Meet Drew Bardana: A Freelance Illustrator

Drew Bardana is a freelance illustrator from Oregon, United States. He graduated in Illustration from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and recently celebrated his first year as a full-time illustrator!

A big “aha” moment for me was when I realized that learning to draw was different than learning to draw for illustration … You have to learn the rules in order to know how to break them.”

(c)Drew-Bardana-1
Artwork by Drew Bardana

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Can you please tell us a bit about your background? Please add at least one random interesting fact about you.

I’m a 30-something guy from Oregon, United States. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Portland, Oregon and I graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2014.

I was a sign artist at Whole Foods Market for a number of years and I have been freelancing illustration work since 2014.

I’m now celebrating my first year as a full-time illustrator. It’s been an exciting and terrifying journey. I’m happy to share my experience and knowledge. Thank you all for this opportunity!

An interesting fact about me is that – well, two things – I love horror movies and I love chihuahuas. They go hand-in-hand, really. You need a cute little thing to squeeze when you’re scared on the couch!   🙂

What inspired you to make art?

I was obsessed with the Pokemon trading cards when I was younger. I would spend hours trying to replicate the characters on the cards and draw my own scenes. I carried a sketchbook with me even in elementary school. 

My family has been a big influence. They encouraged me to pursue art education and cheered me on each step of the way. My grandfather’s dream is to see my illustration on the cover of the New Yorker. He shows me new covers and his favorite artists whenever I visit. 

In art school, I really admired the work of Josh Cochran and A. Richard Allen. I admired how these illustrators blended traditional drawing media with digital. Crude graphite drawings with bold digital colors or painted textures and artful marks with sharp digital shapes. These are things that excite me and I try to replicate in my practice. 

Did you study at art school(s) or are you self-taught?

I studied illustration at Pacific Northwest College of Art. It was a small school at the time and I had a tight-knit group of illustration nerds as friends. 

A big “aha” moment for me was when I realized that learning to draw was different than learning to draw for illustration. I was taking figure drawing and painting as my core artist development classes, which were focused on drawing from life and realism. But in my illustration classes, I had to un-learn or reject all that stuff I was learning to make an interesting style of art for illustration. You have to learn the rules in order to know how to break them.  

My “haha” moment was on my first day of class. I was so excited to be in art school that I had worn my sweater inside-out and backwards. The tag was showing and everything! *face-palm* LOL

There was a class at PNCA called “Art Marketplace” that explored real-life applications of illustration. Students made illustrations for maps, packaging, character designs, advertisement, etc. And once a week there was an in-class quick turnaround assignment like a rush spot illustration for the New York Times. I found this to be really beneficial in understanding where illustration lived in the world and what it would be like as a working illustrator. So cool!!

(c)Drew-Bardana-3
Artwork by Drew Bardana

How did you develop your own art style?

My art style has developed over a number of years and I hope it continues to develop, really.

When I was first out of school I had this rough graphite and ink splatter style. It was gritty and it was winning me editorial jobs on gritty subjects. I was grateful for the work, but I struggled through it. I realized that my art style did not represent who I was and what I was interested in. I shifted my portfolio by creating work that was a little cleaner, had brighter colors, and depicted lighthearted scenes of people, animals, and food. 

It has benefitted me immensely to understand my personal style and interests and allow those things to come through in my illustrations. I’m much happier with the art I make and it resonates more deeply with the people I share it with. Here’s an example of how this has affected me professionally. I’m a big true-crime podcast listener. I made a series of portraits of podcast hosts. The co-founder of Tenderfoot TV saw the portrait I made of him and asked me to create portraits of all the staff. Not only did I make artwork of something I’m interested in, but I got to work with the people that create the thing I’m interested in. 

I keep my creativity flowing by following my interests. I like to make illustrations about what I do in the kitchen. I like to draw attributes of my favorite season or holiday. In my process, I keep creativity alive by giving myself challenges like using only a few odd brushes or limiting my color palette. 

How did you start making a living as an artist? What was your first paid art job?

A spot illustration in the local weekly newspaper was my first paid gig. It paid $50 or $75 and it was a quick turnaround. I stayed up all night working on that illustration, thrilled to be doing what I was doing. 

That was 2014. In the following years, I received illustration jobs from magazines and businesses, all while keeping a decent day job.

In 2020, I made the switch to full-time freelance illustration. I understand that I’m very fortunate to have recurring clients and bigger opportunities from an artist representative. It is how I have been able to make a living as an artist. 

What do you live from as an artist now? What are your main income streams and what is the approximate % split of each?

As I am barely a year into my career as a full-time illustrator, I can’t quite gauge my yearly income. My main income streams are from my recurring clients and my art rep. I have a few projects from personal clients per month and a bigger job from my rep every few months. 

I know of illustrators that have eggs in different baskets, earning from direct client work and having some passive income through licensing or product. I’d like to work on building some of that passive-type illustration into my portfolio, but for now, client work is keeping me busy. 🙂

What do you think are the most important characteristics of an artist?

I believe curiosity is a very important characteristic of an artist. The desire to explore and learn is the spark of creativity and it fuels the images we make and the stories we tell. 

(c)Drew-Bardana-2
Artwork by Drew Bardana

What are the art tools and other products and services you can’t live without?

Definitely the iPad Pro and Procreate. *Could.Not.Live.Without.* My illustration process became so much easier and cleaner when I started working on the iPad. For bigger projects, I use the Adobe Creative Suite and a Wacom Cintiq Pro 32.

For drawing and sketching, I could not be without a small Moleskine sketchbook, ballpoint pen, and a black felt tip marker.

What are your favorite art and other books (fiction, non-fiction)?

Taaryn Brench’s “Everything I know so far about running a freelance illustration business” was so helpful and validating. I could not recommend it enough.

What advice would you give yourself as a beginner artist? Or alternatively please include your favorite quote and the author.

If I were to give myself advice at that time in my life, I would tell myself to slow down and invest fully into each present moment. I’d tell that to myself now, honestly, but it would have been nice to be mindful of that back then. 

Get in touch with Drew

Thank you, Drew, for joining us today!

All artworks by Drew Bardana, used with permission.

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