My name is Joey Ellis and I run an illustration studio in Charlotte, NC. I’m 33, yet have the taste of an 8-year-old. I still buy comics and toys. I met my wife Erin while flunking out of a photography class and we have two sweet boys that eat all of our food and stink up my house.
I enjoy drawing monsters, creatures, silly things, old vehicles, cups of coffee, dinosaurs, old people and chairs.
My website is www.joeyellis.com and my workblog is www.joeyblog.com
When did you first decide to become a graphic designer/ illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?
I first learned about graphic design and illustration in college. Before then I was really naive to art as a profession. I had no idea what it took to make it, or the fact that there even WAS any “art career” outside of “being a painter” or “making cartoons”. I suppose you only know what you’ve been exposed to, so luckily my choice of college really helped expand my view of the art world and where my place was within it.
I wasn’t really familiar with the design profession before then. I had grown up wanting to become a cartoonist, but the prospect of turning that into a job that would pay the bills seemed remote. I visited a few colleges and was impressed with the graphic design departments that used computers to create their art. It seems so misplaced (frankly stupid) now, but I initially fell in love with graphic design because I loved computers.
When I was in college/art school, it took me a LONG time to understand how graphic design existed before the digital era. I had no idea what a “concept” was, so I had a lot of initial struggles. My school had a portfolio review, essentially meaning that if the professors didn’t like your body of work, or your way of thinking, you didn’t get into the school and had to select another major (seemingly a deathblow to anyone wanting to pursue design). By some miracle, I got accepted into design school, albeit at the bottom of the list, which allowed me to continue to build my understanding of graphic design as a profession of visual communication. It also meant I didn’t have to start from scratch and choose another major. Whew.
As far as illustration goes, I was never good enough in school to be considered “an illustrator”. Luckily, I did attend a formal art school, meaning I had to take lots of classes for drawing, figure drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, art history... just to name a few. So, while I missed out on getting in on all of the upper-level illustration classes, I made up for it by taking other drawing classes.
I loved to draw and really felt like illustration was the perfect marriage of drawing, design, cartoons, entertainment, storytelling... all rolled into one profession, but I wasn’t prepared to enter the professional world as an illustrator, so I stuck with graphic design.
After I graduated, I spent the next 10 years or so working for small branding shops as a graphic designer. During evenings and what free time I had, I kept up with illustration, taking on small jobs and building up my illustration portfolio, in the hopes that I’d be able to become an illustrator one day.
Finally in 2012, I started running my own, full-time illustration studio, leaving behind the security of my salaried design job. It was a huge leap, but one I had prepared 10 years for. In that decade, I came to the realization that school was only the beginning of things, and that REAL education takes place afterwards. You can’t teach perseverance or determination, which is great for someone like me, who was a late bloomer.
To this day, I enjoy speaking with design and illustration students about what it really means to be a professional in the design and illustration industry. I understand the struggles they’re going through, and I enjoy telling them things I wish I had been told when I was in their shoes. Remember, success in school is just that. Success in school. Once school is over, it means nothing, and you’re back to square one.
Who do you look up to? Who are your heroes in the industry?
That’s a loaded question. I admire so many people. You can see my Twitter and Dribbble feed to get a good idea of whose work I enjoy looking at and who I enjoy talking to.
If I have to get specific, I really admire:
Chris Sanders, Adam Koford, Alex Deligiannis, Peter DeSéve, Melanie Matthews, Invisible Creature, Laura Park, Chris Lee, Matt Kaufenberg, Scott Campbell, Scott Chantler, Eddie Pittman, Robot Johnny, Todd Bright, Dustin Harbin... I’m just going to keep naming names until my computer battery dies.... these are just a FEW folks I really dig. I admire people that can flat out draw.
Jared Chapman is great. He makes me laugh. No one makes me laugh. His work is great too.
I’m lucky enough to have a brother-in-arms, Matt Stevens who is also a brilliant designer/illustrator. I think everyone needs a close friend in the industry that you can commiserate with.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
I went to East Carolina University, and have been self-teaching ever since. Your education never ends. How awful would it be if it did? I study what other people do, and I draw a lot. I think drawing really helps your brain absorb stuff. Not sure how to explain it. Osmosis? “Drawmosis”. Need to trademark that.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
I like Old Spice.
No. I don’t use deodorant. But seriously... competition. Seeing brilliant people do brilliant things. I’m always disappointed with my own work (limited by my own imagination or execution) which isn't a bad thing. It fuels the next project I work on to be even better. I don’t want to be satisfied. I don’t think there will ever be a moment where I’m like “Whew. Glad that’s done”. I think if you’re curious and hungry to excel, you’ll always be “fresh”.
What are some of your current projects?
I’m currently in the middle of a huge iOS game, mixed in with some personal projects. I’ve also been working on some large illustration projects with the Walt Disney Company and McGraw Hill Education. I love those peeps.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
The ones that I haven’t started yet. Optimism keeps me going. I like to keep moving forward.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
Screen printing. Everyone says that right? I’m really cliché. I need to make some t-shirts. EVERYONE SAYS THAT TOO.
I’m trying to get into publishing. I suppose everyone says that. I like to tell stories and entertain, so it seems like the next move for me. Who knows. I also want to get into more iOS work. AGAIN. EVERYONE SAYS THIS. ME TOO.
Any advice to the novice designer/ illustrator?
Don’t get hung up on any success or lack of success you’ve had up to this point. Either one is fleeting, so it’s best to keep moving forward.
No one knows what they’re doing. They just keep going. They know what they want to make. They work hard, and they aren’t afraid to fail.
Trust your instincts.
What makes a design or illustration successful?
For illustration, I think it has to be designed well. It can’t have any vague details. I think it also tells a good story, and has a certain marketability; that is, people will want to buy it (or the product it promotes).
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
I have a family to feed.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't an illustrator I would have been a..."
Before choosing art, I was determined to go into broadcasting, because in high school, I wanted to “be the next David Letterman”. Oh boy.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
Breaking Bad. Is that cliché? I also like “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”. I haven’t missed an episode yet.
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