An Interview with Aja Mulford
Aja Mulford is an illustrator, art director, and illustration professor based in Northern California. Visit AjaMulford.com
How would you describe your work?
Fun, lighthearted, anthropomorphic characters that focuses on making kids and grown ups smile.
How did you get into illustration?
I always loved to draw. I remember being a young child, going to our school library and picking up a beautifully illustrated alphabet book. I was amazed that anyone could draw like that. I looked at the front cover and read the words, “Illustrated by”, and while I sadly don’t remember the name of the artist who made that book, I remember being intrigued by that long, interesting word.
When I got older and went to college, my school didn’t have any sort of illustration or animation department, so I decided to study graphic design. Studying design and learning digital programs was essential to refining my design sense, and I started using Photoshop as my primary illustration tool for personal projects. It wasn’t until after college, however, that I decided that I would never be happy if I worked in an adjacent career to illustration, so I decided to focus on building my portfolio and skills as much as possible to break into the field, I started by just sending samples out cold to magazines, and remarkably received my first few jobs rather quickly, illustrating for Birds and Blooms Magazine. This gave me the boost I needed to invest more time and money into what was becoming my side career, and after securing my first book deal with a small publisher, I decided to enroll in an MFA program to round of my education in Illustration. Since then, I’ve had a steady career working on a variety of projects ranging from books to animation.
What do you do for inspiration?
Inspiration can be found anywhere. While I spend a lot of time browsing the internet and visiting bookstores, some of my best ideas come to me while I’m outside enjoying nature, taking in natural beauty and just letting my mind wander. I strongly believe in giving yourself time to think and absorb, so while looming deadlines can help force me to take action, simply putting myself outside away from my computer and drawing table can sometimes be the boost I need to approach my art with a fresh view.
If you weren't an illustrator, what would you be doing?
Teaching. I am fascinated with studying how people learn, and I get a high off of watching people connect the dots. If I couldn’t make a living with an art centric life, I think I’d find a lot of life satisfaction helping others to discover their own potential and broaden their horizons.
Who are 3 illustrators that you admire?
Beatrix Potter - The Queen of anthropomorphic creatures, she followed her love of the natural world and gave the world some of our most timeless tales.
Stephen Silver - Amazing contemporary illustrator and cartoonist.
Norman Rockwell - Not only the master of form, but the master of storytelling.
Of all the work/projects you have produced, what are you most proud of?
Last year, I self published my first alphabet coloring book. It might sound odd to be proud of something completely self produced, especially since I’ve worked with many different publishers and national brands. However, I had a long standing goal of just wanting to illustrate the entire alphabet (a throwback to my earliest inspiration) and planning the book and actually completing the task on my own helped me feel like I could take on larger self directed projects, and it felt good to create something that was uniquely my own voice, without input from others.
What are your views on art school?
I went to both a state college that had a somewhat underdeveloped art program, and to a private university with its own art school. While my graduate studies were superior to my undergrad learning, I paid (and will be paying) quite a premium for it. There can be wonderful benefits from attending a strong art school- learning from professors who have actual industry experience and networking abilities can be extremely helpful in starting your career. However simply choosing an expensive school doesn’t guarantee any kind of success, and the debt loads that some schools encumber students with is, in my opinion, unconscionable. I suggest to anyone considering art school and college, to look at all your options and don’t fall in love with the “idea” of going to a prestigious school. Some of the best teachers can be found at community colleges, and there are amazing resources to learn on your own as well. Remember that you CAN have an amazing career without a formal degree- it will just require the art student to build their own education and practice, practice, practice.
Can you describe your creative process?
If I’m working for a client, I make sure that I have as much information about the end goal as possible. How will the product be used, what are the size requirements, are there any specific style guides or influences to research first. I’ve learned from experience that it’s important to make sure you have as much information as possible before starting. Once I have as much information as possible, I think about composition and character design. Most of my work focuses heavily on character, so I try to think about their personality and what I can to help create someone unique. I spend a lot of time then browsing books, Pinterest, and Behance to see how other people have solved similar problems, and make notes about anything I can draw inspiration from. I also make sure to reference actual photos of animals or people to help make sure my designs will be accurate. From there, I just spend a lot of time drawing rough, small sketches to try find the pose and personality I want, and once I find something that looks fun, I start to flesh it out.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an illustrator?
Think about the kind of work you’d like to get paid for, and research the market. Ask yourself, how do I picture my career? Do I want stability? Do I want flexibility? What sort of skills will I need to be able to compete? Most importantly though, the best thing you can do is observe and draw and find joy in the work. Illustration is visual storytelling and problem solving, so make sure you fall in love with the process. Look for mentors who can help you along the way. Join organizations and become an expert in the field you want to work in. Do everything you can to give yourself a full view of what you want to pursue.
Thanks very much for taking time out to do this interview, can you leave us with any parting words of wisdom?
I always thought that one day I would finally hit the level that I wanted to be performing at, but I’ve realized with every new piece I get, my internal bar rises. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t as “good” as you thought you’d be by some arbitrary time in your life. Just keep absorbing, practicing, and creating and you’ll be amazed with your progress and where life will take you.
(Bonus) CURAAATED by Aja
Who's your favorite artist?
What’s your favorite book?
What movie can you watch over and over again?
What’s one movie you would call a hidden gem?
What’s your favorite video game?
I’m a child of the 90’s and loyalist to the old Nintendo 64. Banjo-Kazooie, a funky little platform game put out by Rare, brought me hours of entertainment.