João Santos Interview – Illustration and Visual Arts Insights and Tips

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Hello people! If you enjoyed our past interviews with your favorite WordPress professionals, stay with us once again because today we’ll be talking about a beautiful topic: arts. João Santos will share with us his deliciously honest learnings from years of creating illustrations and comics for the web.

Before that, allow me to briefly mention our latest interview from WordCamp Europe with Valentina Thörner about what it takes to be a lead support engineer and how to make your customers happy. You’ll find valuable advice on this one.

João Santos Interview on Visual Arts and Illustration for Web

When it comes to our today’s guest, João Santos, let’s just say he’s been a friendly figure in our team for a few years now. He is helping us create quality WordPress comics for our blogs and social media channels.

His personality will quickly emerge from what you’ll read next. What we appreciate about him, aside from his professionalism, is his straightforward attitude, his way of staying true to himself, and how freely he manages to cope with work and life.

As simple as it might sound, João didn’t pick up any productivity techniques or role models throughout his freelancing career; he just gets things done. And does them from the heart and with an open mind. He describes his work as messy, which didn’t really surprise me… Aren’t all artists like that?

João Santos was very natural and frank in feeding our curiosities about his job, and you’ll learn a lot from him no matter if you’re an illustrator or not.

And, by the way, if you’re looking for a trustworthy visual artist, he’s the guy.

João Santos Interview – “Doing Artwork Is Like Playing the Telephone Game”

When and how did you start working with WordPress? Is there an interesting story here?

I think I started experimenting with WordPress around 2010. I was making a portfolio website for myself, learning some web design basics as I went along. At some point I read something about WordPress and how ‘the loop’ worked and started adapting the static design I had created so far to a WordPress theme. A little bit after that, I joined a project with some friends, where I wrote articles about entertainment and other topics, and we wanted to create a type of social network for bloggers.

Since we were such a small team and only a couple of us had some programming skills, we had to wear a lot of hats and trying to build that website was my first key test.

Afterward, because of that experience, I landed some web design / dev works. During that period, I was always working on stuff that was above my skill set. I was asked to create a website with an inventory of thousands of products and their manufacturers, that needed to be related to different documents, that in turn would be accessible depending on different user levels. All of that on top of a lot of quirky functionalities asked by the client.

After it was built, the client decided he also wanted to have a web store, so I needed to turn all that previous content into products, that also needed to be connected to their external CRM. It was such a giant task for the skill set I had at that time, that when I finished it I was pretty confident about my WordPress skills. At the same time, I was so exhausted that I decided to only accept web dev work sporadically. And eventually I stopped doing web dev and design at all.

What’s your technique for staying productive throughout the day?

A giant cup of coffee in the morning. Ideally “Sical” coffee, freshly made.

Jokes apart, I try to plan my days and weeks in advance, and when everything goes according to plans, it’s pretty easy to stay productive. Now, we all know (or maybe it’s just me) that things are always haywire and a lot of times you find yourself surrounded by entropy. When I’m feeling this, I try to do something else for a bit and set an alarm clock to remind me to get back to work.

Actually, that might be my technique. A lot of alarm clocks telling you what you need to do. And you feel guilty every time you snooze them so, eventually, you just force yourself into productivity.

How do you define “being successful”?

That’s something I try not to define – “being successful” – at all. There’s a lot of successes in life. Being alive is a major success. Being healthy and having people who care about you is also a great success. On a broader view, I see success as a moment where things go as you intend. For example, at some point, I wanted to do the things I liked, professionally. I’m able to do it right now, but I can’t say that I’m successful or not, because these things fluctuate a lot and one moment you’re flying high, the other moment, Tag, you’re it!

I think, ultimately, being successful is something we just say about the others. That person that you know that has that job that pays a lot, a very nice house, a great car, great family, son plays football, daughter is number one in class, the dog does tricks. But that same person might look at others and think how much more successful they are because they don’t have as many responsibilities, they can live with less money, still travel a lot more than he / she does. It’s very subjective, I just avoid thinking about it at all.

What do you like to do when you’re not illustrating?

I’m that kind of person who’s always finding new interests and then going through the rabbit hole until the spell breaks and something new appears. But the stuff I always love to do (and always will) besides drawing, is watching movies, listening to music, playing guitar, reading, wiki surfing, and recently I got myself more interested in video games.

I also love to spend some quality time with friends, having conversations and going to places that transform into golden memories. I’m very nostalgic and I waste a lot of time dwelling on things from the past.

What do you wish more people knew about WordPress?

What’s the one thing you’d like to change about WordPress?

Having some kind of norms for placement in plugins settings, options, etc. I hate when I have to move my furniture to find where the plugin settings are. On the other hand, that type of freedom to work around the structure is what makes WordPress great.

Did you ever try other platforms like Ghost, Wix or Squarespace? If yes, how do you see them in relation to WordPress?

I tried Joomla and checked Wix because a friend asked me for help with his website. But basically, once I used WordPress for the first time, it became the entirety of my web dev / design.

Describe your work in one word.

What’s the most challenging thing about visual arts?

Conveying / managing intentions. Both yours and the others’. Since art is such an abstract form of communication, a lot of times, doing artwork, especially when you’re doing stuff for an audience and the web, is a lot like playing the telephone game. Sometimes you’ll be frustrated because your message didn’t get through or your joke didn’t land. Or even worse, people might judge your intentions, based on factors that are completely arbitrary.

For example, my comics almost always depict people doing or saying goofy stuff. Since I’m doing stuff for a large international audience, I try to represent my characters as diverse as possible, regarding genders, clothing, skin tones, etc. And most times, when I write my jokes, I do them imagining blanks. No gender, no ethnicity. Only afterward, and almost randomly, I create bodies to give life to my jokes. This way I’m confident I’m not making my jokes based on preconceptions.

However, the random body I give to one of my characters and the content of the joke might, involuntarily, hurt some kind of susceptibility. I always try to be aware of that, but it’s really a hard task to think in advance, who might be offended with something that I put out in a completely arbitrary way.

The opposite could also happen. Imagine I have some drawing limitations, like, I only drew Martians my entire life. And at some point, people could say I have some hidden agenda against Earthlings thus not putting enough of them in my comics when, in fact, I only know how to draw Martians!!

Does illustrating for the web require skills like drawing or painting on the paper first?

It really depends on what you want to do. I’m a classic guy who grew up drawing and painting on paper, and even though I create most of my stuff digitally nowadays (I draw on my faithful Wacom), I still use pen and paper a lot. It’s great to make loose sketches, finding shapes or just brainstorm ideas, without having to create a ‘brainstormforcomic#469_v4’ file.

So I’d say that – paper drawing skills are welcomed, but not necessary. I mean, you can make a comic in MS Paint if you want to.

How much time does an illustrator need on average to create a comic from scratch?

I can only say my average, which is between 3 to 5 hours. Essentially, the more refined or complex you want them to look in terms of layouts and the number of strips, the more time it will take. If you look at, for example, Little Nemo in Slumberland, a brilliant comic from the beginning of the 20th century, you’ll see pages that belong to a museum. Surely, each of those comics took a lot of time to create.

However, creating comics for the web, you have to think of how much time and effort it’s really worth. I want my comics to look good, but at the same time, people will scroll over them in nanoseconds. So I figured I’d need to find a compromise between how good I want them to look and how much they’ll cost to make, and I try to create the most effective work with that time I’ve given myself.

Some artists would kill me for saying this, but that’s how the world works (at least my world).

What’s harder for an experienced illustrator? The creative process (thinking about the concept, the look, the approach) or the execution (once you have the idea in mind)?

Often times this goes in circles. I try to gather ideas from a lot of places and note them down for future use. Sometimes just by thinking about the concept, the whole thing opens up and I can see the full work just from that idea. When this happens, it’s pure gold and you have a lot of fun with the execution because you have a really good blueprint and anything you add afterward will just make it better.

However, as much as I try to make this happen, it’s not guaranteed. Sometimes you have some very rough ideas and you start executing around it; you go from concept to execution repeatedly, scratching ideas, figuring out stuff doesn’t work and having to come up with solutions while you’re already drawing, etc. Sometimes this creates great pieces. But honestly, if you have a great concept planned from the start, you’re in for much smoother sailing.

What is your favorite type of client? What about the client that you enjoy working with the least?

There’s a lot of irony here because, you know I make a lot of comics where I depict different types of clients (and usually not in a very pleasant manner), but to tell you the truth, I don’t think I ever came up with a client I could say “it’s this or that type of client”. There are several things I appreciate in a client, like being straightforward with their briefings, being open to discuss ideas, being respectful with me both personally and professionally, being fair and not vanishing with my paycheck (LOL), etc.

The things I don’t like, are just the opposite of this. Though I can make comics about that terrible client who’ll send you their logo in a low res image inside a PowerPoint, when this actually happens (and oh boy, does that happen!) it’s no nightmare. You just explain what you need and why what they sent isn’t it. If they knew everything about your job, they wouldn’t need you, so it’s important to keep in mind that a person being lay about some subject isn’t a trace of personality neither is an indicator of their competence.

Also, everyone makes mistakes and I do appreciate the capacity of owning them. And I try to play by those same rules.

What are your recommendations for a beginner visual artist?

I’ll throw a very vague recommendation, but one that I think is precious and comes streamlined with my last answer. A lot of times, when we’re starting out, we look up to people that have been doing it for a long time and absorb their experiences in a way that can create some preconceptions. Like, when I started freelancing, I would read and hear about all those clients from hell. It’s very easy to get lost in this stuff and suddenly you’re talking about bad clients with other people because you want to sound like the pros.

What you don’t notice is that this will actually affect your future experience, because you’re already conditioned by the experience of someone that probably was already conditioned by another. Though it’s very important to research and learn your trade with people that experienced what you haven’t, it’s crucial to keep an open mind about everything. Experiences from others always tend to be biased reports.

So, my advice is to be open and fair to yourself and others, try stuff and, more importantly, ask yourself if you like what you do from time to time. Working professionally as an artist is usually a blessing because you’re being paid to make your passion. Keep that in mind.

That sums up our João Santos interview. If you enjoyed it and want to learn more, please leave your comments in the section below. Also, if you have any ideas for who we should talk to next, feel free to share your suggestions with us!

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