biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Libby VanderPloeg

by Stephanie

Biz Ladies Profile: Libby VanderPloeg photos by Jennifer Galatioto

Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from illustrator Libby VanderPloeg. Studying painting and sculpture in school and then a bit in grad school, Libby decided to start her career in the publishing world as a designer. One afternoon, she decided to step back into the studio and rekindle her love for illustration. Since then, her work has been seen in a variety of publications, books, products and websites – including D*S where she illustrated several of our 24 Hours In... city guides. Today, Libby shares a bit about her career journey and gives us a glimpse into the steps she has taken to get to where she is now. Thanks for sharing with us, Libby! —Stephanie

Read the full interview after the jump…

Biz Ladies Profile: Libby VanderPloeg

Why did you decide to start your own business, and when you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

Working as an illustrator happened very organically for me. I went to school in Chicago for painting and sculpture, after which I moved to Brooklyn to continue on that path. I went to Hunter College for one rather depressing semester of grad school, during which I buried myself in philosophy, art criticism, and art-theoretical reading assignments. I had almost no time to create work, let alone defend it.  So I made a tough choice. I quit grad school, dismantled my studio setup, and started working in the publishing industry as a designer. Then one day it hit me how long it had been since I’d picked up a paintbrush. I was really scared that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to draw. So I gave myself an assignment: to make an 8-page storybook (i.e. journal) every night until I had used up all of the scraps of paper I was hoarding in my apartment. Some were stupid, some sad, some pretty funny. And it hit me how much I loved doing this. I started showing my works at little cafés and bars, and doing lettering projects for friends and colleagues whom I’d met since I moved to Brooklyn.  It felt really natural, and that’s basically how I realized that A) I wanted to illustrate, and B) I just had to stop being scared and do it!

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

It goes all the way back to high school, actually.  I was trying to finish a painting up for a review and was getting incredibly discouraged. The more I tried to fix this awkward portrait, the worse it looked.  My dad saw saw how frustrated I was getting and reassured me that it was a pretty good painting, and I should accept that we rarely have the luxury of making things perfect. I try to remember that when I’m working under a tight deadline and I just can’t get a composition or color palette to come together exactly as I want. Sometimes you just have to wrap it up! Accept the lessons learned from it, and really think about how you can do this type of project more efficiently the next time around.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

With so many brilliant, talented artists and illustrators out in the world, I felt a little unsure at first of how to make work that was reflective of my voice, conceptually and aesthetically. That’s why, for me, creating sketchbook stories was so helpful.  The stories written in those pages were all my own, and since I wasn’t sharing them with anyone, the content was unmediated and pretty raw. I had to find my point of view and be comfortable with what that looked and sounded like.

Biz Ladies Profile: Libby VanderPloeg

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

It’s really hard to know how to estimate project costs, so make a point to ask your friends and colleagues how they are pricing similar jobs so that you know if you’re pricing things fairly and keeping with industry standards. Creative work can be hard to quantify in dollars, but there are a lot of ways to build a quote so that you can protect yourself from swimming in an endless sea of revisions and resentment.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

Probably one of those aforementioned occasions (see: swimming in an endless sea of revisions and resentment). I won’t bore you with the details. On the bright side, I would like to note that there are few things as enlightening as failure!

Biz Ladies Profile: Libby VanderPloeg

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

A friend of mine asked if I would design/ illustrate and letterpress her wedding invites for her. I’d set up jobs for printers to letterpress on my behalf, but I had never letterpressed anything myself. “Yeah. I can do that…” I found myself saying to her, as though I’d done it a million times.  Unbeknownst to me, I proceeded to design one of the most complicated letterpress jobs imaginable: two-color/two-sided, accordion folds, obscenely tight registration, perfect little borders with only a ⅛” safety…on both sides, ON BOTH SIDES! Who did I think I was? I had never letterpressed a damn thing in my life, but there was neither the time or a budget to back out at this point, and so I rented a day’s worth of studio space at The Arm in Williamsburg, and somehow (wizardry? divine intervention?) was able to execute the project. It was the furthest thing from perfect, but it was gloriously acceptable, and my friend was thrilled with them. And I came to the conclusion that freestyle letterpress printing should be an Olympic sport.

What business books/resources (if any)  would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Because I’m a such a lover of the print medium and paper goods, I tend to accumulate a lot of little zines and artists books (e.g Diner Journal, The Believer, Lucky Peach). They’re full of beautiful illustrations and fun stories…just the bits and pieces of inspiration I need to look at when my brain needs a reset. On the web, I usually find myself browsing around Pinterest, Grain Edit, the French Paper Sample Room, and Instagram for inspiring imagery. And a shout-out to my mom (a former librarian) who is always sending me really great books, too, most recently Relish by the charming and talented Lucy Knisley.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1) Are you realistic? It’s hard to put creative work up for critique. You’re not going to please everyone, because we all like different things. Be tough enough take the occasional blows of criticism that you’re going to receive now and then.

2) Are you a good listener? Take notes, and really hear what your client is asking for. It doesn’t mean you have to deliver their request verbatim, but it will give you some helpful parameters within which you can play.

3) Finally, I can’t underemphasize the importance of being organized. Make to-do lists, keep a calendar, and stay on top of correspondence. This will, of course, help make you easier to work with, and thus so much more enjoyable with which to do business!

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  • Yes! I had always wondered about the mystery woman illustrating the ’24 Hours In’ pieces. I loved the honesty in this post. I guess everyone feels scared to start doing something they love.

  • Great interview. I think many business owners, including myself, can relate to not knowing how to price projects when they first get started. Someone smarter than me once said I should price based on value, not cost, but that’s easier said than done.

  • Love reading the process and advice of other illustrators, it’s so helpful and encouraging! Also love that quote from Libby’s dad “we rarely have the luxury of making things perfect”, something I’ve recently come to realize in my own work. Thanks!

  • I love this. I’m just starting out in my illustrating career so I can use all the advice I can get!

  • I really admire you, Libby and so happy we are buds. Your sense of humor, hard work and creativity are ever inspiring!

  • I’m Libby’s Dad and I want to share one story from her teen years. She always worked in her room with her door closed. And she kept it closed when she was not there. Respecting her priacy, I asked once if I could see what she was working on. She said no. When I asked why, she said, “Beacause you’ll say it’s good.” There is so much in that about parental support, self-confidence, acceptance of criticism and putting it in context. Truth is, we’re so proud of her and her work, and she now has the confidence, as she should, to let us see it.

  • What a wise young teen! I so love the comment from Libby’s Dad.

    Thnx for sharing, Jon.

  • I love you too, Jen G! Your photos capture my studio so perfectly. And thanks for the nice feedback everyone. So nice to share my story with such a thoughtful readership. And thanks to my dad for being so eloquent and supportive.