An Interview with Illustrator Lauren Lowen

I met today's bitch when she started dating, and ultimately married, my friend Keith. Before I met Lauren, all of my friends were smitten with her, telling me how kind, funny and talented she was. And having known her for a few years now, I absolutely agree.

A fun thing about being friends with Lauren is walking into Trader Joe's and seeing her art on their greeting cards. I get so excited every time I'm in there. My favorite thing she's done is a save-the-date for friends of ours who got married last year. Coming in at a close second is the hilarious man bun series she's been posting on Instagram lately. So good! Meet today's bitch, my talented friend, Lauren Lowen!

What do you make and what is the name of your business?

I am an illustrator and make whimsical art for a wide variety of clients and companies. My art has been used for magazines, books, greeting cards, stationery, stickers, and even on kids' luggage! When I’m not in the studio, I’m teaching at Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film.

My business is just under my name, but I am represented by Jennifer Nelson of Jennifer Nelson Artists since the beginning of 2015. My agent promotes my work, manages clients, negotiates contracts, and basically just handles all the “business” things so I can focus on creating art. It’s a partnership that is commonly compared to a marriage. We communicate several times a week and she has been my rock and a really good friend in the process.

When did you first learn about this field of work?

Like most people, I grew up with a vague understanding of what illustration was. You see picture books, caricatures in magazines, political cartoons…that sort of thing. Although I knew about illustration, I didn’t have any interest in it as a kid even though I was artistic. I figured illustrators did mostly children’s books, and the typical “traditional” children’s book illustration style did not appeal to me. As I got older, my artistic interest leaned more towards subjects like apparel and animation.

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, where students don’t pick a major until late into their freshman year. At the time, I thought I was going into animation (apparel design had been ruled out after I attempted to make a skirt the summer before. It was 100% not my thing). All the majors were doing presentations in the spring, so I went to see the film department’s appearance. Before their talk, however, I saw the illustration department’s presentation and was immediately intrigued. It made me realize that illustration could be used for a wide variety of applications, and that really appealed to me because I can get restless and enjoy a wide range of freedom in my work. I felt like I would never get bored with illustration because there seemed to be so many possibilities! Next was the film department’s talk, but it was pointless. I wanted to do illustration!

What was your path that lead you to where you are now?

Immediately after graduation in 2006, I started to market my portfolio and teach Saturday morning kid’s classes in RISD’s continuing education program. Over time my client list grew, and my teaching gig went from handling 8 year olds to instructing undergraduates at RISD, as well as Montserrat College of Art. In 2010, my freelance clients were mostly publishing and editorial, but I was feeling as if my career had plateaued to some degree. Something had to change, so I stared pursuing both grad schools and job positions that would push me in a different direction.

Around this time, I had just been introduced to surface design and art licensing (where companies like Anthropologie and Target use artists’ work on products such as tote bags or stationery). This industry seemed to be a natural fit for my quirky art, but it was a subject that wasn’t covered much in my classes and there was no information about it on the Internet.

At this point, I’m applying to grad programs and sending my portfolio to companies dealing with art for products, anything from clothing to paper goods. That eventually led to my full-time job at C.R. Gibson, a Gift & Stationery company in Nashville.

Now, it’s worth noting that before I got the job, I was offered a partial scholarship to the illustration grad program at The School of Visual Arts in New York City a month prior. As tempting as it was, I knew that if I was going to learn about art licensing, I had to hold out for a “real world” job. Even though it was far less glamorous on paper, the Gibson job taught me so much about both art and business that I never have regretted that choice.

After two years there, I decided to return to freelance in early 2014. I got the invitation to be represented by Jennifer Nelson Artists later that year, right before my wedding!

Why did you decide to start your own business?

My past is sort of in two huge freelance chunks: the one right after I graduated, and ever since 2014 when I left my designer job at C.R. Gibson. Both times there wasn’t really a “reason”, except for that the nature of being an illustrator usually dictates you doing it alone and being your own boss. It’s kinda crazy, but there has never been a “Plan B” or a “back up plan” in case it didn’t work out. It was just this idea in my head that there was no other road. It’s this or nothing, so get to work. In some ways I think that sort of thinking - however blind or naïve it may seem - was incredibly helpful in pushing me forward. I told myself I was going to be an illustrator and have never looked back.

What was the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?

A couple of things come to mind. One instructor of mine once said, “You have to have someone to impress. Whether it’s that art director who didn’t hire you last time, yourself, maybe someone who doesn’t think you can do it…just someone.” That’s always stuck with me. I took it to mean that you sometimes need to find that fire externally because - believe it or not - sometimes passion alone isn’t enough. You get exhausted (or worse, complacent) and it helps to find that goal outside of yourself that helps you move quicker and say “I’ll show YOU”. Of course, I don’t think this way of thinking should be how you work all the time, because that would lead to a whole boat load of stress in it’s own way, but I think once in a while it helps.

The other advice I remember is from my old creative director at C.R. Gibson. We were driving to Atlanta for an industry show, and she mentioned companies wavering to what she called the “Me, too” syndrome. This is when an individual or company introduces something new to the market and it gets really popular, so everyone wants to recreate that success by emulating whatever that idea was. Ya know, “You did that thing that’s getting all the attention? Me, too. I wanna do that, too.” It made me realize that when everyone in your field zigs, maybe you should zag. I’ve seen people become successful because they dared to do something different. It may mean they had to work a little harder to get noticed at first, but eventually the clients came because people loved that their art was refreshing and different. This applies to all creative fields, not just visual art and design.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Probably dealing with the fact that as a freelancer, you don’t really have anyone telling you if you’re doing it right or not (thankfully, I have Jennifer now to bounce ideas off of). Even seasoned artists who have been doing this for years know the frustration of sending submissions out and not hearing any positive or negative feedback. You just feel like you are throwing stuff to the wind and cross your fingers that you’re not wasting your time. To help counter this, I try to be social with my local artist community. We meet for lunch or have drawing nights. I’m also active online with some Facebook groups and the other artists from my agency as well as the art collective I belong to, Happy Happy Art Collective. We share resources and stories, so it provides support outside of studio life.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

Be yourself. Trying to be like someone else will just result in you becoming a second rate version of that person, and no one wants that. Don’t be scared if your stuff is different than the norm. Being different makes you stand out.

Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

I have invested in some portfolio sites and other things like that in the past, only to find that they did not really pay off. Through trial and error, my promotion and marketing techniques have become more streamlined and cost effective. In any business, I would say there is no magic bullet; no golden ticket. There is no “one thing” that will fling open the door to success. Work hard, but also work smart. Review and evaluate what you are doing once in a while. If something isn’t panning out, don’t be afraid to switch gears.

What would you do with 2 more hours a day?

I would love to do all the things that my husband and I talk about but never seem to have the time to do. Visit the lake nearby. Go to a street festival. We both work from home, and sometimes I think it’s too easy for us to stay in after the workday has ended!

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

I didn’t have a car for 5 years so that I could live more comfortably as a freelancer in the beginning of my career. You add in gas, oil changes, tires, rented parking space if needed…it adds up fast! Providence, Rhode Island, is a pedestrian-friendly city, but it can still be a big pain in the butt to be on foot (we do not have a subway like Boston or New York City). If buses were delayed in the winter, it was a long walk to my teaching gig with all my bags of equipment. When I started teaching at Montserrat, it was a six hour commute round trip. Now I live about 30 minutes away from Nashville and people think I’m a saint for driving into the city, but it’s a piece of cake compared to what I use to deal with!

What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) related to what you make?

I just wrapped up my biggest project to date: a book with Klutz! They’re an imprint of Scholastic Press, and it was an amazing project that was so perfect for me to work on.

What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?

Email! I see if Jennifer has written me anything first thing, then I go to Instagram and Facebook (in my defense, my art collective and agency have private groups on Facebook, so I could say it’s for business reasons, ha). Sometimes I will check out what is on Print & Pattern, a blog that covers trends and designers in the surface design industry.

Where do you go when you need inspiration for your work?

When I need inspiration, I prefer to search out inspiring podcasts. The stories of fellow creative people are invigorating and reassure me that the occasional struggle is normal. I like Smart Creative Women (Now called Smart Creative Art), and lately I’ve been checking out Andy J. Miller’s Creative Pep Talk and Creative Mornings’ podcast series.

How do you decompress at the end of the work day?

It’s very simple and boring. Keith and I like to have our dinner and watch TV on the couch. I usually end up on the floor at some point petting our lab mix, Starbuck (named after the character, not the coffee).

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

It can be lonely! Sometimes you are literally alone, like freelancers in their studio. Other times you are the boss somewhere, so you feel alone within that responsibility as the person on top. I can’t say it enough, but try to find some mentors, friends, or peers who know what it’s like to be on your own in business. It can even just be online if needed. They will help you professionally and emotionally get through the jungle of running a business. Many cities, including Nashville, have a free lecture series called Creative Mornings, something that has been a great motivator and social event for me.

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

I’m a Trekkie! I like my Star Trek (Next Gen and DS9, thank you). My favorite snack is probably cheese. I joke that one day I will own a cheese shop just so I can name it Cheese & Thank You. Get it?!?

All photos courtesy of Lauren Lowen

P.S. Meet last week's bitch:  Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Julie Koh!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.


An Interview with Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations Julie Koh