong mid-century influence in my work, but that started a long time ago while living in Minneapolis. LA just magnified it for me, because there is such a strong mid-century vibe here.

Also, my grandparents spent a considerable amount of time in Arizona when I was a child, and my Grandmother had little cactus plants all around her house. I was mesmerized by them. Nobody else I knew in Iowa had cactus plants in their houses! So I guess in a weird way, filling my house with, and painting a lot of succulents and cacti reminds me of my childhood. The first time I visited LA, I felt very at home, and I think that shows up in my work.

Fabulous beetle buddy!!

 Q: Dish with us about your MOST favorite illustration projects: one from the past & one from the present.

A: I don't think a lot of people realize this, but I haven't actually been doing illustration for very long! I've only begun CALLING myself an illustrator this past year. I have a bachelor of Fine Arts degree, but after school, ultimately became a graphic design, art director and creative director for years. I was actually the one on the other side of the table hiring & pitching illustrators for campaigns and projects—never dreaming in a million years it was something I would get into myself! Even when I went to Surtex a couple of years ago, I was still approaching much of my work from more of a graphic design—not illustration—perspective. Looking back, I realize that I was injecting illustration into my projects where I could (even if I didn't recognize it at the time.) I recall a store campaign I worked on for Target—it was all of the signage for Easter. We had to use these little plush chicks, and I created an illustrated landscape of painted grass for them to live in. The end result was a combination of illustration and photography and it looked stunning in store. Recently, I did a poster project for SPAM that was a lot of fun. I had to illustrate a poster combining SPAM brand and Los Angeles life. It was a great client, because they mostly let me do my own thing—and that doesn't happen a lot with freelance work. 

Q: You are a big embracer of approaching marketing & self-promotion as a creative endeavor. What are your top 5 must-do-creative-marketing habits?

A: Great question!
1) First and foremost is consistency. Whatever you do, you have to be sure to keep at it and be consistent. There isn't going to be one blog post, one email newsletter, or one instagram photo that is magically going to turn things around for you. It's the collected, consistent work of doing it all on a daily & weekly basis that will "magically" turn things around. Everyone thinks people suddenly burst onto the scene, (I know I'm guilty of it) but that almost never happens. The overnight successes are usually the people who have been plugging away forever, and are just now being recognized. Consistency is hands down the most important thing you can do- it's a marathon, not a sprint.

What a delightful little potted fern!!

2) Don't do everything. Seriously. You can't. Most of us are a one-person operation, and there just isn't time. I tell everyone to give up all but one of their social media channels for awhile and see how it goes. Pick the one that you enjoy the most, and pour yourself into it. Learn everything about it, and focus your efforts in growing just that one channel. After you have that one on autopilot, THEN add in another one. I pretty much have stopped using twitter and facebook this past year for my business, and guess what? Nothing happened. Nobody died. I don't feel like I missed out on some big opportunity or anything. What did happen, is I was able to put all of my efforts into Instagram—which I love using—and by the end of the year, I will have grown by almost 10K followers, and I'm seeing great opportunities and partnership come out of it. That never would have happened had I been diluting my time and energy on social media marketing that I didn't love or care about. Seriously, the only reason why I still push my Instagram posts to my business page on Facebook is because I have family members who love to see what I'm doing, but refuse to get on Instagram. (True story!) But because of that, at this point, I have no plans to do anything more with FB—the metrics just don't merit it compared to instagram—for me—for others Facebook could totally be the answer. The key is picking that one thing, and rocking it!

3) Start an email newsletter. The sooner the better. Just get that list going. Honestly, I don't see a ton of conversions from my list yet, but I do know that these are my most loyal people, and I treat them as such. And over time I know that most of my business will come from there. I send an update out at least every other week, and I can see my numbers slowly growing. In the long run, nothing will be as valuable to you as your email list, because it's yours—not instagram's, or Facebook's, or Twitter's. And your list peeps have a much bigger chance of hearing and being receptive to your marketing messages in their inboxes vs. in a social media feed, where they may be passes over or never seen at all. (Hint: most of the time I use my social media marketing to get people onto my email list.) Your email list will also be a valuable asset when creating new work or new products—these are the people who's opinions will matter the most to you + they are the most likely to give it!

"Tweet! Tweet! Chirp!" said the sweet bird!

 4) Find an accountability partner. This one has been huge for me this year. Is there a person you can meet with or check in with on a weekly or monthly basis that will hold you accountable to what you said you would do? They don't even have to be in the same exact industry as you (in fact, sometimes that's even better), but they should be someone who is a freelancer, entrepreneur, etc. who understands what you are trying to do from a business and brand building perspective. My partner doesn't even live in the same state as me, so we meet via Skype once a week, and she has now become one of my best friends. Not only is the accountability important, it's also been invaluable having someone to share struggles and triumphs with.

5) Create a project that people can follow along with. Every time I've done this, I've seen massive engagement. My followers grow, and my email list grows. As an added bonus, the public accountability of posting on social media helps me stick with it. It's also an easy way to come up with content to share on a daily basis when you're feeling less than inspired. (Remember that consistency thing I mentioned earlier??) 

Q: Let’s chat a bit about your creative process! How does yours begin—set the stage for us: workspace, materials, habits, inspiration? How do you approach sketches? Finished color art? Do you mostly create standalone images or do you develop collections?

A: Lately, my creative process has been all about establishing a practice to create something first thing in the morning, every morning, even if it's just sitting down to paint for 30 minutes. This daily practice has amped up my productivity and creativity immensely—even on the days I don't want to do it. (Actually, those are the days I find I create something I like the most.) If I wait for inspiration to strike, I'll end up with nothing. I find that inspiration comes after you've sat down for a few moments and shaken a few cobwebs loose. I always pour myself a cup of tea before beginning, and my material of choice as of late has been watercolor. I used to make lots of separate pieces that I would draw and then ink, and then turn into vector art, which would get colorized. I've fallen in love with painting so much though, that I'm trying to use original painted art as much as I can now—which is completely changing my workflow! Lots more time in photoshop vs. illustrator, and I'm learning some best practices to start saving me more time. Also, creating patterns in photoshop vs. illustrator is a whole different thing for me, but I'm slowing becoming more confident with it. In the past, I always approached my work as collections, but I find myself creating more stand-alone work now. I'm sure I will be revisiting most of it and turning it into collections eventually, but I'm really enjoying just seeing where this is all going for now, and letting myself play and explore.

What luminous colors!! Don'tcha just love it?!

Q: What advice would you give to fellow illustrators looking to break into art licensing? What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started out?

A: I feel like there is a lot of misinformation about art licensing out there. Most of the time, when other artists and illustrators ask me how to get into it, they think it's going to be great because they'll be able to sell the same artwork over and over again—thinking it will be nice, easy passive income. While that certainly can be the case in some instances, generally it isn't. In my experience, art licensing is far from passive. I actually get quite a few requests to create things vs. using existing art- clients like a certain style, but want a different subject matter for instance. I also don't think people realize just how vigilant you have to be at following up and establishing relationships with prospective clients. Sometimes (actually most of the time) it will take a year or more of consistently following up with someone every 6-8 weeks before you even get a response. A lot of times, manufacturers will like your work, but there is just no way for them to slot you in immediately, so you have to figure out ways to stay top of mind. When it comes to art licensing, art is only about 10%. The rest is follow up, relationship building, and learning how to handle rejection with grace (because there will be a lot of it). 

Imagine tea and cake on this succulent topped table—so lovely!!

 Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: If I can wake up before my guy and the dogs and the house is still quiet, time for meditation, journaling or reading would be first. Then, a trip to the flea market for sure. Follow that with a very long, lazy brunch- preferably someplace new that I've been dying to check out. Then, in the afternoon, head back home to tinker about on projects or the house or the garden- homebody type of stuff, ha! Evenings, I love to make dinner and open a bottle of wine- especially on Sundays because I have more time, so it's usually something a little more complex than what I would make on a weekday night. Then my favorite thing about Sunday nights is ending it with one of my shows: Game of Thrones or Walking Dead—they're both so good!!

Thanks so much for chatting with us here at Bird Meets Worm, Sarah! It was a pleasure!!