1. Can you briefly describe your journey from that initial inkling that you were in the wrong profession to landing your first illustration job?
I wouldn’t say I was in the wrong profession. I just realised I had gotten everything I could get from my job and had also given everything I felt I could give and I didn’t want to develop in this area anymore. Besides, we had to move to another city and continuing with journalism would have meant having to start from the beginning again and I didn’t want that. So, I told my boyfriend that I wanted to try my hand at illustration. I quickly ran into another problem though - I had no idea where to start. I simply knew nothing about it. So I spent several months studying trends and finding out about publishers and other illustrators. I also started putting together a portfolio. When that was ready, I sent it to a publisher and, much to my surprise, I received a reply two weeks later. They asked me to draw a few small illustrations for a book as well as two book covers. This happened in September or October, so it took me 9 months to get my first commission. Today, I think I could have made it happen faster, had I had a better understanding of where to begin.
2. Were there any skills you picked up during your journalism career that you find are benefitting you in your new profession?
I really appreciate my journalism experience. It helped me to become more confident and to not be afraid of taking responsibility. It also taught me how to make connections, how to look for and find information fast and how to find the right people. I’m also not afraid of cameras, I know how to write texts and how to create good stories. And thanks to my past job I have great friends. All these skills help me now in my illustration work. In short, I never regretted not having gone straight into illustration after high school.
3. Changing careers, especially when you don’t have formal training in your new field, can be tough. How have you dealt with the fears that can accompany such a major transition?
Yes, I was afraid of failure and afraid to be wasting time for nothing. I didn’t get any support from my family. For my relatives, my leaving my job was akin to a crime. I know they worried about me. In their vision, steady work with a salary and pension contributions means success and stability. I'm really sorry for arguing about it with my dad because he died before my first book was published. I wish I could go to him now and show him: "Hey, dad! Look, these are my illustrations. Are you proud of me?"
I was scared but at the same time, I was completely sure that I was doing everything right. Some kind of stubbornness I guess, which is unusual for me because I always fight with lack of self-confidence. It’s hard for me to promote myself because I’ve been brought up in the spirit that it’s shameful and immodest to praise myself (sounds weird, I know). It was difficult and scary for me to bend my boundaries because of my self-doubt, but I also understood that it had to be done.
I was afraid of making a portfolio because I did not consider my work good enough. Afterwards, I was scared to send it out and spread it around… But otherwise, how would they know about me? It was also scary to take on that first commission. Scary to deal with feedback. I was afraid of writing about illustration - I felt like an impostor who did not have the right to give advice. It was also scary to move to another city, then to another country. It’s scary to meet new people because I am a shy person. It is scary that everything is so unstable and incomprehensible. I can continue the list of my fears. But the worst thing for me is to sit alone, do nothing and wait for a miracle.
So really, the scariest thing for me was to not try; to stay in a job I didn’t love and think about “what if”. So I stepped over my fears. I was so curious and thirsty for knowledge. There are so many workshops, online courses, books and having fears is normal. Now I’m sometimes afraid of not being needed as an illustrator. There is so much competition, so you continuously have to improve your skills.
4. Who or what is inspiring you right now?
My sleeping son. It’s a big inspiration to do something for myself while he is sleeping. But what always inspires me are books with beautiful illustrations (I have a modest collection), new art supplies and art shops, exploring new places, walking, nature, people, cartoons. Right now I like illustrations made in collage and linocut techniques.
5. You haven’t just changed careers, you have also moved from Russia to the Netherlands. What advice would you give to someone who wants to change their life in a significant way but is feeling fearful about it?
I would advise not to think about failure too much. When you're a grown up you have more consciousness about what you want and more fears of course. We have different backgrounds and it's really hard to advise something. I just used the opportunities I got. I realised I should try - now or never. There is never going to be a perfect moment to start.
Just start with small steps. Step by step. Write down your plan. If you divide a big plan into small goals it won't scare you. It starts to seem more achievable. Don't quit your job immediately. It would be nice to have some financial savings because it can take several months before you earn something. When people ask me about how to become an illustrator, I always feel they want to her about some magic trick or shortcut. No, sorry - it doesn't exist. It is a lot of hard work coupled with permanent feelings of doubts, but also interesting discoveries and happiness at the same time. Just try it. Because if you don't, I think you're going to regret missing that opportunity for the rest of your life.
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5 Questions for ... is a blog series featuring people who have reinvented themselves and created a thriving career by following their passion.
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Hi, I'm Chantal Valerie. I'm a writer and self-taught illustrator. I am inspired by late bloomers and creative self-starters (I only started drawing at the age of 34) and since I believe they deserve more visibility, I started my blog series ‘5 Questions for …’.