Illustrator Interviews: Lisa Congdon

lisa congdon sketchbook ponds
I’m back with another Illustrator Interview today, this time with my Pacific Northwest neighbor Lisa Congdon. We’ve got a lot to cover, so lets’ dive right in! Pun intended. You’ll see.

First off, I know you’ve been interviewed about a gazillion times, so I’m going to skip the question about how you became an illustrator and refer readers to your awesome comprehensive interviews page. One thing I do want to say about your story that has always inspired and motivated me is that you are a self-taught artist and illustrator who discovered this passion and created your art career later in life.

Have you ever felt that your self-taught journey or timing has held you back in any way? Did you ever feel like you missed out on opportunities or had more difficulties compared to artists who went to art school?

Sure, there are most definitely moments when I’m like, “Oh, gosh, I really wish I was faster at X or knew how to draw X better or understood some technical skill better that I might have learned in art school.” But really that’s the only way that I feel I missed out. I have been very diligent in creating opportunities for myself. And honestly, if you talk to the average kid who has just graduated from an illustration program, most of them will tell you that school didn’t necessarily afford them opportunities. Of course, school can afford opportunities — maybe a professor knows an art director (or is one himself!), things like that. But mostly in the world of illustration you make your own opportunities by making a lot of high quality work and putting it into the world. And that’s something anyone can do, regardless of whether they went to school. In fact, there are probably a lot of talented illustrators who did go to school but hate promoting their work, so they struggle.


“Opportunity is only half about talent. It’s half about knowing how to build an audience for your work, which isn’t something you necessarily learn in school.”

Water is a big part of my life and has a huge effect on my mood, and it inspires my art as well.

I’ve been patiently waiting for your new book to come out and I’m super excited that the The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water is available for pre-order! What led you to explore this subject, and do you find that your relationship with water shows up in your other artwork?

One day over lunch, I was having a meeting with my editor at Chronicle, an amazing woman named Bridget Watson Payne, and she said, “Lisa, what is your dream project?” And she actually meant, “If you could make any book right now, what would it be?” My book Whatever You Are, Be a Good One was selling like hotcakes and when that happens your publisher is more likely to want to make another book with you. I had really been wanting to make some sort of non-fiction book about some interesting topic, and I batted around ideas for books on nature and food that had been swimming around in my head. And then as we were talking through my vague ideas, we both looked at each other at the same time and said: “swimming!” We both love the water, and it was this very kismet moment over a taco lunch.

My relationship to swimming is lifelong and very intimate. But I didn’t want the book to be a memoir. I wanted to celebrate the power of swimming. Swimming, like many physical activities, changes lives every day. Water buoys and supports. It exhausts us in the best possible way. Even if you are an uncoordinated person, you might even feel a sense of gracefulness in the water. It’s also a place where people generally relax. And where many people move their bodies to relieve stress. Or push their physical limitations. I am also fascinated by the science of swimming — we are swimming faster as humans than ever before because we know more about how bodies move fastest through the water. It felt like the perfect topic for me to explore.

I’d explored the topic of swimming and swimming pools in my artwork before, but never in a concerted way. Swimming certainly helped me through some very difficult times, including working through some intense creative blocks! And swimming and art-making have similar qualities in that they require an intensive amount of discipline. I talk about that a bit in the book.

Rumi Quote | Lisa Congdon, The Joy of Swimming

Not including time, what do you think are your biggest creative challenges as an artist right now?

I think right now the greatest challenge is keeping my work fresh and interesting. There are so many artists out there making work and posting it on the internet. So much of it is amazing. There is so much talent out there! Our screens have never been so saturated with beautiful art. And therefore, there is so much influence; we are influenced by each other without even knowing it! And so it’s harder and harder to keep your work looking fresh and your perspective as an artist unique. It’s something I pay a lot of attention to and work hard at. How can I do something different? How can I keep pushing my art practice to a new place? I also look for inspiration outside of looking at other people’s art — by looking at design or architecture or history or really old art, things like that. The idea is to stay inspired but keep your perspective fresh and not just reinventing what other artists are already doing.

How do you make sure that you continue to grow as an artist?

I invent challenges for myself all of the time, and that works well for me. This year I am making one painting a week using mostly the color blue. I am also working on an entirely new body of work for a show I’ll be having in NY in the Fall of 2016, and any time you focus on a body of work for a show, you are growing, because the work has to fit together in a certain way, and you have to put a lot of thought into what  you are doing. I also think in my case, I am a working illustrator who constantly begins new projects for clients. And each of those projects is an opportunity to grow and learn. Sometimes I get illustration jobs that are completely inside my comfort zone, which is a great opportunity to make the work really meticulous and as perfect as I can get it (which is a great opportunity to grow). Sometimes I get illustration projects that are completely outside my comfort zone and that is an opportunity to stretch and and practice new things (and get comfortable with the final result not being perfect). Literally every time you sit down to create something you are growing as an artist, unless you draw the same thing every day, which very few people do. I also recommend people take classes — even in an area that is different from what you normally do. I have very little time for classes right now, but in the past they have really helped me to think in new ways about my work and to build new skills. Thinking about yourself as a lifelong learner is a really important part of being an artist.

Now for a couple of business questions. Note to readers: For more advice from Lisa about business, check out her super helpful book Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist and her class on CreativeLive.

When and how did you go about signing with an illustration agent? Is it something you did early on or had you been getting commissions for a while?

For the record, I am no longer working with an agent. I signed with the amazing Lilla Rogers Studio in 2008 and it was very much a dream come true for me at the time. At the time I signed with her, I had very little work under my belt — just a stationery line with Chronicle Books and like one or two other projects with small clients. My portfolio was so small! So I was very, very lucky to get on her roster. Lilla saw something in me and my work that I couldn’t even see. And she and her staff helped to grow me as an artist by giving me assignments and critiquing my work. I am so grateful for that relationship. They took my work to trade shows and introduced me to clients. It was fantastic. But eventually, as a began to grow as an artist, I began to get a lot of work, and, because I had been working hard at promoting my work through my blog and social media, most of it was coming directly to me. I realized after a few years in about 2014 that I didn’t necessarily need an agent anymore to get new work. Of course, I also understood that if I left my agency, it meant also losing my agency’s expertise in negotiating my contracts and handling my billing. But I hired my wife Clay to do that work for me and she’s excelled at it. So it all worked out. And Lilla was very gracious and understanding about me flying her coop. In a way, it made room for another artist starting out to join her flock. Finding an agent is great for so many reasons, but it’s not necessary. It’s also not a guarantee of getting work. I think the best way to get work is to promote your own work.

What is the best advice you have for new illustrators who are looking for work?

Find and develop your voice as an artist. Work hard at that every single day for as much time as you can dedicate to it. And then put your work into the world. Not once a month, not once a week but every single day. Join Instagram. Post there daily. Start a blog. A Tumblr. Pinterest. Make a professional website for yourself and work on putting together a strong, cohesive portfolio of sample work. Any way you can push your work in front of people who might connect with it. Eventually people who hire illustrators will see it. They look for illustrators on the Internet. It can take time, but that’s why it’s important to start now. Eventually, if you are diligent, people will notice. Of course, you can also introduce art directors to your work by submitting samples to them or mailing postcards. These ways are more strategic. I talk about all of the ways to get the attention of people who might hire you in Art, Inc, the book I wrote about making a living as an artist.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on two books: a book I am editing and illustrating about women over 40 who are kicking serious ass, and a book I am illustrating for Crown Random House YA division (I can’t talk about this one yet). I am doing a big illustration job for a sportswear company. I am working on a project for Heather Armstrong (aka Dooce). I am preparing several public talks (I am giving about seven talks between now and June!). I’m doing some work for Creativebug, where I teach online classes. That’s most of the big stuff. And it’s plenty. I’m also working on having fun when I’m not working. My number one goal is to be happy and enjoy my life. I work a lot, so I want to play a lot too.

Thank you so much, Lisa! Be sure to check out the The Joy of Swimming book tour and find out if Lisa will be in your town soon. Read the rest of the Illustrator Interview series here.


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