Maria Luque begins emptying the contents of her bag around a large round table in a cafe in the historic San Telmo district of Buenos Aires. She arranges paper, colored pencils, a few small paint brushes, a set of watercolors and a little folder that carefully guards her works alongside a plate of buttery croissants and a cup of coffee. This charming 100-year old bar will function as her temporary classroom. Sat around her are five students—an architect, a graphic designer, two illustrators and a cook—curiously observing Luque as she flips through a graphic novel to point out some style elements that they should consider during the next two hours of drawing.
Although not a Buenos Aires native, Luque has become a beloved artist in her adopted home for her playful drawings and watercolors of the city’s archetypical bars, cafes and pizzerias. “I couldn’t afford to rent a studio and I got bored drawing by myself at home so I began hanging out at a few old coffee shops,” Luque explains, “I was always paying attention to what was happening around me and the conversations at different tables, the regulars.”
Luque takes these careful observations of the world around her and interprets them with the capriciousness of a child’s imagination run wild. Small format works become larger than life ensemble portraits filled with saccharine color palates and whimsical eccentricities that present a blurred mix of reality and fantasy.
Much of this work is documented daily on her Instagram page, which she began to use quite innocently as a way to share her “day-to-day creative process.” Today, her feed functions as a sort of digital portfolio and means of promoting a book, upcoming shows, classes and new works, and is her principal means of finding new illustration gigs. Although she insists she doesn’t have a “clear marketing strategy”, her social media presence demonstrates the simple old adage that a consistent presence and quality production are the best tools for success across any creative field.
Luque sat down with Artrepeneur to talk the challenges of working as a freelance illustrator, the division of personal work and paid commissions, and how marketing herself as an illustrator on Instagram has been a key factor to her commercial success as an artist.
Luque’s Commercial Illustration Gigs Fuel Her Creative Projects
KV: What are some of the challenges of working as a freelance illustrator?
Maria Luque: It’s always been about finding the balance. What I value about being a freelancer is that I have an enormous amount of freedom. I choose a lot of my commerical work based on the time it will allow me to dedicate to my personal projects, which is obviously what I am most interested in. On the other hand, you never know when work is going to disappear, and your illustration gigs will dry up. The challenge for me has always been about finding that middle ground.
KV: Where is that distinction between your personal work and your commercial work?
Maria Luque: Right now I am working on a book of short stories. I write and draw. That is the sort of work that I prefer to do personally. I just released a book in France that I released here a few years ago. Commercial work is work, and that’s how I approach my illustration gigs. Obviously, I like the illustration gigs I take because I choose it carefully, but it is meant to help fund my other projects. Last year I did a collaboration with a clothing company designing fabric patterns for shirts and dresses. I’ve done work with a local cultural center and television channel. Right now, I’m fortunate that I don’t have to seek out new illustration gigs. Proposals generally come to me and I do my best to only take on the projects that really interest me, although obviously there are times I take illustration gigs that end up not being what I had hoped for.
KV: Tell me about that book, your graphic novel.
Maria Luque: It is a graphic novel I had finished in 2014 and have released here. Myself and another illustrator friend had done some work for a French publishing house a few years ago, and I decided to send them a copy to consider for publication there. The book is about Cándido López, an Argentine painter who was sent to fight in the Paraguayan War. During a very important battle, he injured his right hand, which he used to paint, and it had to be severed to save his life. The doctor that severed his hand was my great-great-grandfather. Cándido came back to Buenos Aires with 90 sketches he had planned to turn into paintings. He spent a lot of time training his left hand to paint and was able to complete half of them. One of which lived under my bed for a little while. The book is about Cándido teaching me how to paint like him so that I could complete the rest of the work.
KV: What was the publishing process like?
Maria Luque: L’Agrume is a publishing house that I had already done work with, and so there was a good relationship there. I don’t work with an agent so when I get a contract from a publishing house, I read through it and usually consult with other authors about the deal. Fortunately, everything was very quick and clear.
KV: In Buenos Aires, you spend most of your time drawing in cafes. Does that have an influence on your work?
Maria Luque: I have not had a studio space for a number of years and so working in a coffee shop was just something very normal to me. The thing about drawing is that it is very solitary. I like the solitude sometimes, but if I am secluded in a house just surrounded by silence, it is a little sad. Going to cafes to work is a way for me to have a little life around me. Hearing other people around me. A lot of times I’m using the cafe as a studio and I’m working on specific projects or illustration gigs, but obviously, little things show up in the work sometimes. I have been leading classes in public spaces for a long time now. I feel most comfortable working in those spaces, whether it is a museum, a pizzeria or a coffee shop, and began proposing classes in order to share that experience with other artists.
Like Other Successful Illustrators on Instagram, Luque Often Obtains Work from The Platform
KV: Do you have a specific strategy with your social media usage as an illustrator on Instagram?
Maria Luque: Initially, no. When I first started using social media, I didn’t really have a strategy because I never had a specific goal in mind. I never sat down and planned it out. I just understood that having some sort of a presence was important. I started out using Facebook and Twitter before I joined Instagram. But I never really thought about how to use each platform individually in terms of content, like using one photo for Instagram, a post on Facebook and a separate thing on Twitter. I just uploaded the same content on different channels. Now, I don’t necessarily have a strategy beyond being consistent. I am consistent with my posting and upload something every single day. If it isn’t a new work, I will upload something related to it like me at a cafe drawing, a new graphic novel I’m interested in or a work in progress. I try to respond to comments as much as I can, and engage with other artists that I like.
KV: How did you become so visible among other illustrators on Instagram?
Maria Luque: I started Instagram maybe two years ago. I didn’t really know how to use it very well. I don’t use hashtags, for example, and I don’t write out long descriptions. But the response I received was pretty immediate. There was an instant engagement that I don’t see paralleled on other platforms. At the time, I was really active on Facebook. I had a lot of followers on that page and I posted regularly but since I wasn’t paying for the page my posts never reached my followers. With Instagram, the interaction was immediate. People who follow me see my work and others can discover me easier than on other social media. My strategy has just been to be consistent and post every single day.
KV: Has social media become important to finding work?
Maria Luque: Yes. I am completely independent. I don’t have regular clients or a side job; I rely solely on freelance illustration gigs. I don’t work with an agency that brings me new clients. So social media has been a really important tool to get my work out there and introduce it to people, since I’m finding so much work on Instagram. If I go on a trip and I don’t publish anything for a week in a row, the number of new emails and project proposals stops. More recently, I’ve realized that nearly all of my income is coming from work on Instagram, since people often find my page and approach me with a project offer.
KV: What are some jobs that have come from social media?
Maria Luque: I had a commission recently for Lenny. I’m positive that one of the editors had found my Instagram page and contacted me. That was an incredible project to work on, and one of the best illustration gigs to come to me through Instagram. I had already been admiring the website and love the work that they produce. All of the articles are paired with a different artist. It’s all female. It was something that I really wanted to be a part of but never imagined it would happen from just consistently sharing my work. Turns out, doing so makes interesting projects appear. Something else that happens frequently through my Instagram channel is people contacting me directly to purchase a piece. It’s all a product of constantly putting the work out there.
Are you an illustrator on Instagram? How do you use the platform to land new illustration gigs?