Hello Susann, Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today about all your beautiful creative work. You are a very talented illustrator with a unique style which captivates the eye. How did you find your ‘voice’ in illustration, that makes your work specially yours?
Thank you so much for reaching out (and for the compliments!), happy to have found your blog! It’s so funny that you mention “my style” because for the longest time, I was sure I didn’t have one. Up to three years ago I found myself copying illustrators whose style I admired, but apart from feeling bad about it, I didn’t feel like it was “me” – it was a lot of pencil work and very reduced colour.
In 2017, I saw people on Instagram using paint markers in their sketchbooks and I was captivated by the vibrant colours and the smooth surfaces that made the drawings seem like printed artworks. Usually I would never say that a medium defines your style, but I think for me it did change something. I started doodling, not thinking too much about what I wanted to draw but merely playing with those colours, building shapes and seeing what could develop from them. Also, when working digitally before, I was SO bad with colours! The markers gave me a limited palette to work with and I just chose 4–5 colours and stuck with them for the whole illustration. That really tied my work together, I think.
Apart from the medium, I think you can’t rush developing your skills or “style”. I do believe we all have an inherent style that we only need to discover. I realised one day that when I doodle, I don’t have to think about how I want to draw things, I just draw, and I realised that THAT way of drawing simply IS my style. To this day I might not necessarily prefer it over the beautiful pencil or gouache paintings other illustrators do, but I am at a point where I admit to myself that this way of working is just more “me”. :)
Susann, you have got to work with some big name clients and publishers. How did it all start?
First off I want to say that things always seem brighter on Instagram. ;) We don’t really post when we’re NOT successful. So, heads up: I am not a full time illustrator yet. I have a part-time graphic design job on the side (which is very “freelance-y” though with working from home and flexible hours and stuff) that allows me to pay the bills on a regular basis and keeps me from having to say yes to underpaid work that I don’t want to be doing (not to say that everything I do is adequately paid in money but some things you do because you love the project or for other reasons).
But to answer your question, I think I really got a lot of my jobs through Instagram. I did go to book fairs over the years (there’s the children’s book fair in Bologna, Italy and a German book fair in Frankfurt where I regularly go) and there you stand in line, waiting to show your portfolio to some editors who might or might not like your work and even if they do, they might not necessarily have a job for you. But I always think that “making it” as an illustrator is a marathon, not a sprint (and believe me I have not “made it” haha). When I started studying illustration, I always knew what I was getting into and I definitely didn’t do it for the money. ;) So, through these fairs and by sending out portfolio emails I got my first jobs (immediately starting with book covers, which was sort of a dream field of work for me) and then I slowly started building a portfolio that had more client work in it (because you know, you always start with a portfolio full of self-initiated work and clients tend to feel “safer” when you show you’re able to work professionally and can keep a deadline).
Last year then, I started posting these little drawing videos with the mentioned paint markers and what do you know, suddenly I have 30.000 new followers on Instagram. Nowadays, posting videos doesn’t do for me what it did back then, but so many people still love seeing those, and I love making them because they’re a way to doodle something without anything particular in mind, so I just keep sprinkling them into my feed. :) Anyhow, I blame this sudden growth in my Instagram account for the subsequent jobs that I got.
How long does it take you to develop your characters and world in your illustrations?
This totally depends on the project. Lately I feel like I have become quite fast at developing those, but maybe I have just been lucky with my clients because I never had an awful lot of back and forth. I do have a pretty narrow comfort zone though (I’d say kids, animals and type ;)) and anything out of it is something of a challenge – but it’s fun too because how often do we really challenge ourselves when we don’t have to. :P I’m also lucky in a way because I don’t draw realistically and can get away with a lot of wonkiness in my illustrations (which is also part of their charm I’d say).
I see you have both youthful illustrations and lettering mastered. How did you learn the two disciplines and balance your work across the different creative styles?
This totally developed out of personal interest. Even when I was still in school I used to draw a lot of animals and letters in my notebooks and I always sort of liked type and letters, I can’t really say why. When I started studying graphic design I did do some calligraphy classes (maybe around 2010–2011) but rather than perfecting my calligraphy skills, I enjoyed drawing the letterforms. Because calligraphy is different to lettering in the way that you try to achieve a certain look just with your tools, with a steady hand and the right strokes and stuff, I felt like I was cheating and like this was no way to work. I sort of forgot about it all then, until 2014 or 2015, when the “hand lettering” trend hit Germany. I finally learned that it’s okay to draw letters and that there’s actually a word for it!
As I wanted to be an illustrator though, illustration was always my main focus I’d say, but I just really enjoy drawing type. I think it might have to do with the fact that I often don’t know what to draw (so I’m really happy that my clients mostly provide me with visual ideas in their briefings already ;)) and when you’re drawing type, the content is set (by the phrase or whatever) and you only have to choose how you want it to look. As far as balancing my work goes, I hope it IS balanced, because I often think my illustrations and letterings might look too different. In the future I’d like to experiment more with combining the two!
What is your process when working on client work and how does this differ from when you work on personal projects?
Weirdly enough, I think I’d say I’m more motivated when working on client work. I like to doodle for myself and make a new illustration every once in a while, but I like getting briefings that make me draw something I wouldn’t have come up with myself and exploring within set boundaries and on a deadline. I’m definitely more productive when working on client work. I do enjoy putting my own images on paper as well though. :) Up to now, I still have time for both (I should probably mention that I’m single and don’t have pets (sadly) or kids ;)).
I see from your published projects that you love working with strong colours and that you work both traditionally and digitally. What is your preferred method of illustrating, and do you have any tips and tricks that you use to create such beautiful work?
At this point, my traditional artworks are exclusively personal illustrations, and all my client work is done digitally. For some reason, for me the traditional illustrations are not “finished” in the way I can “finish” a digital illustration. I do enjoy working with traditional media though, for me it’s a little bit meditative to see the paint flow on the paper, to feel the paper, to be surprised when things don’t work as planned and there’s no Cmd+Z … ;) Maybe I’d have to try and illustrate a client project traditionally, but for me it’d be very expensive to do so because I’m so much slower this way!
Your new books came out this May. Can you tell us a bit about “Boys will Be…” and Girls are Pretty…”?
Gladly! :) “Boys will Be…” and “Girls are Pretty…” are two children’s books that I made together with Little Hare Books and they’re actually my first published books! Their goal is to challenge gender stereotypes, a topic I hold dear to my heart. Without being too “missionary” they just naturally show that boys can be more than wild and strong and girls are more than pretty and quiet. We intentionally paid attention to diversity in the books and also let some of the kids do stereotypical boys or girls stuff because we wanted to show that of course it’s totally okay for a kid to like those activities or things too, it just shouldn’t be assumed that they do or don’t because of something as arbitrary as their sex. In the end, we just want to let kids be whoever and whatever they want to be. :)
Could you tell us a bit about the process of how your books came to be?
In summer 2018, an art director at Little Hare Books contacted me for the first time. They were looking for an illustrator to illustrate a book idea they’d developed. When I read the email I thought: “No way, these books would fit me so well! I’d love to do those!” – apparently my enthusiasm was appreciated and we then started working together. :) I can only say that the project continued to be a dream project. The publisher already had concrete visual ideas for the illustrations but was equally open to suggestions, we merely had little corrections, most of the time it was very smooth sailing. I couldn’t have wished for a better publisher for my first two children’s books!
I am sure some of our readers would be interested in following in your footsteps as beginning illustrators. If you had one key piece of advice that you would give an illustrator beginning their professional journey, what might it be?
(Sorry, turns out I couldn’t stick with one piece of advice. :D)
This one’s tough. Actually, I’d still consider myself a beginning illustrator, having only just finished college (well after nearly 2 years of not really taking classes anymore and just having to finish my master thesis) and not being able to live off of illustration fully (it’s definitely my 5-year-goal to achieve this!).
The advice I most often give is practice
Practice drawing (I’m currently trying to get back into the routine of drawing at least 30 minutes a day just for me and just as practice/warmup). But also practice things you’re not that good at – the business side of things, finances, tax stuff, networking, social media… We have the super huge advantage of having the possibility to find clients all over the world due to the internet, but then again we also compete with illustrators from all over the world.
So I think my biggest advice would be to practice but as soon as you’re on a certain level, share your work online! This is so important. So many of us are unsure about their work and we have sketchbooks full of wonderful stuff that no one ever sees because we’re shy about it. Only if you share the things you make can other people then think “oh, this would look great on a book cover”. Also you should make the work that you want to get hired for! So if you want to illustrate book covers – illustrate book covers! Pick a book everyone knows and make it your personal project to come up with a new cover. Make 5 of those, post them online and send them out to publishers.
(Speaking of mailing out stuff: Don’t be frustrated if you never hear back from anyone. Maybe send something new half a year later (unless they tell you to stop). Art directors, publishers etc. get so many of these emails that they simply can’t respond most of the time. I know an illustrator who once received an answer after 3 YEARS because they’d saved her portfolio and she was then fitting for a project.)
What is your dream project?
Making works with a message is certainly a long-term goal of mine. I really love what Oliver Jeffers does, combining beautiful art with meaning in such a poetic way. Making “Boys will Be…” and “Girls are Pretty…” certainly is a move into the right direction for me, I guess the next goal would be to write a book myself. I want to work on projects with subjects that are important to me – feminism, environmentalism, self-care, mental health issues…that would be my dream I guess, no matter the medium (or client).
Where can people find your new book and your other published works?
This is actually a tough question, because my two new books can’t be purchased from anywhere in the world yet. If you live in Australia, you can simply order them, and if you live in New Zealand, UK and a few other countries, you can order them via Amazon Australia, but it’s for example impossible to order them from Germany (where I live). So I really do hope that the book will be published in other countries too! :)
Concerning other projects: Feel free to connect on Instagram (@susannhoffmann_illustration) to see what’s currently going on in my life and work! :)
You have really built a community behind your work and I can see why. I wish you luck in your future career and thank you again for your time.
Thank you so much for your lovely words and your interest in my work!