I have been a full-time artist for about a year and a half now. I am more confident in identifying as an artist, but I still stumble over my words when someone asks me what kind of illustrator I am. I’ve come to find it easy to say that I run my own business and lately find it less and less awkward to list the various products my store carries. I still look at other illustrators and business owners and feel inferior to them, like I haven’t “made it” yet.
On my recent art retreat, where I met 17 other fantastic artists, many of whom are published picture book illustrators, I very much felt like a fledgling. I always dreamed of writing and illustrating my own picture book, so naturally the dream would be to call myself a picture book illustrator one day. Though as the week-long retreat went on, people kept mentioning all these authors, illustrators, agencies, and publishers for picture books that I’ve never heard of. It made me think, wow I guess I’m not into this world as much as I thought. I’m sure I could be if I set my mind to it, but I think it says a lot about where my interests lie that I haven’t done so already. Over the years, I’ve taken mental and physical notes about products and brands more than anything. And I do run a successful business of illustrated goods. And yet I still feel like I’m not a “real” illustrator yet. This made me question, is children’s books the A+ on the report card I’ve been telling myself I need to have to be a successful, “real” illustrator? I began to wonder if I actually want to be a picture book illustrator, or if I considered illustrating picture books to be the marker for a successful illustrator that I needed to achieve to legitimize myself. By the 3rd day of the retreat, I realized that I didn’t actually want to only illustrate picture books.
Suddenly, I felt confidence in my recent decision to fully commit myself to my illustrated goods business. I no longer had to be “a freelance illustrator that’s just focusing on my shop right now but I hope to do picture books one day.” I could confidently say that I was a product and licensing illustrator!
Then two days later, I was discussing how to incorporate mental health into more of my art with Meera Lee Patel, who has some amazing books published incorporating visual and written media around mental health. I told her that I struggle to find ways other than comics to express my thoughts on mental health and asked for her advice. She asked me why I felt like I needed to make art about mental health not in comic form, and I told her that I didn’t want to be a comics illustrator. After some back and forth, she helped me realize (again, because this is something I’m constantly relearning about myself) that my biggest limiter is me. She revealed that I don’t have to make one particular kind of art. What I’m most drawn to is the storytelling and expression through my art, and that can take shape in as many forms as I want.
Digging deeper, I saw how much I try to categorize my work as a particular type of illustration. I keep wanting to put myself into a box, as “greeting card illustrator” or “picture book illustrator” or “product and licensing illustrator” because I feel like that’s what I should do. Even though I like all those things and would want to do all those things, I want a specific label for myself. Labels and categories not only make it easier to answer “what kind of art do you make?,” but also provide me with the ability to gauge my success against existing metrics. I realized that maybe I want to be in a box so I can see if I’m doing well. A picture book illustrator has a number of books and awards, an editorial illustrator has been published in The New Yorker, and any prolific illustrator can be rattled off the top of a fan’s head as “my favorite [fill in their specialty] illustrator”, but there aren’t accolades and measures of success for “does anything she wants” illustrators.
So yet again I’ve found another way in which I’m measuring myself against external validators rather than leading myself through life via the happiness in my heart. SIGH. Despite the slight shame in realizing I’ve done this to myself yet again, I feel liberated by this little epiphany. I have long struggled with what kind of artist to be and what kind of art to make, and now I realize how much it truly doesn’t matter. I don’t have to caveat my watercolor paintings of buildings as “just for fun” or my pen & ink drawings as “on the side.” Anything I make can be front and center and should be for fun all the time! I will aim to make art that speaks to me and fills my cup, despite the form or how awkward it is to list the types of work I make to strangers who ask.
Now, I do have to point out that I am writing this during and directly after a month-long vacation, which I spent mostly avoiding the topic of how to survive in a capitalist society. Labels and categories do make it easier to market yourself and get paying gigs. At least for now, though, I feel empowered by the freedom to create whatever I want. I will learn to make a living from it without putting my very soul into a box that I don’t entire fit into.