Esther Clark Co: An Artists' History

I’ve always loved art, ever since I was a little girl. My mom tells me that when I was young, I didn’t like coloring books; I preferred to draw my own outlines and then color the picture in. Some of my best memories are molding dollhouse-sized food out of clay, drawing horse after horse after horse, illustrating my own “books,” and learning how to shade with a pencil.

When I entered fifth grade, I forgot about art a little because I started playing the clarinet. Music took over my free time, especially once I entered high school. Art was such an impractical avenue to pursue, so I turned my attention to English and clarinet (although I’m not sure how much more practical that was, in hindsight!). I didn’t really return to art until my senior year in high school, when I picked up Photography I and Drawing I as an easy way to fill in my schedule. It didn’t take much; as soon as I was back with my art supplies and connected to a creative community, I was hooked.

I did major in art, and the more I learned, the more I yearned to experiment and grow as a creative. I dabbled in nearly everything: painting, photography, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking, and even considered taking my art history courses further into some sort of museum career. Here are a few of my early art school pieces (the painting on the left is a study of one of Monet's Cliffs of Etretat paintings).

But when it came down to it, it was always the process of creating that truly fueled the flame in my heart. I fell in love with woodcuts; the feel of my tools carving the wood, the smell of the ink, the soft crispness of a beautifully made sheet of paper, the sight of my inked block rolling through the press, the success of seeing an image transferred smoothly from block to paper. I also fell in love with the darkroom, with seeing my images come slowly to life from a blank sheet of paper dipped into the correct chemicals. My senior show focused around black and white woodcuts - a huge influence in my work still - and photographs.

When I graduated, I didn’t really know where to go with my art. I worked as a receptionist for awhile, then found a job decorating wedding cakes (which served as my creative outlet). I worked at several different coffeeshops, and there - again - found inspiration and community that led me to spend more time creating. I decided I wanted to get a tattoo. I knew I wanted to draw it myself, so I spent time searching through image after image and finally settled on a black and white floral piece done mainly in delicate linework. As I carefully drew each line of my tattoo, I knew I had found my style. I loved sketching the curvy, gentle lines of each petal and leaf, and loved even more how they came to life when I added in shading. Two years after I graduated, I had a show at the coffeeshop I was working at and felt proud of my first cohesive body of work since college.

A year and a half later, I got married and decided to drop down to working four days a week, so that I could focus more on art. I had received commissions here and there, and cherished a dream of doing freelance artwork full time. I had no idea how to achieve my dream, but knew that the first step was to pour more of my time and effort into creating artwork. 

In June, we moved to Grand Rapids, MI. I faced a career change, didn’t know a soul except my husband, and had lots of extra time on my hands. If I’m ever going to take the plunge and do this, I said to myself, why not now? I started posting my work on my social media accounts, and I was determined to learn calligraphy in an effort to make myself more marketable (my first efforts are below! So funny to look back and see those). Slowly but surely, the commissions started coming in, my Instagram following started growing, and I became more refined in my technique. I started to build a brand for myself, launched a website, and began to market my work in earnest. My husband - who is ever so much more business-savvy than I am - helped me write a business plan, I set some goals, and I started learning how to turn my passion into a proper career.

A few months later, I had another show, this time at Madcap Coffee Company, where my husband was working. My body of work felt more cohesive than ever, and I decided to launch an online shop of prints created from the originals that were hanging at the cafe. By this time, I was down to working two days a week, and my goal of being a full-time freelancer finally seemed to be within reach! I was taking on branding and wedding clients - my ideal target market - as well as the tattoo designs and custom artwork commissions I had received at the start of my business.

We decided to move again that May, and as we left Grand Rapids for our hometown of Sioux Falls, SD, I faced questions I couldn’t answer. Sioux Falls would only be temporary, and our final destination was the Twin Cities; I wouldn’t need another job just yet, but should I look for one in Minnesota? How much could my business support us through our moves and the start of my husband's own business? I kept taking commissions and selling pieces through my shop, and tried to be content with waiting to see what would happen.

We settled into our St. Paul apartment in July, and I half-heartedly looked for part time jobs while we got accustomed to our new city. I met up with creatives in the Minneapolis area, started taking on more styled shoots, and built my portfolio. It soon became clear that I was too busy with my own business to really be able to get another job. I couldn’t believe it!! Here, four years after I had left college, I was pursuing my dream. I was a full time freelancer. To be honest, I still can’t believe it sometimes! Being in the Twin Cities has been such a gift; I’ve met so many wonderful creatives, been involved in some amazing collaborations, and been fueled so much by the community here. I still worry that there will come a time when I’m no longer receiving commissions - that there won’t be a place for me in the vast world of creative small business lady bosses - and it’s never easy not having a regular paycheck. But my heart is so full, and I take on every new project with so much joy and thankfulness.

My style is pretty well established now, although I am still experimenting with new things. For example, I started dabbling in watercolor over the summer, and have loved seeing how subtle color brings my florals to life.

I’ve received quite a few questions about my favorite materials lately, so I’d like to add some of those to this post. I’ll divide the supplies into three sections:

Black and White Illustration

When illustrating in black and white, I always use either printmaking or multimedia paper, usually Strathmore. I like to draw on something that has subtle texture, but also isn’t too rough - watercolor paper, for example, tends to break up the fine lines that I use to shade my florals. It’s also important to me that the paper is about 100 lb, so that it has some nice weight to it. I always start out with a pencil sketch - a mechanical pencil with high-quality lead is my favorite here, since the tip is more fine and pointed than lead in a wooden pencil - and then trace over my rough graphite lines with Micron pen. My favorites are the 01 and 005 - I use the larger tip for outlines and the smaller tip for detail work and shading.

Watercolor Illustration

In regards to watercolor illustration, paper is the most important thing. My favorite is watercolor paper by Arches. It’s more expensive than some other papers, but the quality is incredible! Most of my paints are Blick Artists' Watercolors, and my brushes are a mix of Princeton and Master’s Touch - usually round, to help blend easily and squeeze into small corners or areas of detail. Again, I always start out with a pencil sketch and trace over that with Micron pen. Adding color is the final step! In all honesty, I still have lots and lots to learn about watercolor - this was the one paint that we didn’t cover extensively in my art classes, so I’m self-taught and am not always confident in my technique.

Calligraphy

There are so many tools that I love to use for calligraphy. I strongly prefer oblique holders over straight holders. I have always used a simple Speedball plastic holder, although I hope to upgrade to a beautiful wooden model at some point in the future. My favorite nibs, in order of preference, are: Leonardt General, Blue Pumpkin, Leonardt Principle EF, and Nikko G. For black ink, I use Speedball, for white ink, I use Winsor & Newton, and for gold ink, I use the Finetec palette. Other favorites are walnut ink (so good!) and Iron Gall ink. I prefer to custom mix any other colors from watercolor paint, and I always thicken them with a small amount of gum arabic. 

Paper

Paper for calligraphy deserves a whole category by itself! My love affair with fine paper started in my freshman year of college and has stuck with me ever since. Some of my favorite brands, in no particular order, are:

Arpa Handmade - wide range of colors, lovely velvety texture, and so easy to write/print on.

Silk & Willow - beautiful, ruffly deckled edges, fine canvas-like texture, and also wonderfully easy to write/print on.

Fabulous Fancy Pants - gorgeous soft, fabric-like texture, perfect deckled edges, and excellent to print on (although not so easy to write on with a nib).

Share Studios - so unique, completely gorgeous, and superbly textured. Available in both shimmery whites/pastels and dark, rich colors. Perfect for stunning accent pieces.

These are all of my favorites, and my standbys when it comes to styled shoots and wedding invitation suites. You can’t go wrong with any of the above, and I’m sure there are plenty of other excellent companies out there that I haven’t discovered yet!

I think that covers everything, from my humble beginnings as an art-crazed toddler to my favorite tools of the trade today! I hope this post has been helpful and encouraging. To anyone out there who wants to start their own business - go for it. If I can do it, anyone can. I have the stereotypical artists’ personality: highly impractical, a little dazed and dreamy (think Luna Lovegood), scatterbrained, emotional, and very introverted. I never thought I could be where I am today, and I’m the first to admit that it’s due to so many other people as much as it’s due to my hard work. I’m forever thankful to my husband, who has supported me and helped me since before we even started dating. I’m so humbled by and grateful to each and every person who has ever commissioned something from me or purchased a print from my shop, because it is entirely due to them that my business survives. I'm so thankful for the thoughtful and thorough education I received from three very talented art professors, and I use pieces of the knowledge they passed on to me daily. And I’m so thrilled to be a part of an amazing community (both in Minneapolis/St. Paul and online) of talented artists that inspire, encourage, and motivate me daily. Without all of those people, my business wouldn’t exist. Most of all, I am thankful to God, who orchestrated my journey and chose to place the gift of creativity in my hands, then helped me to nourish and nurture it over the years. The freelance life isn’t always dream projects and pretty pictures - in fact, a lot of the time it’s about financial stress, late nights, and self-conscious doubting - but it is so. worth it. Every minute of panic and every hardship is worth it. I can’t wait to see where this wild ride takes me, and it’s my goal to cherish and drink in every second.

Thanks to BethCath, YourDreamPhoto, and Alyssa Wilcox for the above photos of my prints and wedding work.