Nicole Steffes knows about hard work and success in the art industry, but it wasn’t always that way. In elementary school, she lost the annual book illustration contest every year – Steffes wasn’t sure she would end up selling her art one day. The humble artist is still unsure of her acceptance to the Academy of Art University’s Masters of Fine Arts program. Nonetheless, she now sells her digital illustrations on her website and has grown her Instagram account to have over 2,000 followers. Read our interview with Steffes below.
Tell me a little about you. Where are you from? Do you work a job outside your art?
I was born and raised in Grand Blanc, Michigan which made for a fun childhood. We were always boating on lakes, playing sports, or doing arts and crafts. I started drawing as soon as I knew how to grip hold of a crayon, and my parents always supported my love for it. It wasn’t until after I completed my undergraduate studies at Central Michigan University that I finally made the decision for myself to make a career out of my love for art.
In all honesty, I don’t fully know how I was accepted into the Academy of Art University’s MFA program. My work was really not too great at the time, but I imagine they saw my potential. All of that to say that I definitely had to work jobs completely unrelated to art while I was in school. At one point I had been working 3 part-time jobs in addition to being a full-time graduate student. I had evening classes that went from 7-10, so before class I would either work as a lunch hour hostess or be at my 9-5 as a customer service rep, and after class I would stay up late at night to fit homework in. My weekends were strictly filled with homework and working my third job as a sales associate for an adorable high-end boutique.
Whenever I could I would take on personal commission requests, and found that the more I shared my work with others the more I opened myself up to additional opportunities. I am extremely thankful to be able to say that since graduating I have been able to fully sustain an income solely as an artist.
What inspired you to start your Instagram account and selling your art?
I learned about the power of social media when I moved west and started to meet Instagram influencers, bloggers, and photographers. It quickly became another creative outlet for me to share my life through photos. It eventually led to working with brands, and going on weekend trips to create content.. it even landed me my boyfriend! As time went by, I saw the network of incredible people that had come into my life thanks to platforms like Instagram and I knew I wanted that same exposure for my art. My favorite part about creating anything that I do is the part where I get to share it with others. So, I created a separate Instagram, Facebook, and website strictly to share my artwork. Selling it came later after promoting my first art show where a handful of charcoal illustrations I had done were being sold. I sold 11 of the 13 pieces in my show and I was on cloud nine! It truly was a dream of mine when I first started to be able to sell pieces I created and the thought of them hanging in homes or other spaces and be enjoyed by others – the dream has come true and I couldn’t be more excited about it
What is your favorite part about the art you create?
I really love applying an element of either whim or nostalgia to my drawings in an animated and playful way. I think that with all that we deal with in our day-to-day lives it’s fun to draw things that take people to another place and time… even if it’s just for a moment!
What do you enjoy most about being an artist? What’s the hardest part?
I absolutely love that my job is to essentially wake up and “color” all day. If I go a day without sketching I genuinely miss it, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. Lately, I’ve had a lot of fun creating custom pieces for couples, families, and individuals and my favorite part of it is finding out the things they share that are specifically special about them. It’s always a fun challenge of mine to make custom pieces as personal to the client as possible and show off the things that make them who they are. I really like my job when I’m successful at it.
The hardest part about my job as a freelancer is that I feel like I am on a roller coaster ride… blindfolded.
You never know what each week will bring. Some months are extremely busy, and packed full of inquiries and orders (fun parts of my roller coaster ride) while other months leave me wondering whatever made me think I was good enough to illustrate for a living. These are the low points, but also the times I see the most growth in my work.
What goals have you set for yourself regarding your art?
Each month I come up with a list of short-term goals. And at the start of each year I include a list of long-term goals. I write them on a whiteboard in my room that I am forced to see every day along with two quotes: the first reads, “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” The second, “I will never give up.” Both are to remind me to have grit for the things I really want in life. Which at the moment, one long-term goal I have is to obtain a position working as a visual development artist for a major studio drawing for animation. I, therefore, have short-term projects to get me closer and closer to my long-term goal. I always want to push myself to be better today than I was yesterday, and the best and only way I know how to do that is to put in the pencil mileage. Study and practice and have a teachable heart; always.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
My best advice to all aspiring artists is to not compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Talent is not created overnight, it’s a process – and the process is full of frustration and hard work. So, learn to fall in love with the process and know that everyone who has ever made it to where you hope to be has their process story, too.
Who or what inspires you the most? Why?
I get inspired by a lot of things! Sometimes it’s researching historical events and time periods. Other days it’s photography, film, stories. But most of all I am inspired by the visual development artists. My absolute favorite [is] Glen Keane.