Graham is an illustrator and author, and has been doing freelance illustration for the last fifteen years. I first met Graham about ten years ago through a mutual friend. I've always been a huge fan of his work and have been amazed how much he can communicate with a few strokes of ink. I stopped by Graham's place in Toronto recently to have a couple drinks and chat about his work. He shares his path to illustration, the grind of freelance work and the hardest thing about what he does.
Tell us a little bit about what you do.
I've been a freelance illustrator for fifteen years now and, surprisingly, it’s gone by incredibly fast. I was thinking about it the other day because I got an invitation to my twentieth high school reunion and I had to do the math in my head. Taking away the time I spent in art school, yeah, it's been fifteen years. Also, I'm terrible at math, so it took me a whole day to figure that out [laughs]. I currently do a lot of editorial work and a lot of that editorial work happens to be for print publications, which I think is becoming rarer and rarer. I have also worked on books with other people and I have a series of my own books, which I've both written and illustrated. I guess the biggest ones would be the series of fake Bigfoot autobiographies, where Bigfoot talks about his failed screenwriting career and his problem with sleeping in the mud and that sort of thing.
The Bigfoot books, in particular, started as a school project where the actual assignment was to take a piece of existing literature, say like 1984 or Three Musketeers and illustrate it as someone would if they were hired to illustrate a book. I couldn't think of what I wanted to do, so I wound up falling into writing this character, who is the most screwed up but honest and heartfelt guy. He was just spewing his guts out about how he is just not quite understood. From that, it turned into three published books and a handful of other non-Bigfoot books.
What was your path to becoming an illustrator and author?
One of my first memories of school–aside from being afraid of falling off playground equipment or losing my mittens–was writing and illustrating a story about a bunch of kids who find a cave on a hill that was filled with goblins. It wasn't something that was asked for by my teacher, but I think at that point I had already developed such a love for picture books, which I think is absolutely normal for little kids. I think I had some extra fascination with how you can tell a story with images.
In high school I had one meeting with a career counselor that didn't go well. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I was a teenager and I was probably being a sarcastic asshole. I remember this lady was very kind and patient, but I managed to break her patience and she said as she rolled her eyes and pushed some papers away, “well, you're just going to be homeless,” which was very frightening for me. To give you a little more background, I grew up in a very small town that was quite isolated; a place called Smithers, British Columbia. It's the home of the egg carton. I don't think nearly enough people know this. Unfortunately, the guy who invented it is long since dead, so he can't be interviewed for Ways We Work [laughs]. As pleasant as my surroundings and childhood were, I really didn't understand much about the world aside from watching things on cable TV; and that only came in when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I didn't really know what it was to be an artist, I didn't know what it was to be an illustrator. I most definitely had the interest but I also didn't know what people did for money; other than the things that people did for money who were around me. My parents ran a business on main street, sold insurance, which was nice, but I don't think it was terribly exciting. There were people who worked in sawmills and others things you’d think people would do in a remote town in the mountains of British Columbia.
It took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to do, but I did figure out. It was this force of nature in the sense that I just wasn't good at anything else. I was already naturally good at drawing pictures, so there was a certain push in my own mind or an obviousness that I wanted to pursue being some sort of a visual artist. I thought about being an animator or a graphic designer, but I had no idea what those even meant. They just sounded great. I think I wanted to go into advertising once because I heard they make a lot of money. Then I came to Toronto, I went to Sheridan college in Oakville and took a one-year general arts course and ended up in illustration. I started as a fairly terrible student in that program but by the end, I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do. By the first third of my last year, I was already out showing my portfolio to different places and halfway through the year I got my first commercial job and it just snowballed from there.