meet wendy macnaughton
photo c/o Division of Labor
It all started when my friend Jo-Anne – a gorgeous lawyer who dances Flamenco – sent me a Sunday Book Review sketchbook called “Snacks of the Great Scribblers.” From Truman Capote’s evolving (devolving?) drink schedule to John Steinbeck’s penchant for cold toast and stale coffee, the piece explores what fuelled the words of our most esteemed writers – living and dead.
I had to know more about Wendy MacNaughton, the artist behind the charming illustration. I followed the digital rabbit trail to her documentary series for The Rumpus and lost a good hour on her website and blog. Talk about talent. Wendy backs up her artistic prowess with a tangible sense of empathy and a journalist’s eye for detail. It’s a compelling, one-two creative punch.
Now based in San Francisco, Wendy has lived in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, New York and East Africa. She earned degrees in both art and social work and has sold used books, counseled survivors of torture, designed humanitarian campaigns in Kenya and Rwanda, produced a film in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and written advertising copy, among other pursuits.
Just over a year ago, Wendy left her campaign strategy job to work full-time as an independent artist and illustrator. She had been toiling away on freelance contracts in her off-hours for several years and the work was flowing steadily. It was time to make the leap. “It felt like the biggest, but also the smartest, risk I’ve ever taken,” she says. “Everyone was cheering for me – but it was really nauseating.”
The nausea is now firmly under control and Wendy is busier than ever. She draws the regular “Meanwhile” column (an illustrated documentary series on San Francisco communities) for The Rumpus, and her work has appeared in GOOD, Edible San Francisco, 7×7, Longshot, Time Out New York, Gizmodo, The New York Times, and Gastronomica. She sells her prints on 20×200 and Etsy (more on that below), and takes editorial and commercial commissions. Wendy has also turned her pen to packaging, site-specific installations, and several books are in the works. I can only assume world domination is next – one sympathetic commuter, musician and library patron at a time.
1. How has your transition to self-employment turned out?
Super well. It’s crazy. It has been better than I expected. One thing just seems to lead to the next. People always say, “It must be so nice! You’re working for yourself.” But I’m the hardest boss I could ever have. I work a lot. There’s also no distinction between my life and my work. I draw all the time. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also happier than I’ve ever been because I’m doing what I love to do. It all sounds cheesy and cliché, but it’s true.
2. What fuels your work?
Just looking at things, like how a line forms in a coffee shop, or the weird ways that women tie sweaters around their necks. The way a woman ties a sweater around her neck has an amazing story behind it. Empathy is critical, and when you look at someone through an empathic lens, there’s a huge story there. It’s never just what you see on the surface. Life is a lot more interesting through other people’s eyes than through mine.
3. How do you balance the different demands of business and art?
I don’t. I’m disheveled. I have all the stuff that would make for organization, but a lot of it’s still in boxes. I’m working on that, and I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.
In terms of the nitty-gritty, I try to keep a file on every client. I’m really good at keeping emails and printing stuff I need to print out. I have a standard invoice that I customize for every client. I make up a contract. I learned a hard lesson recently that I need to bill half [my rate] upfront and half on completion. I wasn’t doing that and I got in a really hard spot. I think a lot of other people have learned that same lesson.
I also have two agents now – a commercial agent and a book agent. It was a challenging decision for me, because I thought I could do a lot of what they do for me, in terms of promotion. Working in advertising, I became good at talking to people and getting new business. Obviously the agents can do it better than I can, and they’ll handle all the business stuff, which will give me more time to focus on my work. So, there’s a tradeoff. They take a large percentage of the money, but hopefully that math will work out for the benefit of my artwork and give me more time to make it.
Are books on the horizon?
I just partnered with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office to create a book of the piece “Meanwhile, The San Francisco Public Library.” I titled it “The San Francisco Public Library in its Own Words.” It will be out on September 15th and available in SF bookstores and online.
My partner, Caroline Paul, is a writer, and she and I recently collaborated on a proposal that’s out at publishers right now. She wrote it, I illustrated it. I’ve also met with some publishers about doing a couple other projects. So, yes, hopefully there will be two or three more books in the next couple years. I definitely want to do a book of the Meanwhile columns from The Rumpus. That’s a big goal.
4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
There are two – and they’re both great people and friends of mine as well.
The first is Lisa Congdon. She has an interesting background and she’s a self-taught artist. She has great business savvy and has really diversified herself. She does commercial illustration, her own books, book covers, prints, and she does some speaking. She recently had her first solo show at a gallery in San Francisco, which I thought was great. It’s so easy to get swept up in commercial work, so to create an entire body of work for a show at the same time is really impressive.
The second is Jason Polan. He became known for making little books and ‘zines and selling them out of a suitcase in Central Park. He did a series called “Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art” where he literally drew every single piece in the MOMA collection and made it into a book. Now he’s drawing every single person in New York. Those personal projects have led to so many sales, commissions, and shows. He’s booming. I really respect Jason, because he does many things, but he’s focused on his personal artwork. Companies, individuals and publications ask to use his work, but he doesn’t change what he does. He’s also a really good drawer.
5. How many revenue streams do you have?
I do a lot of editorial and commercial illustration. That includes magazines, newspapers, and reports. I’ve also done packaging, I have a couple books in the works, and I’ve done environmental graphics, where a company or store pays me to draw on their walls.
Then I make my own work and sell the originals. I make prints occasionally. I also sell my work on 20×200. They’re great. I love them. They work with both established and emerging artists and give them a great platform and great publicity and financial support. Their model is really fair and good for the artists.
I also do commissions. People will hire me to draw something that matters to them, whether it’s a character from a book or a map of a meaningful location. I’ve had a few people ask me to draw maps of their lives, which is an honour. I’ve also done general gun-for-hire stuff, like wedding invitations and other freelance work when I’ve needed to, financially speaking.
6. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
I have a couple big commercial clients and an ongoing branding project, but it’s mostly a lot of editorial work. My bread and butter comes very quickly in small bites. It’s not like a stable loaf on the table. People are throwing slices at me and I have to catch them.
7. Do you have a passive income stream?
Selling my prints on 20×200 is great. I can’t tell you how nice it is to get a cheque every month from those sales, even when it’s for a few hundred dollars. Those few hundred dollars really help.
I’ve also put some prints up on Etsy. I’m testing it out for a few months to see how it goes. Handling the fulfillment is a pain, but it was pretty incredible to list a few prints and make a good chunk of money in several weeks. I was shocked. Everyone around me was like, “duh,” but I’m still not sure it’s something I want to continue doing if I have to manage it all. I do see the promise, though, and I’m thinking about the books in the same way. It’s a lot of work on the front end, and then it would last over time.
8. What tools or financial opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?
The Internet (as ironic as that seems), and I don’t mean social networking. I think now is a really, really great time to be an old-fashioned artist. With all of the hullabaloo online and the bells and whistles and Photoshop-y Illustrator stuff you see, people are really burnt out on the speed. Seeing something online that’s hand-drawn or painted slows people down. It’s like a breath. I think it’s important for artists to think about how they fit into that realm and how they can take advantage of it. How can artists format their work in order to connect with people using online platforms? The 20×200 site, for example, allows people to have art and buy physical prints – and that model wouldn’t exist without the Internet.
I also feel very lucky to be in San Francisco, because there are so many people involved in cutting edge technical and social media stuff. After I read about Longshot magazine on Twitter, I wrote and asked if they needed an illustrator. They said yes, so I went in at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and there were all these people who hadn’t slept staring at computers. I walked in with my paints and my paper and some brushes and pens and sat down at the table and said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
The editors handed me an article to illustrate. I finished the illustration in a couple hours and they were blown away – and it had nothing to do with my artwork [ed. note – yes it did]. It was the fact that someone could create a painting right there and hand it to them. It was a physical object on paper, ready for publication. It was such an epiphany for all of us. It was exciting for them to see something handcrafted specifically for the project right before their eyes, and it was exciting for me to see how valuable that was to people working online. My new business brain said, “Here’s an untapped space.”
The first big client that really helped me switch to being a full-time artist and illustrator was Gizmodo, which is a tech site. The job came directly from working with Longshot. Gizmodo hired me for one month to draw five days a week. They gave me an assignment every day and I had to develop an idea, illustrate it, scan it and adjust it, and send it back to them so it was ready to roll by 6 a.m. east coast time. It was like illustration boot camp.
9. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?
Gizmodo and 20×200 were great. I also created a map of San Francisco for 7×7 magazine and they used the map as the cover. That was big for me, and it created another passive income stream. We ended up printing posters of that map and selling them in bookstores, online, and in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We just sold out and I decided not to go into another edition or do any more reprints. I’ll draw a new one in the future. But we sold hundreds of those. It was good money for a while, and it was incredibly helpful, in terms of publicity. I still get requests for it.
My focus now is Meanwhile on The Rumpus, which is something that I feel really strongly about. It’s keeping my head on straight about the kind of work I want to do, and it has gotten some good attention.
10. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
The time I’ve spent creating Meanwhile. Financially, building a website was a big investment. I had to bite the bullet and work with a web designer and pay what, for me, was a lot of money, but you gotta do it. It’s just so important – and I’m going to be re-designing in the next year or so.
What hasn’t paid off?
You know what doesn’t work? Cold calling. I should have known that. After I quit my job, there was a lull, and that was so scary. I had finished some big jobs and there’s always a lull. You do a big job and then there’s a pause and then more work comes in and then there’s a pause, and I had never hit a pause before. I didn’t have the experience to know that was temporary, so I wrote blindly to agents. That’s just stupid. Getting work is like anything else – you do one thing and it leads to the next. It doesn’t happen out of the blue. There’s nothing that’s less effective and more depressing than making a cold call.
11. What does “selling out” mean to you?
I’m kind of over the idea of selling out, meaning that if a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I think is cool, that’s fine.
If a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I don’t think is cool, then the math gets kind of hard. Is it something I don’t think is cool because I don’t like the idea, but I really need the money? I’ll consider it.
But if I’m asked to do something that I don’t believe in – like I actually think it’s ethically wrong – then that would be selling out. And I’ve done that. I did it when I made this transition. I needed more money to carry me over and I was offered a big sum to work on a project for a company whose practices I don’t agree with. I took it. And it was surprisingly easy, very lucrative and even kind of fun – although I purposely didn’t tell a lot of people about it and felt ashamed when I did.
But, I can see how saying yes to one job like that can lead to another. It can be a slippery slope. Hopefully I won’t have to make that decision again, and if I did, I believe I’d turn it down. But I’m not certain about things like I used to be; there’s all this grey area. I am certain I can do my best work in the world through my artwork, so that’s my bottom line.