Shawna X Explains What It Takes to Make It as a Visual Artist in 2015

Shawna X lays down tips to make it as an artist in 2015.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Shawna X is no stranger to the grind. The designer/illustrator/visionary, who honed her skills in the free-spirited city of in Portland, Oregon, has shown her eye-popping illustrations all over the nation, from Hawaii to New York, where she flourishes now. Since moving to the Big Apple, she’s become an in-demand artist in her own right. When she’s not on that 9-to-5 kick designing for OkCupid, she’s either stepping up her own projects (case in point: she just finished figuring out how to work with neon lights) or helping clients step up theirs. Over the years, her client list has racked up names like Nike, Crystal Light, Refinery 29, AIGA, ChiDM, Special K, and Goose Island, among others. Most recently, she collaborated with Adobe to make some breathtaking art in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico using only the Adobe Creative Cloud software. The results speak for itself.

The multi-hyphenated talent took time out of her hectic schedule to discuss her collaboration with Adobe, and the hustle it took to finally support herself as a bona fide visual artist.

When did you realize you could make it as an artist?
I don’t think making it is the word, because it’s such a fluid concept. As an artist, I’m always just trying to find new solutions and outlooks in order to improve my work and my craft. It’s basically all about the process, and maybe making it as an artist is that you don’t make it as an artist. The way I see it is that I want to have a life of doing creative work. Just the fact that I’m doing it everyday is what I think making it is.

What inspires your work?
A lot of my work is inspired by impulses, because I think in that moment of impulse, there’s no B.S. It’s very emotionally charged. A lot of times when I’m feeling a certain way or have a certain idea in mind, it comes immediately. In the composition of my work, I like looking at scenes that cover a deep aspect of human psyche versus a very shallow basic instinct of thoughts. The kinds of colors I use—that’s 100% how I feel in regards to that scene.

What do you do when you’re stuck creatively?
I get an idea and I paint it out and sometimes it doesn’t happen. A lot of times I force myself to revisit something old that I’ve done and improve upon it to get out of my rut. A lot of times it also means stepping away and doing something else.

What was your first paid job?
At the University of Oregon where I went to school, I was asked to design websites for certain college departments and student unions. After that, I got a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and Visual Arts, so I did a lot of internships with design. My first real job was working as a designer for this hippie dance company in Portland. I did a lot of flyers, manuals, and graphics.

Was moving to New York a career move or did you just want a change?
I just wanted to move to New York. I actually lived in Chicago for a couple years. You know that thing, Saturn returns, which happens when you’re in your late 20s? I just felt a pull and I moved with the idea of being in a temporary scene, but then things kept falling into place there. That’s when you know should be where you are.

What was that hustle like to get to where you are?
I feel like the creative field is more accepted than ever before and you can actually find something lucrative in it. That’s not something I was taught as a kid. It’s been hard to measure what success is. The constant struggle is to understand that you have to craft that success for yourself. It’s not like I’m in some corporate job where I’m climbing up ladders. For a creative person, your path is not straightforward. It’s all over the place to get to the point where you’re satisfied in your endeavors.

Going into it you’re like, “Why am I doing this?” At first, you’re going into it making ugly things look better. Then you start thinking about how to elevate it, how to make sure you’re not stuck in one rut. Work on different things at once: that’s my biggest takeaway. When I was working a design job at an agency, I was working creatively in other fields. I did shows, I’ve done metalsmithing, I was making cards, I was making flags, and it had nothing to do with my jobs. I just did it because I enjoyed it. The hustle comes from making stuff for myself and realizing f*ck everyone else. F*ck the noise. Keep doing what you’re doing.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to face? Do you deal with competition?
I don’t think competition should be part of that process. Obviously, in this world of constant regurgitation, we see the same style, the same looks everywhere, because we’re bombarded with tons of visual stimulation. When it comes to competition, it’s impossible because there’s so much happening. It took a really long time for me to grasp that, but it came with me understanding myself and what I enjoy, and also knowing that this is the work I want my own voice to come through. Also, I don’t want to be boxed as one thing or another. I’m not just a designer, not just an illustrator. Once you’re in a corner, it’s hard to get out of that.

What are some projects you’re working on now?
I’m trying to do a gallery show with a friend of mine here in New York. Right now, I’m constantly trying to elevate illustrations. I’m kind of sick of prints at this point, so I just made neon lights recently. I even want to make bed sheets, or just something more practical that you can use in your home. I want to make something either wearable or functional. And then I worked on the project with Adobe.

What was it like working on the Adobe Creative Cloud project? How was working in New Mexico and how did that inspire your work?
Working in New Mexico was one of the most magical experiences because it is one of my favorite states, with insane and beautiful diversity of terrains and, I mean, white sands. Enough said. I really loved to be able to work while I was playing and then coming back to it later with everything captured and ready to go.

I think everyone, creative or not, needs that magic place where they can clear their mindset. For me, it helps me revive that tiny part inside me that makes work while fully absorbing all the senses.

How important is it to have your own personal brand?
It’s really important. A brand isn’t just some weird ad term. It’s about the content. It’s not just about how my work looks, it’s who I am as a person, and the work I put out that speaks most to me should speak through that. Artists’ minds are wired differently. They’re constantly thinking. They definitely have one thing or two things that speak to them the most. That should be your brand. It should be what you present to the outside world.

If you’re just following everyone else, which means you don’t have a brand, you don’t have a clear distinction between you and thousands of people out there who are doing the exact same thing, especially in the world of Tumblr. I like to call Tumblr human-centipeding, because it’s tons of mindless reblogging and liking, over and over again. Branding isn’t about logo-ing yourself, necessarily, it’s about positioning yourself and everything else that comes with it.

How do you suggest an artist who’s never gotten paid work go out and make that first deal?
Don’t wait for paid work to pay work. The most important thing is to make something for you. Usually, when you find your voice, people are interested in it. When you position yourself, people are naturally attracted to you.

So you have a 9 to 5 right now?
Digital design is always my 9 to 5, and I actually enjoy it because it’s different from what I draw. I personally need that balance. I can’t wake up and have a blank canvas and do whatever I want. I need structure. It makes me appreciate my free time; I’m able to go crazy and have a lot of fun. That gives me my peace of mind.

Is it a struggle for you to balance deadlines?
I actually enjoy deadlines because I love pressure and I like being uncomfortable. It makes me better. I like being in a place where there’s absolutely no commonality with anything else so I have to figure out how to push myself. I also chose my current position based on its flexibility. When I was in the ad world, it was a lot crazier and it was hard for me to come home and be creative. The key is to have that balance between structured worked and non-structured work. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life, since middle school. [Laughs.]

Being an artist is a very personal and solitary career, how do you manage the critiques from other people, especially clients?
In the beginning, I was constantly scared, especially for client work. From experience, after awhile, I made a group of friends whose visual judgment I trust, especially for my own personal work. I ask for tons of feedback from tons of different people. Client work, I feel like I know what they want and I’m pretty fast at resolving that.

Are there any jobs you won’t take?
It depends on the company. If it’s something I don’t feel like I could learn from, especially in the freelance world, I would probably pass.

The funnest jobs are actually the less edgy companies because they’re more open. The edgier ones, the ones with more of a presence, have more of a lockdown on what they’re looking for and that turns out to be a lot less creative. I’ve learned to just be open to anything that comes to me. At this point, I don’t know if there’s anything I won’t take because it could open up something else. You never know.

Do you prefer to work alone or as a team?
It’s important to do both. Even if you’re working with a team, you need alone time. But when you have that alone time, you need a team to be able to support you and critique you. I need the alone time to hone in on the aesthetics, but I need that teamwork to make it better. In this industry, you have to be able to work with others, otherwise you get lost. We were talking about being a solitary artist—that s the sad part, because you’re caged up in your own ideas and your own world. Collaboration helps you see in a different way.

Do you have an ultimate goal or a dream job?
To do whatever I want. [Laughs.] I want to continuously make work and elevate that through different things, whether it’s a gallery exhibitions, prints, cool bedsheets, T-shirts—anything. I want to be able to have that and have people who want to be part of that. 

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