PROfile is a series of interviews with artists and creative souls who have built businesses around their craft and passion. We'll dig deeper to try and find out everything you could want to know from seasoned pros who have experienced the full gamut of highs and lows that come from running a creative business.
We are super excited about getting to pick the brain of artist, illustrator and author Lisa Congdon this week. Not only do we love her work, but she is also brilliant at dishing out practical advice on how artists can thrive in business. Enjoy!
What was your first ‘proper’ job and how did you land it? Was it what you intended to do as a career?
My very first proper job was as an elementary school teacher. A few months out of college I decided I better find a career, and teaching was the thing that seemed to most appealing to me at the time. I had always envisioned myself a lawyer or politician, so in a way it was a big diversion because up until I decided to go back to school to get my teaching certification, it wasn’t something I thought I’d do. I’m really glad I did, because I did have fun and I learned a lot. I had zero idea I’d ever become an artist!
Has art and design always been in your blood?
I think my aesthetic was formed fairly early on when I was in my 20s and early 30s – even before I started making art. I moved to San Francisco when I was 22 and going through life as a young person there and being exposed to all kinds of things – art, fashion, design, food, culture. I have always had a strong sense of style – in terms of what I wear, the art I choose to buy, how I decorate my home, etc. All of that filtered into the kind of art I made when I started to paint and draw when I was 31 years old. So sometimes I wonder if I had gone to art school early on in college or in my early 20s if I would have encountered other influences and have a completely different style.
How did you go about starting your own business?
Very slowly and intentionally! I started painting when I was 31 as a hobby. And I had a job till I was 39 years old. I went to the studio at night after work and sold my work for a couple of years on the side starting when I was about 37 years old while I still had a job. And then I went part time at my job so that I would have more time in the studio but still have some regular income to subsidise my artwork. And then when I was 39, I left my job and ran a store with my friend while I made art. In fact, it took me about 5 years until I was finally making art as a full time living! All along the way, I worked hard at promoting myself, in getting my files and workspace organised, in building my portfolio and setting goals for myself. Eventually, I wrote in more detail about all the things I did in a book, Art Inc: The Essential Guide to Building Your Career as an Artist, which came out last year.
How did you secure your first clients?
I fell into illustration rather on accident. I had an art show in San Francisco and some folks from Chronicle Books were there and asked me for a meeting. They ended up being my first client; we created a line of stationery together. Once I realised that I wanted to try to be an artist and illustrator for a living, I began to spread the word about what I was making through all the ways that were available to me — in hopes that I could sell more of it, or perhaps get an illustration job, or maybe land a gallery show.
It’s important to remember that I was self taught, and I’d never gone to art school and I was also much older than a lot of people starting out. And so I was intimidated by the art world and had no clue about the worlds of illustration or licensing. Selling my work on Etsy (also new back when I started out in 2007) also felt a bit intimidating. But over the course of time, I asked a lot of questions and read a lot. I was an early adopter of things like Flickr and blogging, and later on I was an early adopter of newer forms of social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And so a lot of my clients came through my online visibility and efforts at self promotion.
What is your typical daily routine like?
No day is ever the same, but most of my days start with checking email and knocking some low hanging fruit off my to-do list. Then I go to spin class or swim laps. Exercise is an important part of my routine because it helps me relieve stress and get better sleep. Then I come back home, get cleaned up, go to my studio and work on whatever is on my list for the day. Sometimes that’s a client illustration job, sometimes it’s working on a book (I illustrate a lot of my own books now), and sometimes it’s doing administrative stuff or interviews like this one! Then around 6 pm I go back home and eat dinner with my partner and then usually draw in my sketchbook while we watch a movie or television. Right before bed I read a book for a bit until I fall asleep. Occasionally I work after dinner when I have a deadline I have to meet, but I try not to work at night.
What traits do artists have that help with running a business?
I think successful artists make their best effort to be organised, even if that doesn’t come naturally to them. That means organising and managing their time well, planning out their day to make sure they accomplish everything they need to get done. When you are a commercial artist you often have strict deadlines with clients that you have to meet, and sometimes you have multiple projects and deadlines at once. So being really thoughtful about how you spend your time to ensure you are on track with everything is critical. I also think successful artists know that they must find ways to promote their work – finding social media channels that they enjoy and where they can build a following. You cannot sit back and wish people were buying your work or hiring you for jobs. You have to work for it, so having a strong work ethic and embracing all aspects of the business (not just the art making part) is really important.
You create diverse work from massive abstract paintings, to intricate line drawings. Do you have a favourite medium or technique?
I love working in all kinds of ways, but I do think painting in gouache on acrylic on wood is my favourite. I love the way that paint seeps into wood grain and takes on a texture of its own. Currently my passion is abstract painting, but I don’t have time to do it as much as I’d like with all my other book and illustration projects.
Artists and writers often describe the compulsion to work – do you experience an overwhelming desire to create something new?
Oh, yes, definitely! Some days I can’t stop, even during my down time, like when I am relaxing in front of the television or a movie, I have to draw in my sketchbook. Sometimes I cannot wait to get into my studio to work. Most of the time I am logging ideas for new projects into my notebook. My brain never turns off.
Do you ever feel alone in your work?
All the time! But I am about to bring on a business partner and I AM SO EXCITED. I am fine with making art by myself, and rather enjoy painting and drawing in a solitary environment. But running a growing business by myself can often feel lonely and overwhelming. I am so excited to have someone to share decision making with, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to help me with sales, marketing and promotions. I think it’s going to be great.
How do you relax?
This may sound funny but I draw to relax, but mostly in my sketchbook. I also like to read or listen to audiobooks (I do a lot of that while I work too). I like to go out into nature and hiking. I love watching movies. Cooking relaxes me. Having things that you are passionate about or that are calming outside of work is so important.
What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
Stop worrying that other people are judging you. Be your weird awesome self.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Being kind and giving good hugs.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The amazing emails I get from people who read my blog and follow my work online. I get them just about every day and they keep me going.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve received so many good pieces of advice over the years, so it’s hard to say which one is best. But I think what I have learned most from those who’ve come before me is this idea of carving your own path. Often we try to emulate other artists or creative people. We say, ‘I want to be just like them'. But that’s just going to be an exercise in frustration and defeat, because you can only be yourself in your work and life. Finding your own voice as an artist is critical not just to success, but to happiness as a human being.
Web: Lisa Congdon
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