Frances Alvarez works as a graphic designer at Studio Dialogo. In 2015 she interned at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. Frances is also a member of the Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK), an organization of illustrators for children, and is the recipient of the National Children’s Book Award for Hating Kapatid, written by Raissa Falgui, and published by Adarna House.
One of Frances Alvarez’s recent books includes Karapat Dapat, which is a book and an advocacy about the rights of a child, produced by Ang INK and Canvas PH. For every copy purchased of Karapat Dapat, two copies will be donated on your behalf.
Frances’ latest picture book is An Eagle’s Feather, written by Minfong Ho and published by the Cornell Lab Publishing Group. This book also supports a particular advocacy, and the proceeds for every purchase goes to help the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao, as well as their conservation efforts.
When she’s not working on her art, Frances also enjoys reading, embroidery, watching food shows, diving into the study of plants and animals, and also travelling (whenever the opportunity affords it).
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?
I grew up with a love for reading, looking and listening to things. I think I’ve always been inclined to trying to make things related to whatever I was interested in at the time, whether it’s drawing or music or crafts. I went on to study graphic design in college. The internet was starting to be more accessible at that time, and I found out about all the local graphic designers like Electrolychee, Inksurge, and Team Manila. It was so inspiring! Sabi ko, wow may gumagawa pala nito! Gusto ko rin! [I told myself, wow there are people actually making stuff like this! I want to do the same!] Haha. Now, I’ve been working as a designer for the past 8 years.
I consider it a privilege that I can turn one of my interests into something I can live off of, and for me it’s a big deal that I get to decide to do this everyday. There wasn’t really a moment or a specific part in my life when I realized I wanted to be in the creative field. Hanggang ngayon [Until now], I still ask myself if I still want to do what I do now haha. Yes pa rin naman ang sagot so far [My answer is still “Yes” so far].
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
Praning ako [I’m paranoid] about the future! And if I can really sustain what I do as long as I want to. This is a combination of my struggle to be as good and skilled as I want to be + enjoying the process + earning enough so I can support myself and help my family as well.
I get overwhelmed and sometimes it takes such a big effort to calm down. I get frustrated with my skills sometimes because I know I’m still not good enough to pull off all the things I can visualize in my head. I am mostly self-taught and there’s this pressure to become good as fast as possible because my livelihood depends on my skills.
I also work best when I take my time, pero shempre hindi lahat ng projects mahaba ang timeline [but, of course, not all projects have a lengthy timeline]. I’m learning to maximize what I can do now, and cut myself some slack at the same time. Remind myself to have fun.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
I always remind myself to take a step back and take things one day at a time. Iniisip ko [I always think], ok, I will try my best to get through this day first, make the best efforts for the things I need to work on today, tapos bukas ko na problemahin yung ibang bagay [and then I’ll worry about all the other things tomorrow].
Last year was exceptionally hard for me mentally that I had to finally go see a doctor, and that’s when I learned I had anxiety problems and mild depression. It’s helpful to give your monsters a name para alam mo kung sinong kalaban mo [so that you know who you’re struggling against]. I’ve been learning to work around my mental health issues since then.
I’m thankful to have friends who are always willing to listen when I need to talk about my struggles etc. I’m used to dealing with my struggles by myself so asking for help from others is always an important step for me.
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
Joining Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan! It really helped me draw better and also become smarter, and then basically turn my hobby into something I could do for a living. We didn’t have any drawing or illustration classes in college, so all of my illustration and drawing skills were learned after school, thru workshops, the internet, and friends’ advice.
Hanggang ngayon tuloy pa rin. Hindi naman natatapos yung practice at pag-explore kasi nag-iiba rin yung gusto kong feel at look ng gawa ko. [Until now, the learning continues. Dedicating time to practice and explore never really ends because even my moods, interests, and the look of my work are all constantly changing.]
Being part of a community with similar interests is very helpful. I’m happy to have friends I can talk to about art, ask about techniques and feedback, deal with frustrations together, generally just be excited about what we do.
Yung process kasi ng illustration, very solitary. Ikaw lang mag-isa nagddrowing, so napakalaking bagay para sa ‘kin yung community at saka may iba kang kabatuhan ng ideas. [Because the process involved in illustration is very solitary. You draw alone. And so being part of a community and tossing around ideas has been a very big deal for me.]
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I wish I learned more about the admin part of creative work before I got into it. If you’re on the production side of creative work and if you’re going to live off of it, it’s super important to learn how the business side of things. Taxes, organizing your work, dealing with clients, handling money and budgets. Sa umpisa [At the start], and especially if you’re working alone, ikaw lang lahat mag-aasikaso niyan [you’re the only one who will take care of those things] for yourself. They don’t teach you that in art school.
Another thing I wish I had learned to get rid of earlier is the belief that your self-worth is equated to your work. When your hobby becomes work, may tendency na maging chore siya pag napagod ka na [there’s a tendency for it to be a chore when you’re exhausted]. It can become a source of stress kasi may pressure to succeed. It’s good for the mind to see that there are a lot of things you can’t control even when you do a good job.
May value din sa failure, maraming natututunan pagkatapos. Doon mo din ma-realize kung ano yung mga gusto mo talagang gawin at yung ayaw mo. Malaking unkindness sa sarili isipin na kailangang maging successful parati.[There’s also value in failure, there’s a lot to learn afterwards. It’s there that you finally realize what the things are that you really want to do, and those things that you don’t. It’s a huge unkindness to yourself to think that you always have to be successful.]
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making your art?
In the context of everything that’s been happening around lately, I recognize that it’s from a point of privilege that I’m able to do what I do now, so I really strive to make the most out of it and do my best.
Ang daming mas importante at mas urgent na bagay ngayon, kaya minsan iniisip ko talaga, gusto ko maganda yung quality ng gawa ko kasi gumagamit siya ng precious space at resources sa mundo.[There are a lot of more important and more urgent things these days, that’s why I really tend to think that I want to create good quality work, because they use up a lot of precious space and resources in this world.]
On a more personal level, I feel fulfilled when I see how my work affects other people, especially the children’s books. The fields I work in, illustration man or graphic design, they’re mean to communicate to other people, so I find fulfillment when my work does its job. Once upon a time, ako rin yung nasa position na looking at other people’s work and getting inspired, being moved, being urged to think. Ngayon, masaya ako na maging nasa other end naman, ako na yung gumagawa nun for others. Challenging, pero masaya.
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
On weekdays I am at the office 10-7PM, and then I draw bit by bit every night after work.
Challenge talaga maging productive pa rin pagka-uwi galing sa office kasi pagod ka na tapos traffic pa pauwi. Natuto akong gumawa kahit hindi inspired. Minsan kailangan din yun eh, kasi kung hihintayin mo pa na maging perfect ang working conditions bago ka gumawa, ano nalang yung oras na matitira diba?[It’s really a challenge to be productive after you get home from work because you’re exhausted after going through the traffic during the commute. I learned to create without having to be inspired. Sometimes you need that, because if you’re just going to wait until working conditions are perfect before you work, then how much time would really be left?]
One or two hours of working on a project every day can go far. On weekends, I work if I have to, but if I don’t have deadlines, I try to spend as much time away from the desk so I can live a balanced life! Haha.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
It depends, sometimes the distractions are good because they force you to take a step back from your work and breathe a bit. Kilala ko sarili ko [I know myself]. I can go on working everyday and just start projects one after the other if no one or nothing intervenes haha.
As I mentioned earlier, having a support group really helps with the challenges. For me, it’s important I have people to turn to when I’m stuck in a rut or when I’m not so sure about how my work is going. Minsan din sila yung magpapaalala sa ‘yo na magpahinga naman, or magbibigay ng ibang perspective. [Sometimes they’re the ones who’ll remind you to take a break, or give you a different perspective.]
Minsan challenge din ung mas tangible things like high cost of materials saka pagproduce ng works, saka pagtaas ng pamasahe para makapunta or maka-participate sa selling events, sa mga exhibit. Parte din ng process yung mga yun kahit hindi directly related sa actual drawing.[Sometimes the challenge involves the more tangible things like high cost of materials, and the production of the work, and the rise of passenger fees to travel to and participate in selling events at exhibits. Those things are still part of the process even if they aren’t directly related to the actual drawing.]
The community is there but the reality is that it also costs some money and time to become really involved in it. It’s also a big privilege to be able to work on personal projects, or have the time to experiment, because that means you don’t have to spend that same time and effort earning money for very urgent needs.
There was a time na may lumapit sa ‘kin na studyante sa isang event, nag-usap kami tungkol sa zines. Nag-usap kami tungkol sa charm ng zines, sa accessibility ng format, pero sabi niya, malaking challenge daw sa kanya yung production kaysa sa concept kasi mahal daw gumawa ng zines kahit na photocopy lang.[There was a time where a student approached me at an event, and we talked about zines. We talked about the charm of zines, the accessibility of the format, but that person said that the production was a big challenge compared to the conception because it costs money to create zines, even if they’re just photocopies.]
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
Pahinga. Madaling sabihin, mahirap gawin! [Rest. Easy to say, hard to do!] I feel uninspired mostly when I’m tired with what I’ve been working on. I do something completely unrelated, preferably outdoors and far from the desk. Para siyang [It’s like a] reset button. But most of the time, I don’t have to motivate myself to get back to work. May deadlines kasi haha so the deadlines are motivation enough!
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
In terms of life events, it would have to be my internship with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They get three interns per year from applicants all over the world. In 2015, I spent 5 months in Ithaca, New York working on a picture book with their Multimedia department, in partnership with the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao.
Minsan hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala na nangyari siya [There were times where I still can’t believe it happened]. It was not planned at all, and I got in. It was my first time to apply to an internship abroad and my first time to work in a completely new environment with different kinds of people, from scientists to filmmakers to fellow illustrators.
I’ve also never lived on my own before that so that was a first also! First time bumukod, sa kabilang panig pa ng mundo [leave the nest, and it had to be on the other side of the world]. Ang daming [There were a lot of] challenges leading up to it. I had to sell some works and prints para maka-ipon and makapagbayad ng [to save for and pay for] visa fees etc.
Worth it naman, at malayo naman ang narating ng output from the internship. [It was worth it, and the output from the internship had a far and wider reach.] We were supposed to produce just one giant book for the teachers of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, but the Lab eventually decided to publish a smaller version of the book available to everyone from around the world.
Isa pang win ay yung first time na may nakuha akong email from a client who showed me pegs from my own portfolio. Naging malaking success indicator yun sakin. [Another win is the first time I got an email from a client who showed me pegs from my own portfolio. That became a huge success indicator for me.] It meant people were paying attention to my work specifically, and that they want what I do, hindi yung magpapagaya sila ng gawa ng iba [and not that they wanted me to copy someone else’s work].
Pakiramdam ko wow, I did something right! Masaya akong malinaw na rin para sa iba yung gusto kong voice and feel ng gawa ko. [I felt that, “Wow, I did something right!” I was also happy that the kind of voice and feel I had for my work was clear.]
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
Working waaaay too much and not getting enough exercise. Hanggang ngayon [Until now], I’m still trying to teach myself how to say to “No” to projects or space them out so I can spend more time with family and friends, and not lose so much sleep. Ang daling magpuyat pag mas bata ka pa [It’s easy to shortchange sleep when you’re younger], but I just turned 30 at nararamdaman ko na yung [and I can already feel the] monsters creeping in haha.
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
Make good work, share it with others, and try to be a good and responsible member of society.
Number one pa rin ang gumawa ng [would still be to create] earnest, high-quality work. Self-promo and online marketing help with spreading the word, but above everything, your work has to speak for itself. That’s what people are going to remember your for.
Keeping an organized and easy-to-use online portfolio is also important. If you want people to hire you for what you do, you have to let them know what you can offer first. Social media is just secondary for me. I still get all of my client work from my website. Parang fun bonus na lang yung makapag-post sa [I consider it just a fun bonus to be able to post on] social media, and it helps get your name around if you use it wisely.
Trying to be nice to others is underrated and really does go a long way. I try to be the kind of person I myself would want to hire if I were in the client’s position. Word of mouth and referrals help a lot, too. People generally remember you when they see how good the quality of your work is AND when you’ve been pleasant to work with. On a different note, being nice to your peers also makes for a good local community. In the same way that I’ve learned from other people, I try to share what I know to others as well.
Lastly, be yourself (unless you are a bad person…), and don’t forget to have fun. You are your best endorser, and your self-promotion can only go as far as your own level of enthusiasm about your work.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
I honestly don’t know! Yet! I want to make the most of my opportunities and skills at the moment, and try to sustain what I do as long as I can. In the next years, I would want to have improved my skills, maybe share a studio space with friends, go back to school? But those are just long-term goals, not the end game. Ayoko pang isipin yung end game, natural naman yun na darating. [I don’t want to think about the end game yet, since it will naturally come anyway.]
The ultimate dream has always been to do something I enjoy for a long time while keeping myself alive and helping others in the process. Will that always involve art and drawing? Who knows, hehe.
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
I get inspiration from the old and the new. Things I already know: facts, opinions, memories. And new things, people, and places that make me wonder, make me curious, and let me ask questions.
Kaya importante sa akin na may sketchbook or journal–online or offline–na mapag-imbakan ng ideas. [That’s why it’s important for me to have a sketchbook or journal—online or offline—where I can dump ideas.] We can always go back there to check where we have been and what we love or dislike, find new ways of making things and new stories to tell.
Yung zine ko na [My zine] Ladies in Jeepneys, nabuo yung idea kasi araw-araw akong [the idea was formed because every single day I was] stuck in traffic sa Marcos Highway nung ginagawa ung [when they were building the] LRT.
Yung Hating Kapatid references, mostly based on items from my own childhood. Being a constant observer and collector gives me a steady supply of materials for future work. Kahit palagay ko hindi importante sa iba pero naging attractive or nagkaroon ng impact sa akin, nililista ko lang. [Even if I don’t think they’re important to others, if they were still attractive to me, or if they had some kind of impact on my past, I just listed them down.]
Q: What is your big “WHY”? Why do you feel the need to make art? Who are you doing it for? What’s the hidden reason behind your big dream?
I think a very big part of art is intuitive, whether you’re the maker or the viewer, so a lot of times it’s not so easy to articulate why we make art or why we like art. I’m a very visual person, and working with images only feels natural for me to use to express myself or to reach out to other people. It’s not as grandiose as a big dream, na parang tipong [that’s like some] jackpot sa lotto or something. For me, it’s something simple and organic that I deal with everyday.
I like illustration specifically because it’s like a combination of art and design. There’s a certain science to illustration in that it’s meant to do something specific, whether it’s to explain, conceal, make something clearer, or tell a story. I like being an illustrator because it’s like talking, but the language is made up of drawings or paintings.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
-Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly the short story “Light is Like Water”.
-The Wrong Place, Brecht Evens. His work inspired me to push myself to learn watercolor.
-Principles of Uncertainty, Maira Kalman. A very charming and heartwarming combination of pictures and words.
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills? (Feel free to plug in as many as you’d like)
-Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards
-Color and Light, James Gurney
-Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
-Show Your Work, Austin Kleon
-Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland
-Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong
-Ways of Seeing, John Berger
-Bumasa at Lumaya 1 and 2: A Sourcebook on Children’s Literature in the Philippines
-Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, Martin Salisbury
-The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines|
-Melag, Bong Redila. It’s an excellent local wordless graphic novel. If you want to understand how a book can tell stories without words, read this.
-Wanderlust, Joseph Cornell monograph
-In Progress, Jessica Hische
-History of Graphic Design, Phillip Meggs
-Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
Workshops: Fernando Sena’s art workshops. So helpful, saka hindi intimidating yung atmosphere [and the atmosphere isn’t intimidating]. You can learn anything from drawing to painting with oils, and you can enroll at whatever age you are. PAP’s printmaking workshops are also fun. My friend Iori Espiritu holds pottery workshops, too. Pottery is very therapeutic, and might help if you need to take a break but still want to make something with your hands.
Podcasts: Radiolab, Your Dreams My Nightmares (artists interviews by Sam Weber)
Blogs: Jessica Hische, Rebecca Green, Parka Blogs, Muddy Colors
Docu: Abstract on Netflix, outsider art documentaries, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Herb and Dorothy, Beauty is Embarrassing, Sign Painters
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
Palawan or Dumaguete! If I can only move my loved ones there so we can live a quiet life near the sea!
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
Right now, maybe Paula Scher or Louise Bourgeois.
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills?
(Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art has inspired you to get better, over the years.)
My friends from Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan, for sure. Most especially the ones that I’ve worked with at Studio Dialogo also: Abi Goy, Liza Flores, Rommel Joson, Jamie Bauza. They were the first group I’ve constantly been around during the first few years I was learning how to become an illustrator and designer, and I’ve learned so much from them regarding skills and technique, the business side of art and illustration, as well as life advice and how to be more mature about work! Haha.