Interview with freelance artist, illustrator and designer Andrea Armstrong (IDEA 2008, 2018)
Please share with us a bit about your life in rural Indonesia, small-town Manitoba, and metropolitan Singapore.
Little Andrea started life in a jungle village in Indonesia. I was home schooled every morning, played with the village kids every afternoon, and in the evenings fed and put to roost my flock of forty chickens. When I moved to Canada in my early teens, I was introduced to public school, Mennonite farming culture, and the bitter prairie winters. Then in my late teens, I ended up in Singapore – another completely different culture where I experienced city life, public transit, and art classes for the first time.
The uprootedness of my childhood gave me an adaptability and resourcefulness that has served me well as an artist. My experience being an outsider for so much of my childhood has planted in me a deep wonder for the different ways people do life, and an appreciation for authentic diversity. I love being in Vancouver now, where the opportunities to be inspired by diverse stories, faces, lifestyles and perspectives are plenty.
It's been 11 years since you originally graduated from IDEA School of Design. How did you initially get on your feet working in your East Van studio on commissioned illustration, fine art, and graphic design?
I always wanted to be self-employed, so I never put much effort into getting hired into an agency. For the first few years after my diploma, I supplemented my freelance work with temp work, where I formatted legal documents, made fillable forms, and learned a lot about Microsoft Word! In 2010 I moved into a studio that was in the Culture Crawl boundaries, and I participated for the first time that year. That started to give my work a bit more exposure, and I began to get new commissions and sales opportunities.
I continue to split my time between graphic design, illustration, commissioned portraiture and fine art. So on any given day, you may find me typesetting booklets, animating, building a website, painting a portrait, designing a logo, illustrating a children’s book, doing production on print files, creating infographics and slide shows, updating email signatures, or painting portraits. It’s not always balanced, but I love the variety of my projects.
How did you get good at self promotion and networking? How much does social media play a role? Were there any pitfalls and lessons learned along the way that you could share with us?
I am not a pro at formal self promotion. Social media is a great way to share work and tell stories, but I try not to advertise too much on my feed. A lot of my work comes through personal connections and referrals. I’m quite connected to my community around Commercial Drive, and I get a number of portrait commissions and design work from neighbourhood folks and organizations. I’d say my best tool for self-promotion is having a good reputation among my previous and existing clients.
I’ve learned, and continue to re-learn, not to wait until I think my skills are “good enough” to share, pitch, submit, or exhibit my work. I will never be entirely satisfied with anything I create, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a place in the world. It took me so long to start referring to myself as an artist! I think my practice could have grown much sooner if I’d pushed through those blocks of inadequacy earlier in my career.
Your exhibits seem to have ramped up starting around 2014 with regular art shows at: Britannia Art Gallery, CityScape Community Art Space, Federation of Canadian Artists, Gibsons Public Art Gallery, Langley Centennial Museum, Moat Gallery (VPL Central Branch), Performance Works, Seymour Gallery, St John of Shanghai Orthodox Church, Studio 126, The Beaumont Studios and VanDusen Botanical Garden. How did you build that up self-representing yourself?
Many of these shows have been with my art collective (Open Book Art Collective). We create art that engages with literary work, and work towards an exhibition every year or so. Our shows have been pop-up collaborations with Writers Fest, house shows, or hosted by libraries or churches. We are a scrappy bunch of women who work hard to make our own opportunities to share our work. Our latest show was up for three months in an art museum, which felt pretty rewarding after years of hanging our own art shows!
Your bio says you “eat, sleep, and paint in East Vancouver”, spend your days (and often late nights) in your cozy studio, and that “there’s a story in every face”. Your paintings tend to be character-driven and you are most satisfied when working with oils. Please share a bit more about your inspiration and process.
Inspiration is kind of a mystery. It seems to come during the physical process of creating, which is why practice is important to me. If I start drawing, ideas emerge and develop.
Why do I love painting/drawing faces? I just really do! I am interested in celebrating the diversity of faces and stories around me. Much of my work also gives form to my own inner experience, which may be why so many of my portraits appear grumpy, mischievous, hesitant, and/or childlike.
How is work going right now?
Work is varied, as always. I’m wrapping up a small animation project at the moment, doing some typesetting in various languages, and working on picture book submission. My favourite project this year has been a large 8 foot wide commissioned painting, that was hung in the lounge room of community social housing apartment building. It’s got 40+ faces on it, and I got to invent them all. I tried to imagine all the types of people who would feel welcome to live there.
What are some of the more memorable highlights from your time at IDEA School of Design?
I remember a lot of late nights, brainstorming, drawing, building mock-ups, editing, class critiques. I remember being incredibly broke one semester, and feeling perpetually hungry! I loved our grad trip to New York where I gorged on so much visual art and design. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of my classmates. My best friend (also from IDEA) and I joke that our friendship is a teenager now – that’s how long we’ve known each other ;)
Outside of painting, do you have any side projects?
Because of the variety of work I do, all my projects kind of feel like side projects! Recently, I illustrated Arm Tale, a children’s book that was published by an independent publisher earlier this year.
One of my clients is a non-profit that supports refugees, and I’ve had the opportunity to do some meaningful work with them. I designed and illustrated a guide book to help refugee claimants prepare for their refugee hearing. That has now been translated into ten languages and adapted to six cities across Canada. I also created a heartwarming animation that they use to promote a yearly fundraising event.
What has IDEA School of Design taught you that could be helpful to students thinking about applying?
IDEA taught how to present my work professionally and consistently. Having a well-developed design sensibility is invaluable to me even in my illustration and fine art work.
What advice would you give to former students considering returning for 4th year?
The Capstone Project and portfolio development were the focus of the 4th year. Having been out of school for nearly a decade, both were great opportunities to take stock of where my work was at, and move into new directions I wanted to follow.
I did 4th year as a returning alumnus. I decided to challenge the practicum course since I had enough previous work experience, although if I could have found a practicum placement that gave me new connections or new experience that I wanted, I'd have gone for it. As an illustrator, with a particular interest in the publishing industry, it was difficult to find a good fit for me. My advice for illustrators who are not interested in working for film or gaming is to be creative and look for your own opportunities. Contact the people and places that excite you and ask for what you want.
If you are a returning student with industry experience and are considering challenging the course: I think the practicum can still offer you really good connections, experience, and job opportunities, if it is the kind of place/industry you want to make connections, find experience and opportunities.
What career advice would you give to aspiring freelance illustrators?
Make a lot of work. Share it. Submit it. Repeat. Create your own opportunities when they don’t seem readily available.
See also: DSGN 460 Professional Development III