Why do you do the things you do?

Emily McDowell

If I had to say one thing, it’s that it’s an interesting curve – this little spot that I carved out of the internet called Pikaland.

Six years ago I was a magazine editor running around, organizing, writing, commissioning, reviewing, interviewing, and reading – all in the name of architecture and design. When I was 12 me and my friends talked about how our careers would look like when we were all grown up. I wanted to be a magazine editor, and travel the world. I did the first, though not so much the second. Yet. So it was check and done, and I moved on.

I read voraciously. If you could imagine a hungry person shoving food into their mouths like their life depended on it, then words were my nourishment. I became enthralled with illustrations. I still kept the beautiful picture books from when I was young, silverfish be damned. When I walked into a bookstore and felt my whole skin tingle from the top of my head to my very toes. And the need to pee badly. That would have meant I was in the vicinity of books. Hundreds of them.

I was curious. I was hungry. I had this massive itch that could only be quelled through research into this wonderful new world of illustration that I had found. So I started a blog to share what I uncovered. This blog.

Back then, I started posting about illustrators who had online shops that I could peruse – the ones I’d discover on Etsy, or on other blogs and the ones that I came across in magazines and books. I was engrossed in how they turned their craft into something that was also functional. Prints, totes, books, stationery – they swept me off my feet. It was not only just about illustrations, but about the entrepreneurial spirit of artists. The blog became my little scrapbook – snippets of illustrators along with words I’d put together to verbalize what I absorbed.

It was also a way of educating myself. I wanted to understand the field – how things were done, how an image was made, a story was told. I found it magical that people could make a living at doing something that they loved. I sharpened my senses and learned on the fly, digging deep and challenged myself by asking questions that I was only happy to prod. The questions always started with a “why”, more than the “how”, which is why you’ll find that I hardly dive into the technicalities behind illustrations. It was never about trying to recreate the work of any artist, rather it was the need for me to get into their heads, to find out why they did what they did. For me it was always the story – its essence and the message that flows from the artist, to me, the viewer.

The first few years of starting this blog saw me writing almost everyday about the illustrators I’ve discovered. In turn I got some fans. I started to take on illustration commissions, and after a couple of years, I stopped. I wrote some more. By the fourth year, my writings had veered towards finding patterns from one illustrator to another. I knew how to read into the intent of an artist. My search into meaning continues and I subconsciously look for ways to be surprised, taken in, amused. And when I arrive at that magical point in time where I go “A-ha!” – it’s like uncovering a secret treasure, something private that’s only shared between me and them. I love the feeling.

And with the fifth and now sixth year, more changes crept in. Writing about new illustrators I’d found didn’t seem necessary any more (although I still did my research) since the invention of Pinterest and Tumblr, where new works from artists could be repinned, forwarded and linked with an ease that was never available before. My work as an adjunct teacher at a local college of design (where I teach about creativity and the illustration process since 2012) has also spurred my confidence that I could make a difference, no matter how small it may be. I’ve found the intersection of my passions, and a renewed sense of purpose along with it.

It was never about trying to recreate the work of any artist, rather it was the need for me to get into their heads, to find out why they did what they did. 

So now, instead of breadth, I am going for depth. All those years of looking, watching, and researching has helped shaped my worldview of the current situation of illustration, where I’ve gathered great feedback from all of you (thank you readers!) and it’s also where I’ve subconsciously noticed a pattern and an evergreen process on how to manage one’s creative business through my own experiences as a freelancer while running Pikaland.

Steve Jobs’ quote from his commencement address in 2005 said it best – “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” So here I am. I’ve connected my dots, all of which has lead me to this very moment. I look forward to making a difference and laying down more dots in time and I hope you’ll join me.


Why do you do what you do? Look back at your own history and try to connect the dots – what can you see? Write down your revelations in the comments below – I’d love to hear your story!

[Image: Emily McDowell’s Louisa May Alcott “Little Women” Not Afraid of Storms Quote, Hand-Lettered Print, via Etsy]

14 Replies to “Why do you do the things you do?”

  1. Andria says:

    Thank you for sharing your fascinating journey. Like you, I worked a while in what I thought was my dream job (public Ed English teacher) and found it to be far from filling, and more draining than anything else. But when I was little, I was the girl who everyone commissioned to draw: mermaids, sharks, unicorns, you name it, I’d draw it. Art has always been a life force for me. Now in my mid thirties, and homeschooling two wee gents, I discovered the hypocrisy of telling my children to follow their bliss if I am not doing so myself. I plunged into art after nearly twenty years of suppressing it, and am now on the brink of opening shoppe on Etsy, selling watercolor and ink illustrations and digital designs. I stalk great illustrators like a perv, studying their craft, mediums, audience, and market niches, gleaning what I can as I educate myself about the artist world. I’m so glad that in my hunting I’ve stumbled onto your blog while on my journey, you ask strong questions, pose issues for reflection, and overall challenge us to apply our answers to our own understanding of who we are. Thank you!

    1. amy says:

      For what it’s worth Andria, I stalk illustrators like a perv as well, HAHA! 😉
      Thank you so much for sharing your story – and I’d very much like it if you could keep me posted on your journey! x

    2. Suzanne says:

      Stalk like a perv!!!! CLASSIC! *me too*

  2. Ted Ramsey says:

    Thank you for sharing.
    I am an Art teacher, 21 years now. I attempted illustration and fine arts for nearly 20 years. I was not successful in either. The influences of my earliest years gave me great potential as either, but also paralyzed my ability to cope and move forward in functioning with the realities and responsibilities of maturity. As a big kid I am a natural for being able to empathize with the young and have been very successful as a coach, mentor, and instructor in Art and Life. I am now getting set to try again at being a mature artist for me.
    I have been following you for a few years now. A former student of mine, now at at the Museum School of Boston, found you and recommended you. I have been impressed and inspired by your continuing journey and look forward to watching it continue. Wish me the best on my journey beginning anew.

    1. amy says:

      Hi Ted!
      Thank you so much for sharing your story, and can I just say that your portfolio is amazing? You have such a range of skills, and the details on them – just wow. An artist grows with time and experience, and all that you’ve gone through will no doubt be a part of your skill set. I look forward to hear more about your journey, and the best of luck to you!

      p/s: I still pinch myself when I hear that people have been following me for a few years, but it’s always nice to know – I’m a very lucky girl!

  3. aijung says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy. You make great points about the value of trying out different things, following different lines of thoughts and desires, and taking hold of what you learn is most important to you.

    Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved art and writing, and very often the combination of both. I studied Fine Arts Printmaking at Pratt Institute, and since I graduated I’ve worked as a letterpress printer, bookbinder’s assistant, and various retail and food service jobs. I’ve never had a “career” job that made me a decent amount of money to live on. At the moment, I teach art at art centers and libraries, occasionally take on illustration commissions, sell handprinted artwork at craft shows and in my etsy shop, and also work in retail part-time. Recently I’ve become unhappy with the fact that with all I do to earn a living, it is still a scramble and overwhelming to keep up with. At times I have considered chucking it all to just do art as a hobby, and find myself a real “career.” But the truth is that I haven’t yet thrown myself headfirst at my life-long dream: to illustrate children’s books (as well as other kinds of books!) I want to reach others through inspiring stories and art! I went to my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regional conference last year, took a children’s illustration class online in March, and I’m getting ready to put some serious work into my children’s book portfolio and attend a big conference in New York City next February. I decided that I can’t give up on my dream until I’ve given it all I’ve got! It’s scary for me, but I know that all I’ve done has helped prepare me to be a professional illustrator and storyteller, and I think I’ve grown a lot as an artist in the last few years. While I enjoy the artistic avenues I’ve treaded thus far, it feels good to focus in on what is most important to me and hold that above the rest.

    1. amy says:

      Aijung, I can’t wait to see your progress into the next stage of your journey – I’ve been keeping tabs on most of the illustrators and readers who frequent this little blog, and you my dear, are an inspiration. I’m so thrilled that you’re going to keep at it, because you’ve got a lot of heart, and I hope the rest of the world will get to see what I know you can do. Big hugs!

      1. aijung says:

        Aw, thanks Amy! that means a lot to me. You are an inspiration too! I’m trying to take away a bit of your no-self-pity, driven attitude into my own life. i feel really happy about my decision to jump into children’s books, because it felt so daunting for a long time. now i don’t even care! i’m just going to try and see what happens. i’m determined now!

        really enjoying these Q + A posts. it’s great to see how different artists handle things.

  4. Danielle says:

    This is a really thought provoking piece Amy. The simple answer for me is because it’s part of who I am. I simply HAVE to create.

    After completing my Graphic Design degree I found it impossible to get that ‘foot in the door’ of such a competitive industry. Somehow I just could not give up trying, because something in me just knew this was what I was meant to be doing. The biggest motivator wasmy determination to make a living doing what I love. I did not want to just turn up to a job for the money. Having said that, that’s exactly what I did for 10 years before finally getting my big break!

    Over those 10 years I worked in the industries that related to my love of kids design – always seeing my work as a form of background research into what would one day become my full time gig – I packed boxes in the warehouses of kids clothing companies and kept a sharp eye on how they operated their businesses. I nannied for families and studied what motivated and inspired kids – what they wore, how they played, what they read…..etc. I studied teaching and spent time in classrooms….I studied computer graphics at night to keep up my skills….

    After so many years I had to take a reality check and realised that if I did not give it a really hard go to break into the industry then I would just be dreaming and researching for the rest of my life.

    I decided that if no one was going to employ me then I would just have to set up myself. So I took a small business course and hit the market scene (back before it was the thriving industry that it is these days!). After several years of working directly with my customers and learning how to market, sell and respond to their needs I was still struggling to make a living from it.

    Then one day I decided to scan the job market again and spotted a great job for a product designer. To this day I still don’t know why they gave me that chance, but I got the job and it was the start of a fabulous career in designing kids products – in several industries including toys, apparel, furniture, bedding and manchester. I still feel like all those years of trying to get my big break really did contribute to my success in industry.

    I never gave up because I still feel like I didn’t have a choice about it. Being creative is such a fundamental part of who I am, that I would do it without the money – infact, these days I do! I am now lucky enough to be a stay home Mum to two gorgeous girls and I am always finding ways to be creative for them at home. I love decorating their rooms, their clothes, reading them books, making play stuff…..

    But after all those years of hard work I also understand the need for me to hang onto my contacts and too keep that door into industry open, so I do still work from home as a children’s book illustrator. Why? If I was truely honest I guess it’s an ego thing. As much as Iove being creative around the home there really is a certain satisfaction to knowing that someone thinks enough of what you do to pay you for it. As a book illustrator I would also have to admit that I get a buzz out of seeing my name on books when I am out in the shops. It reminds me that ‘I DID IT’!

    Wow – so much for a simple answer!

    1. amy says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story! I always believe in chance and how everything is linked to each other so we must always be on our toes – you’ve proven that you certainly were, hence your success! 🙂

  5. Danielle says:

    …sorry I am still thinking about this topic. I realised that I forgot one key word – PASSION. I think it’s passion that drives you to keep doing what you are doing no matter what. It’s passion that motivates me to create whether I get paid for it or not…..OK, I will shut up now!

  6. Dana says:

    I read somewhere that you can pinpoint a direction for your life (as an adult) by thinking about your favorite childhood memory. It sounds goofy, but … I remember spending time alone in my playroom as a very young child, listening to music on my record player (!), and drawing very detailed pictures of whatever was in my head. I had a supernatural fantasy world in my mind as a child.
    In exactly the same way, I still enjoy putting my thoughts on paper in paintings, drawings, and collages while listening to music. It’s always going to be my favorite thing to do. I really don’t need much else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *