Achieving Dreams: How I Became an Illustrator

When I look back on my art career, I see a long, hard road that took me through many ups and downs. From the outside, it looks like a dream – but I had many nightmarish years.

I started out as an artist when I was four years old. I would host art gallery openings in my tiny room – with my art taped haphazardly to my walls. I charged my parents an admission fee of 25 cents, which they always paid.

I was in third grade when I decided that my true calling was in writing and storytelling. I started writing stories and making picture books (which I still have).

When I was 13 it was my dream to be an artist at Disney. Every Saturday morning I would sit for hours and watch Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, rewatching them over and over again until the VHS tape wore out. I dreamed about one day being one of the artists that painted the backgrounds for animated movies. Those two movies are still my favourites today and bring up a lot of emotions when I watch them. Those movies sparked something in me. It made me feeling something like I’d never felt before – they allowed me to dream big.

It was in high school that I started to feel the doubt creep in. I don’t know what I was thinking, but for some reason, I decided to drop art class and take Spanish. And trust me when I say that I HATE languages. But somehow my art teacher found out about my plans and demanded that I go to the school counsellor and drop the Spanish for art. So, of course, I followed her advice – thankfully.

Mrs. Doran – if you’re reading this – thank you so much! You are amazing and your belief in my talents will always be one of the most important things that have ever happened to me. Who knows where I would be now if it wasn’t for your guidance. You were right – I should have never doubted myself.

The year was 1999 and it was time to apply to colleges. My little girl dreams of becoming a picture book maker and animator never fizzled out – but, the confidence in my art had. Fear of rejection stopped me from applying to Illustration or Animation. I didn’t believe my art was strong enough to get into my program of choice. So, following the advice of my Grade 13 art teacher, I enrolled in Graphic Design.

For three years I studied Graphic Design. And for all those three years, I hated it. But I don’t regret my decision to study Graphic Design. Not only did I meet my husband there and my best friend – but the skills I learned in that program led directly to what I do today as an illustrator. I believe that this is the path I needed to go on in order to lead me to where I am today.

So now this is the part of the story where the nightmarish years begin.

After graduating college, I got my first design agency job in Toronto, Canada. It was the type of job that make you wake up with anxiety and sob on Monday mornings. I hated everything about it. The atmosphere, the culture, the people. It was all toxic. And on top of all that, I never got to use my creativity.

I got fired from that job. I don’t remember the reason.

Now I had to go home and tell my husband that I lost my job. To make matters worse – he had yet to find his first job out of college. So we were living off of my salary. Which was barely enough for the cost of living in Toronto. For years we lived in bad neighbourhoods and buildings that were falling apart. One of our apartments had so much mold that our bathroom ceiling caved in.

We started accumulating credit card debt – and on top of it I had thousands of dollars in school loan debt. It wasn’t until recently that my husband told me he would ask his parents for money in those years to help us pay rent. I would have been against it back then if I knew.

Thankfully, not too long after being fired, I found my second agency job. This time it was for a travel agency. The culture and people were an improvement from my previous job. However, I didn’t know it then – but it was the type of job where I was meant to design in high volumes and quickly. Aesthetics and good design weren’t important.

So here I am – taking hours to design one project and being so proud of the work I was doing – but it turns out others don’t think it’s efficient.

It wasn’t too long before I was fired from this job too. One day my boss calls me into his office and said that I’m too talented for this job. That they need a designer that can work quickly and pump out design after design. I go back to my desk to pack my things while trying not to break down right there in front of everyone. Now I had to go back home and tell my husband, again, that I got fired from my job.

I was done with agencies. And clearly they were done with me. At this point my husband found his first design job – so we had his salary to live off of. Again – his salary was just barely for our expenses. I decided to try freelancing. I worked so hard in those days. I did work for free to build my portfolio. I charged low rates. I looked and looked for clients. I barely made any money in those years – even for how hard I was working. When I started my career, I thought that if I just work hard enough and long enough, things would eventually fall into place.

Now I realize it was because my heart wasn’t in it. The work I was producing was sub par, because I had no passion. Also during this time I submitted my first picture book idea to publishers. I mailed my book dummy to a good amount of editors. I got one rejection letter after the next. It was so disheartening. But looking back on it now, I’m impressed by my strength to never give up. I was getting rejected by agencies and clients and publishers – but I just kept going.

During this time, my husband and I are still moving from one grungy apartment to the next. Still accumulating debt. None of our friends were aware of our entire situation. I kept a lot of my life secret. I felt so ashamed. I felt like the social stigma of the starving artist. I was starting to feel like my dream of being an artist was a failure. Then one day, my friend asked me to design her wedding invitation. That invitation got noticed by a lot of people who asked me to design their invitations. I felt like I had found a niche. I decided to give it a shot and see how far I could go with this new business venture – designing invitations and cards for life’s special occasions. I named the company TearDrop.

Here are some of the invites I designed and sold

I ran this company for almost 10 years. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t do everything myself, so my husband quit his agency job to help me with the business. That risk didn’t help our situation. We weren’t making enough money to pay ourselves. A lot of our money went back into the business. Between buying supplies and marketing costs we kept accumulating debt.

On top of the debt, I was being berated by brides on a daily basis. I hated running this company. I only started it because it was bringing in a pay check – a pay check that could barely pay for anything. All these years I was just following the money and not my heart.

2013 is when things changed. I got pregnant with our son. We decided it was the responsible thing to do for my husband to go back to an agency job. We needed a stable pay check. It wasn’t about us anymore.

I decided to shut down TearDrop and focus on an illustration career. If I didn’t do it now, I would never do it once the baby came.

This is when I truly started following my heart with the help of my son’s tiny heart growing inside my womb.

All those years of working in graphic design, I was still drawing. So I had a lot of art I could use for my portfolio. I designed a website to showcase my art. I started contacting publishers and not long after I got my first book deal!! It was with a very very small publisher – I had never heard of them before. The book was a small collection of poetry for kids called, My Foot Fell Asleep.

I was a published illustrator!! This lit the spark back in my heart and reignited my love for art and illustration. After all those years of doing work I hated, this felt like a dream come true.

My husband’s new job allowed me the freedom to keep pursuing illustration. In the beginning I did struggle with finding the right agent. I signed with a few horrible agents that conducted themselves very unprofessionally, but eventually I found one that was a perfect fit.

Christy Ewers from The Cat Agency contacted me in 2014 about signing with her. Unfortunately at that time I was unable because I was under contract with another agent – who I was trying to break my contract with. Months later, I was able to break free of my contract and I quickly emailed Christy – and she’s been my agent ever since.

I am extremely grateful to have someone like her by my side. She was the catalyst for the big changes that were about to happen in my life.

Just a week since signing with Christy is when my life and career changed forever. (You can read the whole story in a previous blog post here.) Long story short, she secured me a two book deal with Harper Collins. The advance from that deal was so substantial that we were able to buy our first home. No more run down apartments. No more debts. We could finally live in peace and security for the first time since we’d met each other.

That two book deal that I signed – those books turned out to be Dear Girl and Dear Boy. Not only was I a published illustrator but I was now a #1 New York Times Bestselling Illustrator.

It’s been five years since the release of Dear Girl. When I illustrated that book, I had no idea what was in store for me. It all started with a dream. A dream to be a picture book maker and create stories and art that would inspire others. And now here I am – five years later and over 30 books published, living in my dream home with the cutest family, being financially free and the most magical part – I have even worked with Disney.

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