"...becoming successful online as an artist was a marathon and not a sprint. I see a lot of very talented artists fail to get any traction online simply because they lack the necessary perseverance over the long haul."
Artist Eric Fan is more than just a spectacular illustrator, he’s also packed to the gills with great advice for fellow Redbubblers who may be struggling with the precarious and prickly world of self-promotion. And as we’ve learned from several posts about the cursed schtick to selling oneself, mastering the act is not unlike a bear mastering the act of riding an old-timey bicycle while wearing a bowler cap.
Fan’s work, which according to him is a mix of “nostalgia, humor, the surreal, and the whimsical” highlights a strange and sweet-natured world of steampunk gentlemen, (the aforementioned) performing bears, and dudes who ride around on record player/bike hybrid things.
Fan took some time to chat with us about his inspiration, his process, his work/life balance, self-promotion, and much more in the great, illuminating chat below.
Strap on your goggles and top hat and read away.
Redbubble: Your profile says that you have a “passion for the whimsical and unexpected,” what made you interested in these topics?
Eric: In some ways it’s a consequence of doing t-shirt design, which is how I got my start as an artist. I found that the designs that resonated with people had something surprising or humorous about them that could be read very quickly. On the other hand, those are things I just naturally gravitate towards when I draw. I’m not sure why exactly; it probably has something to do with keeping in touch with that inner creativity that starts when you’re a kid: a quality of playfulness and an openness to wonder. Those are qualities that are easy to lose as you grow older, and for me art has always been a way to sustain that.
Redbubble: You work a day job as driver for a construction company, can you describe finding a balance between your “professional” and creative life? How do you find the time?
Eric: It’s tough sometimes, to be honest. I’m actually at a point where I can almost support myself doing art alone so I’m at a crossroads as far as deciding whether I want to take that leap of faith and work full-time as an artist. To do both takes a lot of discipline because it’s easy to give in to the siren song of Netflix after a long day at work, so you really have to dig in your heels and carve out some time for your art. If you’re committed to doing something, it’s amazing what you can accomplish simply by prioritizing a certain amount of time each week, even if it’s a small amount of time. It applies to almost everything really – from going to the gym, to doing housework. My condo used to routinely fall into Withnail & I levels of despair and ruin until I started consciously being disciplined about keeping it organized. Your creative life requires the same level of attention and ongoing commitment. If you do just a little bit every day, by the end of the week it adds up to something significant.
Redbubble: Can you tell us about the importance of perseverance and patience when it comes to selling your artwork?
Eric: The advice I was once given by a sage artist (my brother, Terry) was that becoming successful online as an artist was a marathon and not a sprint. I see a lot of very talented artists fail to get any traction online simply because they lack the necessary perseverance over the long haul. It takes time to cultivate an online presence and gain any sort of recognition or popularity. It doesn’t happen over days or weeks. The truth is, it can take years, and that definitely takes patience.
Redbubble: How do you navigate the complicated field of creative frustration and rejection?
Eric: Frustration, I find, is really the enemy of art. No matter what, you need to connect with that inner pipeline of confidence and joy to create anything, regardless of rejection. It’s a difficult balancing act – having that necessary objectivity, but also a degree of inner strength to keep creating in the face of rejection. It’s easy to say that you should always look at rejection as an opportunity to learn and grow, but the truth is it sucks sometimes, haha. All kidding aside, it can be a great learning experience though, if you set your ego aside. I certainly had my share of rejection when I started entering t-shirt contests years ago. The knee-jerk reaction is to take your ball and go home, but it’s far better to step back and honestly assess your work and try to figure out why it’s being rejected. Now, it could be that you’re a genius and the world just isn’t ready for your work; I’m not denying that possibility. There are numerous examples of great writers and artists who faced rejection early on, only to be vindicated later, so the question you have to ask yourself is whether you’re being rejected because your work isn’t up to par, or because the stars just haven’t aligned for you yet. It still comes back to being able to step back and assess your work objectively.
Redbubble: Something Redbubble artists consistently struggle with is self-promotion, why do you think it’s important to promote your work?
Eric: I think self-promotion isn’t something that comes naturally to a lot of artists, but it is important. It’s easy to get lost amidst a sea of other artists. The scope of the task can seem almost futile when you’re just starting out, or have limited time; but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than people talking about you is people not talking about you. Maintaining an online presence is a constant struggle, and, truth be told, self-promotion isn’t something that comes naturally to me either. I’d much rather just post my work and hide in the background but I know I have to make some effort to get my work seen.
Redbubble: What’s your strategy when managing your Redbubble profile and portfolio? How do you choose which works to upload and when?
Eric: I wish I could say I have some brilliant scheme for orchestrating my profile, but the truth is I upload designs whenever I have the time to do it (usually on weekends). If I do a piece that I’m happy with, that’s really the only criteria I use for deciding whether to post something or not.
Redbubble: Do you utilize social media to spread the word? If so, what are your favorite channels? Which work best?
Eric: I have a Facebook page, and I also use Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. My favourite channel at the moment might be Instagram, simply because it’s a mixture of promotion and also just random pictures from my life. In that sense it feels more natural because I’m not simply promoting my work all the time like a used car salesman. I think the most effective way to promote your work – which I still haven’t quite gotten a handle on – is to engage with your audience on a personal level somehow. There are artists who seem to have mastered this and I’m always in awe of their social aptitude online. Whether it’s running a giveaway contest, asking for advice on a piece of art, or just posting something entertaining, the important thing is to engage with people directly instead of just passively presenting your work. Facebook can be a great platform for this, but again it’s most effective if you engage people. If you can get people to comment on, or like a post, the internal algorithms will present your post to more people and increase its overall organic reach.
Redbubble: What’s your process like? Is there a slow ramp up to a completed piece? Is there a lot of thinking before you put pen to paper?
Eric: It all depends. If things are going well there’s very little thinking and sometimes the idea kind of springs from the ether fully formed. Other times it’s a real struggle and nothing comes easily. There’s always that terror that you’ll never have another idea, but the key is to keep hammering away at the wall until something emerges.
Redbubble: What tools do you use to create your works?
Eric: I work with fairly traditional media like pencil, pen, and pencil crayon. Afterwards, I’ll scan the image and import it into Photoshop to colour and refine.
Redbubble: What’s been your most successful piece on Redbubble so far? Why do you think it’s connected with fans?
Eric: “Music Man” has been my most popular design to date. I think it’s a fun piece, and maybe it connected with people because we live in such a hectic, digital age that there’s something reassuring about the antithesis to all that. It’s in the zeitgeist already to an extent, with people seeking out the artisanal and handmade over the mass produced (not to mention the popularity of beards).
Redbubble: If you could share one piece of advise with the Redbubble community, what would it be?
Eric: Be confident enough to acknowledge your strengths, but humble enough to be aware of your weaknesses, and where you can still improve. Believe in yourself, and, most of all, define yourself by what you love doing in life, not by what you do to make ends meet.
Lastly, I wanted to say a big thank you to the Redbubble staff for all the encouragement and support you’ve given me!