While I was dissolving my studio in Toronto and moving over the Atlantic to London, fellow illustrator and internet friend Corey Lee did the same, passing over the Pacific from Los Angeles to Tokyo. (I virtually met Corey when he did the first-ever-and-only fan art of me I’ve ever seen.) Naturally I’m curious about the parallel nomadic lives of my colleagues – Corey kindly answered some of my questions about making big international moves as a freelance illustrator.
Back in June 2009 I visited Japan for the first time and I think it was love at first sight. The countryside is beautiful, but I really love Tokyo. It’s like an intricate machine with millions of pieces all working together harmoniously. Being in the center of that really inspires me everyday.
Was the transition smooth from a work standpoint? How much of your business is internet-based versus location-based?
It was nearly seamless. I do almost all of my work online, so besides the time difference my workflow hasn’t changed much.
How do you handle the costs of relocation and travel? Do you have to take on other jobs besides illustration?
I decided I wanted to live and work in Japan about a year in advance, so it gave me a lot of time to save up for my travel expenses and about three months of living expenses. Although I arrived with a decent amount of financial padding, I really tried to be as frugal as possible until I felt financially stable.
Initially I wanted to focus solely on freelancing in Tokyo, but after some research I realized I needed to secure I job at a Japanese company in order to obtain a work visa. It’s very difficult to sponsor your own work visa as a freelancer unless you’ve previously worked in Japan.
After about a month of hustling I managed to land a position at a small Japanese company where I did graphic design and illustration for mobile applications. This gave me a stable income and a work visa, while also allowing me to freelance.
How do you approach meeting friends and networking in a new country with a new language?
This is tough because I’m really a shy person when it comes to introducing myself and meeting new people. Along with networking online, I try to attend various events and meet-ups around the city as much as possible to network. The language barrier is difficult though. I spend a lot of time studying Japanese so I can improve the way I communicate with people.
What types of promotion do you use for your illustration work? Has that changed now that you are in a different country?
The way I promote online hasn’t changed too much. I still try to build traffic and web presence by getting my work featured on various websites and uploading my work to design communities like Behance, etc. The biggest difference now is I spend significantly more time networking in person. I’m still trying to break into the market, so I need to use every opportunity I can to promote.
Can you describe your current illustration studio setup? How do you do your work?
Right now my current setup consists of 21.5” iMac, large Wacom Intuos4, and a simple table for drawing. Because I’m kind of a minimalist and I work from my small apartment I like to keep things simple to conserve space. I really hate having clutter in my life.
When I create a new illustration I usually have a rough idea of what I want to draw, but gather my reference materials so I can decide on the details of what I want to create. I have a few folders on my computer where I save reference material like fashion magazine scans, and street style photos that I look at while drawing.
I draw my line work with just paper and pencil or sometimes ball point pen. I’ve been trying to migrate to drawing on my computer directly, however it still feels too unnatural. After completing the line work on paper I scan the drawing and add color with PhotoShop or SAI Paint Tool(a popular Japanese program). I’m constantly trying to tweak my technique so I don’t really have a standard process.
Do you think location matters for a working illustrator? Why or why not?
I feel like location is becoming less and less relevant. When you can promote your work and deliver worldwide with just an internet connection, location doesn’t seem to matter. There are no longer limits to who you can work for and where you can work from.
What are the greatest challenges in relocating as an illustrator? The greatest rewards?
The fear of failing. The fear I don’t posses the skills or drive to succeed. Even though I have goals I’d like to achieve I have doubts about my ability to accomplish them. At the same time, the most rewarding thing is the challenge itself. Succeeding in starting a career in another country, and living in an inspirational place is my reward.