Polka Dot Elephant © Marc Johns
Marc Johns built a burgeoning career with one hour a day. The illustrator from a small town in Quebec, known for his quirky, funny, and uplifting style, got serious about his art at what would seem to be the worst possible time: while juggling a full-time job as an in-house graphic designer and caring for his two young children, leaving him only one hour a day to dedicate to his craft.
“I was trying to keep my artwork really simple,” Johns says. “I wanted the satisfaction of starting a piece and being able to finish it in an hour or two. When I look back to those sleep-deprived years, I think my best work came out of that.”
To keep track of ideas for that “precious hour,” Johns kept a notebook with him, in which he jotted down ideas. That practice has endured since 2007. “Whenever I hear or see something interesting or odd, whether it’s a snippet of conversation in the coffee shop or some graphics on a gig poster when I’m downtown, I’ll jot down little notes,” he says. “Most of the time, they’re just half-ideas, little bits, and I’ll go back later that day or years later to that notebook and I’ll piece together an idea for a drawing from that.”
Kite © Marc Johns
Johns never anticipated that these brief flights of fancy would become his livelihood. As an undergraduate, he studied business and fine arts, but focused on painting and photography because “I didn’t think drawing was a very serious artistic pursuit, even though it was something I had always done,” he says.
After graduating university, Johns worked as a freelance graphic designer, doing his own drawings on the side and sharing them online. “I’ve always been drawn to good illustration,” he says. “It probably goes back to being a kid and reading comic books or being exposed to great illustration in children’s books.” He admires that “magical” combination of using text alongside illustration to tell a story. Artists like Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Edward Gorey have informed his work.
After Johns took the full-time, in-house graphic designer job, he found himself gravitating toward the office supplies closet, where he used a stack of Post-It notes and highlighters to make simple drawings. “There was something very liberating about the small format,” he says. “Something about drawing on a Post-It note captured people’s attention. After a while, I added some humor and got a greater response. That propelled me and grew my audience.”
Whisk Wasn’t Tallest © Marc Johns
Another appealing aspect of drawing on a 3×3 Post-It note: when scanned, it retains almost its exact size onscreen. “You could see my poorly drawn lines,” Johns says. “It’s not like a giant beautiful painting that’s been shrunken down. You’re not looking at it from a distance. It’s right there. It was creating something tactile on the Internet.”
Soon, people were offering to buy Johns’ creations, and art directors, who had seen his work on blogs, offered him commissions. It took approximately seven years until Johns felt comfortable enough to quit his job and do his own art full-time. He’s sustained his success for four-and-a-half years now.
Johns’ work has since appeared in major publications like National Geographic, Newsweek, and Wired magazine. His Post-It drawings have been used on Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts; he’s drawn for Vogue.com and Google as well.
Tired Chair © Marc Johns
“They find me, I don’t approach them,” Johns says. “Most of my work online is personal work, it’s self-directed. When they come to me, they know what they’re getting. They want my take on their subject.”
He has turned down jobs that were too specific, like a request to draw someone’s likeness, though there is a male face that appears again and again in his work. “I wouldn’t say it’s my face,” he answers when asked who the young man is. “What I like about that face is it’s hesitant. It’s not overly happy or sad. It’s sort of cautious. I think the characters in my work are looking at the world with hesitation. They don’t quite get it. The world doesn’t quite make sense to them. It doesn’t make sense to me most of the time.” When Johns created the character, he had been seeing a lot illustration that was graffiti or pop-influenced. “Everything was either really expressive like loud and angry, or super-duper happy, or expressionless,” he says. “I like that middle ground, that subtle look.”
Johns was also approached by Peter Pauper Press to illustrate The Daily Artist, a creative journal that was released this year. “It was something I had never tried doing before,” he says. “It ended up being a ton of work and a lot harder than I thought, but it was a cool challenge to dream up these little exercises. It doesn’t teach you how to draw—I would never call myself a proper art teacher—but it’s about creativity and about dreaming up ideas and experimenting and not being afraid to make mistakes.”
Do Not Disturb © Marc Johns
Johns continues to push himself out of his own comfort zone, too. He recently gave his first talk about the journey of going from full-time graphic designer to self-employed artist at the inaugural 99U Local event in Victoria, British Columbia, where he lives.
The talk was full of advice, something he receives emails about often from emerging illustrators. He advises them to fill their portfolios with the kind of work they want to do, not just what they excel at. “Maybe you had a student project where you did an annual report and you did a brilliant job but you hated doing it,” he says. “Don’t put that in your portfolio, or you’ll get hired to do another one.”
Of course new artists can’t always afford to be choosy when they’re just starting out, but Johns believes that remaining true to one’s interests is essential for the long-term haul. As the years go by, he finds himself saying “no” more often to offers if he doesn’t feel passionate about them. And while he admits he still doesn’t feel stable or certain about what’s coming next in his career, he’s been trying to pull his head out of the day-to-day and focus on what really matters when it comes to his artwork.
“Often times, as an artist, if there are things you want to do, you have to go out and do them, to keep things fresh and to put the kinds of things out into the world that you want to be known for,” he says. “Sometimes the market isn’t going to see you capable of doing x, but as soon as you go out and do x, and share it with the world, then they recognize that and in the future, you’ll get hired to do that.”