Valentine Barker is a freelance illustrator and comic artist based in Portland, Oregon. He is most known for his drawings of curvy, thick-thighed, confident women.
Let’s get to the interview!
How did you get started? How did the idea for this come about?
Oh, this is a big question! Of course I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. I even went to art school — I wanted to be an illustrator and do book covers for sci-fi or fantasy books. So, I figured out how to paint in oils and got comfortable working at a large size. And then I spent a few years working on a portfolio doing large-format oil paintings, but I never really got anywhere with it and it was starting to feel way too much like work. I bet it didn’t help that I was working two day jobs nearly full time and then coming home and trying to paint at night. So I needed to make art fun again and I kinda landed on drawing cute chubby girls being whimsical. People responded really well and kept asking for more. It was a few years before I ventured out and really pursued the girls, though.
When did you make the decision to leave the world of “standard” employment? Did you ease in while still working a traditional job?
The decision was actually made for me, really. I was working a day job that ended up going out of business. I took a hard look at what I was making at cons and had a choice to make: I could either get a new day job and be the new guy and likely not be able to take the time off I wanted to do cons, OR I could just do MORE cons! So, I guess I had been easing myself into it for a little while, but it still felt pretty sudden.
What is an average workday like for you? How many hours a day do you work on average?
I’m kind of all over the place. Mostly I try to have a project to work on every day. Currently I’m juggling three big projects, not including commissions. I’ll work on one until I get it to a place where I have to wait on approval, or notes, or some kind of input from someone else, and then I’ll switch to another. This keeps me from getting bored and just sitting around spinning my wheels. To that end, I tend to work from early afternoon until I’ve done as much as I can before needing notes, or 11pm? Whichever comes first.
How often do you exhibit at shows or fairs? What was the first show you did and how did it go? (What was the aftermath in terms of how you moved forward?)
I’d like to do a show/fair at least once a month. So far this year I have that pretty well worked out, with a break in July and August (I’ll hopefully be putting the finishing touches on two comics.) This keeps me busy and feeling the pressure to make new work — I work pretty well under pressure. My first show was the first Rose City Comic Con in 2012 and it went well? I think? I mean, I made a profit of $15 and I was wheeling and dealing the entire second day of the show, but I made some good connections and fans that have been with me since the beginning, and there’s no good metric to weigh that.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
I think doing shows is still the most crucial component to growing my business. I try to stay active and engaged on social media, and I have a Patreon, but I feel that only reaches so far. There’s no replacement for being visible and engaged with people face to face. And, as an artist, I think that people love being able to meet me and shake my hand and ask me all of their questions in person. I tend to think they’re after the experience, so I try my hardest to make sure they get a great and memorable experience from me at shows.
What plans do you have for expansion?
I try to be super flexible and open to new ideas when it comes to my business. I don’t really have plans for expansion, but I’m always open to new opportunities and collaborations. It’s how I’ve gotten more involved in comics and I’ve discovered a wonderful community there. I tend to team up with people that I like and am always blown away and flattered when they want to work on something with me. And you never know where an opportunity is going to take you! When I started with my girls I never considered conventions until a friend I trusted suggested that I start doing comic conventions with them.
What outsiders have been most important to your business success? (e.g., customers, suppliers, mentors, etc.)
My customers are the most important people to my business. Without them I’m just a silly man sitting alone in his room singing to his dog and giggling at a drawing pad. Through them I’ve been able to shift my focus simply from things that make me giggle to things that are important to the world at large. I like to think that my art isn’t just pretty, but that it means something to people. And my customers do an amazing job of spreading the word and the brand and I simply couldn’t do it without them. A very close second are my dear friends who are invested in my success. They keep an eye on my blind spots and help guide me in directions I never considered.
What has been your most effective marketing tactic or technique?
Word of mouth is my most effective tactic. I’m sure I could get a social-media advisor or marketing guru to help boost my signal, but if people aren’t willing to talk about something, then they’re not willing to buy something. And I’m just one person, I don’t have a whole lot of energy to make the work, promote the work, travel for shows, do the accounting, and stay engaged with my fans. All while maintaining a healthy work/life balance. I just try to make work that people are going to want to talk about.
What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t really know. Most everyone has an idea on what I should be doing, but I tend to let them wash over me. I’ve been fortunate in the advice department. But if I had to choose one, I guess it would have to be to get a really expensive home printer for making prints with. I get what the person was saying, but I use a commercial printer for all of my prints.
What three pieces of advice would you offer creative entrepreneurs starting out today?
- Always be polite and professional, but be prepared to stand your ground.
- Everyone will always have an opinion on what you should be doing and you can’t please all of the people all of the time — sometimes people are just going to have to be disappointed.
- Self care is mandatory — at the end of the day you need to be proud of what you produce, but there’s no point in overworking yourself to please people.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently? What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
My career has mostly evolved organically, so it’s difficult to point to any one thing and think that I’d do it differently. I now keep pretty rigorous track of which prints sell at every show, and I definitely wish I would have implemented that sooner. As well as tracking my expenses. It’s much easier (and terrifying) to see how much money I’ve spent going into a show ahead of time. I really should take a business class or something. My main failing is still keeping good track of my money, but I’m working on a better financial plan to save for the sparse months and unexpected expenses.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Hands down my most satisfying moment was two years ago at Emerald City Comic Con. A little girl, no older than four-years old, was at her first con and she wanted to buy her first piece of art. She chose my Dream Like a Girl piece because, not only did it look like her, but she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up. My heart melted. I died.
What is your favorite thing about living this creative life?
I get to say “no” and stand by my conviction. If I don’t want to do something for someone, I really don’t have to and no one can swoop in and make me do it. Gone are the days of having to bite my tongue and try to be calm when getting cussed out by someone for something I didn’t even do. Oh, and no one tells me I’ve ruined their Christmas.
What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?
Most of my friends are creatives at this point. So when I feel myself burning out they do a wonderful job of taking care of me and reminding me to stop working and take care of myself. Conversely they remind me that it’s okay to disappear for a few days and knuckle down to get work done. Finding people that “get it” was critical and I couldn’t do it without them.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
It’s kind of hard to separate my friends from their businesses, but I’d have to say Optimystical Studios. They’re genuine, caring, dedicated, generous, wildly creative, and willing to go toe to toe with some of the most bull-headed people. I’d like to be like them when I grow up.
Thanks to Valentine for taking time to answer all these questions! You can find Valentine at conventions along the western U.S., and on his website.
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