My Story // Life before becoming an illustrator
Buckle in friends, this may get lengthy.
The Early Years
To keep it short, I won’t go into too much detail about each step along the way, but I thought it would be nice to share with all of you why I’m an illustrator. Why? Well, who doesn’t love a good story? Just kidding, I actually get asked this all the time, “how did you get into that?” “What made you want to do that?”, etc, so here’s why!
Firstly, it is worth noting that pretty much all my life what I loved to do the most was art. I wasn’t sporty (although I tried!), I wasn’t super social, I was the quiet kid in the corner playing with flowers or the last one to make friends. I’ve come a long way since then, but I’ll keep my social life out of this for the most part.
Art was how I communicated, I didn’t say much because I was quiet and reserved, but when I created a project it spoke for me. Suddenly as my craft came together people noticed me, my teachers praised me and I had a voice, without having to speak. I’ll never forget when my second grade teacher was so impressed with my craft I had made that she called over the teacher next door to see it. I think that was the first time I realized I was good at making art.
Although illustration is my business, art is my home. It’s the thing that supported me along the way, allowing me to escape reality into beachy scenes or mountains through acrylic paints. When all else failed, I had my art. I could come home after a day of school and finally get to create and get my hands dirty. It was always my favourite thing to do and my favourite hobby.
I remember spending most of my art-time in elementary school years making crafts with paper maché or following the latest episode of “Art Attack” and creating my own version of whatever the guy made. I loved the feeling of creating something out of nothing, turning little plastic bottles into piggy banks or an empty sprinkle bottle into a penguin. It helped me understand how to visualize the possibility of a blank canvas, or in that case, a piece of trash.
When I went to high school, I had a really hard time at first. I didn’t know anyone there and I came from a really small catholic school, which made switching to a big public school super intimidating. I didn’t really find my friend group for awhile and I felt very lonely. I eventually ended up finding some friends but unfortunately they had other plans for me. I felt like an outcast for a couple of years, an outsider and I never felt like I was good enough for anyone, so I turned to my art. I painted landscapes of dreamy places I wish I was at instead of school. It helped me forget about how hard things were for a little while. I remember the feeling of being in high school and that being your whole world, like you’re living in a bubble, and the fact that I didn’t quite fit into this world was heartbreaking to me and really pushed me to lean on my art more than before.
After some time passed, I finally found a group of friends I loved to hang around with and be silly with. We were bad girls to some extent, skipping school, drinking lots and getting in trouble but I loved the thrill of it and looking back, I’m glad I got it out of my system back then instead of during University.
I continued to paint, to be creative, and my friends loved art as well which made it more fun for me because we could make fun things together. I never thought too much about my career at the time because I was just enjoying being a teenager (for the most part) and never thought about what was next.
I’ll never forget the day I sat in a room with a guidance counsellor and she asked me what I liked to do and I told her I like to make art, to which she told me I wouldn’t be able to make a career of that so I would need to think of other options. “I’ll show you”, I thought. I was furious, but some part of me believed that she was right.
In my last year of high school, my mom took me to a university fair in Toronto, because up to that point I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I just thought I would need a normal job and I could continue my art as a hobby. At the fair, I had met the dean of the interior design program at Ryerson University, who had stepped in for the spokesperson for the Fashion program. I thought “well, fashion seems cool, and I’m sure there are lots of creative jobs in that industry”. When the dean explained the Fashion Communications program to me, how I would get to draw and paint, learn all the ins and outs of the industry, I was in! I wanted it so badly, because I felt like it was perfectly suited to me.
The only problem was that the program had a huge application process, I had to learn to sew a dress, to paint a self-portrait, to create posters, to design logos, all within the span of under a year. It would be a huge process, but boy was I driven. I spent the next 6 months taking sewing classes, painting and drawing every day, researching different materials, doing everything I could to show them I had the potential.
I’ll never forget the feeling of sending off that envelope, I had never worked so hard for something in my entire life!
Then the waiting game began, I checked my email every day. I didn’t have a “Plan B” like they said you should, I only wanted to do this program.
And then I got the email. I remember like it was yesterday, I was sitting having lunch with my parents and saw the words “You’ve been accepted” on my phone and instantly started sobbing with joy. I had done it. All my hard work paid off! Little did I know, I was about to have to work 10x harder!
The first year of University was absolutely brutal, and that’s a nice way to put it. I had to learn how to commute with all the business people, while hauling big portfolios and bags of materials around that weighed a ton. I was miserable, I would get home at 8 or 9 and work on my projects until 1-2am then get up and do the same thing all over again the next day. I watched my friends online post pictures of parties and drinking on weeknights and I was stuck doing work on my own to try to keep up with the program. Things really simmered down after the first year, but I’m so glad I stuck it out, it was a huge wake-up call for me and I learned to be independent. I remember clearing out the dining room at home (where I did all my projects) after my first year, it was overflowing with projects.
It wasn’t until we started to learn about illustration that I realized I wanted to be an illustrator. In fact, I didn’t think much at all of illustration in my second year, but in my third year, I had a great teacher named Colleen, who taught us about the great illustrators such as Rene Gruau and Erté, I was obsessed! I wanted to be just like them, to draw just like them. That was when I got my drive back, my motivation to really make something of my career. “I, Sabina Fenn, am a happy and successful full-time illustrator”, I would repeat to myself over and over again, even though it wasn’t at all true yet.
I got working on my craft, and it brought me so much joy again. I spent every free moment I had drawing, I knew I wanted to be an expert by the time I graduated, so I kept at it, and I wasn’t shy about it either! I posted all of my best works online and talked about illustration all the time.
Then I met my good friend Roger, who introduced me to all the coolest fashion people in Toronto. I was terrified, but I knew I had to pretend like I wasn’t. Roger told me, you don’t need to tell them you’re a student, because they’ll treat you differently if you do. He said “you are a professional illustrator”, and I thought to myself, heck ya I am!
So I started networking, mingling, getting out of my comfort zone again and again, slowly building up a great community of people I now call friends. I landed my first paid gig with Saks Fifth Avenue, which had just opened up on Queen Street, and I was ecstatic. I thought, “ok, it’s really happening!”.
After graduation, I took up two part-time jobs to pay my rent while I worked on every little commission that came my way. I did that for about half a year, then cut back to one part-time job, and then during the holiday season I decided to give it a go, to be a full-time illustrator.
Since then, I have never had to get another part-time job. I have worked on my craft day and night, and continue to do so every day. I work with clients on exciting projects, and I sell products and prints in my store. I continue to read books every day about being an illustrator, and I spend a couple hours every day seeking out new opportunities. Although my work doesn’t focus specifically on fashion anymore, it still has a fashion flair to it, and it has become my signature.
I’ve worked so very hard to get to where I am today, and I feel like I’m really just scratching the surface. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I’m learning every day and I’m ecstatic every time a new project comes my way. My work feels more authentic to me than ever, and I get to connect with so many amazing like-minded people from all over the world every day.
There’s still a long journey ahead of me, and there are lots of things I want to do over the course of my career to help artists who, like me, were told they cannot be artists, and show them a way they can. I want to become an expert in my industry so I can use all that knowledge and pass it on. I don’t want anyone out there to feel that their creativity is a burden.
Getting to create art for clients, for commercial purposes or sentimental purposes has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, and I wake up every day feeling quite thankful, even if I do still get a bit of anxiety here and there.
Illustration has become part of who I am, it’s hard to picture my life without it. I absolutely love that I get to do it every day, and I feel grateful every day, but it didn’t come easy and I worked really hard to get to where I am. I know the journey ahead is long and winding, but it’s a great pleasure of mine to learn every day and grow as an illustrator with every project I take on.