Jen Backman, Illustrator
Meet Jen Backman, a corporate illustrator with a love for comic books that runs deep. Find out more about what it’s like being a freelance artist and her take on how even though her passion and career are the same thing, they can and should still coexist.
Tell me about about how you became a full time artist.
I always knew I wanted to be an artist. A lot of people start off doing art really young and they think it’s for them, but the difference is that some people stop and I just kept going. I started to go to comic book conventions when I was 15, and I would go up to famous writers or artists and just ask for feedback about my work. Fast forward over 10 years, I still see them at conventions, and I still ask, but now I’m friends with them! I think that’s the main reason I’ve been able to stay in art. Growing up I was so involved in the community and I knew so many successful artists that it always just seemed like a viable career choice.
Right out of school after my degree in Fine Arts, I was fortunate to be able to find work at an agency that billed me out as a corporate illustrator on projects. Now I freelance within the same space. A lot of people don’t know about corporate illustration, but it’s a huge and growing market and incredibly lucrative. Things like concept illustration have always existed, but more and more companies are looking to emotive storyboards in place of stock imagery and creating openings for roles like live illustrators.
Why corporate illustration?
Corporate illustration isn’t actually my end goal, but it has given me the space to figure out and work on my real passion - comic book art. I’ve seen a lot of artists dive head first into building their own brand as an artist and it was hard for many to go without a stable income. I’m one of the few amongst my graduating class who are still practising and I want to learn from them and take the time to wade in - really build a network and nest egg before transitioning to spend more time in publishing. Of course, sometimes I wish I could move faster. I was way too scared to jump into freelancing and I know that now that there are moments where I just need to take the leap and trust that I’ll find the ground.
How have things changed going freelance?
I love being able to choose the people and projects I work on. Assignments that I tend to be most proud of when I’m finished are in the health space. They make me feel like my work is actually going to make a difference by helping executives empathize with patients through art. It’s empowering to know that my art can inform decisions like that.
I’ve also found that being a freelancer, people have more respect for my time. Sometimes creative teams can get stuck in ruts within an agency. As a creative you are constantly creating but not always offered a seat at the table. When I’m brought on as a company’s prime illustrator now, they acknowledge me as a leader and look to me for my perspective.
One thing I have to say that I haven’t loved is how my home is now also my studio. Having my desk with four screens about one foot from my bed can make it hard to create boundaries. To help counter that, I’ve made designated work breaks to go for a walk, to be social, and I pack all of my things up each day as a signal that the day has ended. Next up is a designated studio space for sure.
What would you say your style of illustration is?
I’m a bit of a different artist when it comes to this question. Conventional wisdom says to get really good at one distinct look, but I never really wanted to constrain myself. Having a wide range of styles has made me more versatile and given me the opportunity to work on all types of projects. If I have a health client, I’ll use one line drawings, water colour, things that can convey a lot of emotion. If my client is more tech oriented, I’ll create clean crisp lines to tell a more straightforward story.
My favourite is creating sequentials - that’s what you see in comic books. I still remember the first time I picked one up. I was immediately absorbed - I loved to read, I already loved art, it was everything in one place. I didn’t have the easiest childhood so I really related to a lot of the misfits like Spiderman, Batman and X-men. They were lonely, they strove forward, and I think that’s a big reason these characters are so popular, their stories are so relatable in their own ways. I remember thinking, ‘This is me now, but this, all of this, is also my future.’
What does it mean for you knowing your passion is also your work?
I remember there was a girl I knew who dropped out of school. She stood up midway through a class, packed up all her things, and said to everyone ‘Art is my passion, not my career.’ Personally, I’ve never really viewed them as mutually exclusive things. If you want to turn art into a career, it’s possible, but you have to be willing to do it as two things and create space for your work and your hobby.
The art that I do when I finish work is different. I’m not drawing screens and corporate storyboards, I’m drawing robots and monsters and superheroes. I’m drawing what I want and telling the stories I want to tell. Personally, I need the time for this kind of creativity, to just doodle what’s happening in my head. Sometimes it’s my best stuff and it ends up being a source of inspiration, sometimes it’s my work that sparks it all.
Yes, having distinction in the type of art I do during work and after hours helps. Maybe when I transition to comic book illustrations full time that will change. That being said, I’ve been working on a children's book about my beloved dog who passed a few years ago, and even though it’s work, it’s hugely a passion project. That’s a luxury that not all jobs can provide. I’m able to have passion projects that feel like work, and work that feels like a passion project. I’m grateful that I get to call illustration my career.
Any advice for young artists?
My advice is that it’s okay to go slow, but it’s not okay to stop. Some people stop doing art for months, but my take is that you need to just sit down and draw something until it’s just not shitty anymore. You can’t be scared away. Even if you can only do a little bit each day, it’s better than nothing. Like anything that comes with practise, when you are drawing, the more you create, the better you get. And the more you work on being creative, the more creative you will be.
Keep biting off more, keep doing art, keep creating what you love, and keep doodling. But do it with structure and with intention, because without it is where people give up on themselves the fastest.
Check out Jen’s work here. And look out for her at the next Comic Book Convention in Toronto - she'll have a colourful booth selling her art, or you can catch her walking around with her portfolio in hand.