The freelance illustrator talks inspiration and navigating the path between work and personal time
If you’ve picked up a copy of The Walrus or Canadian Living in the past year, then you have surely seen Jeannie Phan’s colourful illustrations. The Toronto-based freelancer has worked with many magazines, books and social media influencers, as well as with clients such as Sport Chek and HP Canada. We talked to Phan about the beginnings of her creative career and working as a freelancer.
Where did you go to school? What did you like about where you went?
OCAD University—the best part of being there was definitely the connection with such high-calibre working professionals. I'll always remember my drawing classes with painter Stephen Appleby-Barr, my critiques with Gary Taxali, and support from Jacqui Oakley.
And, even though as artists, we groan at writing essays, there are qualities I learned about being in a more academic environment—discipline and being resourceful, [which have] helped me immensely in my career.
Editorial illustration for CPA Magazine
When did you know that you wanted to be an illustrator?
I went to a very academic high school where I thought my future would be in the sciences either as a pharmacist or microbiologist. I'd always been a drawer my entire life, but never thought it was ever a viable career option until I had a casual chat with a friend in the library after school. He had a friend [who] went to OCADU and told me how amazing it was and the programs they offered. It was a very pivotal conversation for me, as I was feeling very blasé about the idea of spending the rest of my adult days in a lab. I made a total 180-degree switch after, pulling all my university applications to go in for a portfolio review. I received early acceptance at OCADU and that was when I knew art was something I was going to dedicate my entire life to.
What is your creative process/philosophy?
I always start off my creative process with the written word. My "sketchbook" is actually more like a notebook, full of point-form lists and crude shorthand symbols. It's important for me to get the ideas out without having to worry about visual vocabulary—so writing is always step one.
I build up by roughing thumbnails, then hop onto the computer to actually sketch. I sketch more like a collage artist—piecing shapes together and moving things around. I find digital sketching more liberating and it flows with how my brain works.
Illustrated map for the Bay of Quinte Tourism regional guide
In your own words, how would you describe your artistic style?
My style reduces things to their simple basic shapes, and then applies soft grit and lines to build it back up. I like to reference old lithographic travel posters but using the more limitless palettes of colours digital technology offers.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a freelancer?
Balancing work and life, hands down. It's easy to work overtime, weekends and even during a friend's party. Ever since I started scheduling days off just like a client project, it's been much easier to manage, but slip-ups still happen.
Editorial illustration for Canadian Living
How do you balance the load between commissioned work and personal work?
The truth is I don't actually do a lot of personal work anymore. When I'm not doing client work, I'm indulging in other hobbies like gardening (check out Phan’s gardening Instagram @studioplants) and fermenting foods. I think there's this idea that artists have a limitless capacity to draw, but we need breaks too.
What has been the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
My most exciting projects are the ones where I have total creative freedom—playing the creative director and artist. I really enjoy doing social media influencer–type campaigns, and loved producing a video and animation for HP Canada. My project with Acqua di Parma also stands out, as visualizing a new line of perfumes was a fun sensory experience. It's not often we're whiffing perfume as we draw!
What inspires your work?
Intimate conversations with friends, discovering vigour in Toronto, and nature.
Editorial illustration for The Globe and Mail