Interview with Diana Ponce, Fashion Illustrator

Interview with Diana Ponce, Fashion Illustrator
For the last 18 years, design illustrator Diana Ponce has lived and worked in New York City. Her job is the kind that many people dream of -- a successful artist in the Big Apple. Her clientele include big names like L'Oral Cosmetics and Star Magazine, and her work has appeared in advertising and editorial projects around the world. Ms. Ponce is currently expanding her business (Diana Ponce Illustration) to include art business consulting services.

She followed her childhood love of art and attended New York City's High School of Art and Design. She then began to pursue a degree in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), but when the major was dropped, she found that fashion illustration was an ideal fit and earned an associate's of applied science degree in Illustration in 1988. To keep her skills honed, she returned to FIT in 1997 to learn about computer art, which she now incorporates into much of her work.

Aside from the creative satisfaction that Ms. Ponce gets from her career, she enjoys the independence and flexibility that running her own business affords her. I especially like the concept stage of creating the work and then bringing it to fruition, she says.

Ms. Ponce & Her Career

Tell us about your career.

I have been a fashion and lifestyle illustrator for over 18 years here in New York City. My style ranges from classic traditional techniques to modern digital design. I have worked on a wide variety of advertising, editorial and licensing assignments for clients worldwide; recent clients include L'Oral, TRESemm, Publicis-USA, Star Magazine, Shecky's Media and Quick and Simple Magazine.

What do you enjoy most about your career? What do you do dislike?

Besides creating beautiful artwork, I enjoy the independence of running my own business. I especially like the concept stage of creating the work and then bringing it to fruition. Of course, that independence comes with a cost; I dislike the constant hunt for new clients as it can take away from creative time.

What has been your greatest success? Setback?

I have had several successes over the years. A recent highlight was being chosen as one of the featured illustrators for The Big Book of Fashion Illustration by Martin Dawber. Not only was I invited to be in the book, but one of my illustrations actually heads the Glamour' section of the book.

My greatest setback was a dip in the fashion illustration industry in the early 90s. It was critical for me to take the steps necessary to remain active in the business as it began to change over time. I had to go back to school to re-train myself in new technology.

What are some favorite projects you've completed and why?

One of my favorite projects was developing a female character as part of a brand identity for a bourbon whiskey brand, 80 Strong. The client was very easy-going and friendly, I had a lot of freedom in creating the artwork, and I got to work alongside my husband (a graphic designer) who developed the look of the packaging. It was a good teamwork project.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

Even after 18 years in the business, I am always looking to develop my style to keep pace with current trends. I am expanding my business to include merchandise and a unique portrait product. I am also developing an art business consulting service to help expand the options for other illustrators and graphic artists who often can't get proper business training from the current art colleges.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education. What is your degree? How did you decide to study in that field?

I graduated with an AAS degree in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1988. Previous to that I studied fashion illustration at the High School of Art & Design in New York City. I have had an interest in art since childhood. My parents allowed me to nurture this talent over the years and I chose to develop it more fully at the high school I chose to attend. Originally, I was studying fashion design, but the major was dropped during my time there. I switched to fashion illustration, which turned out to be the better choice for me.

How has your education benefited your career?

It gave me a solid foundation on how to create and conceptualize. Regardless of the latest technologies and trends, one must know the b asics (color, form, concepts, etc.) to be able to do anything. Mid career, I went back to school (FIT again) and learned everything that I could about computer art. I studied for about two years and came out armed with a lot of new skills to keep me competitive with recent graduates.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in certain areas of the field?

Prospective students should investigate the curriculum and talk to past students of their particular major to see what their perspective of the program is at the schools they are interested in attending.

What can students applying to schools of this kind do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Build a great portfolio. Take summer courses at the college if offered to high school students (or continuing education courses if you're an adult who is already out of school). Do an internship for a summer with a business that is well-known for the industry that you plan on entering. In other words, get experience and document that experience in your portfolio.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job in this field?

In my experience, no. While there are a few art directors and human resources people who are star struck' by certain school names, going to the biggest and most expensive schools doesn't guarantee a great education or fantastic job opportunities. In the field of illustration, I have known artists with degrees from prestigious schools who struggle to make a living, while on the other hand, I see self-taught illustrators who fare quite well. Usually, the artists who do best are those who focus on the quality of skills that they can learn in school (regardless of the school) as well as those who learn to properly promote themselves and to negotiate terms once a job is landed.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do on a daily basis?

I answer client email and then work on whatever current assignment I have going on. At least twice a week, I put out feelers for new work via the internet/email (less often by phone or snail mail). I also take one day of each week to do administrative work. I try to take weekends off if I am not on a short deadline.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Job hunting (as it is constant) as well as remembering to take time off since I set my own schedule.

What are the greatest stresses in the job? What causes you the most anxiety?

Trying to keep on top of multiple deadlines and trying not to overwork (not taking personal time to recharge).

What are some common myths about your profession and how do they differ from the actual work?

Common myth: Artists are lazy. I work more hours than most people with 9-5 jobs. This is because I run my own business. I am very serious about what I do and want to be sure that my clients get the services that they need.

Common myth: Artists are "flaky." As a service provider, my reputation is at stake whenever I take on a new job. I must ensure that I deliver what I promised in a timely manner and within the guidelines we agreed to. This is why I always use a contract and discuss the project thoroughly with the client at their onset.

Common myth: Artists are lucky to be doing what they do. Just because I enjoy my work does not mean that I should be underpaid for my services. I have many years of training and experience in my field and should be paid accordingly, just as any other professional service provider.

What contributions do you feel your job offers to society as a whole?

I help communicate a client's message and help sell a product. If I help to beautify the advertising/editorial landscape along the way, I guess that's an added perk. Perhaps I help in supporting certain trends as well.

Career Information & Advice

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about this field in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Absolutely. It is a tough field to enter and even harder one in which to make a great living. It is possible, but it's not easy. It is a career that is mostly fueled by a great passion for creating.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students in this field? Specialty areas? What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

There are many opportunities out there for recent grads. Whether you're in a major city or telecommuting, jobs can be found with many companies. Clothing companies, department stores, magazines, small businesses that need graphics these are all potential sources of employment. New artists need to keep in mind that they have to balance the opportunity to get great experience with the opportunity to get better pay. Niche work (specialty areas) can be an option for getting both but can be limited early in a career. You must research the market to see if it's something that will be viable over a good span of time. The best way to get a foot in the door is to work with your school on getting into a good internship before graduation (ideally in your junior and senior year). Alternately, schools often have a good placement department for jobs that are prescreened by the school. It would be advisable to make use of this as soon as it is available to the student.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

I am all for empowering artists to be successful business people. Too often I hear about illustrators that have ended up in bad business situations either out of ignorance or intimidation. This does not have to happen.

Many of us come out of art colleges with the latest knowledge of technique, medium, and/or software, but with no business sense. Rare is the school that offers art business courses for artists to be successful commercially. To be able to make it in this business requires a combination of both the skills and creativity you have for art and the ability to do business.

I don't believe in the old standard that everyone has to "learn the ropes" the hard way. There are no secrets. Good business practices are just that. Upholding standards will keep you in business. We can have healthy competition for jobs based on talent, skills, style and technique rather than who's the cheapest. We are not in the discount store business.

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