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Drawings, solitude, and passion: The life of an illustrator

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When the tip of the pencil touches a blank sheet of paper and begins to dance, a story is born. And that’s the way John Nez likes to tell them – through scribbles that take shape, color, and life, and become part of a reality or a great fiction. Nez is an illustrator for children’s publications and has published 75 books. Inspiration came from his experience leafing through children’s books as a substitute teacher and his admiration for the illustrator, Maurice Sendak. His first book was released a few decades ago, and since then he has never stopped.

“It was a happy day when I discovered the world of children’s books… an uplifting world of light and joy,” he remembered. Among the books in his portfolio, he cites some specials such as “Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle,” the true story of a boy who built his own flying bicycle in 1907 and flew a mile over Columbus, Ohio.

The second book is “Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington,” in which two cousins ​​travel through Washington state. During their vacation, they watch a pod of whales over the sound, sing in an alpine village hidden high in the mountains, buy gifts at Pike Place Market, and head straight to the top of the Space Needle. His longtime passion for the “Evergreen State” inspired the creation of this book.

Nez is from Denver, but he moved to Seattle when he graduated with an English degree. After a year of living in the city, he had to leave to study at Parsons School of Design in New York. “I subscribed to the local Seattle paper where, every week, I’d get more and more homesick reading about the cool rainy weather, cool coffee shops, and ferry boats on Puget Sound. I was homesick. Finally, I got an illustration agent in NYC which allowed me to move back to Seattle and send in my illustrations by FedEx. That was before digital art happened,” Nez commented, “I’ve lived in Seattle for decades. Washington is an amazing place… mountains, volcanoes, sea stacks, and the ocean. I can see three national parks when I go on a bike ride.”

Cover of the book “The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington”.
John Nez Cover of the book “The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington”.

Of all the books he released, he wrote only half a dozen of them. Being in charge of the drawings is what moves him. The process is long. It takes about six weeks for the sketches and an additional six weeks for the finished art. “First comes the idea and inspiration, probably from a text. Then the rough sketches fit with the words. Then the sketches are sent to the art director or editor for changes. After changes are approved, the final art is done and sent in to the publisher,” Nez explained.

Along his decades-long journey, the artist felt some changes with the development of technology. He publicizes his work on social media, showing, for example, some of the creative process in videos. But according to him, a good illustrator doesn’t just support himself with tools. “It’s been great switching to digital art since it makes all the changes and sending art so much easier. But talent in drawing and painting is still the main thing.”

But the artist does not deny that now with the internet, there are tons of great opportunities for workshops and online classes. And with digital media, he can deliver his finished work in a file transfer. He also designed interactive games for tablets which Nex described as being fun. Now, he is working on two non-fiction books about online shopping and what happens after consumers hit the “buy” button. 

Drawing from the book “Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle”.
John Nez Drawing from the book “Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle”.

The bitter side

Technology has brought many changes (in which not all are positive); on the other hand, some challenges of artistic work remain intact. Working with art has always been challenging: little recognition, intense routine, and lack of stability. For all of Nez’s work, you’ve probably never heard of him; which is very common in the artistic world if you are not in the commercial sphere, have not launched a best seller, don’t work at The Walt Disney Company, or don’t have a very influential network. 

Nez reveals that he always has new book ideas ready to send to agents and publishers, but they are rarely published. For each one book that is published, there are nine books that were rejected. “I’m afraid to say it’s getting harder every year, it seems. Publishing doesn’t seem to offer any great increase in fees over the years. Children’s educational publishing and magazine work has slowed down a lot, which used to be a source of income. There are threats to illustration from stock art that takes away the need to pay a real illustrator. Also artificial intelligence is making inroads into needing real people to make illustrations.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for fine artists, including painters, sculptors, and illustrators, was $60,820 in May 2021.

It’s not hard to find jobs for illustrators in companies on Linkedin, but working independently is a dark path. According to him, making a living with illustration is difficult: “Illustration is a very tough business to make a living with. I wouldn’t recommend anyone try it unless they are totally obsessed with doing illustration. Also they need to be very good at it. I almost gave up about three times,” the artist lamented.

Drawing by John Nez.
John Nez Drawing by John Nez.

Nez further explained, “It’s fun and easy to make art, but making a living from art is the hard part. Also doing illustration is tremendously isolating. It took me years to get used to working alone, like being a lighthouse keeper. No holiday parties, no water-cooler friends, but at least now we have friends online.”

Over the decades of his career, he has thought several times about giving up, but he remains resistant. “I think everyone gets dry spells in their work. When we wonder about other choices, it’s just when a dry spell hits. It made me wonder about working for Microsoft or something. But in freelancing, you never know when an email might arrive and suddenly you have a giant project to do overnight,” Nez revealed.  

By the way, the surname Nez is the americanized version of the original Slovenian name, Knez. Knez is a common translation of “prince” in Croatian and Serbian literature. And like any good prince, he needs to keep being brave.

Staff Writer at Seattle Central College

Tássia is a Brazilian journalist who is learning and discovering English. She believes in the power of the mind and destiny. Sweets are her biggest addiction. Tássia is passionate about food, travel and writing about feelings and thoughts. Seniors have a big space in her heart and that's why she volunteers on a project focused on them. She loves changes and challenges, and that is what keeps her going.

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