Featured Art Student: Taylor Ackerman

It’s time for our next Featured Student! For September we are featuring:

Taylor Ackerman

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Below is an awesome Q&A that Kathryn Adebayo (@KATHRYNADEBAYO) conducted with Taylor:

Sometimes it just takes a story of someone who's done it themselves to push us to take the leap from, "Someday I'll be an illustrator," to "No doubt about it I am an illustrator." Not only might Taylor Ackerman's art and insights make you crack a smile, but they just might motivate you to take the next step towards your goals too.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? 

 I live in Champaign, Illinois with my two wiener dogs (which is where my moniker Studio Looong comes from) and a pet tortoise. I’ve lived in the Midwestern United States my entire life. When I was a kid, my house backed up to an area of protected forest. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in the woods and looking for creatures in the creek. I loved nature and science, but I always knew I wanted to do something creative as a career. 

 When it came time for college, I attended a small liberal arts university, earning a BFA in Graphic Design. Since graduation, I have been working full-time as a graphic designer. Outside of my day job and nights spent working on illustrations, I still have a passion for nature and science. Weather permitting, my weekends are spent hiking, kayaking, or working in the garden.

 Why is children's illustration important in your life? Basically, why do you do what you do? 

 I love using my drawing and visual communication skills in a way that can bring a smile to someone’s face. It’s the best feeling in the world when someone looks at one of my drawings and cracks a smile or lets out a little chuckle. I live for the challenge of trying to find new and interesting perspectives on well-known subjects or ways to depict concepts that are unusual to me so that they seem familiar and relatable. I think what initially drew me to graphic design, and then to children’s illustration, is that idea of taking information, breaking it down, and communicating it in the most clear and novel way that I can.

 Now that you’re pursuing your goal to be an illustrator, could you share a story about the hardest thing you’ve overcome so far to get to where you are currently? 

 After graduating from college I had done what I thought graphic design graduates were supposed to do—I found a job at an agency, worked hard, put in long hours for a few years, and got promoted to art director. Despite that success, I felt burnt out and creatively unfulfilled. I thought about which parts of my job I enjoyed the most and realized that I was much more passionate about illustration than I was about design. The hardest thing I’ve had to overcome is stepping back from my career as a designer to make room for an illustration career.

 I knew to pivot to illustration it would take a lot of time and effort outside of my 9-to-5. It was also clear that I was not going to have the time and effort to put towards illustration if I kept up the long days at my fast-paced agency job. After a few months of searching and job applications, I left the agency for a full-time, in-house graphic design position that leaves me with more time and creative energy after work to pursue illustration but still allows me to make enough to pay my bills. 

In addition to making more time for illustration, I also started calling myself an illustrator. This was really difficult for me. Until recently, I did not consider myself an illustrator. I would refer to myself as “a graphic designer with hopes to someday be an illustrator.” I thought that since I wasn’t making money from illustration and had a day job doing something else, that I hadn’t earned the title. It took me too long to figure out that no matter how much my work improves, no one is looking for “a graphic designer with a dream to someday be an illustrator” to work on their next children’s book. After a few minor existential breakdowns, I switched out the graphic design work on my portfolio website for illustration and changed my bio on social media to read “Illustrator and Designer.” 

It was difficult for me to take a step back from what I’d spent 4 years studying in school and another 4 years practicing professionally, but since I’ve made the mental switch from “designer who wants to be an illustrator” to “illustrator who does design to pay the bills” so many opportunities have opened up for me. 

Are there other artists who you consider influential to your work, and why? 

Richard Scarry: I had several of Richard Scarry’s books on my bookshelf growing up. Before I could read, I would page through Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever and make up my own stories using the pictures. Looking back, it was probably for the best that I couldn’t read yet because some of those rhymes didn’t age well! Nevertheless, his art has definitely influenced my sense of character design and overall aesthetic. 

Axel Scheffler: I love the goofiness of Scheffler’s characters. His images are so playful. The joy he has for illustration shines through in all of his work. You can tell that he is having fun with what he is doing which is something that I hope comes through in my illustration as well. 

E. H. Shepard: Another favorite from my childhood, I admire how Shepard’s linework can stand alone and be just as successful as his full-color illustrations. This is something that I strive for in my own work.

Could we see a few of your pieces? 

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Ten in the Bed: This was one of my favorite bedtime stories as a kid, so it was fun to do my own take on the cover. This was also the first piece I made using my scanned-in pencil drawing as the base of my drawing instead of trying to recreate my linework digitally, which has made a huge impact on the overall look of my work. 

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Frog and Heron: I created this piece for SVS Learn’s monthly prompt “the moment before.” I had just completed Painting color and Light on SVS and tried to implement some of the techniques that Will Terry covered in that class for building up shadows, highlights, and atmospheric perspective. My work is intentionally a bit flatter, but I feel like I got so much out of that class. 

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Art by Taylor Ackerman

Star Gazers: I created this piece in a 3-week workshop with The Illustration Dept. I wanted to challenge myself to draw more human characters and to create a night time scene.

Do you have any long-term goals that you’re pursuing, and do you have any particular strategies you’re using to reach for those goals? 

I have two long-term goals that I am working towards right now. First, to be published and second to make illustration my primary job. To work towards these goals I have committed to making at least one new portfolio piece a month, focusing on making pieces that push me to practice new skills and that are geared towards children’s publishing. 

I have been promoting my work online through social media and my portfolio website. In addition to putting my work online, I have just sent my first postcard out to publishers and agents. I have joined my local chapter of SCBWI, and I plan to participate in two portfolio showcases before the end of the year. I look forward to showing my first-ever printed portfolio at the 2019 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference. 

My hope is that through improving my portfolio and promoting my work, I will be able to find an agent or a publisher to work with. In the next year or so, I want to build up enough illustration work to be able to take my day job down to part-time. 

Finally, what advice would you give to others who work a job to pay the bills but who have, deep down, a desire to pursue a career in illustration instead? 

  1. Don’t immediately quit your job! Having a steady income while I grow my skills and build up rapport has kept my stakes pretty low while allowing me to explore tons of different opportunities.

  2. Participate in drawing challenges. It isn’t always easy to find the motivation to sit down and draw after an 8 hour day at the office. Two things that have really helped me are having a deadline and building a supportive community around my work. Open-ended drawing challenges like the monthly challenges on SVSLearn’s forum or the various prompt lists that circulate on Instagram are great ways to have the freedom to draw what you want but still have the accountability of the end-of-the-month deadline and also a group of people simultaneously working on the same prompt to keep you going when you’re tired or feeling uninspired.

  3. Feel no shame! Having a full-time job and an illustration side-hustle makes you no less of an illustrator than the person who is illustrating full-time. Don’t feel like you shouldn’t promote your work or pursue work in illustration just because you have a day job.

Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and for sharing a bit of yourself and your art!

If you would be interested in sharing your work for a chance to be featured for our special Inktober post head over to the SVSLearn Forum and post your best work during the month of October.