Making your dream job a reality, pragmatically

3 Sep

I worked as an in-house graphic designer at various places from September 2004 until March 2012, when I quit my job and went entirely full-time freelance. It’s been a great opportunity to work on my dream jobs: making my comic Sombulus and making board games with my husband Mark. But I’ve come to realize a few things about making your dream jobs your full-time jobs, and how to go about it in a (relatively) stress-free way.

The Day Job is not evil.

Making money off your dream project is not going to happen overnight, and that doesn’t mean you’re a failure or you should stop trying. What it means is you absolutely need some other way of supporting yourself while you improve your craft and grow your audience to that point, or you will be so worried about being able to pay the rent that your creativity will suffer (been there, not fun).

Plumber at work, by Yves B.

Plumber at work, by Yves B.

The good thing is that jobs and fun stuff are not a binary choice: you don’t have to give up on making money on what you love if you get a job doing something completely different. There’s always a way to make it work.

Stability makes growth possible

Once you’re supporting yourself, you have the mental room you need to experiment. Let’s take the example of comics. Try to figure out how to make a quality comic book that you can crowdfund and/or sell at local conventions. If this is your first time making a comic, practice with small stories and other pieces, put them out for people to read, and get good feedback on what your strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller and an artist. Use that feedback to find education and new tools to improve your work.

Having a day job allowed my artistic skills to grow into something more marketable

Having a day job allowed my artistic skills to grow into something more marketable

The more freedom you have to afford the tools and take the time to improve your craft, two things will happen: the more your audience will grow, and the more your skills will grow.

Bringing money into the equation

Once you have something that people are consistently responding positively to, make your way to a convention or start a Indiegogo/Kickstarter for it. Start your goals small: if you're at a convention, try to make enough money to break even with the cost of the table first. If you're a musician, try to score a regular gig somewhere. Set one small goal at a time, and you'll find yourself moving forward.

Kris Sheppard: graphic designer by day, tableside magician by night!

Kris Sheppard: graphic designer by day, tableside magician by night! Check him out at krissheppardmagic.com

Many paths to financial stability

Sombulus has been online since 2010 and Whirling Derby launched a year ago. Both Sombulus volume 1 and our first published game should be coming out next spring, which is exciting and will finally start the ball rolling on those streams of income. But am I ever going to live off of any one of those? Probably not.

And that’s okay! Many of us have been raised to believe that we’ll grow up to only have one occupation, and performing that one task will solve all our financial problems. But in a lot of situations, it's a combination and rotation of many completely different things that pays the bills. Keep making and trying new things to bring in money and see what works for your audience!

Have you been pursuing your goal? What are you working toward, and how is it going? Let me know in the comments!


Read my webcomic:


What webcomic authors get wrong about pacing

23 Jul

One thing that’s different and interesting is pacing in long-form webcomics. They’re this continuous, seemingly never-ending story.  You might compare their pacing to a long-running series like Harry Potter, and there were always those parts in the middle where you were stuck reading about the Ministry of Magic characters and feeling really terrible.

Yes, we know, you're awful.  Can we get back to the magic duels now?

Yes, we know, you’re awful. Can we get back to the magic duels now?

As a reader of a physical book, what do you do?

  1. Turn your head, look at the side of the book. (100 more pages?  Okay, I can survive that.)
  2. Read faster.  Skip pages if necessary.  Just get through it.
  3. Press on through because you don’t want to leave a book unfinished.
  4. Remember the previous books ended okay.

Pacing in webcomics is harder. Especially when the story’s getting dark.

In webcomics, we don’t have physical copies to skim or reviews to trust.  We don’t know where the end is. All we know is that our heroes are outclassed and everything’s getting worse.

This was a comment that the creators of Namesake received from a reader, and a frustration that’s easy to encounter when you read a story that only updates a page at a time.

Another defeat for Calliope at the hands of the Rippers (www.namesakecomic.com)

Another defeat for Calliope at the hands of the Rippers (from Namesake)

As a reader of a webcomic, what do you do?

  1. Skim the pages until the story gets back on track (which might take years)
  2. Stop reading now and come back later (if you remember)
  3. Wait for the print version (again, requiring good memory and possibly physically meeting the author)
  4. Give up.  There’s lots of other webcomics out there, and it’s not like you paid money to read this one.

But the true fans will stick around, right?

As webcomic authors, we might ignore these reader reaction and say “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”, so long as future readers can buzz through the archives or buy the print volume and be satisfied. We might devalue slow-release story satisfaction.

This is short-sighted, in my opinion.  I don’t think any of us want to make a reader who once loved our work start to hate it.  Plus, time and again, we’re reminded that your long-term relationship with an audience is what sells your stories and brand.  If your story is wearing your readers down instead of building them up, that’s going to affect your relationship with them, to the point where they might not want one at all.

So what, I can only tell stories about sunshine and kittens now?

No, but we can borrow techniques from the world of physical books.  We can build our readers up, even when the story is depressing. We can make our readers trust us. How?

Make your chapters a consistent length and have satisfying resolutions: To see this in action, look at the archive page of  Gunnerkrigg Court.  Even though Tom seems to introduce a lot of confusing mysteries, I will get a satisfying answer in each 20-30 page chapter, and at three pages a week, that’ll take a max of 10 weeks. Easy.

Snow-By-Night’s archives tell a similar story.  You could set a watch to the page count, and as I read, I learn something that feels important each chapter.  This goes a long way to building my confidence in the author.

Gunnerkrigg Court and Snow-By-Night, respectively.  (Read them both!)

Gunnerkrigg Court and Snow-By-Night, respectively. (Read them both!)

Establish yourself as an author with short stories first:  Similar to above, but easier to implement if your long stories don’t suit the webcomic slow-release format.  By giving readers confidence that you can end things as well as you start them, they establish trust in your abilities.  Plus, there are the added benefits of giving yourself a larger body of work and all that good stuff.

Write with the mindset that discovery is a happier feeling than confusion: I’ve started writing with the specific goal of making my readers say “So that’s how that works…” and “I know what the characters can do about this!” at the end of most pages, more often than “Why did that happen?”.  Does it make my story more predictable?  Some parts, yeah.  But I do it to build up my readers, and I find I still have quite a few secrets no matter what.

The takeaway

Not everyone’s going to like your story and your ultimate direction, and that’s okay.  But we face a different pacing challenge than writers of physical books, and we should be aware of it.  Do what you can to prevent the readers who love your work from disengaging.  Build trust that you can and will deliver a satisfying ending.  Help them get to the conclusion.


Read my webcomic:


What belongs in your toolbox?

1 Jul
Art Snacks sends you random art supplies at regular intervals.

Art Snacks sends you random art supplies at regular intervals.  Cool!

We live a very spoiled artistic life.  There are amazing tools within our reach that artists a generation ago would have died to have such easy access to.  You can purchase any variety of medium you want online, or buy a monthly subscription for random art supplies to just try random stuff.  We don’t have to mix our own pigments to paint a picture, we don’t have to stretch our own canvases.  Heck, we don’t even have to use paint or canvases to paint at all.

And learning resources are not something we have to go to a fancy expensive art school to acquire: scans of textbooks to anatomy tutorials and classes to online communities where you can solicit critique are abundant and sometimes free. Even the great artists before us have something to teach us all through careful analysis of their work.  With so much stuff around and a finite amount of time and money, the fact is clear:  Your artistic toolbox will never ever ever be full of everything you need in your future as an artist. (Unless you meet a time traveler who can help you out.)

Starry Night Tardis art print, by Etsy artist Julie Smith

Starry Night Tardis art print, by Etsy artist Julie Smith

That said, you only have so much money, you can only get to so many places, you learn better some ways than others, and simply you’re going to have other priorities in life than art, like food or relationships.  That’s normal.

But there are artists who have tools within reach that don’t pursue them.   They’ve convinced themselves that they’re as good as they’re going to get, they don’t know where to start, or they’re not talented enough to learn anything anyway.  Furthermore, if they’re surrounded by tools and don’t build anything, they must be just lazy.

These attitudes are pure poison for an artist, and it can lead into a downspiral of self-confidence.  And the problem isn’t necessarily with your artistic skill, but having the right mindset to navigate and find what tools you can use.  So how do you navigate the tools at your disposal when there are so many?

Get a taste of the “tried and true”, then decide what you need.

There’s a recent spate of back-and-forth about the value of art schools, where awesome successful artists like Noelle Stevenson and Noah Bradley opine on what you need and what you don’t.  They’re both right, because you can get something out of anything if it’s the right tool for you.  If you’ve been taking piecemeal classes and know the structure and every-day community of a school is what motivates you, do that.   If online coursework suits your budget and needs, do that.  Both of them make a point of finances, and I’ll do the same.  Don’t cut off your arms and legs financially to get the most awesome art education ever, because it’s not going to pay back a $200K loan no matter what you do.

Venture outside the Academy of Free.

That said, there’s some basic stuff that people avoid, even in the face of decades of recommendations, because they’re convinced they have a free alternative that works just as well.  Denying yourself access to a tool like a figure drawing class with a live model is like hammering in a nail with a spanner.  Can you do the job with a spanner?  Maybe.  Is it necessary to use a hammer?  No.  But the fact is that a hammer is easier and more effective for some jobs.  If it’s right there for the taking and you’re not allergic to hammers, save up and find a way to add it to your toolbox.  Having both a spanner AND a hammer in your toolbox can only help.

Tumblr and Pinterest anatomy references are nice, but not as good as learning from a live model and good instructor.

Tumblr anatomy references are handy (hahaha), but will take on a whole new meaning after hand studies from a live model and good instructor.

Making “trying new things” part of your life.

Keep a keen ear out on the artists you like, and note how they work  what mediums or techniques to use.  Work a “trying new things” day into your life, your schedule, and your mind.  Join a new online community or see what’s local through Meetup.com and ask for recommendations on stuff to work on.  By keeping an open mind (and not giving up until you have a decent understanding of what you can get out of a tool) you always learn something new.  Plus, communities are just fun ways to meet people.

Focus on your priorities.

Every tool within your reach could be a valuable one, so how can we find the ones that will work unless we collect them ALL?  This philosophy might get you a lot of bookmarks in your reference folder or a lot of books, but will quickly overwhelm you into inaction if you don’t have a focused system in place.  One thing you can do is find a medium you want to try (markers) and a technique you want to try (tonal variation) and focus on that for a few weeks/months.  Take in only information about those subjects, and only as much as you can process.  Google the rest later.

A recent project using my characters from Sombulus.  I'm focusing on color techniques with Tombow brush markers.

A recent project using my characters from Sombulus. I’m focusing on color techniques with Tombow brush markers.

It doesn’t stop at art.

While this post focuses on artist tools, there are so many things these techniques will teach you.  With proper navigation, you can cut the clutter and find the tools that make you a better artist, speaker, designer, developer or whatever else you want to do.

Now go forth into the Workshop of the World, my friends, and build something awesome!

Attitude vs. Technique

6 May

Ran Brown creates a detail-rich sci-fi comic called  The End, which I highly recommend for its world-building, gorgeous art, and motley assortment of characters.  She wrote an extensive style analysis this weekend on Tumblr, and there’s a thread which I think is easy to miss: debunking the false belief that technique is more important than attitude.  In Ran’s case, I’d argue it’s not her anime style that needed to change.  It was her attitudes.

Art Attitude #1: Have a realistic view of “progress”

A lot of people who have never taken art classes believe that art instructors give you some crazy super-human ability to draw. But if that were the case, every student with an art degree would be amazing, and trust me, they’re not. The truth is, classes only give you tools to learn about the world and the opportunity to practice a lot of things. Artistic progress always has to come from your own drive to succeed, whether you seek that out by using tools from a book or from a tutorial video or from your instructor or from trial and error.  And sometimes progress in understanding doesn’t look like technical  progress at all.

Ran's anime style, and an early attempt at teaching herself something new.

Ran’s anime style, and a later attempt at teaching herself something new.  Even though the Harry Potter style is technically well-executed, it represented an attitude in her view of art that was important for her personally to break out of.  Check out Ran’s current work at endcomic.com

Art Attitude #2: Don’t be afraid of tools.

Now, I loved my art and design education, and I hope if you have the opportunity or interest, you’ll get one too.  But maybe not everyone goes to college or can afford art school or even wants to focus on their art until later in life.  That’s fine.  But don’t be afraid of the tools within reach.   I took a simple $60 art class at a community college course as an adult, and it was great.  There are some great online communities too that’ll help you hone your craft. But if you persist in slaving away alone, check yourself to see if there’s element of fear in that.  Because if you’re afraid of tools (or too proud to use them), you need to work on that more than your technical skills.

Art Attitude #3: Seek out a good atmosphere for learning.

The other big big attitude that people can overlook when they’re learning to draw is how to think about art and talk about art. When you’re learning how to do art by yourself or in a not-so-professional community, you’re surrounding yourself with people who aren’t great at talking about art.  We all need feedback, and it needs to be meaningful.  Chris Oatley writes at length about analyzing why styles work  as opposed to how they work, and without that understanding, you won’t get anywhere.

"Wrong!", by Chris Harding.

Wrong!“, by Chris Harding.

Now, you may get lucky and get a few commenters that can go beyond that. But the wonderful thing about schools is that you don’t have to rely on luck. They automatically surround you with people who have the training to help you explore the technical skills that best match your concept. A good critique might include some technical fixes, but only to the extent that it helps you build on your strengths. Seek out good critiques and you’ll learn to be constructive about your own work and the work of others.

Attitudes are far harder to adjust later in your artistic career than techniques, in my experience. So that’s why if you think you ever might want to become a professional artist, I highly recommend taking some art classes at a university at some point. Not to improve your style, but to learn the right attitudes.  As long as you have that, technique always has the opportunity to evolve.

My first year freelancing, and 6 things I learned from it.

4 Apr

March was an exciting milestone for me. It marked my first anniversary of setting sail from my day job, moving to a new town, and going full-time with my freelance graphic and web design work.   I had been in my position as an in-house designer (that’s where you go work for a single company doing everything, instead of an agency where you do one thing for a bunch of companies)  for six and a half years, which is like 45.5 in dog years.

So as you can imagine, there was a little fear in leaving that environment, locking myself in an office with nobody to talk to, and trying to find enough work to pay the bills.

But man, the last year has been incredible, and I hope I’m fortunate enough to continue doing freelance design for many years to come.  Here are some of the things I learned this year as a freelancer:

  1. Health insurance is expensive, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be.  I was very worried about individual policies, having always been part of a company for that.  We’re paying about $200/month now, which was not nearly as bad as I was anticipating.  We’re young and healthy for now, and that’s working out for us.
  2. I don’t get 8 hours of work done every day like I used to, and that’s okay. You should always try to get something done every day, but there are some days where you’ll work 12 hours straight, and some days where 2 feels impossible.  I spent a few weeks beating myself up about being so unproductive, but it’s perfectly normal.  My advice is to forgive yourself and tackle the rest later.
  3. Taxes are a barrel full of misery.  Get a pro to handle them.  I have been singing praises to and baking cookies for my old Girl Scout troopmate Layah, who passed her CPA exam and is now diligently figuring out my taxes for April.  Because self-employment tax payments are based on your GUESS  about how much you’re going to make your first year freelancing?  You end up doodling things like this.
  4. Podcasts and audiobooks are godsends.  When I first got my own home office, it absolutely killed my love for drawing and made some of my repetitive tasks really arduous.  I felt so cramped and trapped, I turned to Facebook or Twitter for “social contact”, which then turned into procrastination. Now I’ve got my favorites on my RSS feed so I always have something on-hand when I know I need to sit down and draw something, and it helps keep me focused.
  5. Having a flexible schedule is a lot of fun.   All of a sudden, I could make my own hours!  So I changed my “weekends” to Friday and Sunday, and decided I would “leave work” at 2pm (I’m an early bird, so I like getting to work at the crack of 7am).  I went hiking, walking, drew a lot, hit the gym, drew comics, helped my husband play-test board games… all those things I was too tired to do when I got home from work, or would have had to take time off to do.  I figured if all I was going to do was hole up in an office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, I wasn’t really experiencing the “free” part of the freelancing experience.
  6. Having a flexible workflow is… not always so fun.  All of a sudden, my regular clients could just stop giving me work!  No two week notice or anything.  A few clients went from 10 emails a day to radio silence when 2013 hit, for various financial reasons.  Thankfully, my dance card wasn’t completely empty, so I was okay.   But it quickly woke me up to the reality of how tenuous a freelancer’s position can be in the eyes of a big company.  It made me step up and seek out smaller, numerous jobs to make sure the dry spells wouldn’t last long.

Anyway, all bad stuff aside, it’s been a blast. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of amazing companies my first year and pay the rent at the same time.  I’ll wrap things up with a few things that got added to my portfolio this year.

Need a designer? Check out my graphic design portfolio and ping me through @designninjitsu on Twitter or my LinkedIn profile.

How to be an artist on Tumblr.

20 Mar

So I got a question from an up-and-coming artist about how to market herself on Tumblr about a week ago, and some of you have gotten harried emails from me scrambling for answers and advice.

I found it ironic that anyone would ask me about Tumblr. I’ve been around from the days of IRC, and nothing has confused me more than Tumblr. As a medium, I don’t even think MySpace has gotten so much flak. John Allison believes it’s for looky-loo commenters that’ll never put money in his pocket. Kris Straub perpetuates the belief that its users nuke attribution with finger-wiggling glee (note this was in 2011, though).

From chainsawsuit.com by Kris Straub

“A Tribute to Attribution” by Kris Straub, 2011

I respect their views and their choice of where they do/don’t want to see their art, but the comments are condescending to a point that blocks out understanding of an audience.  If there’s anything graphic design has taught me, it’s that understanding audiences is always worth it. I’ve been using Tumblr for a while, and I believe:

  • Tumblr is neither good nor evil. It’s just a medium. And it’s big enough that there are just as many good communities as crummy ones who congregate on it.
  • …that said, you may have to redefine “community” a little to get anything out of it. For those of us who are used to forum-thread strings where you can react not only to the person who posted something, but to the other people commenting on it, it is downright frustrating. But once you accept that that’s not what it’s built for, it gets easier.
  • Buckets are the primary form of communication. I call Twitter and Tumblr “streams”. You’ll never step in the same water twice, and most stuff just floats right past you in moments. However, unlike Twitter, Tumblr has a bunch of kids at the end of the stream with buckets scooping out the water they like and redumping it in their tributaries so they can swim in it again with all their friends. This attracts people who are interested in swimming and bringing more buckets of that kind of water to each tributary.
  • For some people, Tumblr is the internet. There are some people for whom Tumblr is the first and best way of meeting strangers on the internet that they’ve ever used, and meeting strangers (let’s call this networking if it makes you feel less creeped out) is the first thing you’ve got to do if you want to have a healthy, balanced internet life. You might call that sad if you’re old like me, but really, we had more than our share of laughable internet tools, so I don’t think we can point fingers.

What makes a Tumblr Artist Successful?

Ava’s Demon, by Michelle Czajkowski

Given this, there is definitely a value to building a Tumblr audience with your art, and many artists have found ways to do so.  Ava’s Demon is tearing up everything in the Comic Mix March Madness competition. My friend Xella also pointed me toward Cloud Factory, a comic with 2,000 followers which hasn’t actually started yet. So something’s definitely happening there.  Tumblr is never going to be where you sell t-shirts or get ad revenue, but it might just be what funds your Kickstarter in 24 hours or less or fills your commission slots.

So how do you become a Tumblr household name? If I had to come up with a gauge of artistic Tumblr success, it would be:

  • Have visual impact that’s distinct beyond your signature at the bottom. If you saw 3 pictures from Michelle Czajkowski or Marlo Meekins on your dashboard over a span of three weeks, you’d be able to tell another one from a mile away. This is your identity on Tumblr as an artist, not your URL on the bottom or your signature in the corner.
  • Don’t be fooled by one-hit wonder posts. The numbers can be exciting when you become “Tumblr famous” and get a lot of reblogs, but think of it in terms of billboards. When you’re in your car passing a billboard, you don’t stop your car and interact with that company.  And after it’s been torn down, no one’s going to pass by your billboard again.  But they work on the principle that there’s 10 of them in a 5 mile radius.  So you’ve got to build another one. And another. And another. Think of The Hawkeye Initiative and Bitchface: The Masterworks. Like a good ad campaign, the message is similar post to post.  You know who it’s from.  And they’ve got the humor value that makes your friends want to rebucket it from the stream.
  • Create a fandom that feeds itself, even when you don’t. This is the golden fleece that everyone’d like to know how to obtain (and even the people who have it aren’t sure where it came from half the time), but if you can be awesome enough that people want to reinterpret your characters in their setting, you will get your audience just on buzz alone.

Bitchface: The Masterworks, which gives nods to the (obviously) sass-talking dames of classical art.

What do you think?

While it’s easy to make Tumblr a villain, the truth about Tumblr is that it’s working out for some artists, and we can only benefit from figuring out why.  I’d love to hear more about your experiences with promoting your own art with Tumblr, or other artists you follow!

(And of course, you can follow me on Tumblr if you like!)

Why I Became a Graphic Designer

15 Mar

In the fifth grade, I was a slightly pudgy 11 year old living in California. My little-kid suite of skills was not particularly unique or specialized, but I frequently draw on the typing paper my mom brought home from the office.  One day, we went on a field trip to the Sebastian International shampoo facility. They had set up an educational campaign around the country about the environment (Ferngully and Captain Planet were in their prime, so I’m pretty sure they were trying to capitalize on how cool it was to care about the rainforest in the early ’90s).

Sebastian's Little Green Ad

Sebastian’s Little Green Campaign, which inadvertently started my life as a designer

After going through a mock rainforest, my class got plopped down at tables and told to draw our feelings about the environment, and the best one would win a backpack. While I was not able to take the drawing home or get a copy of it (it was the 90’s, we didn’t carry around cameras or anything), I can still remember my concept:

I might be better at drawing now, guys.

Environmental Ad by Christina, 5th grade (recreated 20 years later for posterity)

Being a competitive little girl, I also looked around at everyone else’s drawings.  I got very discouraged.  Everyone was so much better than me!  It wasn’t pretty like my friends’ waterfalls and horses, which were pretty much the Thomas Kinkaides of the class. But they were just pictures, no messages. And at the end of the day, my picture won the backpack, stick figures and all.

It wouldn’t hit me until later, but that was always what I wanted to do with my art. Tell an impactful story and drive home a concept. And what I learned that day is that while beautiful art can get you more attention, the story in the end is what sticks with people.  Make your stories strong.  Let your art be the conduit for your concepts.  And if it’s not the best art in the world?  Don’t worry.  Make sure it tells the strongest story you have in you.  And sooner or later, you will win the backpack.

Need a designer? Check out my portfolio and ping me through @designninjitsu on Twitter or my LinkedIn profile.