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Graham Roumieu

Illustrator and Author

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.

“I would show up at these people’s offices and I really didn't know what I was doing. I was approaching magazines and showing them my stuff that often subject-wise had little to do with what the magazine was about. It would be like walking into NASA and showing them your cooking expertise or something like that.”

Was freelance just what illustrators did or how did you fall into freelance, say, versus being employed somewhere?

When I graduated back in 2001, I think some advertising agencies still had some in house illustrators that would render things for decks and make beer bottles look extra cool and sweaty. Within a year that was, for the most part, gone. I think two or three of them actually still exist, at least in Toronto. There were also companies, like landscape architecture firms that would hire people to do renderings and so on. It became apparent that I wasn't going to land a job somewhere which, in hindsight, was a good thing because I knew I had my own voice. Working on the Bigfoot book really proved to me that I could do something on my own. I went out and showed my portfolio that had stapled together copies of the Bigfoot book and this other book that I did with a classmate. I would show up at these people’s offices and I really didn't know what I was doing. I was approaching magazines and showing them my stuff that often subject-wise had little to do with what the magazine was about. It would be like walking into NASA and showing them your cooking expertise or something like that. The subject matters couldn't be further apart. Everyone who works on magazine design has most likely gone through art school, but they have interests outside of whatever subject matter they are working on. I just happened to get along with the designers really well, they liked my work and they took a risk and hired me. From there it just kept going and going and going. It wasn't necessarily easy all the time. There was a lot of self-promotion in the sense that I was constantly producing my own work to say to potential clients I was alive and wanting to do work with them.

You mentioned that The Bigfoot book was a school project, was it self-published or did someone approach you about publishing it?

When I first got out of school, there was an instructor that I had my last year, a guy named Blair Drawson who's a fantastic instructor. He liked and got what I was doing, so he brought me in to see his rep, a guy named Bill Grigsby who ran a place in Toronto called Reactor; which is one of the great illustration agencies of Toronto. He looked at my portfolio–thankfully Bill has a good sense of humour and doesn't mind missing limbs and that sort of stuff– and he saw the Bigfoot book. A lot of his artists had published everything from indie comics to commercial kids books. They printed so much that they had a literary agent on retainer who took what existed of my book–which was about two thirds of what would end up being the published book–and sent it out into the world and a publisher picked it up.

“I have experienced those periods. It's funny how “too much” is not necessarily too much volume of something, but it's just too much of a certain way of thinking about something or a certain way of being responded to. The exhaustion can come in different forms.”

Do you ever experience burnout or periods where you are disconnected with your work? If so, how do you pull yourself out of that headspace?

I have experienced those periods. It's funny how “too much” is not necessarily too much volume of something, but it's just too much of a certain way of thinking about something or a certain way of being responded to. The exhaustion can come in different forms. You have bad months and, in my case, I've lost my sense of pride about what I did and the work suffered for it. The easiest way to get out of that headspace is when the most wonderful project, that seems like it was created just for you, falls in your lap. That can be the smelling salt, or whatever you want to call it, to wake up.

I've learned that if you are tired or frustrated and start to make shitty work, of course people will notice and stop hiring you. People aren't stupid, especially when you're working with and for people whose skill in this world is to recognize what is and isn't good visual work. They'll get it. To recover from it in the past, the unicorn assignment has shown up, but other times it's just realizing, and taking a step back from the work. I'll feel shitty and feel like I can't do the work or don't want to do the work and I can recognize that in myself now and stop. There have been times where I recognize, at some basic level, that the drawing I’m working on isn't good or the thinking isn't good. When this happens I know what I'm doing has to change in some way. It's either introducing something new or just flushing my brain of this notion that my job is anything more than just drawing good pictures. There is no one good answer to the question. Maybe, be honest about how you’re feeling and how the work looks and if something is going wrong fix it or prepare to die?

It is so important to be in the right headspace to do this sort of job. The older I get, the more experience I have, the more annoyed I get by distraction and the more protective I am of my workspace, my mental states and my career, I suppose. I see it as a very precious thing. I'm trying not to blow this out of proportion, but it is something that does need to be protected in a way. Sometimes I require certain things like time, I require practical things like quiet and the ability to get into that meditative state where I am doing something naturally and to the fullest of my abilities.

“The drawings that I draw, I'm not doing anything fancy with them. It's just some lines and watercolour, but what's amazing about them is they convey this thing about me and about the subject matter.”

How do you balance the creative work and the administrative aspects of what you do like self-promotion and selling your personal brand?

The most difficult thing I have to do is when my crappy little printer runs out of ink [laughs]. I feel like that's an intrusion into my life and I have to go find someplace in a large metropolitan area that sells ink. Little things like that bother me but for the most part it goes back to keeping things absolutely as simple as they can possibly be. The drawings that I draw, I'm not doing anything fancy with them. It's just some lines and watercolour, but what's amazing about them is they convey this thing about me and about the subject matter. I guess there is some similarities in the way I run my business, as far as doing accounting and that sort of stuff or invoicing or marketing. I have a website and it is a very simple. It’s an off the shelf Squarespace site and I fill it with what I hope is good work. When I do marketing, I like to have fun with it so I have a book of stamps in my desk and a bunch of pieces of watercolour paper around my studio. If I want to reach out to somebody I will just draw something on a piece of paper and send it out. It's like having magical powers in a way [laughs]. I have way too many little pieces of paper in the sense of art paper or watercolour paper and like any freelancer, receipts and shit, it drives me crazy, but I just stuff those in a place and it works itself out eventually.

Emailing is nice too. I do some of the twittering and Instagram. I love Instagram. It's the best thing in the world. I don't know if it's helped me business wise at all, but I just enjoy it. It helps me get pictures out into the world which is so important to me.

Are there any tools you use to make your life more productive?

Freshbooks

Adobe CS4

Instagram

Duolingo

Flatbed scanner that appears to be designed by Jawas.

“When you are all alone out in the cold wilderness and it's just you and you are standing at the cliff's edge and the wind blows; that's every day in the freelance world.”

What's the hardest thing about what you do?

There have been times where I get the promise of something big, project-wise, and then it falls through. I find that difficult to deal with. It's like how liver filters blood; I feel like there needs to be an organ in the body that deals with this special kind of disappointment [laughs]. I guess it's about being wise and disciplined and I should know better. When I get that email or I get that phone call and the person on the other end is like “we've got this crazy idea and it's for a campaign for so-and-so” and it's like, “oh my god.” I can’t sleep, the mind races and I'm like “what will I say at the awards show?” [laughs] Of course it's like a Greek tragedy or a fable; the universe is going to come back when you start dreaming and be like “Nope. Did you really think you were going to put a down payment on a house?” That's a hard feeling to deal with. What's that called when a plane just starts falling? The death spiral?

There's a difference too about freelancing and dealing with disappointment like that. Maybe this is unfair to say or maybe the comparison isn't right, but when you are all alone out in the cold wilderness and it's just you and you are standing at the cliff's edge and the wind blows; that's every day in the freelance world. Versus, say, working at an agency where you are at a board room table and there are twenty others in the room trying to figure out who farted. Somebody walks in, like an account director, and announces “well, we just lost the Philson's account” and people look at each other and are like, “so, what's for lunch?”

At the end of the day, you just have to be a grown up about it and get out of bed the next day, sit down, read the newspaper and start over.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

There is a pure satisfaction of doing it; illustration is what I'm best at. There is a genuine, pure, humbled-by-the-universe amazement that I get to do this every day and that's why I do it. It's exciting to get better at it every day too.

What does it mean to get better at it? To get better at drawing pictures? What are you doing when you draw a picture?

Black magic. Some sort of crazy voodoo [laughs]. I'm creating something that someone can look at and on the surface say that it looks like a beautiful picture but, hopefully, people look at it and also get what's being said; they get the joke, they get the sense of it. It's just a crazy thing that someone, some total stranger somewhere, can look at the drawing and get it. I’m not assuming that every single person in the world gets what I do, but there are plenty of cases where I get random emails and it's like the magical system worked. The actual mechanics of a bunch of ink and some splashes of paint on a page got transferred somewhere by some medium and on the other end a person looked at it and was like “Ahhhh.” It's not a diagram of something, it's not an Ikea booklet on how you put your dresser together. It takes some thinking and there has to be some connection through commonality and just being a human being. People will connect to the drawing and it's just, wow, that's amazing. I think I'm getting better at that, and I think part of that is that I'm getting older, and I have more to say, or I know more about the world. I do miss twenty one year old me that was daring to do anything and show my drawings to people. That worked, but now I can do that weird thing that pictures can sometimes do which is have an effect on people. Not a significant effect like cure cancer or anything, but someone could look at the picture and be like “hah.”

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

There's two people. The creative director of the Atlantic, a guy named Darhil Crooks who's worked his way up through magazine design and is running probably the best general interest magazine in the world right now. From a magazine that was struggling a bit a few years ago, to one that is amazing and thriving now. I feel like he would have a lot of insight on what it is to work in the world of magazines today.

There is a guy, a friend, Brandon Olson who is a chef here in Toronto. He and his fiancée are running a company called Chocolates by Brandon Olson. He's worked at many excellent restaurants, the last being Bar Isabelle, one of the most celebrated new restaurants in Canada. Brandon can cook all varieties of things but found himself in making chocolates.