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Becoming a Full-Time Illustrator (Gulp)

Bree McKenna

By John Kenzie

I am lying in bed, pretending to be asleep. It is about 4 a.m., and it is my daughter’s cat that I am trying to fool. The air in my apartment is very dry, and as the cat walks across my comforter, I can see arcs of static electricity flashing off her feet. I don’t really understand the science of it, but I know that if I touch the cat a much bigger shock will get both of us, and she will take it as betrayal.

I slink deeper under the covers, pulling all my exposed skin in with me. I fall asleep quickly, and the next thing I know, I am waking up in pain. The cat has returned: I feel her claws find me thru the comforter as I spring up in bed, and she rockets away. It is now 4:30 a.m. I just get up because I have drawing to do.

I call it my apartment, but it is my building. My wife lives upstairs. We are divorcing. It is her building, too. We have a daughter who moves back and forth between us. She has a bedroom in the same location on both floors, and the difference between those rooms is stark. Upstairs is tightly organized, and filled with reminders of what she likes and what she has done. Downstairs is kind of a poorly formed grouping of media she has consumed already and clothing looking for a proper storage solution.

My daughter is 11. She has a computer in both rooms, and if she is in that space on either floor, that is where she is. This living arrangement seems to have taken most of the sting out of the impending divorce. For many reasons, things will probably stay this way for awhile. It makes sense, and seems best for our kid. I try to imagine myself explaining things to a woman I don’t know yet, and I don’t really have the words. It seems like this situation can’t be entirely unusual, but I also can’t think of anyone I know who has lived anything similar.

I have recently made plans to leave the job that I had for 25 years. I am 48, which is not young, but is young to have been in one workplace for so long. I am very proud to be leaving by my own decision, because I spent about 20 of those years worried that this would not be the case.  I have done illustration on the side prior to—and during—my employment, and it seemed like it might be my last best chance to make a go of it. I say by my own decision, but it was part of a voluntary layoff program. Once it was offered, I became set on it. There have been other non-voluntary layoffs in the past few years, and the worry of being culled does not dissipate when you turn into one of the people left behind. I figured 48 is a better time to start again than 55.

I am not sure why these are such clear distinctions. I know that if I were still living upstairs this would not be happening. I would not be able to cast our shared fates into uncertainty. Downstairs, it is just one of many changes we are all going to roll with. My daughter is thrilled because it will mean we can spend a lot more time together. This always makes me smile, but every time she says it, I worry that I don’t know what am doing.

I keep adding small things to my new life docket and, as a list, it all sounds really good. I am going to eat less meat and give up soft drinks again. I drink a lot of those and have stripped the enamel from my teeth. I listened to a podcast where a man who survived cancer talked about drinking a Diet Coke afterword and could not finish it. He said something akin to “Why did I just go thru all of that, if I am going to return to drinking a chemical slurry?” That was all paraphrased, but the words chemical slurry were there. That is what I call it now. I am going to miss it.

Through word of mouth, I have gotten a lot of illustration work lately. It is very gratifying and takes the edge off leaving the old job. The timing is not perfect, though. I am still burning the candle at both ends, and now I am worried that the illustration part is not as good as it would be if I had more time to spend on it. This was never a concern before—but it was also nothing I could have done anything about.

Now that it is going to be the center of my work life, I am feeling a lot of pressure to improve. My hope is that the people giving me work will return again, and I will be able to give them something profound. This is not something you can tell people, but I am thinking it at them very hard. My other concern is that this flood of work will taper off, and I will wake up on my first morning at home with nothing to work on. I am near obsessed with making a little bit of money on that first day. Just to set the tone right. I have some things lined up. It should not matter, but it still does.

In mid-December, just as I began my plans to escape the office, my father came back to life. I have no memory of him since he was gone before I remember anything. Then I heard from an aunt that I do not know through Facebook. She tracked me down thru LinkedIn somehow, which is more use than I have ever gotten out of LinkedIn. I knew of her existence because it was one of the few details I ever got from my mother. I was drawing at my computer, where nearly all drawing is done now. My daughter was watching Netflix on the couch just a few feet behind me, and a Facebook message pops up from a stranger. Simple as that.  

Within a few minutes I found my father’s Facebook page. Hidden in plain sight.  

I can look him directly in the eyes in his pictures, comfortable with them being unable to look back. He is bald, and I am very much not, but I recognize my features. He has all of the ones I have instinctually disliked, and now I am wondering why. His Facebook page creeps me out by proclaiming a love for me and my mother on his “about” page. There are pictures of my mother and me that I had never seen before on there. It all depresses me.

Nothing has come from it, but my original thought was that he wanted my kidney or something. He apparently does not know my aunt found me. She appears to be a very nice woman. I am just putting this all aside for a bit, fully aware that time could end many possibilities at any moment.

I am great with that.


I HAVE BEEN FREELANCING FOR A MONTH NOW FROM HOME. Pretty busy even. I have not looked for work yet, or even had time to get a portfolio together. One job just seems to lead to another. I gave up my Cokes without much effort. I thought I was going to taper them off and be miserly with the last few, but in practice I just guzzled them. I switched to lemonade and seltzer, and now I drink two liters of seltzer and a quart of lemonade everyday. My stomach is an acidotic crucible. I get up in the morning and write something for 15 minutes because that wakes me up. I look at the new sketchbook I bought, and I decide not to draw in it. I exercise for a half hour with a dancing video game that makes me feel ashamed, and then I sit down and draw. I take breaks and watch YouTube videos where people explain how to use the software I already own, or the software that I want to own. The day is broken up when my daughter is able to visit.

The things I want are becoming better as they become smaller.

Right now I want spring to come, so that I can open the window behind my desk and get a particular cool breeze on my neck. That sounds trite, but I think about it every day. I worry about my eyes. They are a bit blurry close up now. I make a point of going out on my porch and looking at stuff further away. I just need glasses, but I have not done anything about getting some.

I know a guy from England. He now lives in Japan. I have not seen him since the early 90s, and we have not talked actively ever. I typed his ancient email address into my messenger program and sent him a note thinking he would not get it. He responded and has now become someone to whom I send non sequiturs every few days. He says things like, “I'm almost double what I was when we met. But still a sickly pencil” and I say things like, “Dang! That sounds very glamorous.” My thing was not a direct response to his thing. It is just an example. I am using him to indirectly solve problems. I say things, and in advance of his reply, I determine that if he answers one way I will do this, and if he answers in another way, I will do that. My desire for things to happen randomly will never be satisfied. I always feel like I am putting my thumb on the scale.

This is everything I know about freelance illustration. I hope it helps you in your future career as a freelance illustrator!


John Kenzie is a freelance illustrator living in Chicago.