In early June, I had the pleasure of meeting with the lovely Eleanor Davis, an Athens-based illustrator whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Plansponser, Lucky Peach, Businessweek, and more, as well as having written and illustrated numerous comics for children and adult audiences. Known for her beautiful and intimate ink drawings, as well as true gift in the art of sequential storytelling, she was kind enough to invite me to visit her studio and home shared with cartoonist husband, Drew Weing. Originally from Tucson, Arizona and having graduated with a BFA in Sequential Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 2005, she is a testament of hard work and following one’s passions.
Caption: Excerpt from Stick and String – MOME 8
Courtney: To start with an icebreaker: If you could have a super power, what would it be?
Eleanor: Oh, I guess invisibility. Don't they have gender studies that guys tend to say flying and women tend to say invisibility or something? I don't know I feel like that'd be useful--definitely for if I ever wanted to snoop around or something. [laughs] That would probably be terrible. I can imagine that totally destroying things. Actually when I think about super powers, it's like anything could have the potential to destroy your life? Like, stopping time would be really cool, but then I feel like you would have a lot of pressure to stop problems before they happened. I think there could be negatives with it. Do you have a super power that you would have?
C: I don't know. Maybe being able to speak any language at any time or something.
E: Without being nervous.
C: Yeah. [laughs] Oh yeah--maybe just being able to speak period without being nervous. [laughs]
E: [laughs] That would count as a super power for me too.
C: So I know that you're from Tucson and that both of your parents are really into comics as well, but what made you want to try illustration?
E: I guess I had the idea that I could actually make money at it. Which is basically true, I mean it's how I make a living at the moment. But it's not exactly how you rake in the big bucks. So it's kind of funny--a major in sequential art and a minor in illustration is not a particularly super sensible combination, you know. [laughs] So I went to school for sequential because I like comics so much. I wound up doing the illustration minor just because I realized that I could. But it’s fun.
C: Did you ever want to be anything else growing up?
E: Yeah, I thought about being a translator because I was really interested in Japanese. * I studied Japanese for a long time. I was actually really into math. I thought about being a math major, but I don’t know what sort of jobs you get in that case. [laughs]
C: Mathematician? Math professor?
E: Go into engineering or something? I don’t know really what that’s useful for. But I guess I don’t really know what a lot of majors are useful for.
C: So what made you choose SCAD, as opposed to other schools?
E: For some reason during my senior year of high school I was feeling really lazy and burnt out. I mean, the only real reason I went to art school was because I thought that I had to go to college and the thought of going to a “real school” was unbearable. [laughs] And I didn’t want to have to write any more papers or anything like that. And I really liked comics; it was basically all I cared about. At the time there were only two programs that offered Sequential Art: the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York and SCAD. SVA required that you take a ceramics class and I was like ‘Fuck that!’ And so I went to SCAD; it was the stupidest reason! [laughs]
Caption: The Poor Miller’s Son and the Cat – Twelve Dancing Princesses – Scoutbooks
C: [laughs] I mean, that’s legitimate though.
E: Not really, it’s one class! I had to take a 3D design class anyway it was the same thing. I don’t know how it was for you guys, but I feel like sometimes when you have that big of a life choice, where you’re going to go to school and meet totally different people and your life will be totally different, to a certain extent you just have to not think about it too hard, because it’s nightmarish to think of it as “This is my future”. But it ended up working out.
C: And you ended up meeting Drew there, and you guys are still here in Athens, which is nice.
E: I complain a lot about SCAD, because it’s kind of a problematic school in some ways. But then, you can’t really think, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t made that choice”, because then you wouldn’t meet your friends and I wouldn’t have met my husband and blah blah blah. And it doesn’t hurt to hear all of my friends in New York complain about how much they have to pay in rent. [laughs]
C: And Athens is a really nice town.
E: I really really like it here a lot. I think it’s better for us to live in a small town. Yeah, it worked out.
C: But do you feel there are any particular things that you took with you from SCAD?
E: I had a lot of professors that I really really liked. My problems with the school were more in the structuring and the requirements for students. It felt like they were a little bit easy. But there were good professors. One of the things that I felt was a good lesson for me was that it wasn’t a very hard school—you didn’t have to work very hard. So you had to be self-motivated, which is just really important because when you’re working freelance you just have to do it. So that was good. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to learn that at a school that was more rigid and regimented.
C: What have been some of your greatest influences, not just artistically, but in life or otherwise?
E: My family, my friend, Kate, we’ve been best friends since we were in high school. I feel like I’m naturally kind of obsessive and cowardly and I guess I don’t really do a very good job of living life on my own very well and so I feel like the people I admire most and am closest to and have good influences on me have been folks who are really good at experiencing life and making good choices that they believe in: traveling and meeting new people and being open-hearted, you know, being brave. So those are my big influences. My friend Maggie, my friend Lacey, just ordinary folks who know how to live life well. I think a lot of artists don’t know how to live very well. You’re just too focused on this one thing.
Caption: Kill the Fillibuster – BusinessWeek
C: Post-art school, how did you start finding work, and at what point were you able to do freelance full-time?
E: I’ve only actually been doing freelance full-time for about a year and a half. Right when I got out of school I was doing it full-time, but it didn’t actually count because I wasn’t actually making enough money to live off of. It was kind of a complicated trajectory, it’s pretty boring. I started out mostly being focused on comics and I got a book deal where they pay you a big chunk and being straight out of college I was just like “Oh my gosh, this is so much money! This’ll last forever!” And, of course it didn’t last as long as it took to write the book. So that was very frustrating. And then I got a job at a grocery store co-op. Do you know Daily Groceries?
Adrian: Yeah! Isn’t it just down the street?
E: Yeah yeah I was the produce supervisor there for a few years. I don’t know, something I’ve noticed with artists, especially in illustration, is that we have such an association where if you have a part-time job to make money, it’s like a failure on your part. But, I really liked working at Daily and it just felt like a really positive influence on my life, and not having to feel stressed out about paying the bills. I feel like when I first got out of school I wasn’t really good enough. Like, if you know your own voice, then you can stick to your guns and do the work that you feel good about. But if you’re not sure, then you kind of have to pander. I get quite a lot of questions from students asking ‘How do I focus my portfolio to potential clients?’ and it’s like don’t do that. You can’t make your best work if you’re trying to think of what someone else wants from you. So I feel like having a break gave me a chance to find that voice, and that’s what people respond to most—or at least, art directors. And then the jobs that I get are better too, because if you fill your portfolio with businessmen on treadmills, then you’re going to get jobs like that and you’ll be bored out of you mind. But I have more of a fun portfolio, so the jobs that I do get are stuff that I want to do. So that’s really nice. So long story short, I was working at Daily but also working on my portfolio and I just got really really lucky. Aviva Michaelov from the New York Times just saw my stuff reblogged. That’s another thing with the internet. My stuff can be pretty provocative and goofy and pretty internet-friendly. People like nudity as a general rule [laughs]. And so that stuff gets featured on the Internet and blogs and stuff and art directors see it because it’s being thrown around on Tumblr. So they see a picture I’ve done of a naked person and they’re like “Oh, hey, do this illustration about retirement policies.” You know, and that’s how it is. Yeah, it’s a weird field right now, I feel like. And that’s how I started making jobs and stuff. Right now I’m making just enough money to pay the bills, which is good.
Caption: Pushing Back Retirement – The New York Times
C: What are some of your favorite mediums to use, and do you prefer some for professional work and others for your own personal work?
E: Basically the only thing I feel like I’m really good at is pen and ink. I think that artwork I respond to the most is pretty intuitive and I’m good at pen and ink and it’s simple enough—just black or white. But I can do it very intuitively without any planning. So I’m really pleased with those illustrations as a general rule. But I also do a lot of watercolor and gouache and that’s a little bit more frustrating because I’m just not as good with it yet: I have to plan everything out. I feel pleased with the work mostly, but it doesn’t have the same intuitive quality. I’ve been doing more work on the computer because it’s easier to be more intuitive on the computer. So those are the big three: watercolor and gouache, pen and ink, and computer, which I really like doing but it still lacks a little bit of warmth.
Caption: D&D sketches; Some goblins and trolls “hanging out, watching porn and stuff”
As a pretty control-freaky person, I like being able to have that [on the computer], but I feel like as an illustration that’s what people respond to most, the kind of lack of control. Being forced to say that you think that that was a goof, and you want to change it, but you have to leave it, and it actually makes the piece better. And you look back on it later and feel like it’s an improvement. That’s important. And working with kind of sophisticated color blends, I haven’t figured out a way that I like doing that, so I tend to work super flat with color which is kind of boring.
Caption: Anxiety, My Monster, My Self – The New York Times
C: And you do both illustrating and writing.
E: I feel like I’m not as good at the writing part. It’s definitely not what I was trained to do. I actually went to--this is kind of me bragging a little bit--but Carson Ellis does this thing every year where she invites a bunch of kids’ book illustrators to hang out at this farm in Portland and party and she invited me, which blew my freaking mind because I didn’t even know she knew who I was. And also because I don’t actually consider myself a kids’ book creator. I mean, I’m a cartoonist, but that feels really different. But that was really fun because, I’ve gone to comic conventions and stuff my whole life and I’m used to the whole “Comics need more respect!” etc, but then it was really fun hearing the same thing from the kids book creators. Like, they have kids book manifestos [laughs] that they’ve written up about the importance of children’s literature and it’s like “Ugh, you guys are so cool!” They’re really fun. But it also made me realize how little I know about kids books. I feel like I see a lot of kids book illustrators try to do comics and be like “Aw, yeah, comics, it’s just a lot of illustrations in little boxes” and then they try to do a comic and it’s not very good, it’s hard to read. And I feel the same way. When I try to write for kids and making drafts for kids books, I get part of the way and I’m like “I don’t know how to do this.” It’s so simple; it’s like a haiku or something. Like what makes Goodnight Moon one of the best kids books in the world when it’s just a handful of words? You know? But it is. It’s like magic. [laughs]
Caption: Comic and cover for Cicada Magazine, March/April 2013
C: So you’ve worked in both children’s and adult subject matters; how do you approach each, and are there things that you like or dislike about each? Or do you prefer one of the other?
E: Basically I prefer doing adult stuff. I do a lot of different work—I probably should just focus in on something so I get a lot of work doing it. I do personal work, which tends to be pretty adult, but then it doesn’t technically pay anything, so I’m not sure it counts as “jobs”. But that would be my favorite, because it’s more or less doing whatever I want. The stuff I do for the NYT is for grown-ups, and that tends to not be super creative feeling, but it’s satisfying like a puzzle or something. There’s this puzzle that you want to figure out and there’s a time limit and it feels really good. So I really like doing that. And then kids stuff I feel like I don’t really enjoy doing, just because I take it very seriously. My weaknesses and my failures hurt me a lot worse doing kid’s stuff. Like, if I do an editorial illustration and am like “Well, that’s not the best editorial illustration”, I don’t care as much because it’s like “Well, I’ll get better next time!”. But with kid’s books stuff I have such a passion for kid’s work that if I do something and I don’t think it’s great it makes me really sad. [laughs]
C: But you [and Drew] have taught the [summer comic making] workshops for kids, too. So it definitely shows that you have a passion for showing kids comics.
E: Yeah. I like kids, and I just have really strong memories of childhood. I think the strongest emotional response you can have to a piece of artwork is when you’re a kid. You exist within it more strongly that you can when you’re an adult. So that makes it feel more important to be a responsible creator.
C: Looking back at the work you were making when first coming out of school, like Stinky and Secret Science Alliance, it seems like your work has really evolved in a lot of ways over the years and has become a lot more conceptual as you’ve matured as an artist. In school where you’re pushed all of the time by professors and peers to keep growing and moving forward; how do you continue to push yourself to grow outside of school?
E: Well, I pitched Stinky and the Secret Science Alliance right after coming out of school, and at that point I didn’t like making art very much. It was a huge struggle and super labor-intensive and very controlled. And so I think I tried to make my stuff more intuitive and fun as a self-preservation because I just couldn’t work like that anymore. It’s hard. There’s always the temptation to keep doing something that’s worked, something that people have responded to in the past. I feel like there’s a balance between wanting to stay in my comfort zone and wanting to be true to what I’m really good at. Just trying your best I guess.
Caption: Cover for Regular Show Comics
C: So what’s a typical day like for you? How do you balance time for freelance, personal work, errands, social life, married life, general life, etc.?
E: I’m not very good at it. My typical day is to wake up at 6 and be at work by 7:30, and by at work I mean at my desk. I have a program called Self Control that keeps me out of Twitter and Facebook. [laughs]
C: [laughs] I need to get that!
E: It’s really important to me because I can’t multi-task, so if I get distracted from what I’m working on, then my day is pretty blown. I work pretty well in the morning and then by the afternoon I start to get more and more groggy and out of it and doing worse work and feeling less positive about the work I’m doing. So I try to transition from my most brain-intensive stuff in the morning and then working towards e-mails or coloring in the afternoon. And then I try to do some exercising-I lift weights and do yoga. And I try to go on a bike ride everyday. And be in bed by 10. Or I hope, you know that never really happens. [laughs] You know, there’s always phone calls and desperate stuff that you need to get done and e-mails. I try to take the weekends off. All that stuff is so important. I feel like that’s what most of the illustrators I know do, just because it’s too exhausting. You can really mess yourself up by working all the time. And if you let yourself get into the habit of procrastinating then it can really screw you. [laughs]
C: Especially with such fast turn-arounds on some things!
Caption: Barista Magazine
E: It’s especially important for the long-term projects; you need to schedule and plan. When I have a lot of fast turn-around pieces all at once my schedule tends to go to hell, which is okay, but only temporarily.
C: What’s your process like in coming up with new ideas for work, for both personal and editorial?
E: I guess the difference is when I’m doing sketches for a job or a client, I do my sketching on my Cintiq. I get ten sketches done until the deadline and send off my top 3 or 4. And doing personal work, I’m usually just working in my sketchbook, doing a lot of doodling picking through images. You sketch a lot and find recurring themes and try to figure out what that’s about and what you can learn from them. If it could be expanded into a larger story. You sit on it for a long time: sometimes it dies; sometimes it turns into something bigger.
C: So what are some things you do in your free time? You mentioned yoga and exercising, but what are some other hobbies, passions, or interests you have?
E: I really like talking. A lot. Which is frustrating because I’m also really anxious, so talking makes me really anxious. [laughs] I really like eating; don’t like cooking, but I’ll do it in order to eat. My husband really likes cooking. And I really like biking. Biking and talking and drawing and eating, those are the main things I do. [laughs]
C: What are some of your favorite things to draw and some of your least favorite things to draw? E: I really like drawing naked people. I don’t quite know why. I suspect it’s because at school they require you to take a lot of life drawing classes, but they don’t really require you to take clothing drawing classes. So I don’t really know how to draw clothing very well. [laughs] I really like drawing plants. And I hate drawing robots. That’s it. [laughs] I really hate drawing robots, and every once in awhile I’ll have to draw a robot for something and I’ll be like, “Come on, Eleanor, you can do this, what’s so hard about drawing robots” and then it ends up “Nooo I hate it! This is so hard it looks terrible!”.
C: They’re so boxy—kind of the opposite of naked people.
E: I always end up just doing some weird organic form with wires sticking out of it, some lights. I can’t make it look cool.
C: What work do you feel the most proud of, or what direction would you like to see your work go in the future?
E: I guess what I feel most proud of at the moment are my personal comics. Short-form comics. I’d like to do more of that. It’s hard because other stuff pushes it out of the way, it doesn’t pay anything, I don’t have time for it, and I’m not super fast. It’s tricky because I feel like that’s why I get jobs: I do personal stuff, and people respond to it, and I get jobs. They’re fun jobs, but it’s not personal stuff exactly. But then that shoves my time for doing personal stuff out of the way—but I get fewer jobs if I don’t have a steady output of personal stuff. Figuring out that balance is tricky. [laughs]
A: Would you even want to make money from your personal work?
E: Yeah-it’s tricky and complicated. Because you don’t want you personal stuff to become compromised, you want it to feel true. I guess it’s just a matter of money equaling time, you know. You have to make however many dollars a day, or a month, or a year. So my philosophy has been: this is what I do for money, and my personal stuff is where I’m not going to think about money at all. But then the bills come and you find yourself doing more and more time on the things you do to make money, and you keep saying you’ll find time later for personal stuff and it’s later and you don’t have as much time as you want. So it’s very frustrating. I don’t know the solution to that one. It’s having the freedom to make work that some people might really respond to, but then a lot of people don’t, but you decide to make it anyway because you enjoy it.
C: But you’re also probably able to spend a lot more time within yourself perfecting that piece, as opposed to something like editorial where you have a much shorter time limit.
E: Yes, but then there’s the risk of never getting it done. With editorial the time constraint is such a big thing, so at least it does get done.
Caption: Happy Valentine’s Day!
C: Favorite food?
E: I’m a little embarrassed about this, but I was a vegetarian for a really long time, and a vegan for awhile in college, and recently my husband and I started eating meat and…now my favorite food is meat. [laughs] I just really missed meat! So we’ve just been eating a lot of meat, grilling a lot of steaks. We try to get mildly responsible meat. And I just feel better since eating meat again. My vegetarian friends hate it, like I’m betraying them. [laughs] I just have more energy now! I lost weight! Everything’s been great since starting to eat meat again!
C: Favorite music, movies, or something playing while working?
E: I need to have music playing, because otherwise I fall asleep. Usually I listen to dance music a lot-it keeps me focused. So a lot of pop music, sometimes classy pop music, but also sometimes Ke$ha. [laughs] My favorite band is The Knife. For fun I watch 30 Rock, Adventure Time, you know, all of the fun stuff. But I also like old movies—I just usually don’t end up watching as much of that stuff as I do watching Adventure Time. [laughs]
C: [laughs] So my last question: What advice would you give to young illustrators coming into the field now?
E: My number one thing is having a really good website. Something that looks professional and something that you’ll update. Social media is what works for me—being on Tumblr, on Twitter, Livejournal when that existed. So that’s what’s worked for me. I’m a big proponent for doing personal work first and foremost, and waiting for people. Your personal work is going to be your strongest work. So just make that as strong as you can and wait for people to respond to that. But you have to be patient, and a lot of people aren’t going to respond to it. I know a lot of other people have much more of a cut-throat steps, and self-promotion and mailers, etc. And that’s awesome, those people make more money than I do, for sure. But for me personally, if the money is your first priority then you shouldn’t be doing it, because it’s not a big money maker. So I guess at a certain point you just have to make sure you’re having fun. Because if you’re not having fun, and you’re not making as much money as you would at another job, then why are you doing it? I guess that’s my big mantra now; I really wasn’t enjoying making art for a long time and it was really stressful, and if you’re not enjoying it you won’t be doing it enough, and if you’re not doing it all of the time you won’t be making your best work. And in order to work all of the time, you have to enjoy it, because it’s horrible to force yourself to do something all of the time that you don’t enjoy. And then you’ll just be doing your best work, I think.
Thanks so much, again, to Eleanor for making the time to answer my questions! You can find more of her work on her website: www.doing-fine.com, and follow her on Twitter @squinkyelo