Interview with Patrick Edell: Fun and games and work

by Andy John Mendosa

I sat down with freelance illustrator Patrick Edell, 24, who currently lives and works from his apartment in Brooklyn. A recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Edell has already accumulated a wide range of editorial clients like Netflix, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Vice. 

What I’ve found from speaking to illustrators in the past as opposed to other visual artists, is that illustration jobs are so dependent on not just the stylistic needs of clients, but the communicative as well. It is an artistic lifestyle wherein one must balance the work and the personal at the same, all the time. So while finding out what makes Patrick’s style tick, I wanted to pull back the whole curtain-shebang with him to see how (or if) he makes the balance work.  

What kind of energy do you feel your works create? Do you want the viewer to feel a certain way? 

I think it definitely changes from piece to piece. I think, across the board, my stuff has a humorous energy. Sometimes it’s more chaotic and energetic, like vibrating crowd scenes and stuff. Sometimes it’s quieter, more somber pieces. But even the somber pieces come from a like, humorous angle. Sometimes it’s not funny at all, but the way I’ve drawn the characters or the scene is wacky or just kind of off. Is that humorous? I don’t know. Maybe? 

What aspect of illustrating feels right or wrong for you? I mean, when is it going in the right direction, what do you find happens when you feel it’s going wrong?

A lot of my ideas start in a really rudimentary place, like a super simple doodle or a thought I’ve scrawled in my sketchbook. I’ll take that thought through to a finished illustration unless I hit a point where it feels like it isn’t working. I don’t think a piece ever feels like it’s going right, per se. It kind of feels more like I have this perfect idea in my head, and I chip away at the piece through thumbnails, sketches, and eventually working on the finished piece until it feels as close to that perfect idea I started with in my head as possible. I’ll never get it quite right, but bit by bit I can get it closer to that vague idea of the original doodle that I started with. Sometimes I realize the piece isn’t going to work and I just have to abandon it. That’s something that I’m usually able to figure out pretty early on, like in the thumbnailing stage, which I think I’m pretty lucky for. The idea of abandoning a piece that’s like 75% finished is awful, and I’m glad I haven’t run into that too much, especially the older I get.

Is storytelling a word you’d use to describe your crowd drawings or is it more of a controlled chaos? If not what words come to mind? 

I think storytelling is definitely a word I’ve used to describe my crowd drawings. I describe my crowd drawings as “macro and micro storytelling” when I talk about them on my twitch streams and tutorials. I usually have this big scene going on and there’s like, this main event happening in the scene. Maybe it’s a big monster running, a hunt, a battle, a heist, whatever. Maybe it’s a parade. Some kind of thing that represents the “macro” story. Most of the characters are involved in the macro story, but since there are so many characters in the scene you can have a bunch of little side stories going on with some of the characters. Those are the “micro” stories. Having that balance allows you to have a strong narrative in your crowd drawing, while still having enough different stuff going on to make it visually interesting. I think Where’s Waldo is a good example of a crowd drawing with neither little macro or micro storytelling. In those drawings it’s like the macro story is “beach” and the micro stories are “lady tanning” or “guy swimming” and that just leads to the viewer glossing over the whole drawing looking for the striped red hat. Not good.

What subjects are you attracted to in terms of drawings? 

I love to draw people, animals, whatever. I love characters. Maybe the characters are people, maybe they’re blobs. But I love to draw things with personality. Things that brim with life and energy. I love to tell stories with my drawings, and I think it’s hard to tell stories without actors. 

How did you start doing illustration? 

I was kind of floating through high school looking for something to do. I wanted to be an engineer for a while in high school, but I was also taking some optional art classes. Around the end of my junior year, my art teacher was like “So you’re applying to art school right?”. I was like “what? I want to go to school for engineering.” I didn’t think I could go to art school. And he was like, “That’s great but if you want to do art school, I’d recommend it. I think you’d benefit from it.” I went home back to my mom expecting her to say, “No way you should go to art school” but instead she was like, “yeah, you should go to art school. I think it’s something you’d do really well at.” I didn’t experience any push-back from my parents which was great. I prepared a portfolio, applied around, and ended up doing 2 years at FIT for illustration. I transferred over to SVA to finish up my Bachelors, and have been freelancing ever since.

Have you had a ‘moment’ where it felt real? 

Yeah, the first job I got was in my senior year from my professor’s wife who is an art director. She reached out to me to do an illustration and it paid a lot more than I’d been paid for anything before. I had done commissions throughout college; portraits, oil paintings, logo stuff; mostly all small time. This was the first time I was like “Oh, if I have a couple of these back to back, I’m good, I’m chilling”. It felt really legitimizing. That was a big stepping stone though, and was also a great way for me to learn how to take what I learned in school to the professional world.

Freelancing is funny because one week you’re convinced it’s something you can make money with, then the next week you’re thinking it’s the dumbest idea you’ve ever had. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how sustainable a freelance career really is. Sometimes you need to accept that you might need something on the side or you need to pivot altogether. There are so many ways to make money through art though, like, it’s not just editorial commissions. You can sell work in publishing or advertising, or set up an online shop selling merch. Having a career is just navigating all of those options and being adaptable.

I mean, what down the line would stop people from needing illustration? 

It’s not illustration specifically that will stop being needed, but more specific illustration styles that fall out of demand. Trends in the industry change. The things in demand are constantly shifting and that affects the work you get. My work is very cartoony with bright candy pop colors, and maybe that’s good for right now, maybe that’s good in ten years, but will it be good in forty years? Will I still be getting work? I’m still going to be working then because our society is fucked up and I’ll have to be working until I’m eighty, but that’s a different conversation.

Have you heard of specific cases of someone’s style becoming obsolete like that?

Well, I think you don’t hear about those things happening because it’s quiet. Illustrators fall off and stop freelancing for various reasons and you don’t really always notice it. But when you go to illustration events  and look around, you don’t see a lot of illustrators in their forties, fifties, sixties. There are definitely exceptions to that, obviously. 

I think it’s a more broad strokes thing about trends vs personal style. Like, right now, flat illustration is really popular. And there are a lot of reasons for that. But eventually, it won’t be as popular, and a lot of illustrators working within that style are going to have a harder time finding work. So it becomes this question of like, when the trends shift away do I want to follow them? My work doesn’t really fall into the generic trendy stuff too much, but let's say that line art or cartoony stuff with bright colors becomes really unpopular, am I going to want to do a dramatic shift to stay working in freelance? Or would it make more sense to do something else?  

So is having your mind on the pulse of the zeitgeist the kind of trait one needs in this line of work? 

Yeah, but then I think there’s also the aspect of how much I want to change what I’m doing. Part of the reason I like freelancing in illustration is that I do shit that I really enjoy, I really like making what I make. It happens to be really in demand right now, and it’s great. But will I want to do that if I’m not enjoying the process? Or the end product? Maybe not. I don’t think that would be authentic. I gotta have backup plans, like getting a master’s degree in education maybe. I could see myself  in the classroom. But yeah, the market is super volatile, it could change at any minute. Best to be prepared and have plans.

Do you always enjoy working? What inspires you to work?

It depends whether it’s personal work or job work. For job work, I don’t always enjoy every one of them but I like working with art direction and problem solving. Each job requires a unique angle and it’s a bunch of fun. For personal work there’s a lot of doubt of how worthy an idea is of executing. Like bringing thumbnails up to fully finished pieces. It’s stressful and tough but the freedom I have is really great. Inspiration comes from so many places, it’s hard to pinpoint. I take in a lot of media and that plays into it too. I think I like to find a way to make work that speaks to the day-to-day life I lead, but in settings and with characters that feel fantastical.

What do you get out of working? 

I think it’s different for professional and personal work. For professional work, there’s a feeling of satisfaction when I’m able to visually problem solve. I get a brief or assignment from the client, which is the first stage in which they want to see sketches--basically how you would interpret the brief. It’s really fun in that it's like a puzzle. How can I translate something that’s visually interesting but also communicates what the article or project is about? The most mentally taxing part of it is thumbnailing. You have to come up with ideas in your head, write them down, then doodle little tiny arrangements of things. At the thumbnail stage I have to have ambient music on instead of music because it’s so heady. But I love the problem solving. It’s like a rubik's cube. For personal work, a lot of it is just taking a small idea or thought from my sketchbook that I threw down without thinking, and building on top of it until it comes together. 

So it sounds more of a building process than an emotional one. 

Yeah definitely in professional work. I think it’s maybe more of a balance in the personal work. There’s a lot of feedback from the client that makes the process in professional stuff more of a rigid, built up thing. In personal work there’s a lot less pre-drawing stage, I sort of jump right in. I’m impatient there, I like to riff and I like to improv, and I think that’s a kind of emotional way or working.

What’s the community of illustrators like? 

There’s a lot I could say about going to art school and finding community there. I met a lot of nice people and made a handful of friends when I was in school, but I didn’t stay in touch with a lot of people I met there, especially at SVA. Most of my artist friends and people in my community, I met online, or at events like SOI shindigs and Comic Arts Brooklyn. 

I think the internet is a great place to see new work and network and meet people and become friends with them. Social media lays it all out in front of you, and from there you know if you like their way of working or the way their mind is operating, and from there, you want to get to know them better. I think a lot of people have a hard time reaching out to people online, starting friendships. It’s a tricky thing to do that, but I’ve gotten more comfortable just reaching out over the years. Surrounding yourself with people who you respect and who challenge you to do better is very important. You should see what other people are doing and what they think about what you’re doing.

What’s the day to day like for you in your work? 

For me it depends whether I’m working on a job or looking for a job. It’s kind of like two modes. I get up around nine, ten, or eleven, do my morning stuff, like showers, a workout, whatever. Then I’ll go for a walk and get a coffee. I don’t get to work usually until one or two o’clock. If I’ve got active jobs, then I’m powering through till about ten to midnight. If I’m looking for work, I am cold emailing art directors from my client list until like four or five, then working on personal projects. Cold emailing is pretty boring, but it’s a really effective way of getting my work in front of art directors. And that’s really the goal at the end of the day, getting your work in front of somebody. People just need to see your work and know you exist. That’s how you get work. 

How does social media play a role in that? How present is it in your life? 

There have been ups and downs for me with social media. It’s an afterthought for me now. I mean, I’ve certainly gotten a lot of work because of my presence on Instagram and Twitter. But I think if you try to please the algorithm and stuff like that, it’s going to help you get a following, but what are you doing to your mental health to achieve that? 

If I finish something I’ll post it, if something gets published, I’ll post it. It kind of just is what it is. I’m lucky enough that people like my work enough to share it on their story and follow and all that. Even though I don’t bend over backwards for the algorithm, I do have a good following which is nice. I try to stick to Twitter more these days because I don’t find myself enjoying scrolling through my feed on Instagram. The promoted ad stuff has become what I see the majority of the time there. 

Yeah its numbing [ha ha] 

Twitter is more chaotic which I like. It’s less serious, whereas on Instagram I’m only posting finished work. Instagram has become like a nice clean gallery and Twitter is a more authentic and personal space for me to interact with people, post thoughts, memes, and finished work as well as unfinished scraps.

I’ve talked to a lot of artists who have found the role of social media becoming a toxic presence in their lives.

I’ve been in that place for sure. There have been points in my life where I’ve been so concerned with my followers, my engagements, my likes, “Should I do more of this because it got more likes?”, “Here’s something I labored over for hours and it got half the likes I expected”. I’ve totally been there. There’s a certain level where you have to say to yourself that it does not matter. And it does matter, to a certain extent. Like I said, I’ve gotten a couple of jobs because art directors follow me, bands commission stuff because they follow. There’s a decent amount of work to be gotten on there. Illustration Age put out an article about artists and follower counts, and some artists said they were told by companies, “We’re only looking for artists with at least ten thousand followers for this job”. So social media plays a role, but if you let your output be defined by the likes and numbers, you’re going to be in a really negative headspace. If you center your career on that it’s going to become a social media career and not an artistic one.

How did you dial it back? How’d you start to care less? 

Around my senior year [at SVA] I was in a dark place with my work and was considering pulling away from illustration altogether. There were days where I’d think “Oh shit it’s Tuesday and I haven’t posted since Saturday, I gotta get something together” and I’d pull out my notebook and sketch something shitty and upload it. I started to think about what's doing well with the algorithm and allowed my work output to be defined by what did well. But what did well wasn’t always what I liked, and it just led me to a dark place thinking about what I owed my followers and what I had to do to keep the likes up. I was really unhappy and stressed and the pressure was a lot.

For example, People online seemed to be fans of my crowd drawings. My professors would say “Do the crowd drawings, do the crowd drawings”. I was getting really frustrated because while everyone loved the stuff and it did well online, I was feeling pigeon-holed as someone who just does crowd drawings. Y’know, I like doing character designs, painting, and doing more intimate, quiet pieces of work too. I realized that I just had to follow what I wanted to do, and couldn’t let my output be defined by what I felt was expected of me based on an algorithm or a number of likes or comments or shares. I started just posting stuff when it was done, and not looking at the post until a day or two later, when the stakes felt less high. It helped me to take Instagram less seriously. When you realize the world doesn’t explode when you back off social media, that can be very freeing. 

How long do you feel like you’ve been out from under that cloud? 

I think no ones ever fully out from under the cloud, there are still times where I think I’m slipping back into it, or I need to be more online. But I think, around that time in my senior year, I just stopped thinking about it in that way and took a step back. Now I try to be more authentic and hands-off with it. I still like talking to other artists, responding to feedback, but now that I’m not so obsessed with the likes, it’s more something I look forward to and not dread having to prepare for. It’s mutually beneficial now. I benefit a lot from social media. That’s an exception more than the rule though. It’s hard to shake.

Visit Edell’s site here