May 02, 2018
'You still have to keep those projects going that really fill you up'
Rebecca Green’s illustration career looks pretty sweet right now. Her first author-illustrator picture book, How to Make Friends with a Ghost, was published in fall 2017 by Tundra Books. Her latest book project, Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea by Elizabeth Suneby, is fresh off the presses. She has more than 237,000 Instagram followers and she occupies enviable territory for a freelance illustrator: she can be selective about assignments.
But as Green explained during a visit to CIA during Spring Show, she has expended a lot of work to achieve success in the competitive children’s book market. She has made work for galleries, makers’ markets, advertisements and even the Wall Street Journal. She spent years of trial and error zeroing in on what she did and did not want to do with her career.
Green compares an illustration career to making good soup: it takes a lot of ingredients, including “a little business savvy” and “a pinch of disobedience.” She spent time in CIA’s Illustration Department, gave a talk in the Peter B. Lewis Theater, and answered a few extra questions as well.
How is making gallery art different from making illustrations, other than that it isn’t assigned?
Most of the gallery work that I do is based on real events, real life, my surroundings, families, stories, and then once I start working on those, because it's not for a client or a story, I just have freedom to do whatever I want. I can kind of take that into whatever I need it to be. A lot of times, they end up looking like they're from a story. You know, they look narrative, but there's actually no story to it.
What are your top three pieces of advice for graduating illustrators?
Well, the advice that I got when I graduated was from Susy Pilgrim Waters. She does textiles, and she did licensing and editorial illustration for a while. And I emailed her, and she told me to make the work that I wanted to get. What are my dream jobs that I want to be hired for? I have to make those, because otherwise, the world is not going to know that I'm capable of making them or that I want to. It's all about showing the world a portfolio of work that you're super proud of.
Second, I would just say that for me, it took a long time. I was trying all sorts of [art]. I was doing retail, editorial, gallery, illustration, designing ice displays, window displays. I would do anything that came my way that let me draw. And now I sort of specialize. But it took all that time.
And it took all that work too, so maybe that's the third advice is just to keep working. If you find yourself in a lull, and nobody's hiring you, it's easy to mope and be like, oh, I'm not going to get a job. But when you do start getting jobs, you won't have that personal time. So when you have that time, and you're not really getting jobs, what do you want to make? What would you make if you weren't getting paid for it? Make that. Then somebody's going to hire you for that, and that's like a dream.
Do you feel like your skills have continued to improve after college?
Does that happen through intention or just by play, or do you have a sense for how you get better?
I just think it's just production. Like for instance, I usually do full bleed, so my illustrations go right to the edges. I'm really trying to focus in on doing spots and not having a hard edge. So it's all in productivity, producing a lot, and having happy accidents.
And then there's purposeful learning, too, which is that I really want to get better at drawing cheetahs. I really want to get better at environments, maybe backgrounds, landscapes, textures. It's purposeful, but then if you play enough, you also find ways to incorporate learning.
Talk about your relationship with Instagram: It walks a line between being inspiring, and then also …
Just destroying. Destruction.
Yes. It can be overwhelming, and maybe cause self-doubts. Have you thought about that?
All the time. Because I'm on it all the time, and it's really my main mode of sharing my work and business. And because I'm sharing, I'm also looking at other people's stuff, which is why in December, I didn't look at anybody's work, because I didn't even know what I was making anymore. If I had somebody come to me and say ‘We want what you have to offer,’ I wouldn’t have even known what I had to offer. That's crushing, knowing that you've worked that hard, and you are not even in touch with yourself enough to know what you want to make.
Do you compare yourself when you're looking?
One-hundred percent. I think we all do. I've stopped following people that do photorealism, because that's not my goal. And if I look at too much of that, and I see maybe praise that they're getting for that, I think, well, is that my goal? I should do that. But it's not my goal. So I stopped looking at that, and really tried to put work in front of me that makes me feel inspired. But as soon as I start to lose touch with who I am or what I want to be making, I just put it away.
People ask you this probably three times a day. How do you find your style?
It's the most common question. For me, it's just been this evolution. I was talking to another artist, and he described it as authenticity and productivity. Take a step back from looking at other people's work, and you find what you're really excited about, find what is authentic to you, and that is sort of intuitive. And I think when you produce a lot, and when you produce a lot just for yourself, you start to find those patterns. And I think more often than that, other people can see your style before you can.
It sounds like you think there's no shortcut.
I think if you're doing a shortcut, you're probably looking at a style that is existing, and you're copying that. And I do think that that can morph into your own thing. I think it will morph, but I don't think there's a shortcut to find a style that really stands out and is new in the world.