This post is part of a series in which we interview successful makers on how they built their business. Today we are interviewing professional illustrator, Jill McDonald.
Jill is a nationally recognized designer with a colorful, whimsical style that’s fresh, fun and unique. Jill graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in textile design. She went on to work for Baby Gap as a print stylist in Gap’s Manhattan, NY design headquarters before joining Hallmark Cards as an illustrator. In January 2004 Jill felt the time was right to strike out on her own and founded Jill McDonald Design. Jill illustrated many children’s books, created bedding collections, Scrapbooking lines, Christmas collections, Stationery collections & Wall art. After a few years of just creating the Art for her clients, Jill decided to try her hand at making her own products. With the help of some great companies, her dreams have become a reality. Today there are lots of exciting and colorful products under the Jill McDonald Brand.
Jill is teaching a session during our live online workshop, Growing Your Freelance Illustration Business on December 7th.
When did you first discover your love of art?
As soon as I could pick up crayons!
Art has always been a part of how I go through my days.
I used to draw all over my worksheets & homework. My 4th grade teacher would cross it out & write in red next to it.
“Stop this!” in red ink -needless to say I did not stop.
Did you always know this would become your career?
Yes, art has always come naturally to me. I’m dyslexic & there was so much that didn’t come easily that I’ve always been thankful that art was a way I could express myself. My dad started a graphic design firm that made logos & packaging for the food/ meat industry. He employed many people & was in business for almost 40 years so I knew you could make a living with art.
What did you do before you were a full-time illustrator?
I graduated from R.I.S.D in 1998 with a degree in textile design. I moved to NY & worked at Gap design headquarters as a print stylist for girls & baby. After two years there I missed my family in Kansas City so I moved back home to work at Hallmark as an illustrator.
I was at Hallmark for three years & then decided to go out on my own.
How did you start your illustration career?
I left Hallmark at the end of December & spent 5 months making a large, diverse body of work to take to Surtex.
In addition to that I also had a few freelance jobs coming in at that time.
What kind of art do you create?
I make bright, colorful art in my specific hand. I’ve had some nice success with the kids & baby market.
I love stories so when I can I try to add a touch of visual
story-telling to what I make.
Which three words would you use to describe your style?
Colorful, bold, fun!
How do you come up with new ideas? What inspires you?
Everyday life inspires me. I like to think I put my own point of view on what I make through a filter of my experiences & my heart.
Nature and holidays give me lots of inspiration as well. All those preconceived notions that come along with them are fun to add or poke fun at!
What kind of clients do you work with?
When I began my freelance career I worked with The Land of Nod for several years I also worked with Pottery Barn Kids. I’ve worked with Target on bedding collections & my studio designed their Circo bedding collections for five plus years. I continue to work with Oopsy Daisy & have a diverse wall art offering with them.
I also worked with several scrapbooking companies partnering closely with one for a big project.
Today I work with book publishers like Barefoot Books, Little Brown & Random House Kids. I do an extensive amount of product development for C.R. Gibson who has been a great partner. I work on fabric lines with Windham fabrics & a variety of ongoing freelance projects for card companies, stationary, bedding & apparel companies.
How did you find your first few clients?
The first Surtex show I did 13 years ago was a big success for me. The show & the work I brought with me helped me get noticed. (Along with a website packed with art) As you probably noticed that was 13 years ago, I’m not sure the industry works the same way but I feel very lucky it did then.
Please describe an average day in your life.
My son is 9 & heads off to school at 7:45. I head upstairs to my studio on the third floor of our house & get to work. Despite working at home I’ve always believed in getting dressed & ready like I was going to an office. For me it is important & I find that I’m more productive if I’m not in sweat pants. I begin with any commissions I have. If there’s no job in then I spend my day building new prints. I have a cork wall & have a dedicated section to new print ideas & art I’ll make for upcoming shows.
My husband Antonio (who has been my business partner & worked with me from the start) cleans my art, scanning it putting it on layers. Then returns it back to me for color correcting & any final additions. Antonio also handles my contracts, accounting, shows & general office upkeep. We’ve done many internationals shows over the years & while I go to some but with a child at home I don’t go to them all. I use my lunch break to go to yoga. When I return at 1 I feel centered & it’s a good point for me to evaluate what I’m working on or what I need to do next.
My son returns from school at 4pm & he hangs out with me in the studio until after 5. I like to show him what I’m working on, and get his opinion. It’s important to me that he is exposed to our small business. I know having insights into my dad’s studio gave me creative confidence when I was young.
After that we eat dinner and we watch something together as a family. I use this time to play in my sketchbook & Luca usually draws with me which I thoroughly enjoy!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their own freelance illustration business?
Be ready to work. Having your own freelance studio isn’t a 9 to 5 job. (I work most weekends) While you can take time out of the normal job hours you are always on! No one tells you what’s next and it’s up to your own initiative & drive to keep your career moving forward. I recommend being as diverse as possible in what you offer. Have some art that is appropriate for publishers, some that is limited color & insinuates repeat for apparel or bedding. Offer art that could go on a card or gift-wrap, have seasonal offerings like Christmas, Halloween & Easter. Having a variety of themes & kinds of art will set you up for the opportunity to work with a variety of clients, which is what you will need to succeed. If you can have your art placed in a variety of tiers in the market place is also a good idea.
(some in the mass market, some in specialty, or high end more boutique)
That way you can learn the benefits & downsides to each.
Remember that there are lots of little details that will take your time other than making art. Finding health insurance, promotion, billing, newsletters, blog or Instagram (or what ever social media you prefer) Reading & negotiating contracts, accounting & more. All of this will be a part of your business. Realizing that upfront & taking on that responsibility makes it less daunting once you are in it.
Finally, Keep growing as an artist. The last couple years I’ve signed up for weekend & evening classed in silk screen, watercolor, acrylic & drawing.
This has been such a great way to carve in time to play & experiment. Figuring out what I new mediums I can add to my skill set & what doesn’t feel right.
What do you hope the not-too-distant future holds for your illustration career; Do you have any exciting, upcoming plans that you would like to share with us?
I’m working with Random House Kids & we’ve created a new books series, Hello, World! This series is designed to share simple concepts about nature & science. This is the first time I’m both writing & illustrating. I feel very fortunate to have been paired up with a kind, smart editor. I’m learning a lot about the writing process & that’s been so fulfilling.
The first two books “Solar System” & “Weather” came out last March with the next two debuting this February, “Backyard Bugs” & “Birds”. Two more “Dinosaurs” & “My Body” will come out in early 2018. This series has been warmly received & I really exciting to see it grow!
I’d love to continue doing more children’s books. I like how a book is something you sit down with, hold, explore & if you’re lucky have it read to you. That connects with me.
I’d also love to get back into kids/ baby bedding. Again, I guess I’m a romantic but I love that idea that adorable, creative bedding keeps you warm at night & is the first thing you see the next day.
Jill is teaching a session during our live online workshop, Growing Your Freelance Illustration Business. This program will give you an inside look at how three freelance illustrators built their careers, and provide you with the insight you need to grow your own freelance illustration business. The live workshop starts December 27th, but everyone who signs up will get lifetime access to the content. See the full schedule and sign up here.