How did you get started in illustration?
My mom was an illustrator, so I was always very supported from a young age. I would pick up a crayon and she would just be excited to see what I would do with it, and so every time I showed some promise I was encouraged and had art supplies readily at hand. So that was a big leg-up from a young age.
School was a really big part of my journey: learning the things that I didn’t know about storytelling and about composition and about color and getting pushed out of my comfort zone. I came in with a very clear idea and a very limited comfort zone; I wanted to draw like burly-super-hero-Spider-Man-
How have the various jobs that you’ve had shifted you and changed your thinking about illustration and what you wanted to do?
You’ve go to ask questions that you feel you need to know the answers to. So for me, the first question was “Could I be a video game concept artist?” and “could this be a career for me in the long-term?” I feel I learned a lot by trying and running after that really hard. I feel that ultimately the answer is “not quite”…or “really depends on the game and the project”. But I learned a lot immediately about working with others and about playing nice and sharing my toys. School and everything up to that point was very inwardly focused and about-me, but as soon as you get out and start working with people it’s immediately collaborative and you have to take other people’s viewpoints and contributions into account.
So that was one of the first really big lessons: just how it’s not about me. I’ve tweaked my direction since then by trying things and sort of figuring out what I need to ask next. I thought comics was really it. It’s still something I’m really passionate about, but I don’t think that I necessarily want to pursue comics in the linear and intense way that I thought I would when I was younger. Having tried it and run after it, I’m just excited to see where things go from here. I’m now at a place where the current gig at Hasbro just has me excited about not knowing what’s next. I’m open to whatever doors open from here. I don’t really have a clear plan…I’ve learned to let go.
“I just want to make things that matter to someone else in a way that some of the art and entertainment and film that I encounter and took in in my childhood mattered to me.”
With all the various jobs you’ve had, are there ever times that you wanted to quit and change course?
Totally. But more often than that, things have just happened: jobs have disappeared, projects have collapsed and those are times when I’ve been tempted to give up and throw the towel in. And there have been times even on the job where it just gets boring. Even sometimes in the last several weeks where it’s not the really powerful creative stuff that I like to sink me teeth into, and it’s just powerpoint and shifting slides around and nudging this a few pixels to the left—which is just part of the gig. You do the big picture stuff and then you have to finesse it into existence. There’ve been moments when I really want to switch it up and go in a different direction, but I’m really glad that each time…it gets back to that “you have to get up” thing. It’s hard to remember why you do what you do or why you love it and usually I find that I have to reinvent it for myself. If I find a new medium or a new approach or way of thinking about what I’m doing, it makes me pumped about it.
You’ve talked before about the importance of seeking after beauty in your work. Why is that such a drive for you?
It gets back to what I mentioned earlier about needing to find a way to fall in love with it; find a way to make it fresh and new for you. I try to find beauty in what I’m doing, even if it’s not in the task itself, but in what it’s going to mean to the audience or the client. Just wanting to light someone up when you present it to them gets you through some of the hardest parts. For me graphic design isn’t my strong suit and laying things out and presenting things beautifully- I have to find a way to really love that part of the job, and knowing that it will enhance the experience for someone so much more helps me get through some of the tasks that I don’t always want to do. Finding delight in that, I think if I find a way to love it first and really deeply, then I can more confidently ask somebody else to love it too. If I intend to sell it or if it’s a project that’s going to end up on a shelf, I want somebody else to really love and invest in it, but I don’t think you can really actually ask someone to unless you love and invest in it first.
So what effect do you hope that your investment in the product, your investment in your art, and loving that is having on people?
I just want to make things that matter to someone else in a way that some of the art and entertainment and film that I encounter and took in in my childhood mattered to me. There’s that perfect age, as you’re grappling with your identity and the world and art and music and all these sorts of things…the intensity of them is really high and their influence on you is really strong. At that moment I really felt like certain things—certain comics, certain movies, and artists—really ‘got’ me and I ‘got’ them. I would love to be able to do that for somebody else, just to impart a feeling. This might sound dumb, but I feel like there’s a lot out there that feels very cynical and sort of jaded in the spaces that I’m interested in, in comics, film, and entertainment. To make the kind of work that is wide-eyed, adventurous, innocent stuff that feels like a warm hug from someone else—I would love to be responsible for that sort of thing. I think that the more of that there is in the world, the better.
Have you ever had any mentors along the way that have guided you?
Totally, yeah. From an early age my mom was very supportive, so she gets credit for being sort of the first and most enduring. But at school, two professors in particular: Shanth Enjeti and Mary Jane Begin. Both really went the extra mile for me- stayed after, and did independent study projects with me, and talked to me long after class, and answered a lot of questions that I had as I was moving more and more towards graduation and a career. Even past that, since school, I’ve still retained those contacts and they’ve become friends. Last night, the presentation I gave was with Mary Jane Begin. It was both of us giving a joint presentation about the work we’ve done. It was a huge honor and really cool to do. It felt really both like coming full circle, and still feeling like I have a lot of learn from her. I credit her and Shanth for a lot of the learning that’s got me to where I am. I know I wouldn’t be doing character design in remotely the same way that I’m doing it now if not for Shanth and his class. Comics and storytelling and composition I credit to both of them especially. As people who struggle with what it is to be an illustrator, and also as professionals who understand the technical aspects of the work, they have been really influential to me.
How do you deal with feeling stuck creatively?
Not well. I do not deal with that well. I’ve tracked my progress with feeling suck. First I usually pretend that it’s not a problem, and then when I realize that it is, I throw a hissy-fit, and then when I’m done with that I’m finally just like, “Okay, I’m stuck.” My hissy-fit is over about how (angsty voice) “I’m not inspired and I just want to go do something else and I want to quit!” I finally just adopt that as a reality and usually the next step is finding a way to switch it up. In the past I’ve changed mediums. If I’m stuck on something and it’s digital work, I’ll bust out the watercolors or pencil, or I’ll take a walk and go someplace else and just change my space, change my tool, do some research into something I didn’t expect, talk to friends about the problem and sort of ask their advice in terms of reference to look at. New and fresh reference can really transform a design problem. Usually I become unstuck. What’s been really important to me is to give myself permission to just make bad art and sketch loosely. As long as I just keep sketching and don’t let myself stop. Even if I don’t really have an idea, just start making lines and filling the page with something, eventually the art block does fade and I do solve the problem.
You were talking about permission to make bad art…I’ve heard other people talk about giving permission to yourself to fail, why do you think that that’s a common theme? Why do you think that’s so hard, even if no one’s going to see it?
Because the pressure to succeed is so intense! Internally and externally. We’re constantly bombarded with incredible work and the social media feeds of people who are cutting together a highlights reel of their work and their lives. You look at that and you think, “Why doesn’t my work look like that? Why doesn’t my life look like that?” You’re afraid to take even one step because you think it’s going to be the wrong step and you’ll look like an idiot in front of everyone and you won’t measure up. I think that, at least for me and a lot of the people I know, the pressure to measure up is a big part of dealing with block. That fear of what other people will think and seeming like a fraud. “Oh I’m just a concept artist and I’ve just forgotten how to draw buildings,” or if I’ve just drawn the worst car I’ve ever seen in my life- what if people see that and realize that I really don’t know what I’m doing? I think everyone’s a little afraid of that. It’s a really hard boundary to cross. But if you do, and finally let go…people’s favorite artists aren’t always the most technically skilled and the most incredibly tight; they always make mistakes along the way. I think the common trait is that they’re making work and they’re getting it out there and they’re doing it even if it’s not perfect.
How has living in Rhode Island influenced your work?
I love it here, and I love Providence a great deal. There’s something about being in touch with the history of this place. The architecture and the kind of wonky quality of this quirky little city is pretty inspiring in that regard. It’s charming, you can kind of get your arms around it, it’s not giant or imposing, nor is it a cul-de-sac in a suburb, it’s somewhere in-between. It’s a very charming, relatable city, and I feel like that suits the tone of my work in some weird way. I really like to make work that hopefully is that pleasant, relatable, not imposing or complex. That kind of stuff. And it’s cool to be here because it’s like everything is so nearby. Everyone knows everybody. Contacts I’ve made, they’re just around and know everybody else and so it’s easy to make connections and meet people who know people who know people. And to support local businesses, I love to get printing done locally. I feel like I’m a part of the scene here. Rhode Island Comic Con is awesome. It’s growing every year a lot, and as tiny as it is, it’s pretty neat.
“Make heroes out of the people in your life and the people that you see around you that had to learn what they do without knowing it beforehand. It’s really difficult to learn from people who are just effortlessly good at what they do.”
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
I think staying here has been one of the biggest risks, consistently. Going freelance and staying in Rhode Island. If it’s full-time work that I’m looking for, if it’s games and film and in anything, California is really the place to be. When 38 Studios fell apart, I had several opportunities to move out west and didn’t take them, it didn’t feel like the right decision to me, but it was a big risk to stay here. I tried to mitigate that. For a while I moved back in with my folks, tried to lower my costs as much as I could so I could build a freelance career. But it did take! I was able to build up enough contract work to where I was able to live on my own and keep up a studio. After sticking it out, after a while it’s been great, but that was a pretty big risk not to leap after full-time work immediately.
What are you most and least proud of in your work?
I am most proud when my work strikes an emotional chord with people. When someone says something about what a little story or comic I’ve done meant to them, or when I’ve written something on my blog or designed something, anything—when they feel touched by it on an emotional or personal level, that’s when I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m least proud when it’s just technically apt. When I do something that people are impressed with the technique, but it doesn’t connect, if it’s just empty rendering and something shiny, and those moments when I’ve done something and I feel like it looks cool, but that’s it. Then I can’t say that I feel terribly proud about it.
Do you have any advice for people starting out?
Lots! But what I’ve been thinking about today is to seek teachers and peers. Make heroes out of the people in your life and the people that you see around you that had to learn what they do without knowing it beforehand. It’s really difficult to learn from people who are just effortlessly good at what they do. The greatest lessons I’ve learned and the biggest helps have been from the people who are successful now, but weren’t always successful. They are always the best teachers. I think that if you’re starting out and you’re looking for mentorship and the kind of lessons that will change your trajector- find people/teachers/mentors who had to first learn themselves. You’ll grow a lot more out of that out of that kind of experience.
Do you have any projects coming up that you can share or want to share?
I can make a vague allusion to the fact that I’m working on Play-Doh with Hasbro right now, and that it’s pretty exciting, and that I can’t say any more about it, but I’m really enjoying the work that I’m doing there. Everything else is very hush-hush, but lots of new work is brewing!