Marcos Chin graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design, in Toronto, Canada. Since then, his work has appeared on book covers, advertisements, fashion catalogues, magazines, and CD covers. He has received a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators Los Angeles, and has had his work published in numerous award annuals such as Communication Arts and American Illustration.
Perhaps the most recognizable work amidst his portfolio are the illustrations he has done for Lavalife’s international advertising campaign; appearing on subways, billboards, print and online.
Marcos has given lectures throughout the US and Canada and currently lives in New York City, where he teaches Fashion Illustration at the School of Visual Arts.
How did you get started in the illustration field?
The way that I got started was through an instructor at the school where I attended (Ontario College of Art and Design, in Toronto) who taught an “Art Director Workshop” during my junior or senior year; his name was James Ireland. James was an art director who owned his own firm, by the same name, and worked with many Canadian trade publications. One of his assignments was to give students a “real” article in one of his magazines to illustrate; the one that was chosen as the most successful would be published. Unfortunately, since I was not registered in his class, I was not allowed to participate; however I saw this as an opportunity to at least show my portfolio to him; to receive a critique from a “real” art director.
Fortunately, everything went well, and James gave me some tips on how I could improve my book. About two weeks afterwards, I got my first call from a designer at his firm to create an illustration about the exploitation of the South American Bean Farmer. That was my first professional illustration job. Following that I continued to work occasionally, mostly for different publications through James Ireland’s firm; however, work didn’t really become steady until about a year and a half after I graduated from art college and signed on with my first rep; who was pivotal in jump-starting my career.
How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
“Style” is one of those buzz words that incessantly fills up classrooms in art school.
I remember being a senior in art college and trying extremely hard to find a style that would get me more work; the thing that I didn’t realize at the time, was that my style would find me.
While I was in school and then shortly after graduation, the work that I created were mostly paintings using acrylics and alkyds on illustration board. However, these images were frustrating to produce at times because the process with which I created them were heavily influenced by my instructors as well as other illustrators who I revered. So the result was that I had a portfolio which was an amalgam of other illustrators’ works – there was not really anything about those images that were mine, aside from the fact that I painted them.
So whenever I received a story or article to illustrate, it was a painstaking process to try to figure out how I would do it. However, a couple of years later, I bought my first Mac (which was also around the time that I began to see many digitally illustrated pictures in magazines) and so I plopped myself down in front of the computer and just started “to draw” using the mouse. It was a very liberating experience because I drew the things that I loved at that time, pictures that were not very concept driven, but mostly “pretty”. None of my instructors at the time did digital work, that I was aware of, and I was essentially free from having to try to be the kind of “painter” or “illustrator” that I thought I had to be in art school.
Stylistically, the kind of work that began to develop from my using the computer was very hyper-stylized and lifestyle/fashion orientated – I did this on purpose because I told myself that I just want to draw pictures that interested me. And moving forward that is how I continue to approach my craft – I try my best to draw in a way that interests me, and to come up with ideas that move me – the moment I become bored or frustrated I focus on my process and just let the work that I am doing figure itself out. It’s a very non-linear way of thinking, but it works for me – putting myself metaphorically into a space that is uncomfortable and then blindly moving through it that helps to evolve my work (and style) on it’s own. Again, I don’t search for a style, the style finds me.
What is your process when working with clients? Can you run us through a typical job?
In the case of editorial work, I would typically get a call from the art director of a magazine, asking me if I would be interested in taking on an assignment. We discuss budgets and timeline, and then if things work out, I start by reading the article of the story that they send to me via email. I read over the article once and take down notes or underline parts of the article that stand-out to me for whatever reason. Afterwards, I reread it, just to make sure that I understood what I read, and do the same thing over again, highlighting any information that might give rise to a strong visual.
Following my second read of the article, I try to summarize in one or two sentences, what the article was about so that the illustration that I create will be able to communicate the idea of the story properly without it being an exact literal interpretation of it (which I find boring). Some art directors want me to give them a visual/literal translation of the story (and it’s in those cases where I often feel micro-managed) however, I would prefer to have free creative reign, or at least dialogue with the art director to communally come up with a stronger image. I do love creative freedom, but a true collaboration with an art director can be equally as gratifying.
I then spend a couple of days (if possible) on brainstorming and thumbnails sketches, after which I go over what I have done, and then select two or three of the strongest ideas to turn into more of a tighter sketch which I send to the client. Once the client has chosen a sketch that works (assuming that there are no revisions after this stage), I then tighten the sketch even more, and move to the final stage in which I oftentimes redraw the sketch using Adobe Illustrator, and then later enhance it in Photoshop.
What is your creation process?
I like to spend at least a couple of days on brainstorming; it’s at this stage that I do a lot of thumbnail drawings. Essentially I begin by trying to churn out as many ideas as possible, I don’t spend too much time on the composition or aesthetics necessarily until I’m content with an idea that works.
Afterwards, I look over all of my thumbnails and then begin to develop that into a drawing that is clear enough to send to the art director so that he or she can visually understand what is in my sketch. Revisions aside, once the art director has chosen a sketch that works, then I tighten it, and then use that tight pencil sketch as a template to redraw it using Adobe Illustrator. Oftentimes, I layer other hand drawn/painted elements on top of my digital drawing to create different effects. I have been experimenting with this more and more recently, moving between Illustrator and Photoshop.
How do you market/promote your work?
I have recently rebuilt my website and actually sent out my first postcard (in years) about two months ago. I find for me, that direct marketing works the best. I use an online database for my mailing list, and I also send out HTML emails with images to encourage potential clients to click onto my website.
However, I still scan over, and edit the names and companies of those individuals on the list before I stick them onto my promos. I don’t believe in the concept of blindly sending out mailers to every person on a database because it’s financially not feasible, nor does it make much sense to randomly send my work to clients who use next to no illustration, or clients whose publications, for instance, don’t use illustrations rendered in my style.
But above that, I think my website is my main tool to get me work – it’s become the Illustrator’s new portfolio. Although I still do get calls for my book, occasionally, it’s my website that really helps to showcase what it is that I do. And because I built it on my own, I can also update it often – which is another thing that I believe that is important to encourage more business and clients to come back to my site. Moreover, I attend many of the Illustrator social events such as The Society of Illustrators events, as well as American Illustration because I believe in the importance of making personal connections with those who I work with.
Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
Yes I do — I have a rep here in the US, Levy Creative Management and another one in London, Dutch Uncle. In my experience, my reps are there to proactively promote my work. This is especially helpful when I don’t have the time to do so. They physically meet with clients and show them my work – again, despite everything that can be done from the inside of an office, for example, emailing, talking on the phone, and sending out promotional materials, it’s still important to be able to make a personal connections with clients.
What was one of your favorite assignments?
Honestly I don’t think that I can name my favourite assignment. I have had a good time doing many – basically a favourite assignment for me would begin with creative freedom — oh and of course a good budget…
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I like the fact that I can draw all day and can make my own hours. I’m not bound by the physical and metaphorical limitations of an office setting. I enjoy my freedom, that I can work as early or as late as I would like to, at home, at the studio or in a coffee shop; I can take time off should I feel like (presuming that I have no pending deadlines to manage), and I have the capacity to translate my work into other creatively related disciplines (such as surface design, or fine art) without necessarily having to relearn a new career. And although I do spend much of my time working, I can or would not see myself doing anything else at this point in my life.
Describe your work setting.
A big desk, a little desk, a bookshelf, a wall and a table full of books and magazines, a lopsided office chair, a hot little red stool, toys, photos, pens, markers, paints, inks, 2 computers, a scanner, a printer and lots of boxes.
Do you have side projects you work on?
Yes, I do. I try to always keep them going alongside my commercial projects; however, I find it extremely difficult because oftentimes i just don’t have the time. I realize that my income is derived from illustration, and so without that, I would not be able to do any personal work.
Recently, I just finished a small series that is personal in nature, although it will be used in an illustration context to help promote myself. Moreover, I have become very interested in participating in fine art residencies and have also taken a few night classes in sculpture, silk screening and painting. I was enrolled in a residency last year for 2 months at the School of Visual Arts, where all I did was paint and draw in only wet and dry media (…no, I didn’t use my computer) and it was wonderful, informative, and extremely liberating. This summer I’ll be at Cooper Union for a month, doing a similar type of residency in painting.
How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?
Well, I no longer work on Sundays, at least not in the same capacity as I used to. Honestly I used to work 7 days per week, and would log-in well over 100 assignments per year. I did this for a few years, not taking any vacations or rarely any holidays, without exaggeration; my mantra was “Sleep when your dead.”
But soon enough I realized that this was no way to live because I was unhappy. I couldn’t enjoy the returns of my own labour, and so I made it a point to slow down. Nowadays like I mentioned, I work about 6 days per week, which is still a lot, but much better than before.
I’ve begun to play the guitar and go for lessons every Saturday, I go to brunch almost every Sunday, and try to stay out of the frenzy of Manhattan on the weekends, I also make it a point to not go into the studio all the time because I’ve mentally reserved that space for work. It’s strange, but it’s so easy to fall into work and just obsess and become lost in it, but I’ve realized over the short number of years that I’ve been working that there is more to life than just work.
I spend about a 45 minutes every morning doing a gadabout, making a small breakfast and boiling water for tea, and during that time, I write a few pages about anything, it’s extremely meditative and helps to ease me into my work day, so that I’m not rushing out of my apartment and into the studio. It’s a conscious decision that I have made to introduce more “play” or “rest” throughout my week.
Of course there will be those moments, when deadlines are pressing and jobs come my way that I just can’t turn away; however, by reminding myself to physically slow down helps me tremendously. Having said that, achieving balance in my life is still a work in progress.
Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
Definitely. I just take a break from what I’m doing at that moment. I’ll go to the gym, get a coffee, leave my studio, open up some books to get inspiration, or just stop (if I can afford the time to) and reinvestigate it with fresh eyes the next day.
What do you do for fun/when you’re not working?
I love to hang out with my partner, Mikee and our dog rita. I also like hanging out with my other friends and going out for food and drinks. Even when I’m at the studio it’s not always work, I share a studio with my best friends Yuko Shimizu and Katie Yamasaki and so oftentimes being there can be like “hanging out”. Strange, I just wrote the words “hanging out” four times.
What has been inspiring you lately?
To be honest, it’s difficult to say as I am inspired by so many different things. I don’t necessarily keep a log of them, nor do I remember the specifics of any of them right now; however having said that, I think that once I’m in the mode of creating something I become inspired so many different things at that moment: it could be by other artists’ works, something that I may have observed on my way to the studio — really anything. That’s why it’s so difficult to pinpoint so much of what inspires me because almost everything does whether i am aware or unaware of it, at the moment I am experiencing it – it has the potential to show itself in my work in some capacity.
Any advice for others who are pursuing creative goals?
I think the most obvious one is to work hard – I say that to students a lot, but I think it applies to everyone at any age.
Moreover, be authentic. This is something that I have been struggling with since I was a student in Art College and probably many years before that. What I mean is to be honest with yourself and what it is that you want to do; the kinds of images that you want to create, the marks that you want to make, because if you are creating something that is not authentically you, if you are bored doing it, then others who view your work can sense that.
I truly believe some of the best work that I have done has been a result of my being in a good mental and emotional state while I worked on them. Typically, if I am excited and engaged in the process of my craft, then others will be as well, when they see the final outcome of it.
Moreover, don’t worry so much about what others think about your work – hush those demons in your head that challenge your process and confidence while you are creating – this industry can be very difficult at times, and very hard to navigate through if you are constantly questioning yourself and your work – instead, just do the work, be prolific; over time your work will improve.
Thank you, Marcos!