At our weekly Design Discussion event on November 7, 2016, Stefanie Fiore sat down with Steven Twigg, a distinct and delightful illustrator from Hamilton, ON. Here’s what he had to say about promoting his work, defining his process, and thinking outside the box.
Stefanie Fiore (SF): If you aren’t familiar with Steven Twigg’s work, or with Steven Twigg as a person, you are in for a real treat tonight. On his social media bio, he describes himself as “an illustrator with an eye. Two, actually,” and while that is true, it is also a vast understatement. Steven is an accomplished illustrator, graphic designer, and visual artist, and has his own unique, clever perspective on the world around him. His work has appeared in Mental Floss magazine, the Globe and Mail, and on internationally-published book covers, to name a few. In 2013, he also published his own book, Things I’ve Thought (I Think). Welcome, Steven!
Steven Twigg (ST): Thank you!
SF: I don’t want this to sound like a job interview but can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in illustration?
ST: I’m 5’6 and a half. 25. And how I got into illustration? Well my parents say that when I was 1 year old and drew a firetruck, and included a window, with a guy in it, with a ladder, they knew I was going to be an artist. So I’d say that’s probably it. Also, I liked art all through high school, and then I went to Sheridan College for a tour to see what programs they had, and I was like, “illustration…that sounds like it’s probably something good,” but I really had no idea what it was. So applied for the illustration and photography program. I didn’t get into the photography program, so now I’m here.
SF: Process is such an important part of any visual medium. From a technical standpoint, how do you make your work? What tools do you use?
ST: A large part of it, which was really a problem when I lived with someone, was that 80% of it was thinking. [laughs] So, I think for a long time. And then I’ll draw it once in light blue pencil crayon and sketch it out. And then I’ll go over it with more confident strokes in dark blue, and then I’ll scan it in, and spend way too much time cleaning up all the lines. And then I’ll colour it in Photoshop. And then, I use a smudge tool to smooth out all the lines and make them a little nicer.
SF: Why do you choose blue pencil crayon?
ST: When I was in fourth year, I saw the animation kids were using these blue pencils, because the light blue didn’t show up on a scanner, so I thought that would be something cool. I put all of these images from Things I’ve Thought, I Think in black and white too and it looked dead inside. When they’re in blue, it’s way more lively and fun. Now it’s my brand, people recognize the blue lines a lot.
SF: Absolutely. I think it’s very much a part of your style, your aesthetic. It makes up a big part of who you are as an illustrator. But that’s one half of the puzzle. What kind of concepts are you interested in exploring in your work?
ST: An obvious theme in my work is wordplay, or cleverisms, but I’m not a fine artist where I say things like, “I want to explore the effects of cactus on our society,” or something like that. I don’t really come at it from that angle. These are just, literally, things that I think. Which is why I’ve made the book, Things I’ve Thought, I Think. But I guess I do have a certain concept of how I work, like if I get a story, I want to condense it down into something and fill out the elements, and then find something related that is funny. Like, the one Mental Floss piece I did recently that was about “how deep have we been in the ocean?” and in one part of it, they mention sea cucumbers. And I thought, “oh, cucumbers, that’s funny. Do you remember when cats were all scared of cucumbers?” So I put that together and now there’s a cat in the ocean, afraid of a sea cucumber.
SF: Yes, I think your conceptual process, how you formulate your ideas and concepts, is just as recognizable as your technical process. I see something that’s very distinctly Steven. How have you refined your work over the years?
ST: Well, I started with just lines. And then I started with this weird watercolour look, and then I found that it was just not quite tight and professional-looking, if I was showing it to art directors in New York, they’d think, “yep, you’re probably fresh out of school.” So, I guess over time I honed my creative process and my conceptual process. I tried to tighten it up a lot more over time, and it’s evolved, and I think it’s going to just keep evolving forever.
SF: One of the phrases we hear over and over is, “you need to find your voice,” and this is often a phrase used to describe illustrators or designers who are fresh out of school. You’ve already touched on your own experience, so do you have any advice for young creatives who are struggling to find their voice?
ST: I think you need to find out what you want to do. You can experiment with side projects and let it flow that way. And then find space for how your work fits into projects, rather than finding projects that you can fit into. Find your groove first. Does that make sense?
SF: Yeah, and that’s a good point. Don’t try to constrict yourself by trying to squeeze into a certain project, or to work with a certain client. Finding that space is important. Your work is so clever, it’s quirky, it’s fun, it’s a bit silly, but it never feels cheap. It’s always very polished. How do you manage to make punny work but still get taken seriously in the industry?
ST: I came from a more technical drawing in background. I used to draw and paint realism, and really study that, and so I think I’m a lot like Picasso. [laughs] When you come from a technical background, you can then put character in your work the way you want to, and you can max out the lines the way that you want to, so it’s kind of hokey on purpose. Tactfully hokey. As far as making it more refined and professional, doing things like this, mocking up your work and making it look modern, and by considering the whole package, and making sure that it’s professional and tight, can help a lot.
SF: Let’s talk a little bit more about your book. Can you describe the process of creating and self-publishing it? What lessons have you learned?
ST: The first thing I should have done was make a “groan counter,” you know, like one of those things at the bottom of websites, except it would show how many people have groaned. But anyway, the book is just things I’ve thought. It started as a project for a narrative class, and I didn’t really want to make a narrative. So I thought, “okay, maybe if I just do one of these illustrations a week, I’ll have fourteen by the end of it,” but then it really became a venting thing. So I published a mini version by the grad show, and I had to buy ten copies to be able to place the print order to make it into a book. So, one was for display, but I had nine extras. So I thought maybe people will buy them. And that spawned the idea of continuing with it, and turning it into a nicer book. Hamilton is really good for welcoming artists, so I just went around Hamilton and sold the book.
SF: This started off as a school project. It’s really interesting how these restrictions can help you forge your own path and make it work on your terms. And all of a sudden, it goes from a school project to an important piece in your portfolio that really represents you and your work.
Let’s move in and talk about some of the work you did with The Globe and Mail. In 2015 and 2016, you did some work for the Globe and Mail. I find it really interesting because it seemed like a natural progression from the aesthetics and concepts from your book. I noticed a real sense of maturity, while still maintaining that sense of playfulness. And it also seemed like a really strong partnership between you and the art director. How do you foster relationships with art directors so that they trust your judgement and give you the freedom that you need.
ST: I think just being professional and mindful of deadlines helps. If they say, “we need sketches by the 8th, and finals by the 12th,” you get them those sketches by the 8th and the finals by the 12th. I also send a lot of different sketches, maybe five or six different ideas for each one. And from there, in terms of fostering relationships, I try to see them as people. I also like having fun with the emails. I do keep them brief and professional, but I’m sure they get a lot of, “Hello. Here’s the illustration.” Or, “Where do I invoice?” So, I try to keep things fun and lighthearted.
SF: I love that. Art directors are people, too! Let’s talk about this next project. You recently did a huge project for the City of Hamilton where you created 45 illustrations based on 45 different restaurants. And the whole project was completed in ten days. What was that like?
ST: Ten long days! I also did those Mental Floss pieces in those same ten days as well. Actually, it was really easy. [laughs] It was long days, but really easy. The person I was working for was very receptive, and was like “yeah, I really like your style! Just come up with some stuff,” so I sent one sketch idea for every one of the restaurants and he was like, “yeah! those look great!” So I went ahead with those, put them all together and sent them off. It was a really good exercise for sure. Taking these things that are completely uninteresting and had a really obvious answer to them, like “it’s a burger shop,” so I could just draw a burger on a plate, but if I can make it look like an apple, because it’s an applewood smoked burger, then that’s more interesting.
SF: Was it difficult for you to actually churn out that volume of work in such a short time period?
ST: Actually, yeah. It was a lot of wrist work, which got pretty tiring. But I just really focused on this one great podcast called Hello From the Magic Tavern. If you ever have a million things to do, that’s a good one. But I did learn a lot about consistency as well. Picking all the colours from the other illustrations. It was a good lesson. It’s kind of like when you’re counting how many dimes you have, and you’re like “one…two…three…wait…hold on…where was I?” and it all gets blurred. I kind of felt like I was drunk through it. But it was fun.
SF: So was this your tightest deadline ever?
ST: I think this was probably the tightest deadline for the amount of work involved. I think one of the pieces I did for the Globe, was like, a three day turnaround or something like that, but it was an easier piece, just one piece. It’s also something that I specifically do with my work– learn how to work fast, and how to do a style that doesn’t take forever. Nothing intricate. It was a plan from early on! I want to be efficient. It also came from something Catherine Adams said. She worked for Real Simple, and then Shoppers Drug Mart came to her, and was like “we want all these 50 illustrations in this short amount of time!” so she charged them a buttload of money, because it was a rush fee. And I was like, “whoa, that sounds good!”
SF: Yes, maybe you can specialize in working for clients who only need rush jobs! [laughs] Let’s look at some of your public art pieces. So, you’re an illustrator but you also work on so many different things, including public art commissions. How is working with an arts and culture client different than working for a commercially-driven client?
ST: It’s definitely different, because there’s so many regulations and things that they have to go through. Even on this bench project, they said, “Yeah, we have to put the feet on the bench, just in case…possibly…maybe in 600 years it would fall. And we can’t have the tentacles be too pointy. And it has to stay 3ft away from the edge of the sidewalk,” so there’s all these little things to pay attention to. It’s different also because the city chooses the people to construct the project, too. And the city also takes a long time to pay. So they brought me to visit the company who were building it, and they asked, “So, does it look good?” and I said, “Well, not really, but I just want to get paid…”
SF: Definitely a lot of compromises to be made when you’re dealing with the arts!
ST: Also, there’s a regulation that they must put out a “call for artists,” but that’s why I like working with Hamilton because you’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I was like, “I got this!”
SF: Do you hope to do more public art?
ST: Yeah, for sure. But it’s kind of difficult, because I want to work on bigger projects. Some of them have $75,000 budgets and I would like that! But they’re always like, “we’d like you to have experience with a $75,000 budget,” and I’m thinking, “well, how am I supposed to get there?” I’m trying to work my way up there. I’m trying to figure it out. But if any of you want to lend me $75,000 to build a giant statue of myself on King west, let me know. That would be great.
SF: How is artist Steven Twigg different than illustrator Steven Twigg?
ST: Public artist Steven Twigg is more famous on the streets of Hamilton! [laughs] But I approach things the same. I just consider different materials and what I can do with them.
SF: Let’s talk about self promotion. You have one very unusual, very particular strategy for self-promotion. I’m talking about the infamous trench coat.
ST: Oh, that’s actually some creepy flasher man and I’m right behind him [laughs] Ok, actually, so I go to festivals and flash people with my trench coat, which has copies of my book tucked inside. And I try to get them to buy my book!
SF: How did you come up with this idea?
ST: Actually, it was a joke. I was talking to someone on Facebook and they were saying that they had a spot at Canzine, and I was like, “oh man, that sounds cool. I didn’t get a spot. I should probably just walk through with a trench coat and sell to people!”
SF: Did you have a trench coat?
ST: I did not. But my mom does costumes for a theatre, and she said, “oh we’ve got four trench coats. Pick one!” And conveniently, sandwich bags are the perfect size for my book. So I sewed them to the coat and put the books in there. I’m actually getting known around Hamilton as the “trench coat guy.” Even when I don’t have my trench coat, people come up to me and say, “um hi, excuse me, do you have a trench coat?” [laughs].
ST: It also helps me not waste my time on people. Because if they get my humour with the trench coat, they’re more likely to get my book.
SF: Any other festival self promo tactics?
ST: I have this dog print of a balloon dog with balloon poop. And Canzine is really full, there’s like a million tables, so I thought I’d make an actual balloon dog and balloon poop. And then it was a beacon!
SF: I’d say you’re a master of self promo that doesn’t look or feel like self promo. To promote your animated short film about a missing pigeon named Willard, you created “lost pigeon” signs, posted them around NYC, Toronto and Hamilton, and asked people to email or tweet you if they had any sightings or information.
ST: And then hundreds of people were reaching me on Twitter and telling me the bird was being held ransom. They were watching the video and sharing it. And one guy, a filmmaker in Brooklyn, he wanted me to co-direct a film with him. And it was pretty cool because I’ve seen his work before, but I had to say no because I don’t live in Brooklyn. Have any of you seen Willard, by the way?
SF: [laughs] It’s amazing that you’ve put something so simple out there, but it really connects with people. And it gets them interested, and they become engaged and interact with it. And then they remember you. Did you see this project as a self promo tactic?
ST: I certainly saw it like that. At the very least, it was a way to get people to watch the video. A few jobs came from this project. And it was all very inexpensive to produce. I traded a case of beer for printing those posters. The tape was $4. So it was $4 promo!
SF: Let’s look at some of your other creative self promo examples. Tell us about this one.
ST: This was a custom promo piece I made for Mental Floss. I printed it like an actual magazine, with my work inside, and then I sent it off to them. They didn’t get back to me for 3 years, but when they did, it was magic! [laughs].
SF: So, would you say that personalizing your self promo material is effective?
ST: If you reach out in a way that shows you care, chances are they’ll care about you in return. You know, I bought one of those art director contact lists right after I graduated. It was $1000. And I made $0 from it. So, I think it’s better to find a few things that you really like, and that you really fit with. I happen to love this magazine, so I looked up the art director. I wanted to invest in this, so then I personalized it. It always works way better, every time.
SF: So, what about good ol’ social media? Have you got any jobs through social media? Or do you know anyone who has?
ST: I do know people who have been discovered through Instagram. One of my good friends just decided to promote only through Instagram, and then he got hire to do all these ridiculous emojis for some Cher app…
SF: Cher?! Ah yes, Cher loves emojis!
ST: Apparently! He got a lot of money out of that. One of my other friends also gets a lot of work through Behance. I haven’t gotten much interest from social media, but I have found it a good way to remind the entire world that you make work. A lot of my friends have been giving me jobs. Just this week, one of my friends wants me to do a menu, someone else asked me to do a mural, another friend in Thailand is like, “hey, I’m making this movie, can you do an animation for us?” And I feel like if I wasn’t active on social media then they wouldn’t remember I was an artist.
SF: That’s a good point. It isn’t always an instant transaction. Sometimes it’s that repeated exposure, and it has to build over time.
ST: I admit, I hated the idea of people judging you based on the number of your social media followers.
SF: Those thousands of followers you see are mostly bots anyway! [laughs] Let’s talk about promo emails. Your unique personality comes through, but it’s also courteous and professional.
ST: I think when I started doing email promos I would say way too much. I was bored of writing emails, so I would decide to write a poem instead, for fun. But then I realized that knowing your audience is pretty important, and these art directors get a ton of emails a day. They don’t have a lot of time. So, while some of those early emails were really fun, they were just too long, so nothing came of it. Later, I decided to stick to being brief. The emails were still fun, but just more concise.
SF: Regarding self promotion, do you think this generation has it easier than other generations?
ST: I think we have it way easier. Emails don’t even cost money. People used to have to send postcards…people used to have to mail their paintings to the New York Times! I think we have it way easier. Put your stuff on Instagram and people will hire you from Thailand. Lucky us!
SF: Holidays are around the corner. Do you bother to do any holiday-themed promo?
ST: No. I’ve never done anything for any holidays. Why would I send out a promo when everybody else is sending out a promo? It’s less likely to be looked at.
SF: That said, do you promote yourself at certain times of year? Or is it ongoing? What’s your strategy?
ST: It’s kind of whenever I get excited about doing more work and I don’t have anything else to do. I’ll at least plan on sending emails to people within the upcoming week.
SF: I’m glad you brought that up! This last question is dedicated to Eitan. What do you hope to achieve by this time next week?
ST: I’m going to fix my website. Then I’m going to do a proposal for this menu project. And then I have to finish up a logo. And then I’ll meet with someone about a mural. And then I’m going to visit my grandma. That’s pretty much it!
SF: We are recording this, so next week we can follow up with you.
ST: Hi, grandma!
SF: Alright, thanks Steven! And thank you everyone for coming out tonight.