An Interview with Lora Innes, Freelance Illustrator

An Interview with Lora Innes, Freelance Illustrator

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Illustration

All kids draw, but Lora Innes of Jeannette, Pa., never lost her childhood interest, continuing her artistic pursuits well past childhood. It was an animated Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, that helped her know for certain that she wanted to draw as a professional.

By the time she graduated from high school, she had amassed a portfolio of art good enough to get her into Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD), listed among the top 12 schools for animation by the Disney animation studios. At CCAD, Ms. Innes majored in time-based media design and minored in photography.

Many art students work toward a goal and hope they're good enough. Ms. Innes was lucky to get a professional boost of encouragement from a famous comic-book writer and author at an autograph signing event. However, an art degree, freelance experience, and even professional encouragement don't guarantee a job in the art field. Ms. Innes worked two years at Starbucks before finding full-time work in her chosen field. Persistence paid off, and she was able to trade her barista title to work with an illustration studio, Artifact Group. Currently, she is in the midst of completing her first web-comic, The Dreamer.

Ms. Innes' Career

Where did your interest in art begin?

I can't remember precisely. I know my parents have storybooks I drew as young as age four. Most kids eventually stop drawing, but I never did. I know that it was after watching Glen Keane's animation in The Little Mermaid that I knew I wanted to be a professional artist. Even though I was only nine, I knew there was something magical about the emotional way I connected to a character that was just lines on paper. I remember being amazed by the way that Ariel moved because she looked so real, and I knew one day I wanted to be able to do that.

What jobs have you had in your career?

I taught art classes to high schoolers while I was in college. Since college, I spent two years working full-time for an illustration studio called the Artifact Group. I currently am a full-time freelancer, and have been doing freelance work since I was in college, though it's my sole means of income now. I still freelance for the Artifact Group and our clients there: Nickelodeon, Fisher Price, Mattel, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster. I've also done freelance work for McGraw-Hill, Random House, Community Comics, and Avalanche Comics.

What do you enjoy most about your current position? Your career?

I enjoy my current situation because I'm my own boss. I pick the projects I want, and can pass on the ones I don't. When you work for a studio, you have to work on whatever project the boss hands you. I also now have the freedom to pursue the clients who I want to work with. Another bonus to freelancing is that I make my own schedule - if I feel like sketching at a park or writing at a coffee shop, I can do that. If I'm done with my work by 3, I don't have to sit in an office pretending to be busy for the next two hours. Most artists I know are not 9 to 5-type people, although working 9 to 5 for two years really broke me of my habit of procrastinating. If it weren't for that time, I'm not sure how successful of a freelancer I would be now.

What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?

My greatest success might be when Jeff Smith (comic book writer/author of Bone) stopped the autograph line at a convention so he could look at my portfolio longer. He invited the entire line of people waiting to get his autograph to look at my work. He then sent me to his good friend (writer/marketer) Beau Smith, who has become a sort of mentor to me as well as a good friend and has introduced me to all sorts of people I would otherwise never had a chance to meet. I was in college at the time, and there's nothing like that sort of encouragement from one of your heroes to help you believe in yourself.

My biggest setback might be not finding a full-time job after I graduated college. "Breaking in" to the art industry is very difficult, and a lot of people give up because they don't find something right away. I worked at Starbucks for two years after college and continued to search for full-time work during that time. It's easy to be discouraged because there's a lot of anticipation at graduation that after college, you immediately start your dream job. My philosophy, though, is if you can't do a good job working somewhere you don't like, a work ethic won't magically manifest itself when you finally land a job you do like. I found things to love about my time at Starbucks, and even after I began working full-time for The Artifact Group, I missed the things I loved about working in a coffee shop.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'm currently writing and illustrating a web comic, The Dreamer, which will be going live soon. My long term goal is eventually to get it published in the graphic novel format. After that, who knows? A motion picture of The Dreamer starring Rupert Friend and Emmy Rossum? A girl can dream!

Can you share an anecdote about life as an artist?

Doing a Hotwheels piece with my co-workers at The Artifact Group; we had the piece looking stunning, all ready to send off to print. The art director at Mattel called back and told us we didn't have enough motion streaks on the piece. We went back and forth many times - the art director always wanting more, brighter and cheesier streaks, and the artists trying to hold onto some restraint so that the piece wasn't ruined by the bright white and red lines. The art director ultimately won, and that's what working as an artist is like: unless you're able to do fine art in galleries, you're always working for someone else - and that person has ultimate creative control over the piece. The person making the creative decisions might not even be an artist, so you really have to die to your pride and put out work that you know could be better but is what the client wants. If you can't do that, you really shouldn't pursue any form of commercial art because there really is no room for a big ego in this field - someone else will come along, take the project from you and do it the way the client wanted it done in the first place.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about art in order to be successful in the field?

I think you have to love it because you have to be committed to continually improving yourself and also learning the latest techniques and technology. You have to be self motivated, and if art isn't something you love to do, you'll never get your projects turned in on time.

Education Information & Insights

Tell us about your art education. Where did you go to school and how did you choose your school?

I went to the Columbus College of Art and Design, which is a four-year program that offers a BFA degree. I majored in time-based media studies, which is a fancy way of saying video and animation. I chose CCAD because at the time I wanted to be an animator. At the Disney animation studios, I was given a list of their top 12 schools - CCAD was the closest one to where I lived at the time, and they also gave me a large scholarship.

What do you need to do or have to get into art school? Are there different requirements such as a portfolio, etc.?

Some art schools care about your GPA and SAT scores, but most don't. All pretty much require some sort of a portfolio submission. If a school has no portfolio requirement, I wouldn't go there - it means they'll take anyone, and they just want your money. When you graduate, you're immediately competing with people who have been active in their fields for five, 10, 20-plus years. The harder the school, the higher the standards there, the more likely you are at having a chance at finding employment when you graduate. You want the best teachers and equipment, but also the most competitive students you can surround yourself with.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education?

Unlike other fields, a degree in art won't guarantee you a job. No one told me this. No one hiring in art cares about your grades - they want to see your work. So in theory someone graduating from high school could beat a college graduate for a job if his portfolio is stronger. This is unlikely, because the art grad has spent the past four years learning about his craft, but it's entirely possible. I know many people who graduated art school, but five and 10 years later still can't find work. They should never have gone to art school to begin with - it's a very competitive field and many won't make it - but no one told them that a degree alone wouldn't help them get a job in the field.

How has your education benefited your career?

Education benefits your career only if you work hard. If you float through school, putting minimum effort in, good luck after school! But if you can work hard and apply yourself, you'll learn about the theories of art, techniques in your field, and very importantly art history - where has art in your field come from and where is it going? One of the best things about art school is that it teaches you to have a work ethic, to turn projects in on time and to have a high level of craftsmanship.

What factors should prospective art students consider when choosing a school?

As for schools, again, I would make sure that it's a competitive school with high standards. I would look at the list of graduates that the college puts out - who are their success stories? Is it one or two people, or many? Any school will have a few self motivated students who will make it, but are students in large quantities becoming successful? Also, how long ago did the students they're boasting about graduate? Make sure that lots of recent graduates are finding work in their fields.

I would also consider the faculty - who are they? Are they still active in their fields? Talk to people in the industry you hope to work in - ask what equipment and programs they use and then compare that to the school you're interested in. Make sure the school is offering the most up to date training in your field. If they aren't, you'll graduate with a bunch of obsolete information, and you won't be competitive.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

It does, in that they probably have a higher standard for acceptance, so your competition in classes is steeper. They probably attract a higher caliber of professor, and they probably offer more up to date techniques and state of the art equipment. They also probably have a reputation for excellence in the local community and the national art community.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in art?

Are you really good enough? Unfortunately there's no Simon Cowell for artists to tell you if you're good enough to go to Hollywood Week, but get opinions outside of friends and family, and even, possibly, outside of a high school art teacher. Meet professionals in your field and show them your work - make them give you an honest answer, not a pat on the back. Do they think that with enough training you have what it takes?

I wanted to work in the comic book industry, so I went to several comic book conventions before and during college to meet the professional artists and editors. It's scary because they have the power to crush your dreams, but when a really tough editor looks at your work and tells you it's only a matter of time before you break in, you know you're on the right track. That does far more to boost your morale than a hundred of your drawings on your mother's fridge.

Career Information, Trends & Advice

Describe a typical day of work for you. What do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

I wake up and immediately work out. After that, I eat breakfast, check my e-mail, make any calls I need to, and then start in on whatever project I have for that day. I usually break for lunch, then work until dinner and call it a day.

I'm responsible for everything because I work for myself - I have to get work, send in invoices for jobs I've finished, keep myself on task, and run any errand - pick up a file, make a copy, mail something, etc.

The skills my job demands are drawing, drawing, drawing! It's not enough to be able to draw the few things I'm interested in: I also need to be able to do draw anything someone asks me to draw, in whatever style they want. So drawing outside of my comfort zone is a huge one. I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop almost every day. I scan my drawings into the computer, then do the final art in one of these two programs with a Wacom tablet and stylus.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Staying self motivated is a huge one. That's difficult to do on a project that you're not interested in.

Also, you have to be able to manage your finances wisely - my paychecks are very irregular. It might take two to six months to get paid for a project, and if I didn't know how to budget that money when it comes in, I could ruin myself financially.

The biggest challenge, however, would be the physical demands that this line of work puts on your body. It might seem silly because you're just sitting still, but staying in the same position all day will quickly freeze up your body. Finding ways to stay active is so critical for an artist. I don't know any other artists in the field who don't deal with back/neck/shoulder pain. We sit in the same position for hours at a time. Once you're in "the zone," you forget you haven't stood up to stretch in hours. I get massages whenever I can afford it, which sounds like a luxury expense, but really isn't. You need to take care of your body if you want to do this for life. I work out every day, and do yoga two times a week to keep my joints flexible, and to help undo all the damage being an artist does to my shoulders and back. No one tells you this in art school!

Is continuing education something art students should plan for once they graduate and land a job?

Continuing education for an artist is really necessary only if you want to be an art educator of some sort. The arts are a bit different from other fields. An associate degree in art is the equivalent of a bachelor's in other fields. Then a bachelor's in art is the equivalent of a master's, and a master's to a PhD. I think only one school in America offers a PhD in fine art; it's really not necessary, even for teaching at a college level.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

It's a tough market. Again, you're competing with people who have been doing this as long as you've been alive. Because of the computer, people want more for less these days, and they want it a lot faster. Don't graduate without knowing how to at least use Adobe Photoshop - no one wants anything hand-painted these days, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. A lot of what used to be illustration is now photographs. I wish I could say I see a trend of this moving in the other direction, but I can't say that I do. So there are fewer jobs than there were 15 or 20 years ago.

What are the best ways to get a job in art field?

Don't give up! Keep working at improving yourself. If you graduate and don't touch your portfolio for four years and expect to get a job now with work that wasn't good enough then, you're kidding yourself. Continually improve yourself and also network! Most artists have a hard time making social contacts, as they prefer to work alone, but it's really all about meeting people, and then re-meeting them. Send them samples, call them regularly to remind them of who you are. If you're persistent enough, you'll stand out. As much as having good work is important, it's more important to be a responsible individual who is hard working, can get along with others, take correction, and turn work in on time. If you do these things, you'll get more work than someone more talented than you but has a big ego. No one wants to work with a hothead - especially a young hothead. Be humble, hardworking and social, and you'll be light years ahead of your peers.

What are some of the top challenges facing the art field during the next decade?

People want more, faster, for less. I think convincing a client to pay more for a higher quality piece is a challenge. I also think that a lot of things are being sent overseas thanks to the internet and digital art. An American illustrator can't compete with a Chinese illustrator's price. We've seen a lot of American animation studios close and send the work over to Korea. Many artists in Brazil now are being recruited to do work in comic books for a fraction of the price to have an already underpaid American artist do it. Because of this, I unfortunately think the amount of opportunities here in America is going to get even smaller still.

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