August 9, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: For Illustrator and Designer Anna Raff, “Things Are Looking Grimm”



What are you working on—on the side?

My most recent side project is a series of illustrations based on the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, called “Things Are Looking Grimm.”

I work in children’s publishing, and have a number of books in different genres under my belt. Earlier this summer, I found myself with time to spare in between projects: one book was in a state of first sketches; another was in the final art stage, awaiting approval; and I was writing/sketching a picture book dummy that I’d been bouncing back and forth with my agent. I felt the need for a new illustration project where I could create my own content. I teach narrative illustration at the School of Visual Arts, and what I assign my students is basically what I assigned myself: a series of images from a narrative of my choice, in this case, “Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I do a lot of the reading and sketching for each piece in the evenings and weekends. If I have a gap in my schedule during the week, I fit in as much painting and imaging as I can. Some weeks, I can finish two images—in others, I may only have time for brainstorming and sketches. I try not to impose too much pressure on myself, but I did set an end goal of a self-promotional piece that I’ll send out in late summer/early fall.

Why have a side project?

Aside from giving a much-needed creative diversion, having a side project has worked well for me in the past. When I started out as a freelance illustrator ten years ago, I was right out of graduate school, and my only work experience was in graphic design. Art directors didn’t know me as an illustrator—if they knew me at all—so I decided to create a side project that would serve multiple purposes: I’d keep exercising my illustration chops as I had in school; I’d build up a portfolio of images; and ultimately build a client base. That first side project was a daily bird illustration blog called “Ornithoblogical.”

For the first year of the blog, I posted a bird illustration everyday. What began as warm-up drawings and doodles evolved into an examination of the richness of bird imagery in the English language using visual puns. The whole thing ended up showcasing my sensibility and humor well, and led to my first picture book assignment.

Earlier this year, as I began hankering for another side project, I remembered how well the bird blog had worked in getting my art and thinking energized. It allows for experimentation with new techniques, media, etc., that I can to apply to my commissioned work. I always tell my students to never underestimate the power of a good side project.

If you’d like to follow my progress with “Things Are Looking Grimm,” I’m sharing sketches, process photos, and finished art on Instagram with the hashtag #ThingsAreLookingGrimm. Meanwhile, I’m also gradually adding the finished illustrations to my portfolio site.

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Diptych courtesy of Anna Raff.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


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