Interview: How an Illustrator Turned Her Passion for Flowers and Art Into a Blossoming Career

Digital Illustration Art by Lisa Perrin

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Artist Lisa Perrin fell in love with illustration long before she pursued it as a career. While in high school, she would re-shelve books at her local public library and marvel at the illustrators who created their covers. Now, Perrin is the one producing eye-catching works that stop you in your tracks. Her imagery is inspired, in part, by the natural world—“I must have been a florist in a past life,” she confides in us. Perrin’s passion for nature is evident in how she depicts the intricacies of flora and fauna in astounding detail. They are often paired with fantastical elements to bring imaginative stories to life.

Perrin has a fine art background. She’s formally trained as a painter and worked that way in college and beyond—until she entered graduate school for illustration in 2011. While there, she began using a Wacom Cintiq, and it completely changed the way she created her work. “It’s embarrassing to say now,” she tells My Modern Met in an email, “I knew people were making art on the computer, but I had no idea how! I had never seen a Wacom Tablet.”

Using digital tools allowed Perrin to create her work more efficiently without sacrificing all of the delightful details for which her illustration art is known. The newfound skills eventually lead her to working as an in-house illustrator at American Greetings (the card company) while she built her freelance career. We were elated to speak with Perrin about her background, the perks of working in a corporate environment, as well as how she deals with one of the biggest conundrums creatives face: reconciling the things she likes to draw with the specifications of her clients.

Read our interview with Perrin, below.

Digital Illustration Art by Lisa Perrinv

What is your background in art?

I am an art appreciator in general! I have always loved drawing, painting, crafting, theater, improv, fashion, embroidery, etc. The connection between a lot of these genres for me is creativity and storytelling. I think needing stories is such an inherent part of being human.

How did you get interested in illustration?

I always wanted to be an illustrator. I just love the way words and pictures look together. My first job in high school was re-shelving books in my local public library. I would always flip to the back inside jacket flap on a book to read about the illustrators and wonder how they got there.

I went to college at the State University of New York at New Paltz. I was a double major in Painting and English. Later, I went back to school to pursue an MFA in Illustration Practice from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Art Illustration by Lisa Perrin

Art Illustration by Lisa Perrin

What inspires your work?

I have always been inspired by nature, flora, and fauna. I also love folk art, art history, and fashion history. I’m a real illustration “groupie.” I am just motivated by seeing the beautiful and astounding things other people are making. I am intrigued by the idea of beauty and challenging it. I like to draw bugs or other conventionally scary things in a way that elevates them. I like creating rich, narrative images where there is a lot to see if you look at them more closely.

Art Illustration by Lisa Perrin

Art Illustration by Lisa Perrin

Working as an illustrator, you’re often at the behest of clients. How do you reconcile the things you like to draw with the specifications of the clients?

Tell me about it! This is the nature of the beast when you are creating art for someone else, like a client, as opposed to personal work for yourself. It’s my job to synthesize all of the client’s needs and expectations in the project with my own aesthetics and goals. Sometimes its a seamless union of illustrator and art director very much on the same page. Other times its an awkward middle school dance where everyone is being polite, but still stepping on each other’s toes. The biggest issues I have come across in projects almost always stem from communication issues. So I try to ask a lot of questions up front and make sure I understand what the client is going for before diving into the project.

In any project, you have to find your way in, something that makes the project exciting and something you want to do. If you can’t find that way in, you probably shouldn’t take the project! After some years in the field, I know what red flags to look out for now, and when to realize a project is not a good fit for me. Ideally, a client chooses you because they have seen your work, like what you do, and want you to do more of it for them. Ideally, you choose to work with a client who makes the kinds of things you like and want to be a part of. It should be a collaboration and partnership.

Digital Illustration Art by Lisa Perrin

What tools do you use to create your work? How has that changed over time?

I currently work almost exclusively digitally using a Wacom Cintiq and Adobe Photoshop. This is a big leap from where I was entering grad school seven years ago. Its embarrassing to say now, I knew people were making art on the computer, but I had no idea how! I had never seen a Wacom Tablet. I felt like I was late to the digital party. I worked entirely traditionally with acrylic or gouache paint on paper up to that point.

I always sketch with pencil and paper, even if the final result will be digital. That part of my process has stayed the same.

Art Illustration by Lisa Perrin

Being trained as a fine artist, what was it like to begin to work digitally? 

I had an “aha” moment working digitally with layers in Photoshop. That process just really jives with how my brain works. I am grateful that I learned traditional media before digital. I feel “digital” is just another tool an artist can use.

How did your analog skills translate into the digital realm?

I appreciate that I had a strong foundation in design and color principals and theory first. The elements of design; composition, contrast, scale, etc. are all the same no matter what tool you use. I have been told that my digital paintings look somewhat like gouache paintings. That’s something I really appreciate! The influence of the paint remains!

Illustration Art

One of the cards Perrin created for American Greetings.

You worked for many years in a corporate environment illustrating greeting cards. What did you take away from that experience?

I learned so much during my time as an in-house illustrator for American Greetings! It was a really marvelous opportunity to work as part of a larger creative studio and get to learn a little bit of the business side of things. I enjoyed doing trend research and learning to understand the market. I also had the privilege to learn hand lettering from a master calligrapher, Martha Ericson, which has greatly improved the quality of my lettering. In a company setting, you have to learn to see your artwork as one piece of a much larger project and really be a part of that team. I also think drawing every day for work just helped me get better at drawing in a practical way. Making all those cards on all those deadlines helped me be less precious. Better done than perfect! (Which is something I struggle with in my personal work!) I think a lot of this translated into my freelance work. It was a valuable experience for me.

Illustration Art by Lisa Perrin

Cover of Perrin’s 2016 calendar for Anthropologie.

Illustration Art by Lisa Perrin

What’s your favorite (or most memorable) project you’ve ever worked on? Can you describe the process of working on it?

The first one that jumps to mind is a calendar that I illustrated, designed, and hand-lettered for Anthropologie in 2016. It had an incredibly short deadline, 4 weeks to produce all 13 illustrations (the 12 months and the cover!) I would work at American Greetings from 9-5, then come home and work on the calendar until I couldn’t stay awake anymore. It’s the hardest I worked in my life! But I was so excited about the project and ultimately quite proud of the results! Its very true to me as an illustrator and my aesthetic.

Art Illustration by Lisa Perrin

Digital Illustration Art by Lisa Perrin

What advice do you have for someone that wants to pursue illustration as a career?

I am currently a professor of Illustration at MICA and I talk to a lot of young people who want to pursue careers as illustrators! The thing I most frequently tell them is you have to make the work you want to get. Illustration is this marvelous chance to put what you love and find beautiful or funny or interesting into the world! You don’t need to wait for permission to do this. The best way to make great pictures is to look at examples of great pictures. I also firmly believe the harder you work, the luckier you get! Additionally, I like to remind students that you have to be a person too, take care of yourself. You can’t be an art machine all the time.

Digital Illustration Art by Lisa Perrin

Lisa Perrin: Website | Instagram | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Lisa Perrin.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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