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How did you get started in illustration? My foray into illustration was sort of on accident. I was mostly making fine art back in 2006, and some folks from Chronicle Books came to a show that I had in a small gallery in San Francisco. They contacted me afterwards, and I began conversations with the editorial director shortly thereafter about working together, both on some stationery products and also about illustrating some books. After I started working with Chronicle I realized I loved illustration and started working with other clients. Now it’s my main source of income, if you include my own illustrated books.

What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? I am self taught so I think I might approach my work differently than other artists, at least technically, which I think in some ways lends a certain wonkiness to my style. Before I became an artist (I didn’t start painting or drawing until I was 31 years old), I was in a relationship for many years with a really amazing graphic designer. She introduced me to the world of graphic design and art, in particular modern graphic design and art from the mid-century and into the ’70s, and I fell completely in love. From there I became obsessed with the aesthetic of the Scandinavian countries and also making modern work based on traditional folk patterns from different cultures. All of those things heavily influence my work.

What is your biggest challenge as an illustrator? Not burning out. I work a lot, every day. I love that there is a certain demand for my work. And I love painting and drawing for a living. It’s amazing. There was a time when I could barely afford to feed myself, so I am grateful. But working this much as an illustrator requires enormous creative and physical energy. At least once a week I work a 14-hour day and at 47 years old, I sometimes feel tired, like I just want to watch Netflix and eat cheese or go lay on a beach in Hawaii. Keeping it fresh, meeting deadlines and bringing the best of yourself to every project is challenging sometimes. That said, I wouldn’t trade this challenge for the world.

Do you purposely seek out a variety of mediums, from tea towels to wallpaper to posters? Why? In the beginning of my career I took every job that came my way, so a lot of the names on my client list are there because I needed to work, and not because the job fell in a particular area that I was passionate about. But I think now the diversity of my portfolio and client list is more purposeful, and I love working in different ways with different kinds of clients.

A couple years ago, I wrote this book called Art Inc, The Essential Guide for Building your Career as an Artist, and in the section on illustration I talk about the fact that illustrators can choose to really hone in on one thing—like some illustrators only do editorial illustration, because it’s what they love. But that some illustrators, like me, do lots of everything, from surface and pattern design to books to editorial work to posters. That way of working keeps things interesting. I get to use all my skills—from creating patterns to painting in gouache to drawing maps to hand lettering—and I love that things change for me regularly based on the jobs I’m doing.

What would be your dream assignment? Designing some crazy printed fabric for a major fashion label.

What excites you about illustration right now? It’s exciting that there are more areas for illustrators to work than have ever existed before. Part of that is because the tools are changing and digital work is evolving like crazy. I also think the worlds of surface design and licensing are broadening for artists, not just illustrators, but all artists and graphic designers who are interested in being part of home décor, paper products and fashion. Those areas are not as well regarded by the old guard, who tend to see editorial and book illustration as the more legitimate and honorable ways to make a living as an illustrator. But the new guard says it’s all legitimate and honorable. And that’s exciting.

What's one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Save 40 percent of your income to pay quarterly taxes.
Fine artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon is best known for her colorful abstract paintings, intricate line drawings, pattern design and hand lettering. She works for clients around the world including the MoMA, Martha Stewart Living, Airbnb, Chronicle Books, The Land of Nod, Simon & Schuster, and Cloud9 Fabrics, among many others. Congdon writes a popular daily blog about her work, life and inspiration called Today is Going to be Awesome. She is the author of five books, including Art Inc: The Essential Guide to Building Your Career as an Artist, Whatever You Are, Be a Good One, Twenty Ways to Draw a Tulip and A Collection a Day. Her latest book, Fortune Favors the Brave features hand-lettered quotes and will be released later this year. She lives and works in Oakland, California.
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