Have you ever discovered someone’s work and suddenly found yourself swept down a rabbit hole, consuming everything you can find with their name on it?
Well, that’s what happened when I came across Clay Hickson’s work. If you’re familiar with his work, then there’s a pretty good chance this happened to you too.
Clay is a freelance illustrator living in Chicago, Illinois. He’s the owner and operator of Tan & Loose Press, an independent publisher of limited-edition artist prints and zines. Along with Liana Jegers, he recently co-founded The Smudge, a monthly newspaper offering articles, interviews, comics, and advice from a range of unique thinkers and creators.
He was kind enough to let me pick his brain about his world, from his drawing practice to working for himself to what it’s like printing and publishing.
I’m always curious about people’s early experiences with creativity. Was drawing your first creative outlet? Did it come to you naturally? What kept you drawing?
My dad is an illustrator and my mom is an art therapist so I was exposed to lots of art growing up, but I never had much interest as a kid. I didn’t really get into drawing until my older brother introduced me to graffiti in high school. It definitely did not come naturally. Honestly, I don’t think it really comes naturally to anyone. I think it’s like any other skill in that it takes time and practice to develop. The hardest thing is overcoming the fear of making a “bad drawing.”
Did you study illustration or drawing in school at all, or did you learn on your own?
I took a couple figure drawing classes in school, but mostly I focused on printmaking. I’ve always kept a sketchbook and try to draw as regularly as possible.
What’s your approach to sketching? Do you feel maintaining a sketchbook helps you develop new ideas?
I’d say about 90% of all the client work I do is taken directly from an idea in my sketchbook. I rarely have an idea before I start drawing. The ideas always develop slowly while I’m drawing, so the more I draw, the more ideas I get. Ideally, I’d reach a point where I’m disciplined enough to draw every day, but I’m not quite there yet.
For me, your style is one of a kind. It’s wonderful and playful and has a really retro feel to it. What inspires your style?
Thanks! I draw inspiration from a ton of different places. I work part time in an art library, so I’m constantly discovering new artists. I find that the more I expose myself to different styles of work, the more inspired I am to make my own work. For me, the fastest way to get through a creative block is to look at other peoples work.
At what point did you discover you could make a living out of drawing? Was there an exact moment that you knew illustration was it for you?
It happened pretty naturally. After I graduated, I started a blog of weekly drawing exercises. Eventually, people started contacting me with jobs. I never planned on doing this for a living, so I’m honored every time someone asks me to do it.
Have you always worked freelance? What challenges have you found being your own boss and managing your productivity?
Aside from general business stuff, the main challenge is knowing how much I can juggle at once. I’ve never been the type of person who performs well under pressure, so when I bite off more than I can chew, the results are never very good. It’s mostly a matter of being organized and setting deadlines for myself. I try to say yes to as many projects as possible, but I’m also getting better at turning things down when I feel overwhelmed. As with all things, it’s about balance.
What tricks have you learned to balance your workload?
It’s not so much tricks as it is being honest with myself about my process. I’m not very good at bouncing back and forth between projects or staying up all night to hit a deadline. So I try to space things out and not put them off until the last minute. I also find that everything flows smoother if I maintain a steady pace of work. If I have a couple weeks without freelance work, I always try to start personal projects so as not to lose momentum.
Let’s talk about Tan & Loose Press. What interested you about printing and publishing?
That too happened pretty naturally. I’ve always been attracted to books and I started making zines in school. I bought a Risograph in 2012 as a way to make prints at home without a lot of equipment. After a year of experimenting and printing work for friends, I decided to organize a print show. I emailed 10 of my favorite artists and amazingly, they all agreed to do it! The fact that people were so willing to get involved was super encouraging, so I just kept doing it. Up until this last year, it’s felt more like a hobby than anything else. Now it’s becoming more of a full-time job, but I still love doing it.
How difficult was it to start your own operation?
It was fairly easy, although, at the beginning, I never really thought about it as a business. I’ve definitely had to figure out a lot of things along the way. The main thing I realized was that I’m not interested in or equipped to operate a commercial printshop. I much prefer coming up with my own projects or inviting artists I like to publish with us. Print for hire work is way too stressful and time consuming.
After the recent election, you started The Smudge, a monthly newspaper inspired by underground newspapers of yesteryear. It’s a rare and special little gem. Can you share a little about the idea and evolution of The Smudge?
It was something that we’d been talking about doing for a little while. Liana had just wrapped up a monthly zine project that she’d been organizing for 3 years and we were trying to come up with a new project to do together. After the election, it all sort of fell into place. All of our friends were (and are) struggling to process this insane and tragic turn of events and it felt like we needed somewhere to focus that energy. Neither of us have much experience as editors, so we’re really just making it up as we go.
How do you pull the paper together each month?
I have no idea. A handful of amazing monthly contributors do most of the work for us. After that, it’s up to Liana and me to fill in the gaps and find new artists and writers for every issue. We’ve tinkered around with InDesign enough to get by. Once we get the whole thing laid out, it’s about two days of printing, assembling, and packing envelopes. That’s when we get caught up on all of our TV shows.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned about collaborating with a lot of folks at once?
We’ve mostly been amazed by how open and willing people are to contribute. We don’t have any budget for this project because we donate all the proceeds to different charities. It’s never a great feeling asking people to work for free, but so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
What are a few of your favorite zines?
Oh man, that’s a tough question. I would say I have favorite zine makers more than individual zines. Anything by Tim Lahan, Andy Rementer, and Stefan Marx is always good. I’m not sure if these qualify as zines, but Anna Haifisch has been putting out a lot of amazing comics. Really too many to name.
Do yourself a solid and follow Clay on Instagram for a peek into his sketchbook to see what he’s working on lately. If printed goods get you pumped, pick up a zine from the Tan & Loose Press shop or snag the latest copy of The Smudge.