It is such a treat to welcome the lovely Laura Coyle aboard as our guest expert for February in The Textile Design Lab! Laura has spent nearly 20 years as a freelance illustrator and is also an amazing Adobe Illustrator instructor (she runs illustratoring.com, check it out!) Later this month, Laura will be sharing her expertise in a free webinar for all Textile Design Lab members, covering the topics of Illustrator brushes and Wacom settings. We hope you will join us!
Now, get to know Laura a little better in today’s interview, filled with some wonderful insights and advice for up-and-coming designers.
Please tell us a bit about your design background/career path and what led you to start illustratoring.com.
I have been working as a freelance illustrator since graduating from Auburn University with a BFA in the early 90’s. It took me about 5 years before I was making my living solely from illustration work. The types of freelance jobs I’ve done over the years have mostly come from magazines, greeting card companies, book publishers, advertising agencies and design firms. Some of my clients include, Papyrus, Target, Condé Nast, Hasbro, and Amazon.com. Although I started out working in watercolor and traditional media, I quickly developed a more digital style and so Illustrator became an integral part of my work.
Digital illustration was in its infancy when I was in school. A lot of what I have learned about Adobe Illustrator in the years since, I taught myself using books and manuals. Five years ago, my friend Renee Pearson, who is a Photoshop and scrapbooking guru here in Atlanta, asked me to teach some Illustrator classes for her online training school, and that got me started with online teaching. My website illustratoring.com came about in 2013. It began as an Illustrator tips blog, but once Renee’s site closed this past year, it’s become a place where anyone can access the library of Illustrator classes I created for Renee.
You have a very recognizable style to your work–is this something that developed naturally or did you have to make a conscious effort to create a cohesive body of work?
Yes, I did have to consciously focus on creating a style, but there is a part of having a style that does tend to naturally evolve over time. I think that’s a comforting realization – that your style will certainly change over the years as you grow as a designer and as trends change, so there’s no time like the present to dive in and start experimenting.
A style is ideally a combination of what you like doing, and what is commercially viable. Near the end of school, I was encouraged to not limit myself to just one style in the beginning, but completely explore a few different styles/mediums I was interested in. My portfolio back then displayed a few “preliminary” styles and the response I got from mentors and potential clients over those first several years helped me refine my work to fit the markets I was most interested in pursuing. I had one style, an expressive woodcut style that I loved, but the more I showed it, the more I realized it was hard to find work in that style and I phased it out of my portfolio. Even so, the exploration was time well spent, because some aspects of it remained a part of my work. Eventually the experimentation led to me having a single style, and that continues to evolve.
Tell us a bit about your design process. What inspires you? Are there any resources that you would recommend?
When I get an assignment, I read the story, or do the research and start scribbling the first few words and images that pop into my head. Then I like to put it away and see what comes up. So often ideas arrive when I’m away from my studio, doing something totally different. If I can tell a friend about it, or talk it through, it seems to sink into my mind and ideas start flowing. When I’m feeling stuck, I go to my bookshelf. Collecting eye-catching books over the years has been a saving grace – I love used book stores, museum shops and flea markets. Although I work at the computer more than anything, I feel that putting designs away periodically and thinking about them away from the computer is one of the most important things I do. Sometimes it’s hard to walk away from something I’m working on, but inevitably I’m better off when I can give myself a fresh perspective.
“Ritual” an editorial for Emory University Magazine
Tell us what you love about Illustrator! What do you feel are the greatest benefits of working in this program?
I love the versatility of Illustrator. I’m never locked in to a particular size, I can always take something I created for another illustration, grab it, resize it, recolor it, and use it for the start of something new. It’s easy to bring my pencil sketches in and trace over them. I love making my own lettering and Illustrator is perfect for that, whether I scan and Image Trace my handwriting or I want to convert font type to outlines, and play with the anchor points. The program offers incredible versatility and reusability.
Where do you notice designers tend to stumble the most in Illustrator? Do you have any words of advice for designers who are new to the program or feel more comfortable working in Photoshop or traditional media?
Stumbles often come from being more familiar with Photoshop and I completely understand this because of how much I have to mentally switch gears myself to work in Photoshop.
In some ways, Illustrator is the more natural, easier program. It’s helpful to remember that Illustrator is very object-based, as opposed to being layer-based like PS. If working in Photoshop is like creating a multilayered painting, Illustrator is like working on a big drafting table where you are creating and arranging colored shapes (objects). You can draw them, or cut them out of construction paper. You can then move them around, stack them up, glue them together then unglue them, and make them any size. The “magic drafting table” model captures the basic way the program works, and the more proficient you get, the more complexity you can add to your work through layers, and by adding texture, transparency and effects.
detail from a greeting card for Papyrus
What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your design career? How have you overcome them? What actions or decisions have made the biggest impact on your design business?
I think the biggest challenge of a creative freelance career is that the income is not always steady, it can be feast or famine. In retrospect, I’m not sure it’s something I have ever overcome, but I’ve learned to be prepared for it. I happen to like planning and running numbers, so I like to set goals for myself and check in regularly to see how I’m doing. Some of the decisions I have made that have had the biggest impact on my business have been about advertising, whether that’s exhibiting at a trade show or buying an ad in a sourcebook or online marketplace. In my experience, getting your work in front of art buyers is the surest way to grow your business, but you stand to gain the most from your investment when you really understand the market you are targeting.
Who are your favorite designers (past or present) and why? What about them has inspired you or influenced your work?
I have so many favorites, but I keep looking for more. There’s a favorite documentary on Netflix about Diana Vreeland called “The Eye Has To Travel” and I go back to it over and over again just to absorb her sense of enthusiasm. It seems especially crucial to me now that we are only a click away from almost every image published in history, and myriad images of every evolving trend. It can be visual information-overload and so I guess at this moment my favorite designer is actually an Editor. She lands on something and suddenly it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen, but then she turns it on it’s head and it becomes the seed of her unique vision. Diana Vreeland seems endlessly inspired and confident, and she’s been inspiring me lately.
a foil-stamped wrapping paper for Papyrus called “Happy Hour”
What advice have you received in your career that has stayed with you or influenced you? Do you have any words of advice for aspiring designers trying to build successful careers of their own?
One of my favorite bits of advice has come in different forms from different professionals over the years, to sum it up: Don’t wait!
Don’t wait until your portfolio is perfect to show it.
Don’t wait until you know everything there is to know about ___ before accepting that assignment. Sometimes having that deadline is the best motivation for learning.
Don’t wait to ask a question, send your work out, enter a contest, or create something new.
That advice has served me well because sometimes I convince myself I’m perfecting something when in reality, I’m procrastinating or giving in to fear. I still believe it’s important to strive for a high standard in my work, but I also want to be aware when it’s keeping me from participating in the world and learning from experience.