Once I realized I could focus my career around the arts, that was it – I’d found what I needed.
“I just always liked to draw, and it was always something that came pretty naturally to me,” says Melbourne-based illustrator and graphic designer Jacqueline Schlender. “I’ve always found it was something I had to do. Like a compulsion… It made me feel complete, but at the same time there’s always been this urge to constantly be better, get better, learn more, do more.”
Jacquie’s work, branded Bird Black, is attentively detailed, meticulously researched, and bewitchingly mystical. Her paintings and illustrations send the viewer to another world where they’re embraced by mythological creatures and goddess-like figures draped in soft saturation levels and sometimes accompanied by uplifting idioms. In addition to her art prints, Jacquie’s designs adorn clothing sold by Lux Divine, 4th & Rose, and Urban Outfitters, and followers have even gotten her work inked.
At an early age, Jacquie taught herself how to draw by reading comic books. “I loved the images [and] how fantastic and powerful everyone looked,” she says. These worlds seemed more interesting than her own reality, and she was fascinated by the artists’ ability to create new realities with pencil and paper. “I wanted in.”
At the time, the would-be artist was amazed at the notion of drawing for a living. Could she really do that as a career? It was an alien concept to someone with such a conventional and conservative upbringing. Jacquie figured being a teacher or a doctor was in her future, but inside, that urge to draw grew. “Once I realized I could focus my career around the arts, that was it – I’d found what I needed.”
When she decided to pursue a career in the arts, she and her parents signed her up for a special arts high school, where the curriculum focused on visual and dramatic arts. “From there I was able to learn and hone a variety of styles and skills: illustration, graphic design, life drawing, photography, printmaking, sculpture… the list goes on. I was pretty damn lucky to have the high school experience I did.”
I’ve been in the game for a while now though, and one thing I learned while I was working full time as a graphic designer is that you can’t push it … trying to force an idea that isn’t there or pursuing a design that isn’t working just for the sake of it never works out well.
Jacquie pulls her inspiration from all around her. “Some of my work is inspired by my favorite novels, jewelry designs, fabric swatches, artistic movements, glossy mags, TV and movies, other artists… my mind is definitely sponge-like.”
Many artists with sponge-brain can attest that it can be challenging to focus, especially when it’s time to get in the zone. The illustrator says she’s gotten better over the years at making time to sit and focus and get the creative juices flowing, but she admits to having days when she’s just not feelin’ it, “especially if I’ve been pulling long hours and working across multiple projects,” she says. But there’s two sides of the coin. “I’ve been in the game for a while now though, and one thing I learned while I was working full time as a graphic designer is that you can’t push it. Yes, you may have a deadline to work towards, so obviously you need to get moving, but for me, trying to force an idea that isn’t there or pursuing a design that isn’t working just for the sake of it never works out well.”
So when that happens, she’ll take a break and either do something else that stimulates her brain — like flipping through a magazine, checking her Instagram feed or reading a book — or go the other way and work on something technical or administrative and “zen out” until she feels ready to return to work.
“My mind is always whirring away with ideas, so I leave a blank sketch pad open most of the time so I can jot down any ideas quickly if I need to,” Jacquie says. She enjoys browsing through image libraries and collects reference books on wildflowers, symbolism and retro fonts. Research is half the fun, she says. “I like to be informed; I love to learn new things. It’s the same with everything else I design though — I want to inject as much personality and feeling into each of my pieces as possible so people are able to identify with them, regardless of whether the subject matter is human, beast, mystical symbol or deity. I like when art tells a story and projects a feeling, and ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do with my work.”
There was a point last year when I was working 12-14 hour days for about three months straight and my hands were constantly aching … This year I’ve vowed to be a bit kinder to myself and only take on as much work as I can actually do.
The most persistent trial in the artist’s life, which all creatives can relate to, is time management. “Specifically,” she says, “managing my personal life versus my professional one. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to work from home as a freelance artist. However, as my office and my home are one and the same, taking off the work hat can be especially difficult.” Jacquie says there’s not really a distinctive separation between herself and the artist version of herself, and sometimes it can be overwhelming.
As a self-proclaimed over-committer and stress-head, another challenge Jacquie finds herself facing is not being able to say no. “There was a point last year when I was working 12-14 hour days for about three months straight and my hands were constantly aching,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep or eat and it was just a complete nightmare. This year I’ve vowed to be a bit kinder to myself and only take on as much work as I can actually do, even if it means having to say no a bit more, although I still feel bad about it!” As for off-time, Jacquie tries to spend as much time as possible with her family, outdoors, and writing music on her guitar. Taking part in these stress-relieving activities is vital.
Admittedly, organization isn’t necessarily one of Jacquie’s strong suits, so working hard to develop that skill has become super important. “When you work for yourself, you’re completely accountable for every aspect of your business,” she says, “and in some ways, you have to work a lot harder because you want to see it succeed.” For example, Jacquie has dedicated days for the administration part of her operation (packing and managing orders, responding to emails, updating her shop listings, etc). These days are usually devoid of the more creative part of her business, but she’s adapted. “I’ve learned to be more organized,” she says. “I write a lot of lists, I have an orders log that I regularly update, and have a sketchbook at the ready if I absolutely need to get an idea out of my head [during] an admin day.” These dedicated days help her focus on her work when she is creating art because she doesn’t worry about something that’s hanging on a to-do list. “And to be honest,” she says, “I actually really enjoy the order packing process now; it’s almost meditative!”
Working to keep a balance and finding that sweet spot of focus have become necessary, and they’re part of Jacquie’s success, but good things take time, she says. Social media has played an important part in building a supportive audience for her work, but, she says, “at the end of the day, it guarantees nothing. If you’re really serious about ‘making it’, you need to work hard and develop your talents. You need to eat, sleep and breathe your art and commit 110%. It can be maddening, frustrating, and definitely doesn’t provide for the most exciting of social lives, but I know from experience that if you believe in what you’re doing as well as in yourself and what you’re putting out there, eventually other people will too.”
Jacquie’s also thinks that other artists’ influences are important and necessary, but you yourself are what makes your art unique. “You need to inject yourself into each and every piece regardless of who or what it’s for,” she says. “It’s thrilling and euphoric, but it can also be very draining. So be prepared for the emotional roller coaster – it’s one helluva ride.”