Questioning Creatives

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This article was written on 19 Nov 2012, and is filled under illustrators.

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Scott Mooney

I’m 43 years old, located in Guelph Ontario, and I’ve been a professional illustrator since 1994, which is 18 years now.  My career path has always orbited around comics and illustration, even before I was aware of it.  I studied fine art at the University of Guelph (where I tended to make sequential art that emulated comics) and really had no conscious clue that I would be an illustrator… until near the end of my degree I got a job doing cartoony illustrations for a U of G research publishing department called “the Office of Research” and realized I found that far more fun than trying to make art for gallery walls.

When did you decide you wanted to be illustrator?
At first, when I graduated from art school in 1995, I was calling myself a cartoonist.  Then I looked in the Graphic Artist’s Guild Pricing and Ethical Guidelines book and found the discrepancies between the dismally low fees “cartoonists” were paid by magazines and the much larger fees paid to “illustrators”.  This is when I changed my job title and a vastly larger market opened up for me. Now I consider myself fitting in to both roles seamlessly.  In my mind most of my illustration and Information design work is simply fancy cartooning.

Would you recommend studying at art school?
Yes. The education teaches you how to do the work, but they can’t teach you the motivation you need to persist… that part is up to you.  There are some self taught illustrators who do very well.  It seems to me that of the people I know who succeed as illustrators most of them were already illustrators BEFORE they went to art school.  By that I mean they were already prolific creators of illustrated art, driven by something essential to their  identity and sense of well being.  It’s one thing to have a talent for drawing and another thing to be an illustrator from the core, though I imagine there are other ways to create success than that.

In my personal experience my illustration career takes more persistence than mere talent or even passion can muster. The thought of being anything else was so depressing and frightening to me that I hung in with this career through harder times than any sane person should. To this day if I go too long without doing some illustration I get generally grumpy. I seem to be dependent on the creative process for my sense of well being. That being said, that driver may not be the only road to success.  I think a reasonably competent, organized, persistent, service oriented person would probably find easier success than I have, since my crazy mood driver seems to compensate for my haphazard marketing habits.

Art school is great training and I think it greatly increases your chances at making it in a career in the field.  I probably would have done better as an illustrator earlier on if I’d had a clear vision to do something very specific and a good college illustration program rather than my loosey-goosey university degree.  However, university fulfilled a lot of my other interests and trained my thinking in ways that serve me well in life and business, so it was definitely a valuable thing to do.

How long was it before illustration became your primary form of income?
I struggled along for a year before getting picked up as an in-house illustrator making safety posters.  For three years I had a full time job drawing pictures and learning how to be an illustrator from my supervisor and peers.  When I was downsized from that job I struggled again for a long time trying to transform myself into an entrepreneur… that took another 4 years or so before I was on my feet full time.  I had to learn to open my mind about what I could do with these skills and ended up becoming a part time photo retoucher and graphic designer for my wife’s photography business while also juggling freelance illustration projects.  I see photo retouching as another form of illustration… you’re sort of like a finisher.  Cleaning it up, balancing colour and composition, painting in stuff to correct and improve the image.

Could you describe your typical day?
I work from home so I get up out of bed around 8:30am, boot up the computer and start in on some work to get my brain started, then I eat a quick breakfast, maybe walk the dogs, and then get back to work, doing production work, checking emails, fishing for projects and contacts… no real routine in there, just focus on whatever is the most demanding at the time. Make dinner around 5pm, dinner break till 7, then I’m back to work for between an hour or thee… or 5, depending on the production load. I go to the gym with a friend a few nights a week. And if I have time I watch movies and TV shows (on DVD or Netflix to avoid wasting time on commercials), read comics or non-fiction books, socialize, or play around with personal comics projects.

What do you wish you’d know when you first started out?
I wish I’d known how important it is to build relationships, and how to get over my fear of building them.  Almost all of my work has come from personal connections through friends or aquaintances. Very little of my work has come via advertising.  This is a tough thing to do when you’re an introvert like me but with practice it gets easier.  So be sociable.  It’s important. One of the best things I did early on was I went alone to the ICON illustration conference 3000 miles from home where I had to initiate conversations and grow those into relationships in order to even function there.  So I went to a bunch of different kinds of seminars and practiced talking with strangers and got a lot more comfortable with it.  Nowadays people don’t even believe me when I tell them I’m an introvert.  My chummy composure doesn’t hint at my ability to spend several days without human contact and not even miss it.

What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
It’s always changing. There’s always somewhere to grow.  Every day is different, every project is interesting.  As a freelancer if I want to do more of any particular kind of illustration work that interests me I can go out looking for that kind of work… as long as my growing skill set makes me reasonably competent in that area.  And for me this kind of work makes me very happy.  There’s something about it for me that releases the right neurotransmitters that make me feel good.

What’s the worst thing about being an illustrator?
It tends to be a service based industry, which means that the illustrator is their own bottleneck in their business. If I was selling a manufactured product I might be able to sell an indefinite amount of product, but since I’m usually a one man show I have to attract just the right amount of work that I can keep up with, but not sol little that I’m not earning a living. It’s a strange and challenging dance to maintain. Fortunately for me the photo business always has something that needs to be done so I can fill my down time with some other kind of valuable work.

If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be?
Some kind of therapist. I’m a bit of a psychology geek and I’ve done some life coaching for people. Helping people cope better and feel better about themselves and their lives is extremely rewarding, and it seems to also tap into that same intuitive part of the brain that illustration does, because I get that same mildly euphoric and sustainably happy feeling from the process of doing it.

Any other tips you could share?
Keep learning and growing forever. I seem to circulate through three endeavours: To master my craft (Improve my skills and my knowledge of the industry), to master myself (my health, emotions, motivations and relationships), and to master my business (building relationships, planning and managing my finances, learning, implementing and refining ways to create value with what I can offer).  You have to have fun with it, and you have to push beyond your comfort zone too, which can be thrilling, scary, boring, frustrating, and enlightening.  You have to push through discomfort to get to the good stuff.  As a freelancer you may not have somebody else to push you through it.  You have your clients motivating you (simply by hiring you and expecting you to perform) but that’s limited to individual projects. Find someone to help motivate you forward, like a mentor, or a spouse, or someone you care about to whom it matters that you succeed in the big picture/long run. It helps a lot.

Remember that your work is your passion and that’s important to keep you motivated, AND it’s also a business, and the purpose of a business is to support, and secure a future for, yourself and your family by offering your customers something they value so much that they will trade you their hard earned money for it.

www.moon-man.com
twitter.com/scott_mooney

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