I might be exaggerating a little, but for a lot of people that works digitally, that’s exactly what happened when Kyle Webster’s brushes were made available for free for Adobe Creative Cloud users (the membership itself isn’t free though!) His brushes are loved the world over by artists and illustrators around the world like Christoph Niemann, Sophie Diao, Mark Conlan and Samantha Kallis.
What if the tools that these artists use were now in your hands? What would you do with them? What would you hope you could create with it?
Would you try your hardest to emulate the artists who’ve chosen certain brushes as their favourite? Or would you think of using their works as inspiration for your own practice, studying their strokes to see if you could recreate them? Or would you set out to just have fun with them to see where it takes you?
It’s all good, really.
While having special brushes in Photoshop does a lot to help elevate one’s digital work (or at least make things easier), I realised that traditionally, we’ve been using the tools that have been in existence for a long time as well. Tools that were used by Picasso, Monet, Mondrian: the humble pencil or charcoal. A paintbrush, and a variety of mediums that are in existence until today – oil paints, gouache, watercolour, pastel. Artists who play with sculptures, collages and paper, among the many, many different ways of expression, whether it’s in 2D or 3D.
It might be helpful to remember that the tool(s) that you have in your hand, whether it’s traditional, or digital; is merely an extension yourself. A complex culmination of things that no one else has: your history, personality, hopes, fears, ideas and concepts; along with your emotions, thoughts and passions.
And while we may be wielding the same tool, we’re all very different, and that is what makes art-making so beautiful.
Image: Menina IV: Paintbrush Portraits by Rebecca Szeto – based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) (source)
They exist as personal metaphors for me; and as well, gardening is a hobby of mine, after studying and dealing with a fair bit of them during my university days as a landscape architect. Suffice to say, when it comes to plants, I do have a soft spot for them.
So when Katie Vaz sent me an email to let me know about the release of her new book, My Life in Plants, I was curious. I wanted to learn more about Katie’s process and journey, and requested an email interview, to which she’s obliged! Read on to find out more about Katie and how a personal project that she started in 2017, came full circle and became her fourth book.
Hi Katie! Could you tell us a bit more about your background, and how you got into illustration?
I’ve loved drawing for fun since I was a little kid. I decided to study graphic design in college because it seemed like a decent field to get into where I could still be creative. I got a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.
I was planning on moving to New York City to get a job afterward, but my dad passed away a month before I graduated and it threw all of my plans out the window. My world had flipped upside down and I no longer felt grounded with any sort of plan. I decided to apply to a graduate design school in Germany and the reason for that big change was a combination of wanting to: escape my current reality, make up for never studying abroad during undergrad, and partly follow a boyfriend who was moving to France for school at the time.
My dad had always instilled in me the idea to prioritize traveling and to see new parts of the world whenever possible. It just felt like the right thing to do at that time. I spent two years in Germany and it was an incredible experience. Not only was I able to travel around Europe easily and cheaply, I was also exposed to so many different cultures and experiences while immersed in my international design program. It was there that I learned more about illustration and hand-lettering from a fellow student and fell in love with it.
After graduating, I moved back home to live with my family in the states again. I was in my mid-twenties at that point and smack dab in the middle of the “quarter-life crisis” and had no idea what I was supposed to do next. The original plan was to move to someplace like New York City to get a design job because all throughout design school it was sort of drilled into you that you could only be successful if you lived and worked in big cities like that. In my heart, it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I stayed at home with my family for a little bit to figure out something else closer to home.
I opened an Etsy shop a couple of months later as a way to practice illustration and hand-lettering for fun on greeting cards. They started selling pretty quickly and I realized I really enjoyed that kind of work. That led to getting some freelance illustration projects from art directors who had seen my work on Etsy.
Each project was like a stepping stone to getting another project. I kept thinking that when that was over, I’d have to go find a traditional design job, but it just kept going. I did pick up some random freelance graphic design work on the side which helped provide some stability (and I still do some of that on the side to this day for the same reason), but I’ve never loved it as much as I love illustration work. One of my freelance illustration projects eventually led to a literary agent seeing that work randomly at a gift shop in New York City. She reached out to see if I had any interest in creating books and of course I did, though I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to do any until much, much later. We’ve been working together ever since and my fourth book was just published this September.
The first book that she helped me pitch was an adult coloring book called Don’t Worry, Eat Cake that came out in 2016 and it was inspired by my experience of going through a quarter-life crisis and feeling lost, like I was getting left behind while everyone else around me was moving forward and knew exactly what they were supposed to do in life.
My second book is called Make Yourself Cozy, which is an illustrated guide to practicing self-care, which was inspired by a winter trip to Norway where I experienced hygge firsthand as well as my experience of living with anxiety and how I’ve used self-care to manage it.
My third book is called The Escape Manual for Introverts, and it’s a humorous, illustrated book about how to get out of social situations as an introvert. I feel like I’m a classic, textbook introvert, so it was quite easy to pull from real-life experience on that one! My fourth book that just came out is called My Life in Plants, which is an illustrated memoir that tells the story of my life through 39 plants and flowers that have been an audience to the various chapters of my life.
Today, I work primarily as an illustrator and author. Creating books is the thing I love the most, but I do enjoy taking on commissioned illustration work and continuing to run my Etsy shop where I still sell illustrated and hand-lettered paper goods.
You mentioned that this book had its roots in another personal project that you started in 2017. Could you tell us a bit more about that and where the idea of writing a memoir came from? What was the reason you decided to embark on the project?
Back in 2017, I was working on this fun little personal project called “Plants I’ve Killed,” where I documented all the green things I couldn’t keep alive. It was just for fun and meant to be a way for me to practice illustration and entertain myself (because I thought it was really funny how easily plants died while on my watch). Around that same time, I was starting to illustrate people for fun, and did a few sweet, but more serious, illustrations that looked like there were stories behind them.
My literary agent and I were talking about new book ideas around that time, and after seeing those she encouraged me to consider creating a more personal book with writing in it to accompany my illustrations, maybe even a memoir. I brainstormed a bunch of possible themes, but kept circling back to plants. I kept thinking about how so many of them were an “audience” to particular experiences in my life—some were plants I killed accidentally myself, while other plant memories involved things from my family’s garden or just simply the nature I noticed around me.
They were all a mix of experiences, some heavy and serious like the plants from my dad’s funeral, or the fern that died while I was depressed after my cat, Spanky, died. Then there were also things that were much lighter and funnier, like the succulent I bought that looked like a plump butt, or the Venus flytrap my sister and I fed flies to when we were kids. Plants remind me of home and where I come from—they’re also intertwined with my best and worst memories. They’ve just simply been in every sort of significant or memorable moment in my life. It really felt like a natural theme to talk about, and with the encouragement of my literary agent, the idea to create a memoir around the various plants in my life was born.
I embarked on the journey of creating a memoir to share my experience in the hopes that someone else might relate to and find comfort in my stories. I’ve always had this feeling of not being “normal,” like there is a memo that everyone else has gotten about how to do something in life, and I just always somehow miss it. I also often have felt like I’m not experiencing or feeling things the way I’m “supposed to,” like every experience is somehow not as good as someone else’s. But getting older, learning how to be more forgiving and patient with myself, and going to therapy, all of those things have taught me that this is a pretty normal thing to feel in the end and I’m not at all alone in it. This has made me want to be more open and honest about what I’m feeling because I know there are others out there who are still struggling with that.
I know that I would have liked to hear more honest and transparent experiences about life when I was younger. Growing as an illustrator, I’ve noticed how the themes in my work have become more and more personal—I love drawing things that show what my human experience is like. To have the opportunity to create something that is put out into the world for others, I thought it would be important to use that chance to create something that might normalize that “not feeling normal” sensation. By talking so openly about my experiences with growing up, dealing with death and grief, and forging my own path in life, I wanted to show that it’s okay to do things your own way.
You wrote the book, and also illustrated it. Did you encounter any challenges in merging the two in your book?
I really enjoyed getting to write and illustrate the book myself, but there was one issue I encountered. Because I love illustrating scenes and details, and also because it’s about my own life, I often tried to squeeze too much into some of the artwork and got stuck on illustrating a room or landscape exactly how it was from memory. I had to pull back and leave in only the details that were important to the story. I also had to make sure that the featured plant didn’t get lost in the “clutter” since that really was the star of the show! I think I got attached to certain bits of the artwork, so it was hard to let some of it go, but I know it was for the best because I’m extremely happy with how the final product turned out.
How long did you take to come out with the entire book? How and what has the process been like for you?
In total, it took right around 2 years to create the book. I spent about a year and a half on the manuscript alone and that was even before it was pitched to a publisher. My agent helped tremendously with the editing process, so there were a lot of back and forth reviews of my drafts between us over that time period. I started with making a list of all the memorable plants I could think of that I would want to write about. Then, I fleshed out some memories attached to each one and wrote about the details of it and if there were any significant life moments surrounding it. I didn’t set out to write about any particular themes in the beginning (other than plants), but the themes of nostalgia, family, learning to be present, and dealing with death and grief, they started appearing naturally once I wrote more about each plant.
The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through. My dad passed away in 2009, and though you never truly get over things like that, I thought I had processed it well by now. It turns out that I hadn’t! My cat, Spanky, got sick and passed away in 2016, and that was a particularly difficult time for me, too.
In order to survive and get on with life, I guess I had buried a lot of emotions surrounding those incidents. Though it was painful to relive those memories, it was incredibly therapeutic to write about them. It was a big purge of emotions and in the end, it felt kind of like going to therapy! Some of the things that used to haunt me just aren’t there anymore. I certainly didn’t have to include those experiences in my book, but because they are such pivotal moments in my life, it felt important to walk the reader through them. It was also helpful to revisit some past experiences where I felt like I made mistakes in how I handled those situations, like my botched engagement to the person who is now my husband. I think I discovered a lot of patience and forgiveness for my past self once I could look back on what happened from a distance.
So, back to the timeline, about a year and a half after I started writing, we were ready to pitch it. My agent submitted the finished manuscript along with 4 sample spreads of artwork I had created. My publisher (Andrews McMeel) that I worked with on my previous three books liked it and decided to publish this one as well. They’ve been so good to me and it’s really been a dream to get to work with them on multiple books.
I signed the contract in late summer of 2019, and then the final artwork was due mid-October that same year. That was an extremely fast timeline for completing the illustrations—normally you might have 6-9 months for something like that, but we all wanted it to be released the following summer to feel relevant with the gardening season.
Once you submit the final artwork, from what I have seen at least, it takes about 7-10 months before the book will hit stores. So, if I wasn’t able to meet that deadline, we would have had to wait until sometime in the spring or summer of 2021. I made the deadline, but it was rough! Even though it was stressful at times, I really do love the process of creating books and I know myself and how I work best under pressure.
The thought of getting to see my work printed in a book someday was definitely fuel to push through those many early mornings and late nights. Each time I have finished a book project, I feel such huge relief that it’s completed, but there’s also this small feeling of wistfulness. After working so intensely on a project I loved, it’s a little disorienting once it’s over. As a creative person, I’m often overwhelmed and paralyzed by all of the ideas of things I’d like to do. Having a book project to work on sort of eases that anxiety in a way because there’s a specific list of tasks and a clear deadline over a somewhat long period of time.
How has the publishing of the book affected your business so far? Did you gain more clients and interest in your work?
Each book I’ve done definitely leads to more growth and interest in my work. Some of this starts a couple of months before the book comes out, when I start to promote the book online. My publisher landed a pretty cool pre-order collaboration with Bloomscape this summer—the incentive for readers was to pre-order the book and then get an exclusive discount off a plant from their online shop. It was really helpful in getting the book in front of a new audience because Bloomscape promoted my book to their followers and email subscribers.
I’ve also been a guest on a few podcasts this fall and that’s been another great way to expand my audience. Marketing the book to bloggers, reporters, influencers, and podcasts is really useful in networking and developing relationships with various media contacts. If you can connect authentically with some of those people, they’re often happy to help promote future projects as well. I haven’t gained any new clients yet from this book, but I’ve definitely seen a noticeable increase in interest in my work. That’s always a good thing because when it comes time to market another book in the future, there’s a bigger audience already waiting.
Thanks so much Katie! You can get a copy of My Life with Plants here (via Amazon).
Note: The links to the books you find here will lead you to Amazon. I earn a very small fee if you do decide to purchase any books through these links. Being an affiliate of their program does not affect my choice of books nor the reviews I post.
You know how when you start drawing on a sheet of paper and you’re happy that everything is going well? You’re in the flow of things – swish, stroke, draw, paint. This is the best thing ever!
But then, oh crap. A slip up. No biggie. Let’s deal with that.
Swish, stroke, draw, paint. Hmmmm.
You erase, move on. Re-do. Undo. Paint over. Undo again.
Undo. Undo. Undo. Argh.
There’s a nagging thought at the back of your mind. This isn’t turning out so well. But it’s half done!It’s almost there! I can almost see it, I just can’t feel it… yet.
So you continue to throw more at it. Layers and layers of lines, paint, and paper. Until you don’t know how you got here. Everything looks like a hot mess. Crap.
Since it took you this long to flesh out the whole thing you decide to keep at it. More. Undo. More. Undo.
At this point you start to sweat. You’ve done something alright, but you’re not happy. It doesn’t feel right. Or for that split second when you rationalise with yourself that hey, that’spretty decent. Not great, but just okay.Nothing wrong with it being just okay, right? Right? Plus, look at all this time you’ve put into it! 3 hours! 10! What about the time you lost sleep over it? Surely it means you’re onto something worthwhile? No? What? No?
Listen, you’re not getting that time back. What you can do is to not sink more time and energy into something that you know deep down won’t work.
We can’t turn back time, but we can learn from it. Take your finger off the CTRL-Z button. No more undos.
Take a deep breath.
You know what you have to do.
You’ve got to start over.
It’s hard. Look, I totally get it.
But shittier things have happened. Natural disasters wiping away cities down to nothing. Earthquakes that swallow up whole postcodes. Families get torn apart. People divorce. But people rebuild. That’s what they do. They start from scratch again. Things will and can collapse, but we have a choice to rebuild. It’s not a question of do or don’t. It’s a question of when. When you fall down, you dust yourself off, and get back up.
Sure, you’ll mourn what could have been. You’ll stumble along the way. That piece of paper could have turned out great. Your time, effort and energy didn’t have to be wasted.
The same could be said of every disaster, hardship or challenge faced by people everyday. That accident could have been avoided. They looked so happy. No one predicted that the storm would be that devastating.
Today, it’s between you and that sheet of paper.
Starting again is scary. But so is holding on to something that you know can be so much better.
It’s natural to worry about the what if’s when you put aside that mangled piece of paper. It’s the fear that your work will never be the same again. Or that you couldn’t possibly recreate it again. It may not be a bad thing though. Let’s face it – your new work could go bad. Really bad. Or, it may very well be amazing. You could even outdo yourself. You could discover a completely new side to your work. Serendipity could pay dividends – but only if you’re willing to take the chance to walk through that door.
The point is, you’ll never know what will happen until you start fresh, without all the baggage that came with the old.
When we put so much expectation onto that one sheet of paper, it’s hard to move beyond the sunk costs. Darn it, I invested time and effort into this piece – it should pay off!I should be able to finish what I started on this sheet itself! It should look great!
But life doesn’t always work that way does it?
I’ve recently learned the hard way how true this is. The act of holding on to something that you’ve poured your heart, sweat and tears into, one that no longer fits – is painful. Learning to let go, to set it free and to try again takes a lot more courage than we dare to admit. But that’s what we have to do, even if it feels like conquering Mount Everest. Even if it’s letting go of a piece of paper.
So do yourself a favour – take one small step today.
Time to take out a fresh sheet of paper.
White. Empty. Fresh. New. The possibilities are endless.
Ready? Go on, make your mark.
And again. And again.
Pretty soon, you’ll realise that starting over gets a little easier everyday.
As I write about starting over, I’m hitting the reset button myself. I’m launching a new online class in September (based on the feedback you lovely readers have generously shared with me!) More details will be afoot in a couple of weeks, so watch this space!
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