by David Owens
I’ve known Chris Lyons for several years now. He’s a brilliant illustrator, designer, and teacher. You’ve probably seen his work before, either in the New York Times, on some HESS truck packaging, or perhaps on one of the Forever Stamps that he illustrated for the Postal Service this year! I was thrilled to interview him and get some insight from an industry veteran.
Q: You’ve been illustrating for a long time; how has the industry changed over the last decade, and what are a few ways in which you stay ‘current?’
A: When I first started out as a freelance illustrator in 2002 (after 20 years in advertising & design), portfolio reviews were still a thing. I remember my reps (Lindgren & Smith) sending me to walk the floors of the Time/Life building with my printed portfolio and promotional post cards! I must admit, I really enjoyed that process. I’m still actually doing work with several AD’s that I met that day. Nothing like face-to-face meetings. With the proliferation of web sites and social media promotions (not to mention overworked, understaffed ADs…) rarely do I actually meet my clients anymore. And no one ever calls for a portfolio to be sent over…
As for staying current – I devour good design inspiration sites (Grain Edit, AIGA, Dieline), informative and interesting blogs and inbox stuffers like Creativity Daily, AdAge and Illustration Daily, and magazines like CA. But the big thing for me is teaching at a great design program like RIT. The kids are bright, talented, and ambitious and so incredibly plugged into contemporary culture and technology that they challenge me to be right there with them every class.
Q: You’ve suggested to me that I present myself to the world with one strong signature style, yet I see on your site a couple of distinctly different styles. What’s the biggest challenge in marketing yourself in two slightly different ways?
A: You know, one of the benefits of doing this for so long is that you develop some nice relationships with Designers and ADs who will want to shake it up and challenge you to surprise them with a different look at something. I’m always up for that. And I’m always excited to see what happens. So some of those are on my site and have generated interest from new ADs to do more of it. All part of the fun. But I tend to promote my natural style in my postcards and emails and sourcebooks.
Q: What are two pieces of advice that you would give young illustrators when entering the field?
A: Keep doing personal work. I know everyone dishing advice to illustrators seems to say that, but I will say some of my favorite and best assignments have come as a result of personal work being seen and referenced. I love creating illustrations for the pure joy of it – and I’ve had a bunch of them get into the CA Illustration Annual
Keep your hand in other things. For me it’s teaching and taking the occasional design project. All those experiences inform the illustrator in me and force me to get out in the world. It’s so easy to get lost in your studio and go hermit…
by Chris Lyons
David Owens and I met a few years ago at my “office” (A coffee shop in the village of Pittsford, NY) and we’ve moved from art student/mentor to friends/ colleagues. It’s been a real joy to watch his career develop and blossom. David has the talent and drive to make it in this business and his enthusiasm is infectious – I feel energized after every meeting!
Q: With so many career choices available to young creatives, what made you choose Illustration?
A: To by honest, I was never really one of those illustrators who felt like illustration was the only thing I could bring myself to do. There were lots of other careers that sounded really interesting, particularly art directing. Actually, with a background in graphic design, art directing was more-or-less my plan.
However, by my senior year I was freelancing quite a bit. I loved the freedom. My illustrations were always the strongest part of my portfolio; that’s what I enjoyed and that’s where I found work.
Q: How are you finding your way in this ultra-competitive industry at such a tender age…?
A: Life is a journey. I find that I have to constantly remind myself that it’s not about what I did last year or even what I’ll do next year. I work hard every week at the assignments I have on my desk (or desktop, haha). Those assignments always seem to lead to new assignments, usually better ones. For me it hasn’t been about competing as much as it has to just work hard and be genuine.
Q: And I’ll ask you: what 2 pieces of advice would give young illustrators entering the field?
A: Most young illustrators understand how important it is to have your own style, but style should be developed based on process. In other words: figure out what you enjoy doing not just what you want your work to look like.
Know that it’s ok to do work other than illustration. There’s an unneeded notion in the industry that you have to be illustrating full-time or else you’re a kind of fraud. I’m glad to be able to illustrate full-time, but I did a lot of part time design work in the beginning. You just have to figure out your own path.
David Owens is a professional illustrator, avid plein air painter, and sometimes pretends to be a pro-cyclist. If you ever see some guy painting in the Adirondack Mountains, or by Lake Ontario: stop by and say hello, it might be David. Visit David’s page on
Altpick.com and his website.
Chris Lyons professional illustrator and also plays a ton of basketball and spend sunny days in his gardens. His client list includes The NY Times, LA Magazine, Washington Post, MillerCoors, Penguin Publishing, Target, Chicago Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, to name a few. Chris also teach a bit in the School of Design at RIT. Visit Chris’ page on Altpick.com and his website.