Interview with Shawn Finley, Illustrator

Interview with Shawn Finley, Illustrator

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Illustration

Shawn Finley is a Chicago-based freelance illustrator who has created imagery for toy manufacturers, publishers, and marketers across the U.S. His clients have included Burker King, Hooked on Phonics, Random House, and many others.

Here, he shares how he got "hooked" on illustration, and what it takes to make a living as an independent artist.

You and Your Career

How did you discover you wanted to be an illustrator?

It was sort of by accident! While I was in college (majoring in Business/Accounting), I was browsing through the library and came across some illustration annuals in the art section. Hundreds of illustrators and photographers advertise in these books, and seeing this vast array of different art styles for the first time was both inspiring and fascinating. I had always drawn and created comics for my own amusement, but up till then I hadn't realized how to make a LIVING as an independent artist. I knew right away this was what I really wanted to do with my life.

How did you break into your freelance career?

I was taking a drawing class when I made my "discovery" about illustration, so I talked to my professor and asked if he knew where I could land some illustration work. He put me in contact with the editor of a small publication associated with the school. I borrowed a portfolio case and put together whatever drawings I had at the time -- mostly pencil drawings and black-and-white cartoon art.

Amazingly, the editor saw a spark of potential in there and gave me my first "serious" editorial illustration assignment. I made $80 (which seemed like HUGE money to me) and had a great time creating the artwork. My first concept was rejected (there's a funny story behind this, too long to explain here) but the second draft was a hit and it went into print a month later. I was hooked.

After that first assignment, I created a whole new collection of work, exploring and imitating the different styles I was studying in the illustration annuals. I then transferred to a small college and majored in art. Through word of mouth, I found several publishers in the area and freelanced for them while still in school. At my senior art show I met Jim Lehman, who owned Brotherstone Publishers, and he commissioned my first children's book, "The Boo Baby Girl Meets the Ghost of Mable's Gable."

After graduation I was incredibly busy with illustration work, but I wasn't earning enough from it to make a living. So I took a graphic design job and moonlighted as an illustrator. It took a few years, but eventually I found clients that commissioned work on a regular basis. At that point I quit my design job and finally became a full-time freelance illustrator. It was one of the best moves I've ever made.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I definitely enjoy the freedom of being my own boss, and the freedom to choose only the projects that I think I'll enjoy working on. I never liked the routine of 9 to 5, so choosing my own hours suits me well. It's also gratifying to know that the work I create reaches a pretty large audience, and that the books I illustrate could potentially be around for many years to come. It's great being able to contribute something of my own to popular culture, and also to receive recognition for creating something unique.

What sorts of projects do you work on? What have been some of your favorites?

These days I illustrate a lot of children's books for publishers like Hooked on Phonics and Americhip Books, and occasionally do McDonald's Happy Meal boxes and other kid-related projects. In the past I've done technical illustration for model kit maker Revell-Monogram, and illustrated/designed hundreds of consumer products like sleeping bags, back packs, tents, wall borders, etc. I also did magazine illustration and book design for years.

One of my favorite recent projects was creating the illustrations for Burger King's kid's site, I especially liked creating the character avatars. Other cool projects were the character redesigns I did for Hooked on Phonics several years ago, and most recently, a CD cover for the band Lola Balatro. I hope to break in to designing vinyl toys and marketing my own products in the future.

What advice would you give someone embarking on their own freelance illustration career?

I would advise developing your personal style by collecting art and objects that you like, for inspiration.

Follow the work and careers of some of your favorite artists and learn from them. If you can't find freelance work at first, try to find full time work in a related field so you can keep honing your art skills as you build your own client list. Don't forget to advertise. is a good place to start.

If you can't afford advertising, at least talk about what you do with everyone you meet, and have a portfolio ready in case there's an opportunity to show it. Also, create a portfolio website with your name on it! If you can't afford to build a professional website, at least post your work on a free site like Flicker, or even your Facebook or MySpace page.

Illustration and Graphic Design

How would you describe the purpose of illustration specifically, as opposed to other disciplines within art or graphic design (such as package design or composition layout)?

I would say illustration focuses on telling a story or communicating a concept with a single rendered picture (or series of pictures) and normally uses figurative images to construct a narrative.

Illustration can definitely be incorporated into package design or composition layout as part of those larger works. Other graphic design disciplines often use typography, design elements, color, layout, etc. to achieve a desired effect (although some illustrators do mix design elements and type in to their work).

If you were to compare a picture book to a film, the illustrator would be the actor, the author would be the screenwriter, the book designer would be the director/film editor, and the publisher would be the producer. An illustration is often part of a larger whole, whereas its cousin, the painting, should be able to stand alone.

Has the growth of the video game and comic industry impacted what you do as an illustrator?

Yes. The popularity of vector-based animation programs like Flash has opened new markets for simple video game sites on the internet. The characters and landscapes I create in Adobe Illustrator are well suited for Flash animation, so recently I've received more commissions to help create avatars and artwork for some fun sites (like Burger King's In those instances, I provide the vector illustrations to an art director or animator who then handles the programming and animation.

Which technologies or software packages do you use on a regular basis?

Adobe Illustrator is my favorite program, because I love the flexibility of vector-based art. I also use Photoshop pretty extensively now and find it's great for shading and finessing the work I build in Illustrator.

These days I work on a Mac G5 and use a Wacom tablet to draw and ink digitally. I don't need to draw much on paper, except when sketching just for fun. The Wacom tablet was hard to get used to at first, but now I can't imagine working without it.

Education Information & Advice

Where did you go to school, and how did you choose it?

When I knew I wanted to pursue an art career, I began looking for an art school. At the recommendation of my art professor Del Loven, I visited Judson College (now Judson University) in Elgin, Illinois. It had a very pleasant small school environment, and was situated near Chicago with its many publishing opportunities. Although it wasn't a major design school at the time, I immediately had a good feeling about it and knew it was right for me. The art staff was small but very accessible and helpful as I learned my future trade.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

Not really. Perhaps a prestigious art school like the Savannah College of Art and Design could have offered me a larger range of courses, but the path I took worked out well and I have no regrets.

Technology and art markets are constantly changing, and new programs and techniques always need to be learned along the way. So I think the school you choose is important, but not as important as working hard, making contacts, and being dedicated to continually growing as an artist.

What classes did you take as part of your degree?

Illustration classes, of course. Also, painting, drawing, art history, graphic design, typography, etc. At the time I graduated in 1991, desktop publishing was brand new, so I still had some more to learn about computer design. However, I got that on the job immediately after college, and over the years I've worked at keeping up with the newer versions of Adobe products as they come out.

What is the most important thing a graphic design or illustration student should learn?

Besides knowing the artistic basics of illustration and graphic design, I think it's very important to learn the business side of illustration as well. Knowing how and where to find work, how to price your jobs correctly, and how to ask questions so you can meet your customer's needs with the right solution is very important. Clients value dependability, so always know your due date and be sure to deliver on time. Developing a good business sense that compliments you artistic vision will ensure a long and fruitful career in illustration.

More information about Shawn, his clients, and his work is available at

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