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Tom Froese – HeyThere
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Tom Froese

Freelance

Illustrator
Residing in Vancouver, Tom Froese is perhaps one of Canada’s most prolific illustrators. He's worked with all the big ones; including Wired, Monocle, and The Walrus. Laurence King Publishing had him work on two beautiful illustration and sticker books, and somehow he still finds time to write thoughtful posts about the creative industry on his blog. It’s no exaggeration to say Tom is a bright spark on the Canadian creative map.
HT

You call yourself a designer and illustrator … what do you see as the boundaries between these two fields? How did you end up doing more illustration than traditional graphic design?

TF

To be honest, this dual title is something I’ve hung onto since my transition from design over to illustration. In fact, today, I prefer to use the term commercial artist. In many ways, this encapsulates both design and illustration, and I don’t think I could ever simply be one or the other. In my thinking, I am a designer. In my feeling, my intuition, I am an illustrator. And I like that there is an acknowledgement of both commerce and art in the term. I make art for paying clients, and the art I make has no existence outside of commerce. If you want to define a boundary between design and illustration, design is concerned with systems, overall containers or contexts for ideas. Illustration is concerned with images. Appearance, aesthetics, style, narrative and metaphor are of primary importance. These are details that the illustrator concentrates on within a single image, with the same amount of effort that a designer must spread across all the moving parts of a design project. Although I am by training a designer, and by nature an analytical and critical thinker, I prefer to concentrate my focus on a single image or set of images rather than across all the various touchpoints of a typical design project. In branding, for instance, the designer must not simply make a good logo but also consider every possibility and eventuality for where and how that logo will exist. And then, after months and sometimes years, the designer must live with those decisions, no matter how happy they are with it. On the other hand, as an illustrator, I can pour my heart into a series of illustrations for a retail store, and then hand over the files to a designer within a month or two, and then I never have to look at them again. Most of the time, I enjoy the creative process more than the end product, and then let the designer or art director live with the long-term consequences!

As for how I transitioned into illustration, there are a lot of factors I suppose. But I believe it is the natural result of my abilities and inclinations, and of course a lot of serendipity. I never intended on illustrating for a living. In fact, I went to art school to study design, but while there, I encountered a lot of illustration without even realizing it was separate from design. At NSCAD, there was a lot of cross polination of arts and crafts disciplines, and even my degree is interdisciplinary. One of my typography classes was co-taught by Kate O’Connor and Ray Fenwick, who ran a small design studio called Co. & Co. They did a lot of work for both illustration and design clients. What I didn’t realize then was how unique they were in the sense that they bled the boundaries between illustration and design. In retrospect, this is exactly what resonated most about their work, and it made a very strong and lasting impression on me. Through my connection to them as a student, I was able to eagerly land an internship at Co. & Co., and I think that set the tone for me going forward.

After graduating, I worked as a designer and art director in Vancouver for about 5 years. Because of my tendencies toward illustration, it naturally factored into many of my projects. Almost without thought, I was building up an illustration portfolio that would end up bringing in more work. There came a point when I was getting almost enough illustration and design projects to go freelance. This coincided nicely with the point in my career when I was growing frustrated as a designer in the agency world, which felt in many ways contrary to my personality. Designers are trained and expected to distance themselves from their work, to not have a “style”, to not attach their personality to their work. For me, I wanted to inject personality and life into everything, and it proved difficult to work this into most jobs. I don’t know if it’s an ego thing primarily, but this is really important to me—having an identifiable stamp on the things I work on. I’ve never been a strong team player, whether in sports, school, or work. I like working with people, but it is hard to reach the full potential of a team because of all the moving parts. Working alone is often much more efficient. Collaboration works best for me when I have a clearly identifiable and individual role to play. Knowing exactly what I am supposed to do and directly seeing how it comes out of me, it’s often the only way I can contribute. Illustration is perfect for me. It gives me a venue for self expression, and it caters to my appetite for shorter bursts of intense, creative focus.

HT

Your style is quite recognizable. Did you naturally arrive at it or did you actively work on honing in on your current style? How important is maintaining a consistent visual look in your work to you?

TF

Thank you. That is a rewarding thing to be told. I believe most illustrators seek a style that is unique, identifiable, and successful, and it takes a lot of work to get there. Style is something that must both come naturally, from within, but also worked at over time. It’s like chiselling away at a rock until you have a well formed sculpture. The raw material is there, and it has natural properties that will look beautiful if skillfully carved. It takes education, experience and a lot of practice to know how to make the best of the raw material. What I like about being a commercial artist is that it is very personal. Every new project is both an internal and an external exercise. I sometimes joke that with each new project I undergo an existential crisis: who am I? What is my style? How will I approach this in a way that is new but also looks back to my other work? What if I stray too far? What if I hate this next piece? I am forced to reckon with my fears as well as my vision. Every little turn I take in my style, each innovation or experiment, risks veering me off course, throwing my sense of personal style off, and also throwing off the client, who likely has expectations for what their commissioned art will look like.

Maintaining a consistent visual look is extremely important to me. Defining the boundaries of this consistency, of my style, is an ongoing evolution. At times, I have wished to be as consistent and repeatable as illustrators like Olimpia Zagnoli or Raymond Biesinger, but I have realized over time that my consistency is not quite as rigid. For me, I think the consistency comes in the energy and taste I bring to my work. I feel best about my work when I allow spontaneity and weirdness to mix with control and intention. Lately, I’ve also been realizing the importance of colour to my work. Quite often, I will spend hours and days sketching, never satisfied, until I have to cut myself off and go to the computer. As soon as I place my sketch in photoshop and start adding colour, I start believing in the illustration. The work shifts from something I don’t believe in to something unbelievable. Colour plays a role in that transition.

HT

Being a freelance illustrator how did you build up your business? What mistakes did you make along they way and is there any new revenue streams you can see developing?

TF

People sometimes ask me how I made the jump, but I believe the “jump” is either a myth or else a really bad idea. Starting a new business venture should never feel like a leap of faith — it should feel like the logical next step. I spent a few years fantasizing about being a full time illustrator, but never really expected it to happen for certain. But as more and more work came, the picture of my dream became clearer and more solid feeling. By the time I made the decision, I was the sole income provider and had two young children to feed. So I wasn’t about to put my family at risk by blindly jumping from what was at the time a secure, well-paying job as a design director at an ad agency. For me, I saw a clear and viable fork in the road: stay on the current path or try the one that was appearing in front of me. That’s not to say there was no risk involved. As a freelancer, there’s always a chance that the flow of work will dry up and I’ll have to wear a construction helmet on some highway holding a stop sign. But the choice to pursue illustration full time was real. I only had to accept the risk of failure — which to me is way more appealing than leaving to the safety of a “good” job.

What I love about being self employed is that I can do anything that comes my way. I don’t have to choose between loyalty to an employer and my dream job. Instead, I get to follow wherever my work leads me. I can start side projects and see how they go. To date, in addition to my normal client work, I have taken up teaching online classes on Skillshare, launched collaborative letterpress projects, and, most recently, launched a new line of letterpress stationery called Summer Studio Stationers. My goal with all of these is first to extend my reach and create new opportunities, and then, if I am lucky, they can also become viable new income streams. Again, the theme here is natural transitions rather than risk. I know that these pursuits will put my work in front of new audiences, and that will generate new interest and opportunities. Whether these projects make me lots of money in the long term is gravy.

HT

Recently you branched out into offering video classes online (via Skillshare) where people can learn some of the techniques and processes you use to create your work. Firstly – was it worth it? And secondly, would you recommend it for other illustrators to do? What challenges does it pose?

TF

Teaching on Skillshare was an unexpected turn. They actually initiated the conversation last year, which I deferred, feeling like it was an immense, time-sucking undertaking. I had taught a couple semesters of design at a local university just a couple years earlier, and it was a very exhausing experience. I realized how much effort it takes to build a good class, and how unprepared I was to be a teacher at the time. But the Skillshare people are insistent and skilled at persuasion, and they talked me into writing just a class outline to start. Skillshare turned out to be great for me, because I didn’t have to teach anything acedmic — just a purely fun, hand-on class. I now have two Skillshare classes, Inky Illustrations: Combining Analogue and Digital Techniques, and Impress Me: Illustrating for Letterpress. Inky Illustrations has been very successful. With over 3300 students and 103 projects, I have effectively built up a loyal student following and extended my reach. I’ve also enjoyed the many positive reviews and feedback, which affirm to me that the class is helpful to my students. And with the higher enrolment, the payout from Skillshare has been generous. My Letterpress class, on the other hand, has been slower on the uptake. I believe it’s a game-changing class, but it’s a harder sell because it’s so technical and the project is not as juicy as the one in Inky Illustrations. So the effort in putting the second class together has yet to see the same kind of payoff — but I’m working on it!

I would certainly recommend that, if an illustrator is interested in teaching, they should do it. There are different venues for teaching, and Skillshare is just one of them. My overall experience with them has been very positive. But don’t expect it to be easy: you have to put in the time and effort to build a class that is useful, relevant, and easy to follow. For me, the biggest challenge was in developing the class idea and writing the outline. Like any creative communication project, it takes a lot of work to arrive at something that is clear and easy to follow.

HT

Typography also plays a rather prominent role in your work. You create some beautiful inked lettering. How do you tackle illustrations when they require type? What considerations do you give when an illustration may contain multiple typestyles?

TF

Thank you! I don’t really consider myself a letterer, although as a designer I understand typography. Perhaps what works for me is consistency more than anything. I have a coupld basic go-to lettering techniques, both using black ink and simple nib pens and brushes. I don’t purport to be a skilled letterer. That takes more training and practice than I have ever been inclined toward. Instead, I embrace the naive look of my own handwriting, looking to heroes like Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig as proof that you don’t need to be a professional sign painter to incorporate hand-rendered text in a design.

Quite often, I volunteer the lettering element in my work. I love how handwriting can complement my illustrations, adding a layer of humour or sophistication. I jump at any opportunity to add lettering, especially on hypothetical labels and products, like maps and wine bottles, that occur. Instead of designing a complete, commercially viable label, I can distill my imaginary labels down to their symbolic importance in the artwork.

As whimsical and naive as I like my lettering to be, I do try to control myself. In typography, design students are taught to use one typeface for the body, and another for headlines. Only with fear and trepidation should you consider adding a third, or a fourth for that matter. So I hold to this, unless the brief calls for multiple styles. I create a hierarchical system, where I use one kind of lettering or typeface for each level. When I use actual fonts, I use ones that are simple, which complement my illustration style, and I try to work within this typographic palette across my work.

HT

You work on various project types – editorial, craft brewers, and packaging. Do you have a particular favourite type of project you like to work on?

TF

My favourite projects are ones that get public exposure, which are not hidden between covers or in obscure B2B applications. So that means more retail, packaging and ad jobs than editorial ones. Not only are the former better paid and have more comfortable deadlines, they are also easier for my friends and family to see and know what I do. A funny example is the package I did for Martin’s Apple Chips, which happen to be sold at places like Starbucks and Costco in Canada. Since they’re merchandised quite visibly, my friends and family get to see something I did in their everyday experience. Incidentally, this is the only project my family really knows I ever did. Hilariously, they actually tell perfect strangers about it. My sister once told a cashier at Winners that her brother designed the bag of apple chips she was buying. The cashier just kind of looked at her like, “What are you talking about? Who designs chip bags?” Or perhaps she was more like, “Who cares?” At my brother’s wedding in June, he actually took a giant size bag of the chips with him to the mic and made a point of declaring to all the guests that the designer of the bag was in the room. I think I heard a napkin fall on the floor.

HT

Editorial illustration is often about hitting on one idea that cleverly reflects an aspect of the writing. What’s your process of thought to come up with non-clichéd ideas? How often do you have to push an idea through?

TF

My goal for every editorial piece is to straddle something that is universal but original. It’s okay to use a cliché if it’s done with style and precision. Sometimes I hit a cliche hard, but more often I try to work in recognizable symbols. Other times, I like to reference popular culture or historical ideas. When starting out, I try to pick up the main point of the story, and then more or less sketch my way to the idea. Sketching is a way of thinking, just like writing is, and so an idea can become more clear as I iteratively sketch it. I draw uncritically, then look at the drawing critically, make changes, and then go back and forth between drawing and critique (and despair).

When I present sketches, I rarely present just one, unless a clear concept and execution has been handed to me. I also rarely present more than three concepts. I try to come up with at least two options, and often I have a third — but never more than three. It is most important that each idea be fully formed before presenting it, and that each option is unique. That way, I give the client or art director a part in the creative process, but also a choice that can be clearly made. So in that regard, I rarely have to push an idea through. If anything, art directors often have a strong choice that they then work hard to sell through to their client.

As a designer, I understand the imortance of presenting a client with options like this. In fact, I present my concepts exactly the same way I would a logo or other design project. One thing I hated about designing in agencies, though, was presenting more than 2 or 3 options. To me, I felt this neutered the design team, showing both a lack of confidence in our ideas, and opening ourselves up to more medlesome feedback. It’s also unhelpful to the client. More options often creates more anxiety in the decision process. As the hired creative, it is my job to make clear decisions about what will work. Striking a balance is key. Too many ideas can overwhelm the client’s decision-making process, and too few can cause them to doubt the exhaustiveness of my thinking.

HT

Your work seems like it might do well commercially if you were to move into products. Is there a reason haven’t delved into the world of eCommerce and online sales of your work?

TF

This is something that is on my mind all the time. This summer, actually, Everlovin’ Press and I are launching a letterpress stationery brand called Summer Studio Stationers. This is the first intentional line of products that features my illustrations. While I don’t expect it to make me loads of money, I hope it will, again, extend my reach, and open doors to yet-unknown opportunities in the future. As for other products, I’m drawn toward applications that are legitimately enhanced by my work, which seem like a natural or logical home for it. Value should be added to both my work and whatever it ends up on. Letterpress stationery makes perfect sense, for instance. But I don’t believe the world needs more iPhone cases or mugs, even ones adorned with my illustrations.

HT

You’ve been quite vocal about your dislike of Awards … can you outline why you don’t like them, and can you offer an alternative?

TF

You’re refering to my recent blog post, The Problem with Awards. The title is meant to provoke, although it’s not the full story. I do like awards, and I do enter competitions annually, as part of my advertising strategy. I especially like awards when I win! What I dislike about awards competitions is that they seem to lack any benefit to the non-winning entrants. Those who win enjoy publicity, prestige, and an ego boost. But those who don’t win get nothing. Entering a single item into an annual can cost upwards of $100, and not a single penny of it is recovered if the judges don’t select it. While I believe competition is important to pushing creativity, I also expect that everyone should benefit. What were the judges thinking when they chose or did not choose a piece? What did they think worked/didn’t work? At very least, all entrants should be offered some kind of perk: perhaps a discount on the annual?

HT

How do you feel Canada is doing as a nation in terms of promoting design and illustration? What issues do you see and what hope have you for the future?

TF

There are a lot of amazing illustrators and designers in Canada, but I think many of us, especially illustrators, are hiding in the woodwork (and between pages). Right now, it’s hard to comment on the nation as a whole, because I don’t think I have a very complete picture of the situation. Personally, I don’t find myself thinking about Canada’s responsibility to promote me as a commercial artist. To be honest, I don’t even know what it really means, to have Canada as a nation promoting design and illustration.

There are good and bad examples of various levels of government working with commercial artists. We have the Canada 150 logo debacle, but then we had Expo 67. Maybe the country was on track in the 1960s but lost its way since. Nationalism and design tends to have an odd relationship, especially when approached from the top level.

Canada as a nation is too complex for me to understand what is right and wrong and how things might be better. What I do know is that, with or without the support of the nation, individuals and studios across the country are doing great work. The more opportunities these people have in which to gather, whether online or in real life, the more supported they will feel. I encourage creatives to seek out such opportunities locally. Creative Mornings has chapters across the world, including Canada. There are also even smaller gatherings like drink n’ draws like Riley Cran’s lettering club in Vancouver.

Another great example of creatives supporting each other is A&CO a gathering of creatives and independent business in and around Abbotsford. It was started on the premise that living in a smaller city like Abbotsford should not mean having lower standards for excellence in creative and small businesses. A lot of us have had families and moved out of Vancouver, where the cost of living was too high. Instead of complaining that things aren’t as great here, we’re focused on what’s great about where we are and how we can make it even better.


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