22: Sophia Chang – How To Go From Student To Full Time Illustrator

Creativity, Full Time Hustler, Mindset, Money & Business, Podcast, Productivity

“Why did it catch your eye? That helps you develop your taste.”
Sophia Chang

Hey guys, welcome back to ONKEN RADIO, the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey!

For most of us as creative entrepreneurs, the ultimate dream is to create art as our full-time job. It takes a lot of hustling, but the day when you can fully pay the bills just with the money you can make off your creative work is truly a day worth celebrating.

But I know I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of stumbling blocks that can get in your way on that journey. It’s not easy to become a successful creative entrepreneur, but it can be done. It is possible to be a full-time artist and still pay your bills.

My guest today is a particular expert in that process. Once Sophia Chang — also known by her alias, Esy Mai — graduated from college, it wasn’t long before she realized she didn’t like the 9-to-5 corporate life. She quit her job and ventured out into the world of freelancing, and today she’s a full-time illustrator and designer. She creates beautiful artwork, she’s one of the top players in the New York City streetwear scene, and she’s even done some work creating graphics for Anthony Bourdain.

“I just realized, you know, if I don’t do it, no one else is going to help me. No one’s going to do it for me. I have to do it. If I don’t do it, then all the four years I spent in college is a waste. … And when you start thinking in that pattern, you’re like ‘Dude, I need to do some shit.’”
Sophia Chang

I’m truly excited about this interview today. Sophie Chang is an incredible inspiration to me. Her work is incredible, and her story is a testament to the power and drive of the spirit of Creative Alchemy. Let’s dive in.

Who Is Sophia Chang?

Sophia Chang is an illustrator and designer based in New York City. She works in a variety of fields of design — everything from web design to clothing — and she brings a strong personal style and voice to all of her creative work.

Growing up in an Asian household, Sophia initially faced resistance when she began to express a desire to work in a creative field. (“My dad actually, ironically to this day, he still tells people I don’t have a job. … It’s just like, ‘Why can’t you just be a pharmacist?’”) Nevertheless, Sophia attended the Parsons School of Design and earned her BFA in illustration.

Not long later, a friend of a friend referred Sophia for a job creating a graphic for the one and only Anthony Bourdain on his show, No Reservations. After creating that first graphic, the Travel Channel approached Sophia about creating illustrations for an entire season of that show, and that was Sophia’s first real job.

Since then, Sophia has collaborated with brands like Nike, the NBA, Steve Madden, Complex magazine, and Puma. Currently, she’s about to release her own clothing collection, and she’s getting into the curation side of the art world by curating some illustration shows. Her resume is truly impressive, and I enjoy scrolling through Sophia’s Instagram to see what awesome stuff she’s working on. 

I’m so pleased to have Sophia on the show today. Her journey to become a full-time creative entrepreneur is the embodiment of “live inspiration.” Also, she has a ton of very practical tips and wisdom that can help anyone make a career out of art.

In our interview, we talk about the importance of internships and how they help you develop a variety of skills. We also talk about how we, as artists, can develop a personal taste and style. This interview is full of great information and brilliant inspiration — you’ll be glad you gave it a click. Let’s get started.

Internships: Why Experience Is More Important Than Money

When you’re first starting out in an artistic career, it’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t immediately bring in enough revenue to pay the bills. I think that’s especially true for people who study their art in college — you live the student life for a while, you graduate, and everyone expects you to jump straight into a full-time career with benefits, but launching an artistic career isn’t often that easy. It takes time, and according to Sophia, that time is often best spent working at unpaid internships.

“For me personally, I have to say a lot of [the transition from student life to freelancer life] has to do with internships. I did internships my entire time when I was in school. … And I was also working part-time. … Here’s the thing with internships: Even if you’re doing silly things like getting coffee [and] scanning papers, the fact that you get to be in an environment with another professional and hear the conversations they’re having is … worth so much more … than anything you can get paid for.”
Sophia Chang

It’s true. It’s wonderful when you can make a living with your art, and having that financial freedom is incredible. But when you’re first starting out, the experience of just being in the room with artists and creatives who you admire and who have more experience working professionally is priceless. You can learn so much just from watching, listening, and asking questions in an internship setting.

Sometimes you even learn skills that you didn’t think you needed but ultimately find extremely helpful. That’s how Sophia came to have such a diverse skill set:

“I was able to kind of wear these different hats by assisting all these different people who came from different focuses in the creative arts, and [I was] able just learn and mix and match and take these different skill sets.” 
Sophia Chang

I want to encourage you to find an internship in the creative field you want to work in. Especially for those of you who are students or just starting out in your creative freelancer lives — take full advantage of your time and start learning from the professionals who have gone before you. You’ll develop different skill sets, and that will set you apart from your peers. You’ll gain invaluable experience and be so much more prepared for a career as a creative entrepreneur.

Training Your Eye and Developing Your Style

Another essential element for anyone hoping to work as a creative entrepreneur is a well-trained eye. And here’s the thing: You can appreciate other people’s work and even develop your own skills by copying them while still developing a unique personal style in your art.

Sophia is a self-professed art history-enthusiast, and she’s learned a lot from the great masters:

“… Even though my style looks nothing like Vermeer and Rembrandt, I completely respect what it is they do. And I’ve spent a lot of time studying their work as well, from understanding their color palette and the moods and lighting and their painting and how they use texture to capture light and how it’s hung in a gallery …” 
Sophia Chang

When was the last time you saw a piece of art and asked yourself, “What do I like about this?” When you sit with a painting or a photograph or another piece of art, break it down, and pay attention to the little details that catch your eye, you train yourself to recognize good art. And that recognition of detail helps you to become a better artist yourself.

I want to encourage you all here — there is nothing wrong with copying other people’s work. Of course, it’s wrong to try to reproduce someone else’s piece and claim it as your own, but there’s nothing at all wrong with emulating someone else’s style and putting your own twist on it to make it your own. When you copy another artist’s techniques, you gain priceless knowledge of the craft. It’s sort of a way of backing into new styles of art — when you copy someone else, you have to reverse-engineer their creative process and discover how they created the effect you admired.

When I asked Sophia what’s currently inspiring her, one of the biggest things she mentioned was other people’s art:

“A lot of times it’s just … seeing something that someone else did. I’m like, ‘Oh man, it’s so awesome! I’m going to try to do that” … That really helps a lot of times. … We were talking about typography earlier today — maybe it’s a word someone wrote that just looks so cool and I want to rewrite it myself … And a lot of times I think it’s great to copy others, not professionally, but I think to train your eye and to train your hand and your creativity it’s a great tool.” 
Sophia Chang

Take a few minutes today to look at a work of art you admire. What do you like about it? What artistic techniques did the artist use to produce it? How can you implement those techniques in your own art?

Be a Creative Alchemist with Sophia Chang 

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens of which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their own creative processes, but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper. Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemical processes.

Sophia Chang is one of the most impressive Creative Alchemists working on the illustration scene today. She has beautifully balanced her creative influences with her own unique artistic voice to create work that is truly original and impressive. She’s also hustled hard, taken full advantage of internship opportunities, and really pounded the pavement on her mission to build a successful career as a freelancer.

I truly admire Sophia. She’s an incredible talent and just a really cool person. I want to take a moment to acknowledge her today for her contributions to the art world. I genuinely look forward to watching her career continue to unfold and take her to new places and opportunities she’s never dreamed of.

I also want to take another moment to offer you a little more encouragement: If Sophia can build a career as a freelancer, you can too. If you truly dedicate yourself to training your eye, developing a wide variety of skills, and hustling until you can bring in enough revenue through freelancing alone, you will achieve the success you’re looking for.

Here’s Sophia’s definition of “live inspiration”:

“Live out what you’re inspired by … I’m inspired by people who are trend-setters. … Kind of the idea of ‘iron sharpens iron’ …” 
Sophia Chang

Keep being inspired by others. Keep synthesizing the skills you acquire from emulating others with your passions and create art out of that synthesis. Keep being a Creative Alchemist and creating each moment with care. I know you’ll eventually create the life you want.

Thank you so much for joining me on this very special episode of ONKEN RADIO, guys. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. If you did, please let me know on Instagram. I’d love it if you could share the episode and tag Sophia, @esymai, and me, @nickonken. And don’t forget to leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts. Every review helps this podcast reach new people!

And if you want to connect with Sophia, remember to follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and check out her website, too. There, you can see a lot of Sophia’s illustration and design work and even purchase some of her prints. She has a lot of great art out there, and I know you’ll find something that inspires you.

Thanks again, guys. I’ll talk to you again soon —

Nick Onken

“Being able to plan ahead is super important for a freelancer.”
Sophia Chang

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • On the bravery to embrace personal creativity
  • How she landed the first client with The Travel Channel
  • Working with and for Anthony Bourdain
  • Overcoming being bad at math with Asian parents
  • The monumental moments that empowered a career in art
  • A schedule for a hustler trying to make the most from 4 years of art school
  • The lifestyle of a freelance illustrator
  • The value of multi-disciplinary internships – Even getting coffee is incredibly powerful
  • Attitudes for excelling at internships
  • Skills for cultivating your personal artistic taste
  • The typical day in the life of Sophia Chang
  • How to pay the bills when you quit your job
  • Where the internal drive comes from to get the best work
  • How Sophia Chang gets around resistance
  • The origins of EsyMai

Links mentioned:

Connect with Sophia: Instagram | Twitter | Website

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