They say when you know, you know (a truth about love, that I find even truer with gorgeous art). When I look at work that makes my heart flip, I know in an instant that I want to see more (and hopefully be able to somehow own a piece for myself)! This was definitely true the first time I laid eyes on Ann's work a few years ago. I remember being so captivated by her use of color + whimsy and her eye for detail- her work is so fun!- but still has a layer of depth + quirk, which can be a tricky balance to strike. (Side note: I later discovered that we also shared a mutual real-life friend (Hi Alice!), which only confirmed how much I liked Ann.) While her career has exploded over the past few years, with book deals + Disney collaborations, she has remained one the sweetest, most down-to-earth creatives I've met, and agreed to chat a little bit about her background and crazy-cool-day-to-day life as a working artist...
1. WHO ARE YOU + WHAT DO YOU DO?
Hi! I’m Ann Shen, and I’m an illustrator, letterer, and author. I work for myself – which includes writing and illustrating books, working on freelance projects with a variety of clients, running my own online shop, and selling prints and other goods I make at shows. Clients I’ve worked with include The New York Times, Bust, HarperCollins, Workman Publishing, Evite, Papyrus, and Ban.do. I published my first book, Bad Girls Throughout History, with Chronicle Books last fall.
2. WHEN DID YOU FIRST START CREATING?
I’ve always been a creator – when I was a kid, I was drawing all the time, and as I got older and my parents discouraged me from going down the path of an artist, I became obsessed with writing. I would write novels that I’d print out and bind in binders to pass out to my friends, who eagerly awaited the next installment in the series. I also really loved film and photography – so when I went to college, I majored in writing and minored in photography.
After school, I worked for awhile as a writer for non-profits around L.A., but I was never truly happy with my work or life. So I decided to start taking extension art classes and realized I wanted to be an illustrator – so I applied to art school, and went back for my second act.
3. HOW DID YOU GET YOUR PROFESSIONAL CREATIVE START?
So as I mentioned before, I went back to art school in my mid-twenties. There, I got the intense and focused training to hone my creative skills so that I was ready to be a professional creative. I got my first freelance job through our school provost, who was the art director of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the time.
4. YOU'RE KNOWN FOR YOUR BRIGHT, BOLD COLORS + WHIMSICAL DESIGNS- HAVE YOU ALWAYS HAD A SIMILAR STYLE OR DID IT EVOLVE OVER TIME?
It’s definitely evolved over time. The funny thing is that the work I make now is the work I’ve always loved but had felt embarrassed about liking, thinking it wasn’t “serious” enough. When I went back to school, it was heavily influenced by what I learned in class, what my teachers did for their work, and who the popular artists were on the scene at the time. Now I’ve been around long enough to know that styles fade and tastes are personal – so as long as you follow your heart and make work that excites YOU, you’re on the right track. I also think that creative work will always evolve as you grow as a person.
5. CONGRATS ON THE SUCCESS OF YOUR FIRST BOOK, “BAD GIRLS THROUGHOUT HISTORY” AND THE UPCOMING BOOK (OR SO I HEAR)!! THAT MUST HAVE FELT LIKE SUCH A HUGE MILESTONE! HOW DID CREATING A BOOK COME ABOUT?
Thank you! I first created “Bad Girls Throughout History” as a zine for a project in school, and then started taking it to shows to get it seen. This was about six years ago now, so I was also sending it around to all the big design blogs to get a little press and attention on my illustration work in general, as I was about to graduate and wanted to start gaining traction for freelance work. It got a small but strong response, and it started getting picked up in local shops around L.A. I would eventually expand it into two volumes, a calendar, a postcard set, and a gallery show.
It got enough legs on its own that my literary agent found my project on a post on a blog that I didn’t even know about! She emailed me and asked if I would be interested in turning the zine into a book, and we met in person and really hit it off. It was important to me that she really understood the project, because it was not so well received early on – especially by my teachers in school. With my agent’s guidance and representation, I created a book proposal and we sent it off to dozens of publishers – we had great calls with several editors, and we landed an amazing deal with Chronicle Books – which was a dream come true.
When I decided to go back to art school, I had to write an admissions essay naming three artists or companies that had influenced me and made me want to be an artist – and Chronicle Books had been one of them. So it was a real full circle moment for me.
6. YOU'VE ALSO RECENTLY PARTNERED WITH DISNEY, AS AN "ARTIST IN RESIDENCE"- (CONGRATS AGAIN! :) CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THAT?
Yes! I had the honor of being the April Artist in Residence at Disney’s Wonderground Gallery in Downtown Disney, which is such a highlight of my career so far. They commissioned me to do three Disney licensed pieces – and gave me free reign to propose whatever I wanted to do. So that’s how my “Dressed in Dreams”, “Centaurettes in Bloom”, and “The Girl With Fins” pieces came to be. They were just released during the month of my residency, and will be available as limited edition giclees, canvas prints, deluxe prints, postcards, and even a mirror compact!
As far as the residency, it meant that I was at Wonderground Gallery every weekend night, painting demos of Disney art I created, answering questions, signing artwork, and meet-and-greeting lots of wonderful guests. It was so great to get out of my studio and actually see the joy that my work brings to people – there’s no better feeling.
6. WHAT IS THE BEST PART ABOUT MAKING A LIVING AS AN ARTIST?
The freedom to make the kind of life I want, to work with clients I like, and to create projects that inspire and make people happy. It’s become increasingly important to me that I make the work I want to see in the world – work that has a voice and represents a broad range of people and their experiences. I want people to feel seen and important, but also excited and joyous when they see my work. Meaningful work doesn’t have to be loud and specific; it can be subtle and permeate culture. It can shift perceptions slowly but permanently – that’s where the power of art is; it can help people develop empathy and understand others better. It can make you feel less alone. And the best part of making a living as an artist is that I can make that my life’s work.
7. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES OF WORKING FOR YOURSELF, AS AN ARTIST?
When you work for yourself, I find the hardest part to be facing challenges alone. Even though I have a great support system with my husband, a network of freelance friends I can reach out to for help and advice, and often work with great clients, the really hard stuff is still things I need to take on and figure out on my own. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that can really be a hard or expensive lesson to learn as you grow. There’s also no set path or right or wrong way to do things – it’s really all up to you to make that path for yourself, and some days that can feel really daunting.
8. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN 5-10 YEARS? ANY BIG GOALS?
Lots of things! I definitely would like to still be working as an illustrator and author, and I’d like to have published more books and see them perhaps take on a bigger life ;) I’d also love to work with some of my favorite brands and companies on bigger illustration projects like holiday campaigns. Other dream projects include designing the branding for a restaurant, designing a textile or clothing line, and art directing a film. I have a pretty good track record of making dreams into reality, so I hope I can achieve some of these big goals.
9. MAKING A LIVING AS AN ARTIST IS NO EASY FEAT! WHAT IS YOUR BEST ADVICE FOR SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO BUILD A FREELANCE OR CREATIVE CAREER?
Make work every day. When I first left school, one of my favorite teachers told us that if you put in 6-8 hours of studio time a day, every day, there’s no way you won’t make it in whatever it is you’re working towards. Studio time means dedicated time to making your creative career happen – a lot of it is practice, and a little bit of it is learning everything else that needs to go with it – how to reach people you want to work with, how to set up your website or shop, where to show your work, etc. Make the work you want to make even if no one is paying you, and the better you get at it, the more likely people will start noticing and hiring you for it.
Also, study what works for the people you admire who are in your field already – BUT be very cautious to not just copy what someone else has done. Take the principles and lessons of what about their work appeals to you (is it simple shape design? Is it strong color stories? etc.), and then apply it to your own work in your own unique way – that’s what’s going to make you stand out. The world doesn’t need another one of someone who already exists – it needs you to be who YOU are.
10. TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF FEW PEOPLE KNOW! :)
A relatively unknown part of my work is that I’ve worked on several theme parks! Because theme parks are super top secret projects, there are a million NDA contracts involved and we work years out in advance so I can never show or talk about these projects. And by the time the theme park is open and the work is out, I’ve almost already forgotten about it. I’ve worked on the design and development of the Hello Kitty theme park in Shanghai, a retro children’s book style redesign of Shrek for a theme park in Dubai, and park signage for a theme park in Asia that hasn’t opened yet.
Try to tell me you're not in love too!! It was impossibly hard to choose which images of her to post. I also LOVE her advice to someone looking to launch their own creative career... "Make work everyday!" It's so simple but often is the one big thing standing between the next step... creating just to create, it's something I personally swear by and make a point to spend time on every week, no matter what's going on.
A HUGE thank you to Ann for being so open and candid about all of her work + experiences! If you want to see more of her work (duh) and start your own Ann Shen-art-collection, you can do so here: