Where are you from and how long have you been illustrating?
I've lived in a lot of places but my family eventually settled in Ottawa so I guess you could say that's where I'm from---but Toronto has been my home longer than anywhere else. I've been illustrating for more than 20 years.

You teach at both Sheridan and OCAD - it must be rewarding educating some of the industry's top working illustrators!

It sure is. I get a charge from students' enthusiasm and from taking part in helping new illustrators start their careers. Being around people who are stoked about illustration all the time is great. I don't know if I can adequately describe how I feel about teaching...it's a weird mix of pride, envy, inspiration and responsibility. (only two of those feelings are deadly sins although gluttony comes into play at the Sheridan Tim Hortons.) Watching my students' careers take off is wonderful even though it's a wrench when they leave the nest at graduation time.

What's your favourite part about teaching?

When my students tell me they understood a licensing contract and had the confidence to negotiate a fair agreement for themselves. It makes my day every time I hear one of their success stories.

It must be awesome too to be EVERYONES favourite teacher (not really a question there - just wanted to sneak in a compliment)
Such a nice compliment but I'm not sure that everyone is on board with you. I've sharply hoofed a few backsides and some might be nursing a bruise, if not a grudge. I'd like everyone to succeed but I guess it's a message that might be lost on the students busily removing boot prints from the seat of their trousers. My ferocity comes from knowing how important business skills are to long term survival. Having valuable business information snubbed makes me grumpy, on occasion. However, my students do laugh at my very tired jokes and tolerate my war stories, so now that you mention it--that IS pretty awesome. I'm very lucky to have the best students!

What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?
I've noticed a curious dichotomy: some people are declaring illustration dead (for the millionth time) meanwhile I'm seeing it in TV commercials, fashion ads, music videos, movies --- everywhere. Maybe illustration is dead but refuses to lie down? Beats me. My best guess is that things are changing, which is normal. I've seen a lot of change in 20-ish years and the pace of it all seems to accelerate.

What needs to change for things to get stronger?

Education, education and education. Did I mention education? Both new and, um, 'less new' illustrators need business training. Now. As much as they can get. Negotiation skills would be helpful too. Illustrators are much too squirrelly about negotiating for work but it's vital to understand fees, copyright licensing and contract terms. I learned this stuff the hard way. Learning it the soft way, by having someone teach you, is much better. Read and understand what you are signing, people! There is a really good glossary available at http://www.useplus.com/useplus/glossary.asp which illustrators can use to look up contract terms if unsure about the meaning. It's free online. Tad Crawford's books about business and legal forms for illustrators are also good resources. Illustrators can't afford to be afraid of business. Reps are business people and prefer working with organized, professional artists who understand what they are doing. Looking for a rep simply as a way to dodge learning about business is not the best idea.
It's hard for new / struggling illustrators to turn down low paying work / work with no rights - what advice can you give to people who feel stuck within these options?
Well, you know this topic gets me foaming at the mouth. To answer your question: Saying "no, thank you" isn't hard. No need to be a jerk about it. Better yet, try negotiating better conditions. The feeling of being stuck comes from muddled logic that is entirely self-imposed. New / struggling illustrators cling to, and defend, the baseless notion that habitually working for peanuts (or even less), will lead to well-paid work in the future. Similarly, the habit of drastically slashing prices in tough times in the belief that fees will rebound in good times is also adopted. That theory only works if illustrators are in short supply and can't meet buyer demand, which has never been the case.

Supply & demand is a basic economic tenet. A century of evidence proves that low-balling prices is counterproductive and only serves to set the commercial value of illustration even lower---for everyone. Considering it 'student rates', 'pro bono', 'done for the experience' or any other rationalization might make someone feel better about working for free, but it's an economically unsustainable and unsound practice. Since when is prolonged desperation a winning strategy? Desperation leads to deals about as shrewd as selling the island of Manhattan for $24 dollars worth of cloth and buttons. Such deals tend not to work out quite as hoped.

Let me sneak in some math here to put it into perspective: To borrow an expression from a witty friend, illustrators are "one hundred dollar millionaires". (Wow! $100...I'm rich!) Around here, the poverty level is anything below $23,000 per year. At $100 a throw, an illustrator needs to create 231 illustrations a year to rise ABOVE POVERTY LEVEL. That's about 9 illustrations every two weeks---assuming there is that much work available. There probably isn't. A student of mine was just approached to do custom illustrations for $25. To get above poverty at that rate requires creating 924 illustrations a year or 18 per week. Yet another student was pressured to create images for $2 each. That's not a typo....two dollars! To get above poverty at that rate means churning out 11,500 illustrations a year. That's more than 31 illustrations EACH and every DAY. Yeowza. Better stock up on pencils and Red Bull.
What advice can I give?

Always do the math---in full context to a living wage.

What's the worst a client has asked of you - work or contract wise?
I've got many a craptastic tale, but one comes to mind that I don't think I've used in class: A new magazine client contacted me to fill in for their regular artist who was away on vacation. When I sent my sketch, the client complained that it didn't look like the other artist's work. Yes, the client wanted me to exactly copy the other artist's style and couldn't understand why that was a problem---for any reason. I was able to think of quite a few. Yeesh. They very reluctantly accepted an illustration in my style. And never called me again. I have no idea why they called me in the first place. The two styles weren't even remotely similar.

Switching gears a bit - what are you loving about illustration right now?
The incredible variety of work, and high standard of quality, that is being produced makes me love being part of this business all the more. I'm kept on my toes scrambling to keep up with the brilliant new talent appearing on the scene. That includes you, Pete! Take a day off, buddy. I'm getting tired.

You work in two different styles - what's the benefit of that for you? Why not just Kathryn Adams portfolio one, portfolio two?
I guess for the same reason you don't name your pets 'dog one' and 'dog two'. The two personas are distinct enough to merit separate names. I had a hunch that, after being known for one style for so long, a second one would fare better as a pseud but I have no solid evidence to back up that theory. I'm not really fooling anybody and 'Sophie' consistently shows me up by winning more awards than I do anyway. Nobody likes a showoff.
Where do you see your work going?
The embroidered stuff is so much fun to do and has so many possibilities that I can't even imagine where it might end up and I still love doing my more traditional illustrations, too. On top of all that, I'm currently organizing my illustration consulting business to launch in the next few months. With that service, I'll individually train people in business skills they may feel they are lacking and advise people who have gotten themselves into a business jam. I get hundreds of emails a year asking me business-related questions and it's gotten to the point where I can't manage it all so informally anymore. Broad questions like "how do I become an illustrator?" and "how does copyright work?" take quite a bit of time to answer.

Advice for new illustrators?
Persist. And find a way to love business.

Advice for old ones?
("Old"? You're killing me, Pete!) Same advice as for the young 'uns.

sorry Kathryn, i meant to write established, not old :)
All images copyright Kathryn Adams.
Thank you so much Kathryn for your invaluable wisdom. best - interview - ever!
see more work at her site: http://www.kathrynadams.com/


  1. While I am trying not to comment each and every time you post another great interview Pete ... I feel compelled to comment to Kathryn's ... I like this woman! .. I can see why she was/is a popular teacher! .. I love her style .... especially the delightful embroidery. I applaud the loudest, though, for her message of strong business skills needed for all you illustrators ... for ALL creative arts people that might be reading this blog. At the end of the day .. no amount of pats on the back will pay the bills and getting fair value for your creative knowledge and skills is necessary to survive spiritually as well ... fair $ and also what just about all the other illustrators on this blog have said about outside interests = the best potential for a long and rewarding career ....

    also ..... while I have your ears/eyes ..... question .... is the college/university education of a creative arts person less valuable than that of all the other college/university graduates? I think not!

  2. Yesss Yessss, Yesss, a Kathryn Adams interview is a must have!!!! And this woman is doing amazing things for the illustration business that beyond the immediate benefits of negotiating better conditions and rates for us... so much more that we cannot fathom yet!

    I remember the "Illustration God" Kathryn, I mean... Sophie, made in that wonderful knitted style of hers for our grad year!!! One of my favourites ever!

  3. I was hoping you would interview Kathryn! She always has such great things to say, I feel like I learn something every time I talk with her.

    Keep up the great work on this blog Pete Ryan!

  4. yes, kathryn, YES.
    a round of applause for this interview. a standing ovation, even.
    thank you for being such a valuable asset for illustration today, with you, i'd be trembling at the mere thought of a contract.

    keep spreading that invaluable knowledge, lady