Let´s talk art | How to tell a story through narrative art with Erin Gallagher
Welcome to the fifth part of the Let’s Talk Art series. This time we chat with Erin Gallagher, an illustrator, and designer living in Los Angeles. Describing herself as a multi-faceted designer, Erin has produced work for some fantastic clients over the years including Disney, Pixar, 20th Century Fox and more. She works in many different mediums and has a passion for hand lettering and comics.
During this interview, we’ll be talking about what it means to be a multi-faceted designer and how it’s beneficial to Erin’s career. Erin also talks about her future plans as an illustrator and gives advice to aspiring artists looking to find clients.
So let´s talk art…
You describe yourself as a ‘Multi-faced illustrator and designer’. What does that mean?
Many illustrators have a singular style or method that they use in their work, and for a long time I felt that I was failing by not quite having that one, super distinct “thing”… I would do lettering in my illustrations, then I would get hired to do a logo. I would do portraits and poster art, but then I would get hired to do chalkboard signs. I had done comics, and I would be hired to do concept art or storyboards. So I felt I was all over the place and I was doing the whole illustration thing wrong…
Then I decided to embrace it and add that ability to my brand as a positive, because I feel that using many methods, working on a lot of different projects and having various specialties is something valuable and maybe a little bit rare in the illustration world. Plus, I’ve found that I get bored doing the exact same thing over and over.
I love that for a few days I’m doing a mural project, all by hand, standing on a ladder, crouching on the ground, getting messy, and the rest of the week I’m working all digital, at my desk or taking my Macbook and Wacom tablet to the cafe. One day I’m using Adobe Illustrator, making something like custom invitations, then I’m drawing on paper with a charcoal pencil or painting with watercolours, then I’m using Kyle Webster’s Photoshop brushes to digitally colour a poster. It keeps me interested and it keeps me learning.
I do think that there’s an obvious sensibility that runs through the work, that’s solidified over many years of working on all these varied projects. Eventually, I did learn of some other illustrators who’ve made multiple styles or techniques work for them as well, so it’s definitely viable. I think it’s all about organizing your portfolio clearly so that clients can easily point to what they want from you.
You grew up in New York but now reside in LA. Is there anything you miss from New York’s art scene? And do you find there is a much cultural difference?
I moved to L.A. having never visited the West Coast, or lived outside of NYC, so it was a shock. It took me about 6 months to acclimate. It turns out working mostly by yourself from your home studio can make it difficult to meet people in a new city! But luckily I had already been to some art shows in L.A. before I moved, like Hero Complex Gallery and Eat More Art Out. After I moved I started doing shows at Gallery 1988 as well, so that’s been an awesome way to get involved and socialize.
Some freelancers are natural homebodies, but I’m a pretty social person, so I have to get out of the office frequently to stay sane. Personally, I’ve found that for pop culture art, and of course low brow and pop surrealism, the L.A. art scene is hard to top.
Since I moved I was fortunate enough be in some really fun shows:
- an official American Horror Story show
- an official Disney’s Alice in Wonderland show at HCG; a Broad City pop up art show party curated by the women of Eat More Art Out, which I did the poster for, and which was filmed and added to the show’s Season 3 DVD extras;
- an official Rick and Morty art show at Gallery 1988 that broke their records for attendance and sales.
I’ve met so many welcoming and talented artists out here – it’s a very relaxed and fun scene. There was a period like that in NYC where I met really great artists at pop culture group shows that are now friends, but sadly it was fleeting.
Of course, NYC is not lacking in the great art by any means, but for the pop culture, it makes sense that L.A. is the place to be. I do miss going to the Society of Illustrators in NYC, where I’ve met many talented illustrators; they have life drawing sessions, lectures, and they showcase the best illustration talent past and present so there’s always something interesting going on at SOI.
Your work was featured in the Star Trek 50 art book last year, a big achievement! How did you get involved in that?
I was quite shocked when I received a seemingly ordinary email inviting me to participate in the official Star Trek 50th Anniversary art exhibition. First I thought someone may have been pranking me, but then I realized: hell yeah!
We worked on the art well in advance of the actual anniversary, so I didn’t know until much later that the show would travel the globe and that there would be a book as well – that was all gravy for me.
I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family and went on to be a fan of DS9, Voyager, the original series, of course, and the new films. I had done two Star Trek illustrations prior to the anniversary exhibition: one was a screenprint for Art v Cancer, a charity run by artist Chris Thornley (aka Raid 71) and Julia Hall. The theme was ‘time and space’, so I chose to focus on Time’s Arrow – a great two-part episode featuring time travel, Mark Twain, and Data the android. The second piece was an alternative poster illustration for Star Trek: Into Darkness, which I was invited to do as my first project with the Poster Posse.
I’m guessing that Jorge Ferreiro, the curator of the anniversary show, must have seen one or both of those illustrations, but however they found me I am very grateful to be involved even in a small way with a show that changed the cultural zeitgeist and that strove to change the world for the better through entertainment.
It is not difficult to spot your love for hand lettering. Do you know where that stems from?
Growing up as a kid I read tons of comics and picture books. I also went to art school during the transition from analog to digital art. I actually didn’t own a computer during my time at school, so I had to hand letter my own mini-comics and narrative art. Around that time was also the beginning of the hand lettering boom in illustration.
During my third year, the school offered a new hand lettering elective and I knew I wanted to follow that class. It taught the pre-digital methods of designing and drawing fonts; it was tedious at times but I’m very glad I got to take that class. What I learned there was not really what I do now with lettering but it was a great foundation for drawing letters.
I’ve never designed a font, although I wouldn’t rule it out for the future. I don’t use traditional sign painting methods either – which I admire very much – even though I do work on chalkboards and signage as well. For the most part, I look at letters just like other subjects I draw – comprised of line, shape, and texture – but with some extra attention paid to legibility, kerning, leading, and details like that.
Is there any medium or style of art that you’ve always wanted to experiment with a little more?
I’ve done a couple of GIFs and definitely need to create more because I’ve always been a huge fan of storytelling in visual art. Whether just through one narrative image, in sequential art or animation. Even if it’s just a super short “story” through movement in a GIF or just a few panels of a comic, I really enjoy what you can accomplish through that medium.
Plus, the motion is definitely going to stick around in the illustration world, so I want to keep up. I love making comics as well, but they do take forever, but maybe someday I’ll do one of my mini-comics again. I’d also love to give digital 3D modeling a shot – I’ve never tried that so it would definitely be a challenge for me. I know some illustrators use 3D modeling to help with backgrounds for paintings and I think that would be very useful for me.
You recently took part in a few Adobe Live sessions. How did it feel drawing live in front of viewers, especially as drawing is often a very personal experience?
Doing Adobe Live was definitely a highlight of this year so far – it was an awesome experience. I’ve been using Adobe products since I was in high school many moons ago, and consistently since then, so it’s a brand that’s close to my heart – and there aren’t a ton of those for me.
Luckily, I’ve done a fair amount of art in front of people, so I did have some experience. I used to do chalkboard/ mural art for some retail companies and sometimes had to work in view of the shopping public, and while it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a performative job it certainly felt that way sometimes.
I also did some work for Moleskine; demonstrating to attendees at Adobe Max how to use their Adobe Smart Notebooks. I would draw and talk to people all day, showing them the app and sketching.
The most difficult part of Adobe Live was multitasking because you are talking to the host and viewers while consistently drawing and while occasionally answering what the viewers were writing on the live chat. Oh and trying not to curse because remember – it’s live! So it’s a fair amount going on at once…
The folks at Adobe were stellar and really made me feel comfortable and at home. All three days the viewers were lovely and had great questions. It was so awesome to interact with people all over the globe – sometimes the internet is a beautiful place. I actually bought a phone holder afterward so I could start recording more art videos or live streaming. I’ve also done some time-lapse videos and definitely will be doing more of that.
You currently use a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet to produce your work. As someone who also uses traditional mediums, how do you find dipping out of traditional to digital and vice versa?
I do enjoy switching between analog and digital media. I started using a Wacom pen tablet way back when I had my first staff art job, at Whole Foods Market. My wrist was bothering me from using a computer mouse, and I was terrified of getting carpal tunnel syndrome. The Wacom felt so much more natural and comfortable to work with than a mouse, and I quickly got one for home use, and over the years I’ve upgraded models and been hooked ever since.
Due to the Wacom pen, going from a pencil or brush on paper to my Macbook isn’t a very jarring change for me. Until recently I did have some trouble doing tight pencils or inks with the Wacom tablet, so I preferred doing line art on paper and switching to digital for colour. I did work on a project where I had no choice but to do all the line art digitally and it definitely became easier the more I did it.
I do want to upgrade soon to the Wacom MobileStudio Pro, because that would be an even more seamless transition to draw directly on the screen, and I would save myself the steps of scanning and printing pencils and inks, which take up a lot of valuable time.
I would still do some original art for gallery shows, and I’d still do my chalkboard/ mural projects, which obviously can’t be done digitally (yet!). So even if I get the Mobile Studio Pro I’ll still have plenty of analog work to keep me busy.
Is there a particular philosophy you have when it comes to producing art?
One of my favourite instructors at the School of Visual Arts – Keith Mayerson – always said: “the form fits the function”. That always stuck with me. It’s true in nature, and it’s an important tenet in the design of all kinds, especially functional design and in storytelling. When applied to illustration, to me it means that your lines, shapes, colours, and textures should all be conveying the feeling you want to get across instead of just relying on your concept. Which is why I think I’m comfortable having multiple styles and approaches – because what works well for one subject won’t be the best choice for another.
I think form-fits-function is something many great art directors follow because their job is to find the right illustrator to convey a particular feeling or idea. So they have to recognize that an artist has the potential to create something that fits the project perfectly.
Another great instructor I had was the legendary Jack Potter, and he had a similar philosophy regarding drawing: that every line should need to be on the page and there shouldn’t be any wishy-washy or extraneous lines. I think that’s great because it teaches you to not just to put lines on the page but to think about what’s important to the viewer. Now, I don’t know how well I follow either of those tenets – but I try to keep them in mind.
You’ve had your work published in magazines, exhibited at galleries and you’ve even created some wall murals. What advice can you give to emerging artists when it comes to getting your work in front of as many eyes as possible?
- A professional email is good to have (you know, not “pizzaisgreat at gmail dot com”) which is clearly visible on every page of your site. So that’s number one.
- Obviously, the internet and social media are great – trust me, social media barely existed when I was first starting out. That said I think there’s absolutely no excuse these days to not have a great looking proper portfolio site in addition to Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Behance, etc.
- There’s any number of web builders like Squarespace, Wix, or Weebly (what I use for my site) that you can use to easily create a professional level site and then link to your social media accounts. Remember to use SEO keywords so Google can find you!
- I think it’s important to share your work through groups or projects like “Illustration Friday”, “Little Chimp Society”, “Month of Love”, “Inktober”, “Poster Spy”, etc. – there’s a lot of options out there, so choose what works best for your style or subject matter.
- I know it’s annoying, but share your images directly on Twitter and don´t link from Instagram. No one wants to make the extra effort to click through.
- Another thing you may not think of when first starting out is business cards. They aren’t too expensive, and even if you don’t have a big networking event (and most definitely if you do) they could help you out. I get asked for cards when I’m working at the coffee shop – you never know when you may need one, and you look like a pro if you have one at the ready.
- You also want to get your work not only in front of as many people as possible but in front of the right people. The thing I’m not great at is emailing and/ or sending postcards to art directors and other potential clients; it’s time-consuming, but it’s important. It can be very expensive to buy an AD list, but you can start the old fashioned way and look up mastheads at magazines or research agencies. Other helpful sites are Drawn & Drafted, which offers lots of resources, including “Dear AD” where you can read Q&A’s from illustrators to real (anonymous) Art Directors, and Illustration Age, which is a blog and podcast as well.
- Take advantage of all the free help available on the interwebs!
As well as digital art, you also do a lot of ‘traditional art’ – one thing you do a lot of is chalk wall murals. What is it about this medium that you like in particular?
It’s funny, because my “chalkboard art” is typically neither chalk nor on a board, and I started doing it out of necessity. I began doing chalkboard art at Whole Foods Market a long time ago. We used chalk markers (acrylic paint markers) so they wouldn’t smudge, so that’s what I became comfortable with.
After I left Whole Foods Market and was freelancing I got another retail chalk art client. It was a small chain of juice bars in Manhattan, and it started out as a few small boards that gradually became whole walls in more and more stores. Eventually it was a ton of work for one person and my art became a big part of the brand – unfortunately, the client didn’t want to compensate for that so I moved on.
During that time a friend worked at a lovely wine and cocktail bar called Anfora in the West Village and they wanted to do monthly chalk art featuring a different spirit every month. They gave me a lot of creative freedom and I did some work for their other restaurants. When their marketing director moved to Kimpton Hotels I worked on some chalkboards for them as well, along with other restaurant and event clients in NYC.
Eventually, I was moving to L.A., and I told Anfora – they had been planning on doing a calendar of my chalk art as a gift to their clients. I loved working with them, so I decided to test out chalk vinyl before I left, and it worked!
I was able to continue doing the monthly chalk art in L.A. and ship it to Anfora in NYC. I told my contact at Kimpton about my new method and started doing boards for Kimpton restaurants in various cities. Since then I’ve done on-site window art and a mural for Kimpton locations in San Diego and Huntington Beach.
I also did a really fun wall mural that was filmed for a Super Deluxe video. What’s fun for me, about the signage I do for Anfora or Kimpton, is having a lot of creative freedom. But I need to fit the brand, so that’s form fitting the function. It usually involves combining lettering and illustration in a fun way. Also, I love good food and drinks! As for the bigger murals, I really enjoy working on a large scale and would love to do more of that.
You have a pretty impressive client list including Disney/ Pixar, Midnight Oil, SciFiNow, Moleskine, Twentieth Century Fox, Birth.Movies.Death and many more. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to artists struggling to get clients?
I think a great piece of advice that I was given was when I was in art school: do the work in your portfolio that you enjoy doing the most, not what you think will get you hired…Because the work you truly enjoy doing will probably be better than something you think you have to force yourself to do for your portfolio.
It took me a while to fully follow that advice, but it wasn’t long after I did some illustrations just for me, just for fun, that I was asked to join the Poster Posse, which then led to me doing pop culture gallery shows, and getting hired for jobs with Twentieth Century Fox and Disney, and being invited to be in the Star Trek show, which probably led to getting into Birth.Movies.Death, and so on.
So it can be hard when you’re struggling to get work because we all have rent to pay, but make time for those personal projects, the passion projects, and put them out into the world.
Another bonus piece of advice, especially for the social media age, is to know that it may feel or look like every other artist you know has it all together and they are crushing it and you’re not…but we all struggle.
Another bonus piece of advice, especially for the social media age, is to know that it may feel or look like every other artist you know has it all together and they are crushing it and you’re not…but we all struggle.
Everyone trying to make a living making art doubts themselves at one time or another, or is late on an assignment, or is having artist’s block on that project, or is waiting for that client payment to come through so they can buy more supplies…we just don’t always share it on social media.
It’s taken me years to build up that client list – and many years ago I would’ve been jealous of it if it were someone else’s, but it’s mine and now I want more….that’s the trick – appreciating what you have, acknowledging what it took to get it, and wanting to improve and accomplish the next goal until the next.
What lies on the horizon for you? Do you have anything exciting coming up that you want to tell us about?
I worked on interior art for a children’s book a few months ago, which I never really expected to do. The book is a partnership with Crayola and it’s called Chalk It Up: Imagine That! And it involves – you guessed it – chalk art, which is why I was hired.
I haven’t seen the final product yet, but I’m pretty excited to get a copy for my little nieces and nephew. It was pretty challenging for me because it was quite a tight deadline, and I wasn’t used to working on such a long term project, where I couldn’t really switch off to do other things, and I started to doubt my work a bit because I had just been looking at it all the time. It was kind of like running a marathon for the first time in years, which was tough.
Now that I’ve had that experience though, I’d love to work on a book project like an adult colouring book – I think that would be a lot of fun – something punky and the opposite of zen.
Chalk It Up: Imagine That! will be on sale via Amazon and bookstores on August 29 and is published through Simon Spotlight, a division of Simon & Schuster.
I also have some pop culture related art that I can’t reveal just yet but will hopefully drop any day now – so keep an eye on my Instagram feed!
Is there anything you’d particularly like to practise more in your work?
I think it’s important to not get too comfortable. So I’d like to try and find some new ways to challenge myself, maybe focus on more interesting compositions or backgrounds in my poster/illustration work. Figures and portraits tend to be easiest for me so I naturally devote more time and space on that. But the only way to improve something is to keep working at it, so I really should be spending more time on backgrounds and composition.
Recently I was working on a more background-heavy Buffy and Willow illustration that I had to put on the back burner for a bit but I’m looking forward to completing. I’d like to experiment with colour, since I can sometimes get a little safe with my colour choices.
I have a really great collection of art books, and sometimes you need to pause and take a look at the masters, or find other inspiration besides illustration, whether it’s fashion, architecture, or nature, and come back refreshed.
The great thing is, there’s always something new to learn in art – I think you’ll only be bored if you’re boring.
Hopefully you enjoyed reading the interview.
That’s it for this #LetsTalkArt episode. Erin has produced some amazing work over the years and we´re glad to chat about the highlights of her career as an artist. For aspiring artists, we hope you found the advice and insight into Erin’s life as an illustrator useful.
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Let’s Talk Art series is written by Jack Woodhams, founder of PosterSpy.