When I was writing my book, Calling All Artists, I asked several industry expert friends if they would do an interview for the book in their area of expertise. My good friend Cedric Hohnstadt was in the middle of a move while trying to finish up projects and balance family life so it wasn’t the best time add one more thing to his plate.
Once settled, he was gracious enough to do the interview. Since it didn’t make it into the book, I wanted to share it with you here. Cedric has great advice for freelancers and he’s had great success in his career working as an artist. Check out his bio and the interview below.
Also, be sure to pick up the book over at Amazon to check out 12 more interviews from various industry experts, along with 19 other chapters of practical content to move you from confusion to clarity about your creative education and career.
BIO: Cedric Hohnstadt is a professional illustrator specializing in concept art (website: http://www.cedricstudio.com). He has designed toys for Disney and Hasbro; created advertising comps for Coca-Cola, Target and Best Buy; illustrated packaging for Cocoa Puffs and Orville Redenbacher; supervised the animation of Mr. Potato Head for the Hasbro website; and designed characters for VeggieTales. He is also the creator of the Pose Drawing Sparkbook, a tool for helping artists put more life into their drawings.
TODD: What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve been a part of, and the most memorable people you’ve worked with?
CEDRIC: I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some really fun, terrific projects for end clients including Disney, Hasbro, and General Mills. But probably my all-time favorite project was a more personal one. I illustrated a cartoon Gospel tract for a ministry called Living Waters. To date over five million copies have been printed and it has been translated into over twenty languages. I think it’s a really important message and so I’m blown away by how well it has been received. You can read or download the tract for free at http://www.freecartoontract.com.
TODD: What advice do you have for freelancers who are trying to pick a customer type or target market?
CEDRIC: The most important thing I could say is focus on the type of work you really enjoy doing. If your portfolio includes a picture of a hippo on a bicycle, and you *hate* drawing hippos and bicycles, sure enough someone will ask to do draw another one for them. Try to fill your portfolio with samples of the kind of work you really *want* to do.
Also, there are two schools of thought about how to market your work. One is a horizontal approach and the other is vertical. The horizontal approach says, “I will spread myself around and dabble in a lot of different industries, making myself available to a wide variety of clients”. This approach will make it easier to find work, but you will have to weed through a lot of bad clients and low-budget projects. You also risk blending in with all the other artists and not standing out.
The vertical approach says, “I will plant myself firmly in one spot, specialize in one thing (such as designing company mascots, or storyboarding for animation, etc.), and build a tall tower of impressive work in that one niche area. I might not get as many people to hire me, but the ones who do will pay me top dollar because I’m a specialist in that specific type of work.” Both approaches have their pro’s and con’s.
For me personally, I’ve tried to have the best of both. I specialize in one thing (concept art) but I spread that specialty among a few industries (animation, toy design, advertising, etc.)
TODD: Has that been a journey of discovery or was it always clear to you?
CEDRIC: For me it has taken years of trial and error. When you first start out it takes a while to discover what you are really good at and what kind of projects you really enjoy doing. At the same time the sands of mass media are constantly shifting beneath our feet and so you have to grow and adapt as the marketplace keeps changing. In hockey there’s a saying: “Don’t skate where the puck is. Skate where the puck is going.” Now more than ever, artists have to pay attention to the changes that are happening in terms of how people consume the content we create, and what types of art still has value.
TODD: How have different seasons of life impacted your creative journey?
CEDRIC: I started freelancing when I was still in college. I also worked part-time jobs for about two years to make ends meet but otherwise I’ve been self-employed ever since. I’m now in my early forties and am the sole breadwinner for my wife and three children. The responsibility of having a family has forced me to look for ways to work smarter instead of harder. I’ve spent some time reading books and attending seminars about the business side of being a freelancer and it has paid off. I recommend other artists work on strengthening their business skills as well. I recently created a 2-hour webinar where I share a lot of what I’ve learned about the business side of freelancing. It’s available at TaughtByAPro.com.
TODD: What has been the most difficult thing for you about working in your industry?
CEDRIC: One big challenge is that the traditional markets for art and illustration (children’s books, magazines, cartoons, etc.) have all sort of collapsed, or at least shriveled. Instead of just a few major publishers and media companies there is now an infinite number of places to find entertaining content. Even the big media conglomerates are being thrown off-balance by it. There’s so much free content floating around that it makes it hard to justify charging money for what we create. Everyone’s budgets are smaller and there’s a widespread attitude of “art should be cheap, or even free.”
The big challenge facing independent artists is how to make money off of your work? For me, I’ve found that by focusing on concept art (character design, toy design, etc.) I’m able to still make money charging clients to create something custom for them that they can’t already find online. I’m using my skills to help them invent something new. Other artists are selling advertising on their sites, or merchandising their work, or using Kickstarter, or the new thing is to get backers on Patreon.com.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I recently came across an excellent video about this topic by an illustrator named Will Terry. His conclusion was that in order to survive artists need to start being more entrepreneurial. Here’s the link to his video which I recommend everyone watch.
TODD: How do you balance life working as a freelancer?
CEDRIC: It’s a challenge and this is one area where I still struggle, even after all these years. It seems like I either have too much client work or not enough. My schedule is never “just right”. I’m getting too old for all-nighters so when I’m really busy I’ve started subcontracting some of the work (with the client’s permission). I’ve also learned to be smarter about which projects I take on. If I have a gut feeling that a project is not the right fit, or I’m dealing with a shady client, or the budget is just too low, I’ve learned its better to politely pass on the project. If work is slow I will sometimes still say no and take the time I would have spent on the project and use it doing self-promotion instead. In the long run that can pay off by helping me land better long-term clients.
With a wife and kids I also try to make sure I take time off for them. I try to do regular date nights with my wife and family nights with my kids. I’ve also gotten in the habit of tracking my hours, even when I’m not doing client work. Sometimes it helps to look up and say, “Wow, I’ve already put in 45 hours this week and it’s only Friday morning. I’m taking the rest of the day off.”
TODD: What current project, venture, or event are you currently working on and what’s the most exciting thing about it?
CEDRIC: Last year I launched my first self-made project on Kickstarter called the “Pose Drawing Sparkbook”. It’s a super-charged sketchbook designed to help artists practice putting more life and personality into their poses, and so far it’s been very well received. I do a lot of toy design concept work for Hasbro, and I’m one of the character and costume designers for VeggieTales. I’m very thankful that I’m at a place in my career where I can be paid to play around and explore with my drawings. It’s a lot of fun!
TODD: What is one overarching piece of advice you would give to any young creative trying to find their way and discover their calling?
CEDRIC: Try lots of things. Get a lot of feedback and listen to it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, that’s the best way to learn. If all you ever practice are things you already know how to do, you’ll stop growing and become stale and one-note. Also, listen to the feedback others give you and be open to constructive criticism. A little humility goes a long way.
TODD: What does a typical day look like for you?
CEDRIC: It really varies depending on how busy I am, but most days I roll out of bed and get right to work. I often work through lunch, depending on my deadlines, then try to take a short break with my family in the afternoon. Then I work into the early evening, have dinner with my family, and spend a little time with my kids (playing, reading books or Bible stories, etc.) before my wife or I put them to bed. Then, if I’ve got a lot of work on my plate (which is often), I may go back in the studio and work late into the evening. If my schedule is lighter I’ll spend some time with my wife, do chores, run errands, etc. I also used to get to the gym regularly but have fallen out of the habit.
TODD: What is your basic process for drawing an illustration or character?
CEDRIC: It’s important to start by talking with the client and finding out as much as I can about what they need and what they hope to accomplish with the character. Then I’ll do some research. If they want me to design, say, an elephant chef, then I’ll use Google Image Search to find photos of real elephants and look at the modern costumes a chef might wear. What poses might a chef strike? What activities might he do? What equipment or utensils would he use? I also keep a file on my computer of animals drawn by other artists, things I’ve grabbed off of blogs and websites over the years. So I might look at those for inspiration to see how other artists have drawn cartoon elephants. I never copy their work, but studying what they’ve done can help me figure out how I can simplify the design without losing the essence of what makes it an elephant.
Then I start drawing. I draw in Photoshop on a Cintiq. Usually I’ll start with very rough thumbnails and basic shapes, playing around with proportions and poses. I don’t worry too much about the details until I find a few that I like. I might doodle up 15 elephants and pick four that I think are interesting. I’ll enlarge them, draw over the top, and keep playing and adding details until I get something I think I an show the client for feedback.
TODD: Do you set career or development goals? If so, how has planning and goal setting helped you in your career?
CEDRIC: A little. I’m not usually that inspired by books and seminars and motivational speakers. But I also think it’s wise to be forward thinking and plan ahead so that my career doesn’t become aimless and stale. I try to keep promoting myself and looking for new clients even when I’m busy. There are certain clients I would love to get and so I’m always looking for new ways to get their attention. I also believe it’s important to keep learning and growing so I sometimes take online classes or study what other artists are doing on blogs, youtube, etc. and then challenge myself to try new things so that I can stay fresh and keep improving.
TODD: Do you see your vocation as a calling?
CEDRIC: I believe very strongly that our talents are a gift from God, and that He has given them to us for a reason. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. So we have a responsibility to hone and develop our talents so that we can use them in a way that helps fulfill those commandments. (I certainly can’t claim that I do that perfectly—far from it—but I’m trying.)
TODD: Lastly, what would you say are the top 2 or 3 things a freelancer should focus on?
CEDRIC: I was reminded recently of a quote by Neil Gaiman. He said that any artist only needs three things to survive: “Be skilled, be likable, and meet your deadlines”. So, I’d say if you can work on those three things you’ll be fine.