How I Create: Lisa Perrin, illustrator
Lisa Perrin's style is inspired by folk art, the natural world, and Victorian decorative arts. By day, she works as a full-time illustrator for card company American Greetings. In her spare time, she takes on freelance commissions for the likes of Anthropologie, Penguin Random House and Harper Collins. In this interview, Lisa tells the story of how she became an illustrator, shares her thoughts on developing your style as an artist and opens up about some of the doubts and fears she’s faced along the way.
Lisa also shares why being a full-time freelance artist wasn’t right for her. We hear so much talk online of 'leaving the 9-5', and it's so important to recognise that full-time freelancing is not necessarily the route to happiness and creative fulfilment for all. I'm thrilled to share Lisa's thoughts on this and offer a different perspective today.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background and story so far. How did you get started as an illustrator?
My path to becoming an illustrator wasn't very linear. I was an avid doodler, but I also had a passion for writing and theatre. Storytelling and making things has been at the heart of a lot of my passions. I double majored in Painting and English at a small liberal arts school. After college, I worked in a library re-shelving books. I would always take a moment to flip to the back inside flap of the children's books where I would find the 'about the illustrator' section. I was so curious about how they got there! I hadn't gone to an art school, and I didn't know anyone who was an illustrator. How to get from A to B as an illustrator really mystified me.
Later, I applied to graduate school to earn an MFA in Illustration Practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art. That is where I really honed my style and started to carve out my career path. After that I was fortunate to teach a freshman-level Intro to Illustration class. At that time a recruiter from the American Greetings card company came to the school looking to hire an illustrator in their Creative Studios. When I was offered the job, I packed up my life and pet rabbit, moved to Cleveland and started seeking out freelance opportunities as well.
2. What does your creative process look like and what tools and materials do you tend to use for your work?
My process involves a lot of thinking and list-making. I have never been good about keeping a sketchbook. I tend to accumulate an unruly mass of papers when I'm starting a project. I still sketch the old-fashioned way with paper and pencil, but then I scan my sketches into Adobe Photoshop, where I create my final artwork. My favourite tool is the Wacom Cintiq, where I feel like I can paint digitally.
3. What’s it like balancing freelance commissions and an Etsy shop along with a full-time job? What does a typical day or week look like for you?
I think the work/life balance is the most challenging part of being a creative person. I always remind aspiring illustrators how important it is to be a person too and not just be an art machine. Self care is vital, and your personal experiences can serve to inform your work. That being said, I am totally a hypocrite and often retreat into my art cave.
Luckily, I have always been pretty good with time management and organisation, which really helps! I work a standard 9-5 job as an in-house illustrator, then I go home, whip up some nourishment, and work on freelance until bedtime. Repeat. I have tried not to compromise sleep. This can become draining so when I have a fun or social opportunity, I always seize it.
4. You’ve worked on some awesome freelance projects, how did you find your first clients?
When I first graduated I sent cold emails and did postcard promos. I don't know if any jobs ever came from those efforts. I tried to build a strong online and social media presence, and I think most of my work opportunities have stemmed from that. Most of my clients have contacted me first.
5. How would you describe your work and style and what advice would you give to a fellow creative who’s struggling to develop/define their own style?
My style is inspired by folk art, the natural world, and Victorian decorative arts. It has a flat, graphic quality and modern colour palette. It took me a long time to get here! I struggled with picking a style for many years.
Personal projects are so important and it’s a good way for you to see what it is that you do when you are not being art-directed by anyone. I think young illustrators want to please the client so badly that they deliver what it is they think the client wants to see. Afterwards they question how authentic the art was to them.
Your style will make itself known over time, but also it will always be changing and evolving. Don't worry about trying to pin it down now. Just try to focus on you and what makes you authentic, and what you like to draw.
"I think young illustrators want to please the client so badly that they deliver what it is they think the client wants to see. Afterwards they question how authentic the art was to them."
6. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about your creative process so far?
To relax a bit! When I first started, every job felt like it had to be the singular greatest thing I had ever made, and changes from the client would throw me for a big emotional loop. I would really overdo it with sketches, and then feel crushed when the client didn't choose any of them.
I have learned how important it is to ask all of your questions upfront before you do all the sketches. Really open those lines of communication. The more experience I get in this industry, the more I trust myself and the more confident I feel. It takes time to find your footing.
7. What do you do if you hit a creative block?
Take a break. Be a person for a little while.
8. What doubts or fears have you faced as a creative and how have/do you overcome them?
I think doubt and fear are common feelings among creative people. The pendulum of feeling very confident and very insecure is always swinging back and forth. I definitely faced concerns about supporting myself in a creative career. There are so many talented people in this industry and only so many opportunities. I was really worried about failure and not living up to my potential. But I have stayed true to my goals and every time I have bet on myself, it has paid off.
I am being really open with all of this, because I think it’s important to talk about the hard parts too. I hope this validates other people that these feelings are normal. It’s ok to feel doubt and fear sometimes. It’s healthy to want to make good choices. You just can’t let those anxieties stop you.
9. What’s been your proudest achievement so far?
I feel very lucky to have had the achievements that I have had! Teaching aspiring illustrators is the thing I am the most proud of. I hope I get to be a teacher again someday.
I was also extremely proud of the 2016 calendar I designed, lettered, and illustrated for Anthropologie. It was very challenging because there was a very tight deadline. But the response I got to that was amazing. I love when people post photos of it up in their homes and express how they look forward to each month.
10. What are your top tips for an aspiring illustrator who’s looking to start freelancing alongside a full-time job?
This is a great question! I knew that to be happy and comfortable I needed the security of a steady paycheck and being a full-time freelance artist wasn’t right for me. I also knew that I was motivated enough to pursue freelance on the side. Because I have a full-time job, I was able to really curate the freelance jobs I took. I didn't have to take everything that came my way because of concerns about meeting financial responsibilities. I chose projects that I really wanted to do. I think that’s how I created a brand for my work relatively quickly.
My advice is to find a work/life balance that best suits you and your needs. I have a creative day job, which is wonderful! But it does make it tough to go home and keep being creative in my spare time. I also have the interesting challenge of separating my corporate illustration from my personal illustration work.
I know artists who are very happy to have other kinds of day jobs and enjoy being creative on their own time. So find a job that you are comfortable doing during the day. Understand what your needs are emotionally, physically, and financially as best you can. Also know what your goals are. Do you always want to be freelancing on the side? Or would you like to transition into freelancing full-time? If it’s the latter, make a plan to get there.
"Because I have a full-time job, I was able to really curate the freelance jobs I took. I didn't have to take everything that came my way because of concerns about meeting financial responsibilities."
Images by Lisa Perrin