Artist Spotlight

Building an Online Community with Allison Howle

Allison chats with us about some of the side effects of doing what you love, namely, growing an online community around your work.

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Reading Time | 13 minutes

Thanks for joining us, Allison. Let’s start off with your back story.

I am from Michigan. I had a really awesome art teacher in high school that actually got eight of us, in a very suburban preppy high school, to go to art school. He was pushing everybody to go out of state. I ended up going to SCAD in Georgia. Savannah is sort of an island without physically being an island. It’s tourists, and students, and locals, that’s it. If you want to learn how to do carriage tours, or ghost tours, or beer tours, or trolley tours, there’s plenty of places you can go and knock on their door.

That’s wild because so much talent comes out of Savannah. You just assume there’s a culture around it.

I would say there is one; it’s just very different. I think CalArts and Ringling fall into this category where they sort of, I don’t want to say it like this because it makes it sound bad, but it’s sort of a farm to Disney or Pixar. It was really odd being one of five kids in my graduating class that were set on going back to the Midwest after I was done with school. All my connections and all my peers just shipped off to LA. I sat at home in Michigan and went to coffee shops and stuff and treated trying to get a job like a job. I sent out, I want to say, 10 to 15 résumés a day for 4 months. I think I sent out 80 to 100 résumés before I got one interview. The interview happened to be for an internship at Ghost. They asked if I could move out here in 3 days. I found a place in Little Canada and that was pretty much how I ended up out here.

So you worked at Ghost?

I worked at Ghost for about two years. I started as an intern there for about 3 months and then they hired me on as creative director, which was kind of a jump. Ghost has a different structure than places around here that do ad work. Medical is its own beast. I was doing storyboarding and modeling and texturing and animating and compositing; I was all over the place. They were like, “well you’re kind of working with every department any way and we only have one creative director right now.” So the two of us split all the projects up that came in the door. It was an atypical experience certainly but it wasn’t a bad one.

And you were also at CRASH+SUES for a while?

There was really no senior person in that scheme. We always liked to think of it as a hot potato setup where somebody would be in charge of a project and the other people would be their support. Whoever was not busy would raise their hand to lead the project. That was a very agile process that I really liked. Everybody had their own aesthetic, had their own sensibilities, and they were also very good at being like, “You do your thing. I’ll help ya.”

You’re freelance now and it seems like you’re in both realms where it’s personal pieces for individuals and professional work for medical/advertising.

It’s funny with that sort of setup because it’s always been a bit of a battle wrangling the amount of generalization I do. I specialized in 3D animation in school but I’ve always liked 2D animation. I like motion graphics. I like just straight up character modeling and anatomical modeling and doing previz. Illustration was easy for me to pick a focus in just because that’s what I’ve been doing the longest. That’s the one where I can just zone in and do it without thinking about it. Animation has been a little trickier for me to decide what is the path that I want to continue with freelance. I really like doing storyboards and I think that’s going to continue to be a big part of how I integrate into animation pipelines.

You’ve been freelance for a year. At what point did you make that realization that this is what you want to do?

It ties back to people that I respected; that had done this business before me. Both of my parents were self employed. Also, one of my professors in art school was super adamant about everybody trying it. He was one of the only ones that said, “Maybe don’t put all your eggs in the Pixar basket.” He actually suggested just renting a house with a bunch of other people and making your own collective studio. That’s bizarre, but that sounds way more fun than moving out to LA. It stuck in the back of my head a little bit.

It became a really big push about half way through my two and half years at CRASH+SUES. I think that was the next step so I really started pushing to get clients after hours. I was working like 60 hour weeks getting my own clients going.

So it wasn’t about getting a certain number of followers. It just felt like the time?

Yeah pretty much. It’s been funny because I view the clients around town separately than the work that I get off of Twitter and the community on Twitch and all that. It’s usually one person, or a small group of people that want something very personal. They’re not trying to sell anything. That’s a very different client experience to me than say, working for an agency. I love the variety of having both. They are equally enthusiastic for very different reasons.

It sounds like you’ve kind of established your own little corner on the internet.

I would call it a community, but it wasn’t just me. It was luck and timing and consistency. The consistency part I think I can take credit for, but it was a lot of luck and timing. I was pushing my social media presence and it was right when the D&D resurgence was happening. I was just getting started on Twitch I was just getting really into the Twittersphere and seeing what was possible as far as illustration work was concerned. All of these people started popping out of the woodwork that liked D&D and hearing me talk about my work and they just stuck around which shocked me. So I made a little Discord community for them and we sort of chat back and forth in Discord, but it’s this sort of self sustaining thing. It’s this nice little club of people that just sort of happened out of me thinking it would be fun to stream and share D&D nerdery and art with people.

I just liked the idea of streaming on Twitch because I thought that this would have been cool if I had it when I was younger.

That phrase “do what you love” sounds so corny but that sounds very fitting.

I thought the same thing, but one of the people in my Discord community said this. “I love hearing people talk about what they’re passionate about because you can tell. Their personality changes when they talk about it.” The three things I can literally talk forever about are art/animation/illustration, horses, and D&D.

This sort of community; is that something you set out to do or was it something that just happened?

It happened super organically. It was not anything that I intended to do. I just liked the idea of streaming on Twitch because I thought that this would have been cool if I had it when I was younger. This would have been rad if this was a thing when we were in middle school or high school and we wanted to become artists. Originally, it was totally education focused. I just wanted to share my process with people. There ended being a lot of communal storytelling while I was working and I think that’s sort of why people ended up sticking around. They got to share things they were super passionate about. I didn’t plan for that at all. I was just like, “You guys are cool. Here’s a space.” There are people that I’m meeting next week that have been in my community for two plus years that are from England and Italy.

Is most of your work from those really enthusiastic individuals or from connections you’ve had in town? I noticed your website has a mix of D&D driven illustration work and all of a sudden, here’s muscle tissues!

About half and half. My two biggest clients right now are medical and these individuals on Twitter. There are other projects sprinkled in from everywhere else. It’s not ever a lot of the same stuff which is neat, but kind of gives me whiplash every now and again.

I want to touch on how you divide the work. People think of it as there’s the work you get paid to do and there’s the, shrug, “personal work”. How do you convince people that it’s all professional?

I have enough work where I’ve done agency animations, I have my demo reel, I have storyboard samples. If I’m going to pitch to an agency or client that would be more in an ad space, I would use that stuff and I wouldn’t really push the illustrative work. On the flip side, the illustrative work has been useful for medical, which has been the funniest thing. They see the rendering, and they look past the subject matter. I usually use one pool for these clients over here and one pool for these clients over here. It doesn’t cause any issues.

Do you do personal work as in personal to you?

I do. I made a point of always doing personal work pretty much since I left Ghost. I’ve been drawing for as long as I could remember and then when I worked at Ghost—I think because it was my first job, I moved to a different state, it was overwhelming, all that stuff—I sort of just stopped drawing on the side. When I went over to CRASH+SUES, I made a point to start drawing again. I was doing it almost every night; if not more than one piece a night. It has since evolved into a Patreon setup which has been really nice. Just adding structure to that sort of stuff has been super rewarding for my brain. It’s nice to have milestones and not have it be so willy nilly.

This online community that you’ve been able to grow, are there things that you have to do to make sure they’re happy? Or do you find that they are kind of loyal enough to go for the ride of whatever is at your whimsy?

The only thing that I have to do at any point that makes people happy is I have to make sure the space is safe for people. If somebody starts breaking the rules or makes somebody uncomfortable, I’m very quick, or one of my moderators are very quick, to make sure they know they’ve done something wrong. It’s a slap on the wrist sometimes, but sometimes we might have to ban people. I take feedback like that, but as far as the content I’ve developed? They’ve been killer with just letting me do whatever the hell I want all the time. I’m just like, “I’m glad you guys are as enthusiastic about this as I am because I can just do this forever and not think twice.”

Would you like your community to grow to the point where it is 100% of your income?

Absolutely. I would love to have this weird amalgamation of fun, nerdy people turn into something financially viable for me. I think it’s been, this sounds super cheesy, but it’s the place where I can be my truest self. Nobody expects that much from me and I don’t expect that much from other people. It’s just honest people that are excited about the same type of stuff and are interested, for whatever reason, in what I have to offer. If I can continue to make stuff that they find interesting and also satisfies me, that would be killer.

On the flip side, I’ve always actually liked working for clients too. I don’t know that I would ever completely just go solo. I would really love to continue doing storyboards. I would love to get into game illustration. It just seems like a good marriage of my interests and what I do. That is something I have been pursuing very slowly on the side just to get that ball rolling.

If high fantasy work did become 100%, would you want it to happen organically or are you going to take the next 6 months and do 100 submissions to different game companies?

That’s a two part yes. I would love if my personal work could become financially viable. I want that to happen organically because I feel like it’s not sustainable otherwise. If I were to force that in any fashion, put a number on it, put an expectation on it, I feel like not only would I immediately begin rebuking it, other people would see that because I don’t hide things very well. I’m in front of a camera acting like an idiot most days for four and a half hours for them. I feel like they’d notice if it was suddenly this structured, I don’t know, product thing that I was trying to sell. For that part of it I absolutely would just want it to happen.

I am realistic about needing to pay the bills, so I am all for this hustle of just finding these new spaces, finding new clients that also might be enthused in the same spaces that I am. I know how to communicate ideas in an effective way, I will help you if I can, I don’t really care what the subject matter is. If we can make it happen and everybody is happy at the end of the day then it’s like, alright cool.

It seems like you’re a workaholic, as a lot of us are, so of course we have to ask the question about work life balance.

We have a channel in my Discord called “Take care of yo bod” because we have to remind ourselves all the time that it’s OK to just chill out for a little bit and watch Netflix. I think it’s easier to say that most of the time than to actually enact it. I was super guilty of this. Especially for the first six months I was freelancing. I never really took a break. For me, it’s a daily thing. I don’t take long-stretch breaks but I own a horse, so a big part of my day is that I have to get out of my office. I have to go take care of him. That totally resets my brain because I don’t think about work at all when I’m doing that. It’s nice to be outside. It’s nice to do stuff with your hands and be dirty and stinky and gross then be like, “OK now I can go shower and get back to sterile computer land.”

…there’s no stagnation as long as you keep looking ahead and keep evaluating yourself, evaluating your work, and evaluating the community around you.

In the same way that you’ve created a safe space for your community, you’ve created a safe space for your brain to just take some time off from everything. What is your horse’s name?

His name is Hugo; he’s a giant. He’s 20 years old and I’ve had him for 12 years. He’s at a farm in Maple Grove. The guy who owns it has been living there on that farm for 30 years. It’s this space that he has developed for himself and his clients and his horses. Everybody is super sweet there; it’s just a nice space to go to. They don’t know what the hell I do which is the other great part because they don’t want to talk to me about work!

Is that a horse you brought from Michigan?

He’s been all over the place with me. He’s been in Michigan, Georgia, he’s been a lot of places.

You had a horse in college!?

I did. It’s been such an odd thing for me to talk about with people because most people don’t have experience with horses. But that’s always something I’ve been really conscious to keep in my life because I haven’t found anything that I’ve been as passionate about that can completely balance out how passionate I am about my career. It is the big reset button. Every time I go to the farm and hang out with him, it immediately clears my head. Any time I’m stressed, it’s the first place I go. Any time I don’t do it, it’s super apparent that I didn’t go because I’ll feel crappy, my back will hurt, my wrist will hurt; all this hypochondriac stuff. It’s a lot of work; it would be easier if I didn’t have him. But, in the same sense, I would be miserable if I didn’t have him around. It’s worth it.

Do you have any advice for people looking to take a different path?

What I would offer those people is determine what it is that you really like doing that you can stand to be doing at all hours of the day because chances are, you’re going to have to be. Work life balance included. Look at other people that are doing similar things. For me this was finding people on social media, finding other artists that I respected. That’s always been a big part of my process; finding other artists and seeing what path they took and picking pieces that make sense to me. Don’t copy their path because I don’t think one path works for everybody.

The whole reason I’m out here is because I really like to storyboard. On a whim my dad was like, “What about medical? That’s a weird situation that we haven’t thought of yet.” Think of spaces that maybe you never thought of yourself fitting into before. Even if it’s not exactly the right fit at first, that’s a stepping stone towards something else. You can always keep looking, you can always keep building, you can always keep growing. There’s no stopping, there’s no stagnation as long as you keep looking ahead and keep evaluating yourself, evaluating your work, and evaluating the community around you.

If you would like to support Allison Howle, be sure to visit her Twitch stream or her Patreon page!
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