Edited by my beloved friend K.L
This article is part of the special series “Illustrator: the profession“, where you will find the answers to the questions you most frequently ask me about my profession.
For this special occasion, I invited some talented colleagues to give us their realistic, detailed, and sincere points of view on the profession of illustrator.
Violette Grabski: dreamlike illustrator for children
Violette Imagine is the artist who goes by the name of Violette Grabski, a Belgian illustrator.
To finish this special series Illustrator: the profession in the most gratifying way possible, let me take you on a discovery of Violette’s universe, which is filled with magic, sweetness and hope. Would such journey be the perfect choice for an article published on Christmas day?
Initially, Violette’s interview was not the last of this series, but I chose to keep this interview for Christmas because the spirit of this discussion is just… magical.
In most autobiographies or interviews with creative professionals, we often come cross a common pattern such as the artist has always known deep down what could be his/her dream, his/her destiny, his/her career. This is not the case for Violette. I’m more than convinced that her path full of twists and turns will speak to many of us.
During this interview, you will discover a talented, determined and humble person. But more than that, you will walk out of this conversation feeling relaxed, reassured, and encouraged.
Violette’s message is a gift to end this year on a gentle note. And I hope her story and encouraging words will give us motivation for the new year, which is coming soon. New year, new you, right?
Meet the artist
Table of contents
Here is the table of contents, to facilitate your reading, rereading, and future research:
Good wine needs no bush
Drawing & sharing
Tu Ha An (An): How would you describe your working day as an illustrator?
Violette Grabski (Violette): I’m working with a writer on an upcoming comic book. So, the main thing that I’m doing for the time being is drawing.
But I often work on different projects at the same time because I like to diversify my works. Right now, besides the comic book, I’m also working on children’s books and a tarot deck.
I find that being an illustrator involves being able to work on many fields. There is a lot of drawing, but there are also a lot of work on social networks, whether it is to share a story or to create new posts. It is important to make your work known, and to bring it forward.
In fact, that’s also how I found most of my projects. My Instagram account has grown and has allowed me to be in contact with publishers that I might not have been able to approach without it.
An: Approximately, how much time do you spend on drawing, administrative tasks, and social networks, each week?
Violette: Right now, since I’m working mostly on the comic book project that I mentioned earlier, I would say that I draw 80% of my time. I spend 10% of my time on social networks and the rest goes to emails, phone calls and other things.
But there were times when it was more like 60% drawing and 30% social networks.
I’m often more active on days when I post on Instagram. Those days are when, I get the most interactions with my followers, in comments and in private messages.
Sustainable work thanks to Instagram
An: Is Instagram your primary medium to reach your potential customers?
Violette: I would say that it is really the main showcase space of my works.
I have a website, which I need to update to make it more dynamic. But it’s really Instagram that has been helping me gain visibility.
When I was still contacting publishers through traditional methods, oftentimes they wouldn’t reply, and if any, it was just to send back a refus. Meanwhile, with my Instagram, I have some publishers who took the initiative to offer me projects.
Right now, I don’t have to look for work anymore. Offers have been coming in more regularly. I even had to turn down some of them. As we speak, I have enough projects until 2028!
Being someone who wasn’t comfortable with social networking and who got to force herself to feed Instagram in the beginning, I actually came to a place now where I found a lifelong career because I tried going on this social network platform, which is pretty crazy!
The good side of Instagram
Invading Instagram with sweetness
An: I feel like right now there are quite a handful of negative connotations when we talk about Instagram.
But I think this social network can be positive. Some of the latest news on the media gave many people anxiety and pushed many more into a very unstable mental state. So I think seeing something as poetic and sweet as your drawings on Instagram feed can bring people more hope and sweetness into their lives.
Violette: I do hope that my work can make people feel good. It makes me feel good to draw sweet and fairy scenes. It’s a therapy for me. I become anxious pretty quickly, and drawing something being the opposite to my feelings makes me feel better. Perhaps other people might have the same feelings on the other side of the screen as well…
Regarding Instagram, it’s true that lately there are a lot of negativity about it. My exposure there has gone down a lot as well. But I know it is because I’m less active so I’m not really worried about it, especially since people who used to follow me still interact with me there.
Receiving sweetness with Instagram
An: What is the best feedback you have received from your community or clients?
Violette: I received a lot! People telling me that my drawings made them feel good, editors saying nice things about my work when we start working together…
But it’s mostly the messages from my followers that are the best feedback.
Like that one time I received a message from someone who told me that one of my illustrations reminded her of a deceased parent, and it was like a blessing to her heart. I was deeply touched. I was happy that I was able to help this person mourn in some ways.
I also love when children grow fond of the world that I brought to them. Children often say what they think without filter, and when their parents transer such messages to me just as they were, I’m really moved.
As an illustrator, we often work alone from home. We don’t usually get direct feedback in person. So, the feedback on Instagram motivated me a lot, for which I’m very grateful.
When Instagram community is a source of confidence
An: You’ve set a foot in illustration realm for a long time without actually being in it. Do you think that not having a degree in illustration had an impact on the confidence of your clients or publishers?
Violette: I guess that my clients came to me because they were looking for something different, maybe because I don’t have the same approach as those who were formally trained in illustration.
Or maybe it was me who didn’t have enough confidence in me at the beginning. I thought that I didn’t know how things work in illustration world. Sometimes I felt lacking compared to people who studied illustration properly, I was afraid to show my works.
In the end, it was being on social networks and having so many interactions with people that helped me to put my inferiority complex to a side. Their kindness and positive comments encouraged me to produce more and enabled this feeling of wanting to share my work in me. Of course, my illustrations are not perfect, they will continue to evolve with time, and I will continue to improve.
Finding the right dream: the path of many twists and turns
An atypical path
An: Why did you decide to become an illustrator? Was it always a constant desire, or were there moments of doubt?
Violette: In the past, it was kind of me being all over the place.
Since my childhood, I have always been drawing and caving in a creative environment. Art has always been at the center of my interest, in all its forms, let I be drawing, music or theater… And my parents were very supportive, which I know is not obvious for everyone.
I got to study stage design, mainly for theater plays. We had to master a lot of things in the process: drawing, doing decorations, making props for acting… I like the program and all the practices very much, but I also realize that stage design was not what I’d imagine myself doing.
During my school days, I liked drawing very much but I had this passion for animation as well. I didn’t choose illustration at that time because I was afraid of not being able to find a job and went for animation. I chose to focus on digital and pursued further in learning design, 3D modeling and animation.
I kept studying animation until I was 28. I did some drawing on the side, without pretending like I want to draw neither. Before 2018, I had few experiences in illustration. Among them, some weren’t very good souvenirs. But when I started Violette Imagine in 2018, I realized how much passionate I was and was more than convinced that this is what I could see myself doing every day.
I really put in everything to make it work. I had a hard time finding work and viable projects in the past. But I kept going. I’m extremely stubborn, but more than that, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
There were times when I doubted myself, but I always found my motivation back.
It was only from 2020 onwards that I started to have more and more interesting and regular projects. My Instagram account grew a lot around that time. I think the lockdown might have helped as well.
Then it just kind of running from there. It hasn’t stopped, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed to make sure it doesn’t stop! Roughly speaking, that’s how I got into illustration.
Human relations above all
An: Do you want to have an agency in the future?
Violette: I thought about it at the beginning of my activities. I tried to reach out for several agencies but nobody answered me.
But now I think I would prefer to be on my own. I like to be my own boss and stay in direct contact with the client. Having a middleman might not be my cup of tea after all. The relationship with people is important for me, even if it’s only virtual through Internet.
With an agent, I’m afraid that I would be too much in my own bubble and grow so depending on my agent that I wouldn’t realize all the potentials that there might be around.
An atypical career path requires extraordinary courage
Achieving the impossible
An: What makes you most proud about your job?
Violette: I take pride in working on projects that I really enjoy and seeing them getting published.
I used to think that I would never be published nor have any project with publishers. I feel a lot more confident now that people came to see my work for what it is, and for my personality. It was very difficult for me to put myself forward because I am introverted and extremely shy.
So, I’m proud of myself for making it and to pushing it until this stage. I was told by many that I couldn’t do it. And now I’m proud that I can tell them I did it!
Those who are against our choice have, sometimes, buried dreams
An: Do you think that it took a lot of courage to follow this freelance path?
Violette: You have to be brave AND perseverant because it doesn’t happen just instantly by magic.
You have to be very involved, sometimes to the detriment of the rest. I am someone who works very hard and I don’t take time for myself, or for the people I love, even though I should…
This profession requires a lot of courage because people in our surrounding don’t always necessarily understand why we want to do this kind of job.
I try to take a step back and have a more objective view about people around me. Some of them might have wished that they had led a different life, but instead they found themselves being tightened into jobs that they don’t like, like an obligation.
Then when they see people like us who are trying to do their dream job, it makes them feel bitter.
Such outlook is far from being desirable, but I want to tell them that getting into your dream job is always possible, and that there is no age limit for it. There are many examples of people who had a whole career before changing it. There is no free pass, you have to work hard, but the road is accessible to everyone.
« It worked from the moment I decided to do what I wanted. »
An: How long did it take you from the moment you started your activity to the moment you consider that you are able to make a living from your work?
Violette: What I’m about to share is going to scare people, but I only really started making a living by the age of 30. I had many failures before that. It was not easy.
I feel like I’ve lived several lives doing all the jobs that I have tried before: stage design, 3D animation, video games… I was looking for jobs in the fields I was trained in.
When I created Violette Imagine in 2018, it was like a turning point for me when I could practically move on from that part of life prior to that. The birth of Violette Imagine was the moment where I consider that I made the decision to be an illustrator and only do that, without a bread-and-butter work on the side.
I would say that it took me a year and a half, between fall 2018 and the end of 2020, to grow as an illustrator and to figure out what I wanted to offer.
I tried a lot of things! I tested out running online stores, I offered commissions for portraits, basically just things I saw from other artists, thinking that might be what would work. As how things turned out, none of them worked.
It took another turn from the moment I decided to do only what I wanted to do, without following nor even looking at what others were doing.
I fed myself on everything around me and decomposed them part by part. A bit like onions, I remove the skins, peel every layer of it, and get to the essential, to what I want to show, to propose and to what I think is relevant.
And I have the impression that from the moment I really put forward my universe and my ideas, things started to catch on. What was closest to me ends up leading more people to recognize themselves in my work and to feel more emotions living in my paintings…
Being yourself is the most important thing, but it could be also a very scary idea. We often hide ourselves. However, the moment you reveal yourself, you will realize that it’s possible that people appreciate you for what you do and for who you are.
I have a rather atypical background. But despite my scattered path, at some points, I was able to find a way to sit down and say: “This is what I want to do, this is what I show”, and keep moving forward!
Mental health and balance for creative workers
An: Among your activities, which one is your main source of income, and which one is your main source of happiness?
Violette: Right now, my main income is from projects in publishing industry. To put it broadly, when you work on a comic book, you get a retainer (note: an advance on author’s rights) that allows you to live on the time the project is in conception.
Oftentimes, a comic book requires one year to one and a half year of work. I made the choice to work on other projects at the same time to have a sufficient income during the year.
I wanted to take better care of my online store this year but I didn’t manage to put it back online, nor to work on it again. This is my 2022 shortcoming. But I think it was a good decision for my mental and physical health.
I ran my store on Etsy in 2020 and a little bit in 2021. I really liked it the experience, because it was a time when I got to share my work a lot. It was also a time when I reopened my YouTube channel, which is also on pause for now.
To come back to the matter of income diversification, I couldn’t proceed with it this year due to lack of time. But this also means that my main job gives me enough financial stability, and that’s fortunate.
But on the other hand, I would like to have more time for myself and build more streams of passive income so I could work more on projects that really intrigue me without having my head drowing in work all the time, including during weekends or during the evening…
Many of my colleagues are on the verge of burn-out as well. It’s much more common among artists than you might think. And it is not normal.
This year has been difficult for me because of that. I was getting sick during my vacation. It was like my body gave up and said, “Oh, you’re on a break? Wait and see, I’m going to make you fell every bit you’ve stored up until now.”
Young people are told that you have to work hard and be productive. But you also have to take time to recharge your batteries! We’re completely empty otherwise.
I want to take a month off next year, to rest, but also to enrich my imagination, to continue creating. It’s part of my 2023 resolutions!
The place of women authors and literature for children
An: Do you feel that being a woman in this profession gives you an advantage or a disadvantage while running your business? Do you feel that there is an imbalance in the illustration industry?
Violette: In my case, I have not experienced sexism as an illustrator.
Most people who follow my works are women. At least that’s what the Instagram stats tell me. And from the interactions that I have, many of them were mothers, who mostly were searching for illustrators whose style could fit them, to potentially make inquiry for commissions.
I think my works are rather reaching that particular type of people. And that’s the type of audience I’m targeting as well. The world of childhood touches me particularly. I like making people dream and delivering this nostalgic side in my illustrations.
I didn’t feel excluded solely because I was a woman. But I do know for a fact that the comic book publishing world is vastly still dominated by men.
Through stories from other women who work on children’s comics that I know about, it’s not wrong to say that we are not as well regarded as our male counterparts in other sections of literature, because what we do is comics made by women and dedicated to children.
It’s absurd, even today, to think that children are not an important audience in literature. And it annoys me that people claim their work to be more important just because it is intended for adult readers.
I believe that education is most important, now more than ever, and it can be done through books. It is the very thing that we bring to children now that can be used later as a guideline to give them a sense of sensitivity.
Every person was once a child. Every person tried to build themselves before. And children’s books are part of this construction.
Culture: the field of thorns
The permanent deconstruction
An: Are ethnic diversity and the variety of representations of bodies and genders are elements that you wish to integrate into your work?
Violette: Yes, I try to offer diversity with my characters. When I had contracts, say, for schoolbooks, the instructions explicitly said that the illustrations had to be culturally varied.
I didn’t necessarily realize it at first, but I had this tendency to draw characters that looked like me out of habit without questioning. Few readers helped pointing that out to me and now I’m much more careful.
I had to learn to deconstruct myself across the span of several years to see through the eyes of others. I grew up in a place where we are all white, and it’s really through my studies and my journey that I learned the diversity of our humankinds, for it to be genders or cultures.
Even today, I’m still trying to learn, to listen, because it is important to realize that there are people who still feel under-represented. I try my best to include every traits of diversity, so that everyone could feel included and can recognize themselves in what I draw.
An: Deconstructing the images that we see everywhere in books, in advertisements, in our education, in life… is a permanent work. And being an illustrator, we have the superpower to represent this change in our illustrations.
Violette: Yes we do, and we have to.
On the other hand, I’ve always been afraid of falling into the issue of cultural appropriation. When I work for myself, I usually draw more of European folklores, or the folklore of my region, the Belgian Ardennes.
Sometimes I feel lot of hesitation to integrate tales and legends from other cultures than mine into my drawings, because I’m afraid of cultural appropriation. I think it’s better for people who belong to those cultures to speak about their culture.
It’s kind of ambivalent. I’m always afraid of doing it wrong.
An: I totally understand, because that was my feeling too. When I started out, I wondered if I was legitimate enough to identify myself as a multicultural illustrator.
I’m afraid that I don’t know enough about my drawing subject, especially when such subject comes from another culture. Talking about that, I don’t even know that much about my native culture neither, nor about French culture, even though I’ve been living in France for 10 years.
Then I remembered this detail, which I hope will help you too.
I grew up in Vietnam. When a foreigner released a movie or published a book about Vietnam or about an ethnic group in our country, what we felt was this sense of thankfulness, we were grateful that there were people who were interested in our culture. Sometimes, these publications were even highlighted in the 7pm news (note: the equivalent of the 8pm news in France).
It is gratifying to see the hard work foreigner people did to do research on our culture and the serious attitude that they led their work with. Even as natives, oftentimes there are things in our culture that we no longer notice because they are part of our habits and routines. It’s only when others pay attention to these things and talk about them that, we would realize how rich our culture truly is, and how much our culture can be fascinating to others while it is an ordinary matter to us!
If only Vietnamese have the right to talk about Vietnam, and only Belgians have the right to talk about Belgium, we will all stay in our own corner, and there will be no more cultural exchange.
Violette: It’s a really good way of thinking that you brought to me there. The problem of cultural appropriation held me back a bit for the fear that I might hurt people’s feelings, while the truth is I’m only so interested in different cultures!
Three layers of sh*t on the “illustrator” sandwich
An: Author Elizabeth Gilbert mentioned a concept called sh*t sandwich: When you look at a job from the outside, you tend to see only the good things, but in every job there is the sh*t sandwich that only the people who do the job can see, whether it’s risks, constraints, misfortunes.
What are the most unpleasant aspects of your job, that you consider to be a sh*t sandwich ?
Violette: The financial aspect is often the first good layer of sh*t, because it takes a lot of work and time to make a stable and liveable salary.
At first, I thought I couldn’t make a living. For now, what I earn is reasonable but I want to earn more in the future. The living cost is driving up and there is virtually no way to escape from such circumstances.
The second layer of sh*t is that you have to manage everything when you are self-employed. You must be ready to be polyvalent and cannot wish to focus solely on drawing. You must be prepared to manage the accounting, the communication, the customers, the feedbacks…
Thirdly, prospecting and showcasing my work are complicated. As an introvert, this still is a difficult matter. You have to detach yourself from your self-image, as you often tend to undervalue yourself. It’s a regular challenge no matter how much daily practice has been done.
However, the negative is so much less than the positive. In the end, it always worths the effort.
Before you get started
Essentials to be defined
An: What do you consider to be the most important thing to start as an illustrator?
Violette: In my case, I took the « Illustration, l’Atelier » course from the illustrator Ëlodie, which helped me a lot before I started.
You have to study the market, know what you want to do, and not limit yourself to only one activity. Many illustrators have client projects, but they also run a YouTube channel, offer a Patreon service or open a store.
You need to consider the kind of projects you are interested in, the type of clients you are targeting and how you will communicate your work.
It’s not as simple as just drawing something and posting them on social networks. There must be an entire line of communication around your work. Some people keep a website as a showroom; others do newsletters… Whatever channel you choose, it’s better than having only one network.
Resources for pricing
An: Do you have any resources that you would like to recommend to those who are starting out, or who wish to become illustrators?
Violette: I checked out graphistefreelance.be, to learn the basics about pricing (note: the rates specified on this site are those of Belgium).
Otherwise, there is the Facebook group Au secours, j’ai un devis à faire (Help, I have an estimate to do) that I find quite relevant. It can be useful if you want to ask for advice. You can also look at what others have asked for and the advice they have received. It provides a good foundation.
I also remember a Q&A video that Marie Boiseau posted recently, where she gave some interesting resources, maybe more for French people, like La Facturation pour les pros (Invoicing for Professionals) and Kit de survie du créatif (The Survival Kit for the Creative).
I think these are resources that can help at the beginning. Later on, our prices will change according to our experiences, and you can make better estimate with each project further down the road. It’s important to remember this point! I often say to myself that I should have proposed another price, especially because the traditional illustration takes time.
Remember, creativity is part of everyday life
An: If you have one last piece of advice for those who dream of becoming illustrators, what would it be? And do you have a word for their family and friends, in case their family and friends are against their life choice?
Violette: If the person truly wants to do this, if it is something vital to them, I would tell them not to be afraid and to keep persevering, to keep pushing this fire in them, to keep putting it out loud without any fear of judgment from others.
The financial aspect can obviously hold them back. I come from a working-class family and I used to be completely broke. But we only live for a certain amount of time on Earth, and I want to spend such time doing something I really love. If anyone feels the same way I did, they should go for it and leave prejudice behind.
Personally, I don’t want to bend myself to please others. I’ve seen many people around me who didn’t dare to live the life they wanted to live only because they were afraid.
My mother wanted me to continue a standard education at first because she was worried about my future. Then she saw how unhappy I could be when I was doing something that didn’t suit me. I think that spoke to her.
And for other acquaintances who are not close enough to us to see how much we are fulfilled doing the work we do, we have to show them the concrete side of our project, how much we are interested in this environment, how thoroughly we did our homework running analysis of the market and weighting the advantages and disadvantages of the job. In other words, we should prove that this choice is not just a fantasy and we are seriously preparing for it.
Being illustrator is a job that has been around for a long time, but most creative jobs are so naturally integrated into our daily life that people don’t see that there’s this artistic side in what they live and see.
Take advertising for example. People don’t actively recall that all that clothes and hairstyles were products of design work, or how those colors were figured out. Artists had a big contribution in all of that. Even the dishes they use to eat were made by artists! Creativity is part of everyday life, people just forget sometimes.
A holistic dream 100% Violette
An: Do you have any upcoming projects, or do you have a dream for the future?
Violette: I’m going to finish my comic book, which should be out in 2023. Other projects are also coming up, including two children’s books, and a tarot deck.
Even though I love working with authors and I find such process always very rewarding and I like to transcribe their ideas, I still want to do something 100% Violette. I want to create a children’s book, or write a comic book. My notebooks are full of ideas for future projects.
My absolute dream would be to make a stop-motion movie of my world! I don’t know if I will ever get such opportunity, but it’s something I would really like to do.
If not, on a more personal level, I think of doing some artistic practice in addition to my work. And I want to have some free time to see my family, my friends… It is one of my resolutions: to find a balance between my professional and personal life.
For this first special series in the blog, I would like to offer a package with 5 artworks, from each guest of this special series, to one lucky person among my readers.
If you want to participate in the giveaway, here is the link: https://forms.gle/Zr1zUMSQZsxfgPKk7
I’m also planning 1 surprise gift for each participant of the giveaway!
There’s a place for everyone & Keep creating!
Tu Ha An