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Interview: Thomas James founder of EFII

Thomas JamesEscape From Illustration Island (EFII) is the brainchild of Thomas James, an Illustrator and Writer located in Portland, Oregon who works tirelessly to provide useful content, encourage community participation, and help Illustrators escape their isolation.

Thomas James is an Illustrator, Writer, and Podcaster based in Portland, Oregon.  In 2009 he created Escape from Illustration Island, a website, podcast, and art community devoted to sharing resources and inspiration with Illustrators and other creative professionals.  He is also the author of the new eBook, 15 Steps to Freelance Illustration, due out on June 15th.

Thomas has written guest posts for Fuel Your Illustration, Design TAXI, and the Creative Freelancer Blog, and has appeared on Illustration podcasts and blogs such as Big Illustration Party Time, Chris Oatley’s Artcast, Art & Story, Zero 2 Illo, Workbook, and Ninja Mountain.

In his spare time, of which there is never enough, Thomas enjoys life with his beautiful wife Melissa and his awe-inspiring twin daughers Emma and Olivia.

Why did you start EFII?

Thanks so much for inviting me to answer your questions, Wendy.  I’m really flattered.

escape from illustrator islandThe name Escape from Illustration Island comes from the idea that Illustrators often live and work in the isolation of their studios.  I created the site and the podcast as a way of bringing creative professionals together to share ideas, resources and inspiration.  This has grown into a thriving community of artists eager to share, which is something that I’m both happily surprised by and extremely grateful for.

I see you have a podcast as well as tutorials, articles and other resources for illustrators. Do you find keeping all the content fresh to take time away from your illustration work?

Actually, I was beginning to feel bored and uninspired with my Illustration style, so EFII was a welcome diversion while still working on something related to Illustration.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to turn the site into an alternate income stream with the help of my generous sponsors.  This allowed me the freedom to take a step back with my art, and think about where I really wanted to go with it.  As a result, I completely overhauled my style to be something that I’m excited about again.  So, EFII has actually been a blessing in that way as well.

It seems as if the site has morphed into a huge thing. Was this a plan or a happy accident?

EFII statueIt started very small.  In fact at first it was just a list of resource links that I’d compiled over the years.  I quickly realized that there was a huge demand for a place that artists can turn to for advice, inspiration, tutorials, and other resources.  Being a podcast junkie myself, starting an audio show seemed like the logical next step.  Thanks to Nate Williams, I was able to also syndicate the podcast on Illustration Mundo, which helped to get the message out there.  I soon saw that I was in a unique position to speak to such amazing people as Steven Heller, Drew Struzan, Gary Taxali, Brian Despain, and so many others.

The more I did, the more things grew.  So, I gradually added more and more features to the site, such as articles, tutorials, reviews, etc.

So, to make a long story short, Escape from Illustration Island has been an exercise in noticing that I was onto something big and trying to make the most of it.

How long have you been an illustrator?

I’ve been an Illustrator since about 2003, which isn’t very long compared to a lot of people I’ve spoken to.  However, it feels like a long time to me because ever since I started I’ve been cramming my head with as much information as I could so I could be better at what I do.

© Thomas James © Thomas James

What are some of your recent projects (other than EFII?)

15 steps to freelance illustrationThe thing I’m most excited about is my new eBook, 15 Steps to Freelance Illustration, which will be release on June 15th.  Basically, it aims to help artists to build a strong foundation for their freelance Illustration business through a series of tasks that they can apply to their own unique situation.  While there are a lot of other useful books on the subject, I challenged myself to strip things down to the most essential elements and empower every Illustrator to customize the process with the supplemental workbook.

I’ve also been building up my portfolio with work in my new style, since I’ve gotten rid of everything that I don’t identify with anymore.  Soon, I’ll be working on putting myself back out there and trying to find projects that I’d most like to work on.

Was the isolation of being a freelance creative something you wanted to alleviate for yourself? Has the EFII helped?

I’d have to say that I mostly wanted to help other artists to feel less isolated, but EFII has helped me to connect with the larger community in ways that I never even considered.  I’m so grateful for the enthusiasm, feedback, and participation that has made Escape from Illustration Island what it is today.

How long has EFII been active?

EFII just celebrated its 1 year birthday last month, and it was really rewarding to look back on everything I’ve accomplished in the past year, and to look ahead at all the exciting plans I have for the future.

What future plans do you have for EFII?

Well, now that the eBook is finally finished, I’ll be focusing on sharing that with the community.  Also, I’ll be attending the ICON6 Illustration Conference in July as a media sponsor.  While I’m there, I’ll be covering the event from the inside and recording a lot of audio and video content to share with those who can’t make it.

I’m also working on an event in Portland, Oregon where local Illustrators and Art Directors can come together to discuss the goals and challenges they face.  I’m hoping it helps us to understand each other and helps us to work together in the future.

Basically, now that EFII is more firmly established I’m inspired to work on big ideas like this and try to be a positive influence on the industry.

Since you started working in this field, what changes have you observed in the industry?

I’m seeing more and more artists coming out of isolation into the light of day to communicate with each other and share resources.  Social networking is playing a big part in that.

How would you like to see the future of the illustration industry change? What would you like to stay the same?

I’d like to see Illustrators helping to raise the standards of what our time and creative energy is worth.  I think it’s becoming easier and easier for us to undermine our own efforts by working for little or no pay because we’re so desperate to get our work seen.  As far as what I’d like to stay the same, I hope we all continue to talk, share, and assist each other.  I think that’s something that won’t go away.

Are there any modern day illustrators whose work you gravitate toward? Do you feel they have influenced your growth as an artist?

I think that anyone who follows their own creative path inspires me, as well as artists who focus just as much, if not more, on the concepts they are presenting as the skill involved.  A lot of people can draw or paint a pretty picture, but it takes a lot more work and dedication to communicate ideas.

On a personal level, every guest that I speak with on the EFII Podcast helps to motivate me to keep creating and exploring with my work

What would you recommend for someone new to illustration as a career? How about for an old-timer trying a new approach?

To someone new to the career of Illustration, I would say to do as much research as you possibly can.  The more informed you are about the business, the more confident and successful you will be.  Also, I think it’s so important to stop comparing yourself to other artists.  That only holds you back from finding your own true voice.  To “old-timers” trying a new approach, I would say to be fearless with their own work.  If there’s something that’s making you want to move in new directions, then there is something powerful to be found there.  Follow that instinct.


To purchase Thomas James’ new e-book follow this affiliate link: Click here to visit Escape From Illustration Island.
Thank you, Thomas, for a very informative interview. I hope my readers will tune in for your next podcast. I know I will.

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