Freelance Artist and Illustrator: Elizabeth Haidle on Creativity

“A lot of the beginning and middle can be intimidating. You are making something from nothing. It is up to you.”

Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist

Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work runs the gamut from logo design to book illustration, and also involves character concepts for animations & video games. She has an especially incurable passion for non-fiction graphic novels and illustrated an 80-page biography entitled Mind Afire: the Visions of Tesla, written by fellow featured mom, Abigail Samoun. To see more of her work visit her website.

Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist

How did you get started in illustration?

I feel like art degrees are not absolutely necessary these days – it can be a way to carve out a giant chunk of focus. All that I learned about design was after art school, by looking at and borrowing ideas to alter, and by just doing (somewhat poor) design for friends and smaller, more forgiving situations while I slowly improved.

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Getting started in illustration — partly a family tradition and also fortunate-accident. My father was a lithographer in the 80’s, and he worked from home in his garage-studio. He gave us access to all his art history books and we were used to seeing a lot of galleries and fine art, from an early age.

My mother always scooped up every coloring contest and opportunity around town, since we were short on money, and my brothers and I avidly entered everything we could: to win groceries, cash, or various things (one time I won a recliner bike that could ride on sand like a dune-buggy.) I won a national contest when I was 13, called ‘Written & Illustrated By’.

A book I had written and illustrated was published, as part of the prize. That launched me early into an illustration career, and I visited schools as a speaker – to motivate children and teens to create their own books. This job made it possible for me to go to graduate school after college.

Circus scenes from a children’s book in progress.
Circus scenes from a children’s book in progress.

You have an MA from SCAD — how do you think having a formal education in illustration has developed your work?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. I was motivated to get an MA so I could teach at the college level, yet I haven’t done that. (Partly because I lived rurally in New Mexico the past 10 years, no opportunity). I guess it was a luxury, in the sense that I had earned the money and saved up, plus I had a large scholarship to cover most of it…and it was a joy to explore and draw among other talented people for another two years.

I hope to teach adults someday (I’ve been involved in art ed for almost every other age) so – I am still looking forward to putting the MA to use. I don’t feel rushed, it seems to me that the more I work in the industry, the more I’ll have to share in the classroom someday.

Personal project…”The Illustrated Lady & the Minotaur”

What’s your favorite part of being an illustrator and freelance artist?

Seeing the finished product – and feeling surprised by the joy of it.

A lot of the beginning and middle, can be intimidating. You are making something from nothing. It is up to you. There is not a roomful of other people to consult, like in art school. It better be good. The client better be happy and I hope they call me back. Etc. When the end result is something I love, and the client loves….it’s one of the best feelings. Very empowering, I guess.

Altered Postcards. Freelance artist
Altered Postcards.

What’s an average day in your life like? Do you have a daily routine?

Right now….no average day. Sometimes I take off an entire day or two during the week, since I’m a single fulltime parent…I can more easily find what I need to restore myself when my child is away for a known amount of hours….this means I am willing to work late at night or on weekends sometimes. Ideally, I draw better boundaries between work and non-work, but if that never happens, I think that’s okay too.

Close to zero routine. I think it’s better for one’s nervous system to have routine…but so far, maybe the first hour of my day has a smidgen of routine? Like read with my son for 15 minutes, make a hot breakfast, do 5 minutes of yoga poses, drink green tea, send kid to school, sit for 5 minutes of meditation or go for a quick walk before computer. I am a believer that little bits of all the good healthy things…are far better than none.

Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist

You have a wide range of talents, from illustration to copywriting to singing saws. Do you have a particular favorite?

Concept illustration. For animation or for use in movie title credits. I am on a learning curve with this, but it feels like such magic that I am motivated. Music, I can’t conceive of doing for money, other than busking maybe, but I find it gives me a feeling of community to jam with others, and that is a great balance to the often isolated world of making visual art.

What is your ratio of work in the computer to drawing by hand? Do you have a favorite way to work? You do a lot of collage work, is that mostly in Photoshop or do you do it by hand?

This changes project to project. Some months I’ve done mostly by hand, then scanning for final polishing. Lately I made something collaged from a single scan of charcoal texture that I kept slicing in photoshop…and I found it very freeing to be so spontaneous with the shapes & shading….sometimes the mess of collage makes you hesitate over every little decision.

Elizabeth Haidle freelance artist

Being a small business owner means also doing a lot of non-creative work to keep things running. What was the #1 best thing you did to make the business side of your life better?

I’m still working on this bigtime! I have a lot of questions about organizing my time and what self-promo is supposed to look like.

One thing that is new in the past 6 months – I just moved to Portland, and to deal with increased cost of living, I made up the ideal value that an entire week is worth, of my time…and then created a breakdown that the values of a half-week and day rate would be, based on that.

I’m now saying no to jobs that can’t pay that, and I’m asking for retainer fees upfront, for anything that will book up more than one week of my time. It took me a long time to draw those hard lines, and I’m getting good feedback and attracting the kind of clients I want to work with as a freelance artist.

Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist

How has becoming a mom changed the way you work? Do you think motherhood has changed your goals or approach to creativity?

It exploded the limits of my creative thinking…starting with pregnancy. When I couldn’t wrap my head around the surrealism that is brewing in one’s own body, about which basically nothing is known. I created a series of painting about a creature called simply ‘It’, during this time, as a way to cope I think. The images were very mystical and funny, I wasn’t sure how to sell them so I kept them to give my son someday.

After birth….the bizarre world of sleep deprivation set in, so it was difficult to chase my dreams of learning animation. Now that I have a 10 year old, I feel like I have head space to learn After Effects, finally. I do know that I used to struggle with making decisions and knowing what project to work on when….and since having a child, that is almost no problem.

Give me 15 minutes or 5. I will pick up anything from my backlog of things-I’ve-been-craving to do…and just do something. An urgency or immediacy which lends itself to a letting go of creative inhibitions. Also, finding peace of mind became imperative, and not something to put off til retirement. I make taking care of myself a much bigger priority than it ever was pre-motherhood.

Package design/illustration for a new gourmet ice cream brand emerging in LA soon…
Package design/illustration for a new gourmet ice cream brand emerging in LA soon…

Who inspires you creatively? Do you have a favorite illustrator?

Jillian Tamaki – combines beautiful inked brush strokes with watercolor or digital coloring. She experiments, always, sometimes her designs happen with collage or embroidery, even. I am so impressed with a number of female comic artists (or graphic novel genre): Isabelle Arsenault, Eleanor Davis, Lisa Hanawalt (super crass comedic stuff that I find hilarious & refreshing) Also – cut paper! Elsa Mora is my current discovery that I’m all fired up about.

Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist

What are your favorite tools?

  • Pentel Brush Pen (made with real hair and has replaceable ink cartridges)
  • Transform ‘warp’ tool – in photoshop (took me a few years to discover it!)
  • Standing desk with high stool — so I don’t have to sit all the time
  • Yogibo giant beanbag. My favorite way to lounge and sketch, plus I swear it helped with tight back issues
  • Spotify – indispensable for background studio music + you can create collaborative playlists with other friends and freelance artists.

Soon-to-be favorite tools that I’m currently on the initial learning curve with:

  • Quick mask layers (on everything) in photoshop
  • Cintiq 13HD by Wacam (weaning myself off of mouse-dependence)
Elizabeth Haidle is a freelance artist

You recently partnered with Abi to do an 80 page graphic novel biography about Nikola Tesla from Kickstarter. (Which is great by the way!) How did you find working on your own crowd funded project compared to working directly with a client as a freelance artist? Would you want to do more of that work in the future?

I have to admit I was a nervous wreck insomniac for the month leading up to the campaign, I really needed the project to happen & it was such a time investment to create the promo video and everything. After it succeeded (and then some!) we were in constant feedback mode with our audience – such a showering of support and enthusiasm! I felt buoyed by the interconnectedness of it all.

This communication was made possible through the website, facebook, and email – and never would have happened with traditional publishing, where the publisher mediates all that. It’s a giant positive. The insecurity & stress from doing it all ourselves plus having the unknowns of the all-or-nothing approach that Kickstarter mandates for the campaign budgets….it’s a tough call. Giant positive with rather looming negative. I’ll say, I’m certainly glad I did it once, and I will possibly try it a second time. It would be exhausting to make a career of it though!

What kind of creative activities do you like to do with your son?

We just spent a few evenings, this past week, building hovercrafts and hoverboards from cardboard, duct tape, and foam. My nephew & niece were over part of that time…I don’t know if I should really take joing credit, as most of it happened when I left a bunch of materials in the room with scissors & loads of tape….and then came back every once in awhile to hand the kids an old ribbon roll or new scrap of something, and ask them what they thought a good use would be for it would be. I had a lot of my daytime errands & some promo work I was doing, sort of spill into the evenings, so I can’t claim it was something we did together the whole time.

Yet I was pleased that with a golden combo of: lack of structured time + boredom-as-motivator…that a few google images, a couple leading questions (‘what if this thing over here was the fuel-reactor-motor and could these things over here make decent wings?) plus the ongoing habit of collecting raw materials (on my part) was enough to get the project rolling.

The very initial impulse for the whole thing came from some google-imaging that my son & I did together, about space stations, which somehow led to hoverboards. I showed him how to take screenshots and he filed his favorite pictures away in a labeled folder on my desktop, that he also created. I have been indebted to google-image search for so many reasons, and in this instance, it was the catalyst for week’s worth of home-craft ideas. I think if the original moment of inspiration is truly exciting, a lot can be done with bare-bones scraps and tape. It’s powerful, to make something out of virtually nothing, right? Pure therapy, really.

…more character concept work…I like posting the rough sketchbook stuff too.

Do you have any other creative hobbies?

I play the banjo for 5 minutes a day. Really. Sometimes I just use it as a transition in between writing invoices and scanning images…but it reminds me that if something matters, it can be possible to learn very slowly rather than throwing the wish out altogether.

I have about 7 songs that I feel competent on, now….but I’ve been slowly teaching myself methods from the same book for 5+ years! I always saw myself playing the banjo, and did nothing about it for decades, so now I can feel a sense of pride at such a micro-accomplishment. I also think music is great — it really challenges different parts of the brain that I’d almost forgotten, and something about the basics of rhythm gets me more into my body and the awareness of ‘now’.

Fill in the blanks:

If I weren’t a freelance artist and illustrator I’d be a special-ed teacher.

The last book I read was Adventure Time, Mathematical Edition 1&2 (so brilliantly surreal. so funny!) I’m currently in the middle of ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis.

If I were a superhero, my superpower would be able to psychically predict with perfect accuracy, whether a pet I’m considering investing in will have zero health or behavior problems down the road…(if someone could actually master this — I’m sure they’d be super rich??).

When they develop time-travel, I’m heading straight for 1,000 years from now. I am not sure I want to ‘be’ there, in case of apocalyptic possibilities, but I’d like to safely view whatever is happening from a flying glass elevator or whatever is dependable. Since it’s hypothetical, anyway.

My favorite color is leaf green.

The next potential Kickstarter project?
The next potential Kickstarter project?

Note from Larissa:

I first encountered Elizabeth’s beautiful, dream-like illustration when she collaborated with Abigail Samoun on their Kickstarter book, Mind Afire: A Graphic Novel Biography Of Nikola Tesla. I loved it and was thrilled when she said yes to an interview. About half-way through the interview, both Lina and I were entranced by her hand lettering and approached her about re-doing our logo. It was a joy to work with her and we love the result! To get your own, check out the “Creative Moms Unite” collection in our shop!

creative mom bag