Emily Isabella

Emily Isabella is an Illustrator and Painter who lives and works from her studio in the Hudson Valley, just north of NYC.

As a child, Emily wandered her family’s Wisconsin prairie, pressing Queen Anne’s Lace flowers against her cheeks, pretending they were powder brushes; her work reflects this idealism.

Aside from her product ranges, she takes on project-based collaborations with like minded companies. Her projects vary from book illustration to packaging design to textile design all the while maintaining her unique illustrative style that serves as a reminder to delight in the everyday. 

Emily Isabella | Illustrator and Painter | Freelance Wisdom

Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance painter and illustrator.

I’ve always known I wanted to run my own business. My entrepreneurial spirit has always been around; I've never been very good at working for other people. I come from a family of artists and going to art school was a natural choice. I studied Fibers, which was a broad major that encompassed textile design and all things related to fabric. All the textile work I was doing was very illustrative and by the time I realized I would love to also be an illustrator, it was too late in my college career to study it. I graduated in 2008 during the recession when there were no jobs to be had. This further sealed my dream of working for myself and I started my search for clients immediately after graduation. I had to figure out the illustration part on my own but my grandfather was an illustrator and my dad is an illustrator so I think it came pretty naturally to me. I used gouache in my textile design classes and that's what I had in my toolbox when I started painting. I don't think too much about things, instead I follow my curiosity and used my strengths to help guide me. 

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

My first client was a wallpaper company called Hygge & West. I emailed them my website which at the time was a bunch of experimental college work. I owe them a lot because they saw something in me and took a chance. They had just launched their brand and I was targeting up-and-coming companies as I thought it could be wise to learn and grow together. We’ve been working together for 10 years now! The process of gaining clients was slow and steady, one project always led to another. 
Emily Isabella | Painting Studio | Freelance Wisdom
Emily Isabella | Freelance Wisdom

Your Instagram bio says "I paint all day." We'd love to hear more about that. What does a day in the painting life of Emily Isabella look like?

It’s true. Lately, If I’m not painting at my desk I’m painting on site at the studio my husband and I are building. We’ve been very hands on with the process. My main task is to paint everything. I think the biggest thing I will ever paint was the exterior of our studio. It took the two of us about a month, we painted each board one at a time, a few coats, front and back. Aside from that, I travel with my paints and actually feel most inspired away from my studio so even on trips away, I’ll be painting observations in my sketchbook. In the last 5 years I could probably count on one or two hands the amount of days I didn’t paint something.

How do you set the mood, how long do you work for, what do you do when you get stuck?

Coffee, dancey music, I like to be alone with my work. It depends on how much I have going on but on an average day I work from 8-7. Walking outside helps to clear my head. I also find that closing my eyes for 20 minutes is very effective when I need to unscramble my thoughts. 
Emily Isabella | Frenchie | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

Getting away from my desk and experiencing life is necessary to keep the ideas flowing.

It is amazing how many different types of people, companies, and museums you've collaborated with. Are there other dream clients or dream products for which you'd like to paint?

I’d love to design a ballet. It would be so fun to have my hand in it all from the big picture concept down to the ribbons on the costumes.  I’d also love to work alongside a fashion designer and design prints specially for the garments,  á la Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark. 
Emily Isabella | The Closet | Freelance Wisdom

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?

Taxes, the worst. 

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? 

I think it’s important to understand how to do it yourself before you hire out.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?

My dad is a freelance graphic designer and I was fortunate to have him as a sounding board when I first started. However, I was too stubborn to use a tax program (turbo tax, etc.) because I couldn't fathom the idea of spending money to pay my taxes. I ended up spending three tearful days trying to make sense of the tax system. It was awful. 
Emily Isabella | Desk Corner | Freelance Wisdom

Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?

When it comes to pricing your work, a great book to reference is the Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. Of course, you'll have to make your own decisions about how you choose to value your work but this is a great starting place. 

How do you stay creatively inspired?

Trips to new places, museums, flea markets and time with friends never fail to inspire me.

Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?

I have lots of ideas for children’s books but I haven’t had time to make them a priority. Someday!
Emily Isabella | Sleepy Paul | Freelance Wisdom

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Kate Pugsley

Kate Pugsley is an illustrator, painter, and surface designer based in Chicago. She earned a BFA in illustration from RISD and her clients include Penguin Random House, The New York Times, Tundra Books, Red Cap Cards, Lazzari and many more. 

We love her whimsical style and appreciate her honest insight particularly regarding agent representation and attracting ideal clients. Enjoy!

Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator, painter, and surface designer.

I decided to go to art school because drawing and painting were always my favorite activities as a child and my focus in high school. My understanding of adult life and work was really limited, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else as a career. Although I studied illustration at RISD, my early work after school was closer to fine art; I mostly worked with oil paint and presented work in some gallery shows. I had a few different day jobs while painting nights and weekends. I finally decided a few years after college that illustration was what I really wanted to do, so I made it happen. I started working with materials that translated better to illustration, like gouache and watercolor on paper. Once I felt like I had some pieces I was happy with I put a portfolio together and started reaching out to art directors and sharing my work on social media. It’s not always an easy or secure job, but it can be very fun and rewarding.
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

Most clients found my work online or through something I’ve published—I think clients often prefer to find you rather than to be contacted by illustrators looking for work. My first illustration jobs were editorial pieces for magazines, then I slowly started to get more clients over the years for publishing, surface design and advertising.

You balance working with many different clients and illustrate/paint for different mediums, do you have any tips for being your most productive?

My best tip for being productive is to be strict about setting time aside for deep focus on the actual creative work; time for emails, contracts, social media, etc. must be separate, as it can be very distracting. Making time to sketch and paint freely also opens me up and helps me stay more consistently focused throughout the week. I always keep a few sketchbooks of different sizes going. I record my thoughts and ideas through notes, lists, drawings and small paintings—otherwise, I'll forget them. When I neglect to do this, I tend to get bored and restless easily, and that slows down my productivity. Tidying up my workspace in the morning before getting started always helps a lot too.
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

Can you tell us a bit about your process for getting a book & publishing agent and/or how you connected with Red Cap Cards? How have these partnerships improved your work flow?

I connected with Red Cap Cards over the course of a couple years. We emailed a few times and eventually, we made a collection together for 2016. It’s been one of my most rewarding client relationships. The most satisfying work comes when clients give me a lot of creative freedom and trust me to make good work, and Red Cap definitely does that. We’ve also become friends, which is a nice bonus!
The process of getting an agent for children’s books was rather long and, frankly, a little bit discouraging a lot of the time. I reached out to many agents and agencies, talked to a few, and was rejected every time. I couldn’t find a way to get jobs in children’s publishing without an agent. Then, in 2016, Anne at the Bright Agency contacted me about becoming one of her clients, and now I’m working on my first book (writing and illustration) with Tundra Books. I’m still not really sure how to get an agent, actually. I think putting out consistent work that connects with people is the most important step.

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?

Working alone can be isolating. Negotiating the appropriate fee and timeline for a job can be challenging sometimes too. I love working freelance though, so I don’t have too many complaints.
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

If you could share one piece of advice to your "just starting out" self, what would it be?

It took me a long time to build up some confidence. I used to be very shy and insecure, it held me back a lot. My advice to my younger self would be to work more on understanding my fears and weaknesses instead of just avoiding them.

How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?

I think it’s important to keep working on personal projects to show your own creative vision. Client-based work usually involves compromises, and my voice can sometimes get a little lost underneath a creative brief. I’m trying to find a balance between client work and working on pieces that are completely mine; with that in mind, I try to attract good clients who want to work with me based on my concepts.
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

This language on your website is very wise: "I work with clients interested in forming an ongoing creative partnership." Have you found that this specification does indeed help generate ongoing partnerships?

To be honest, I’m not sure that it’s had much effect in terms of client relationships yet, but that is still my goal.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? 

I have templates for invoices, and I keep track of expenses and income in simple spreadsheets. Keeping it as simple and organized as possible takes some of the stress out of end-of-year tax stuff. Organization doesn’t come naturally to me, but over the years I’ve learned that it saves me a lot of time if I put in the effort. Another thing I recommend to illustrators is to thoroughly read contracts and agreements, and to push back on terms that aren’t good for you!
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom
Kate Puglsey | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

I can’t say I’ve achieved a great balance yet. I really love my work and always want to be creating, but running my own business basically means I never stop working. Since I make my own schedule, I try to not work much on the weekends, and I go for walks every day to get outside and let my mind wander. I also love just enjoying the perks of working freelance, like going to the beach, a museum, or a yoga class in the middle of the day if I have time and need some inspiration or a break.
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?

I recently started a company called Formal Dept. along with my husband, where we’re developing lifestyle goods and housewares that combine my illustration and his product design work. We’ve talked for a long time about working together, and it’s finally starting to come together. Our first product launch is a series of bags, and we’re expanding into tabletop items later this year. And we have a lot of other ideas that we can’t talk about yet! I’m also ruminating on some ideas for illustrated books, some for children and some for adults. I always have more ideas than time!

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Curiosity, enthusiasm, and a unique perspective on your particular creative field.
Kate Pugsley | Freelance Wisdom

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