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Life and Work with Nicole Steffes

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nicole Steffes.

Nicole, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born and raised in Grand Blanc, Michigan which made for a fun childhood. We were always boating on lakes, playing sports, or doing arts and crafts. I started drawing as soon as I knew how to grip hold of a crayon, and my parents always supported my love for it. It wasn’t until after I completed my undergraduate studies at Central Michigan University that I finally made the decision for myself to make a career out of my love for art.

In all honesty, I don’t fully know how I was accepted into the Academy of Art University’s MFA program in San Francisco. My work was really not too great at the time, but I imagine they saw my potential. I originally attended the university for their illustration program. I thought that it made the most sense when coupling it with my undergraduate degree, but over the course of just one semester, I quickly learned that it was drawing for animation that light me up. I was amazed by the artwork that was pouring out of the students in the Visual Development and Animation departments, and through the director’s acceptance of me changed my degree. It was (unknowingly) the best decision I would make for my artwork. There, I learned not only how to illustrate, but I learned how to design. Whether that were characters or worlds different characters would live in. I was broadening the ways I thought about storytelling through the drawings I was laying down on paper.

While everything that I was learning was fun and exciting, this time in my life was extremely challenging. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I cried in frustration, and wondered what on earth I was doing thinking I could come out of this program as a true artist who could make a real career. Each time, I hit these frustration points, I made sure to “draw through them.” Choosing to be relentless in what I wanted, and over time, I continued to see the improvement that my pencil-milage brought me. It kept me going.

I also worked as many as three jobs at one time (completely unrelated to art) while I being a full-time graduate student. I had evening classes that went from 7-10, so before class, I would either work as a lunch hour hostess or be at my 9-5 as a customer service rep and after class, I would stay up late at night to fit homework in. My weekends were strictly filled with homework and working my third job as a sales associate for an adorable high-end boutique.

Whenever I could I would take on personal commission requests, and found that the more I shared my work with others, the more I opened myself up to additional opportunities. I am extremely thankful to be able to say that since graduating I have had a fully sustainable income solely as an artist.

I celebrated my one year as a freelance artist June of 2019.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It has absolutely not been the smoothest road, but that is what makes the trip even more special. It takes a touch of grit and a lot of perseverance. As an artist, you will face a lot of internal and external doubts on your journey. Being provided many opportunities to give up. It is very important that we don’t give up. Never sit and compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.

I have spent nights crying in frustration, crumpling up pages upon pages of awful artwork, early mornings and late nights spent drawing 10-15 hours each day. I have had my artwork torn apart in critiques at times – which I always had a choice to make to take the constructive criticism as a chance to never be offended, but to make my work even better.

In hindsight, the struggles came in phases. The first was in the very beginning – with my decision to quit my comfortable life and well-paying job to pursue a very unclear future with art. Before moving from the midwest to start my journey, I had many people ask me what my “plan B” life plan was when this one didn’t work out. At that time in my life, I knew I had decent creative ideas, I just could never translate those ideas properly onto pages. Basically, I was really bad at drawing. It was extremely uncomfortable to step out into the unknown and leave what was comfortable. I suppose I felt the need to prove doubters wrong.

The second set of struggles came with technique. I had to learn how to draw from the very basics (the borings) of art. circles, cylinders, squares and cubes. I was years behind the others in my classes and struggled to draw anything the way that I saw it in my mind. I drew every single day. Even if I didn’t feel like drawing that day. Even if the drawings I was drawing were awful that day. I drew, and I got better.

Once drawing everything came easy to me, I then struggled with storytelling. Now, it mattered not just what I could draw on paper, but what was I trying to say with the drawings I was putting down. What was my message? Not all art has to have something to say, but I wanted to make a clear effort to try to communicate through art more often.

My most recent frustrations have had to do with personal branding and specific style development.

Each month, I come up with a list of short-term goals. And at the start of each year, I include a list of long-term goals. I write them on a whiteboard in my room that I am forced to see every day along with with two quotes: the first reads, “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” The second, “I will never give up.” Both are to remind me to have grit for the things I really want in life. It is why people will tell you that there is no such thing as an overnight success story. The person that it has happened to was preparing by themselves or in front of small audiences for years working on their craft before that big break hit. The key is that they were ready for it when it came. I keep this in mind all of the time. I always want to push myself to be better today than I was yesterday, and the best and only way I know how to do that is to put in the pencil mileage. Study and practice and have a teachable heart; always.

I think it is really easy for people (especially in our day-in-age) to give up on certain things we want if they do not work out right away. Instant gratification is rare in an artists career. Keeping this in mind, I put myself on a 5-year commitment path. I committed to working as hard as I could for my career as an artist for five years. Whether each day, week, month or year brought me absolutely nothing in return. Or, whether it brought me everything I could have ever dreamed and more. I would see it through for five years. I am one year in and the ways my art has been shared with the world are far beyond what I could have even dreamed for myself even just a year ago. It gets me incredibly excited for the years to come.

We are living during a time that it is extremely empowering to be a woman. I get teary-eyed thinking about the pride I have in my fellow females, and the incredible ways history is being made through each one of us. My best advice to all women, especially young women is to not be afraid of showing who you are. Whether that is in your art, your relationships, families or on a global scale. Be unapologetic in your confidence, in your thoughts, and beauty. To remember that one woman’s beauty or success does not mean the absence of your own. And that being female (in general) is pretty damn awesome. Go out into the world and make us proud.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Nicole Steffes Art – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
I am a visual development artist drawing for animation, and freelance illustrator.

While these are each specialty under my belt, I have been focusing more lately on the illustration part of my career. I hit a crossroads a few months ago to either heartedly pursue working under an animation studio or go off on my own and start my own business as a freelance artist. The idea of forming and shaping my artwork as a brand name sounded way to exciting for me to pass up and more momentum was leading me towards it. So, for the past year, I have been brought onto a number of different projects as an illustrator and taken on custom commissions through my website shop.

My life as an artist is somewhat broken down in three different compartments. The first is personal work, which I am most known for my very girly, vintage, nostalgic style. I specifically target my personal work to be most relatable to other females. When they see my work I want them to feel like they get me, and I get them. I care about being uplifting and empowering. I want women to be able to see themselves reflected in one way or another through the animated style I draw each illustration in.

Another compartment is commission work. These mainly come through my website’s portrait shop. A person will choose one of the options I have listed to start their order, and based on the photos they provide I draw them in my style as a fun custom piece for them to have.

As time went on, I started to get commissioned for much larger (more time-consuming) projects. Which is my third compartment. This has involved illustrating a book, “The What’s.” Working on a series of artwork pieces for corporations. Drawing a San Francisco restaurant’s wall mural (RM212). Having the opportunity to draw a piece for Vanderpump Rules, TomTom restaurant for their one-year anniversary celebration. As these larger projects started to come more often and closer together, I struggled with the decision to keep my custom commission shop available for the general public open. At the end of the day, I absolutely love drawing pieces that make others happy and had to keep the option open for that exact reason. I fit as many as I am capable of fitting into each month.

Were there people and/or experiences you had in your childhood that you feel laid the foundation for your success?
I think about this quite often, actually! When my parents playback the VHS tapes of my siblings and I growing up, I am often found in my art corner of the room drawing or painting on plastic easels. My earliest memory of loving art as a kid came through Disney movies. I remember every Sunday night ABC would air a 7:00 pm Disney movie. My family always sat down and watched it together during my younger years, and I would sit as close to the television set as my mom would let me with a sketchbook and Disney VHS cases spread out around me just so I could try to draw the characters I saw dancing across the screen. I loved the whimsical nature of this type of art.

My parents saw this in me and encouraged every ounce of it. My mom put me in every type of art class you could thinking of an elementary-age child attending. I was in pottery classes, drawing classes, painting classes. You name it. She also did a great job of making my love for art special to me. Each payday, she would take me to my favorite store (Michaels Art Store) to pick out a new craft or supply to play with.

As time went on, it was me – not them – that thought that there was no career to be had in art, and I really never thought about it as anything more than a hobby until Disney’s Tangled came out in theaters and I really cannot describe the rush of emotions that came over me at the end of it, but it felt like a calling of sorts. I watched that film, loved it so much, and for the first time consciously realized I wanted to be a part of creating that. So, yes. Absolutely, I think there were defining moments that accompanied my journey. I think Disney, Glen Keane’s artwork, and the artwork flowing from each of the major studios as well as my parent’s encouragement guided me to where I am today.

Pricing:

  • A custom piece through my Portrait Shop ranges between $350-$800
  • Corporate bookings and other projects pricing inquiries can be brought to my manager, mlhummel.management@gmail.com

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
@Ryyster, Ryan Wilson Photography

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