Have you ever wondered what's behind the scenes of your favorite artist's business and in their minds? I am fascinated by learning from other people's experience, so I started the smArt Talk interview series to pick the brains of these smart artists and women.
Today I am happy to introduce you to Erin Silliman of Erin Silliman Designs. She's got a distinctly simple yet beautiful style. She also has a clean aesthetic and color palette that makes her patterns and work simultaneously fun and restful. She also has a ton of practical knowledge, a quiet wisdom that I admire, and is so supportive.
Without further ado, here's Erin.
Can you tell us about your background and how you first became interested in design?
Creativity has always been a big part of my life. I can’t think of a “start” or a “first,” it’s just always been there. And I have always had an appreciation for pretty things and smart design. Growing up, my mom let us make messes, use her old paintbrushes, experiment in the kitchen, make projects on her sewing machine, bang on the piano all day … she just gave us freedom to explore. I’m an introvert and expressing myself through art has always felt natural to me. I earned a BFA in Illustration and started a family not long after graduating. I immersed myself in being a wife and mom, but could never completely quit art. When my four kids were younger, I would paint and quilt in my “spare time.” I picked up freelance work where I could - portraits in oil, logos and flyers for small businesses, T-shirt designs, and I still enjoy occasional freelance work. For about 7 years I enjoyed being involved as an educator teaching weekly after school art classes for kids, and occasional paint nights for ladies’ and young adult groups. Now, with all my kids in school, I have felt the pull to make my art my regular, part time work. Currently, I am concentrating almost solely in surface pattern design and have loved creating repeat artwork for textiles, wallpaper, greeting cards, and more.
Tell me about your art practice–what got you started, what tools or techniques do you use, what makes your work special?
It has just been in recent years that I discovered surface pattern design, and it has become my favorite creative work. It combines my love for art and design, the freedom of drawing and the technical knowledge to make a successful repeat. Surface design is an art form with the momentum to drive creativity forward. I see that when my designs were featured on a family owned ice cream truck, or when my designs are printed as wrapping paper for a thoughtful gift, or when wallpaper I designed becomes inspiration in making a house a home. It is so rewarding to see my creative work woven into the next person’s creative work. When creating patterns, I typically begin either with a prompt or inspiration from my own life and I develop an idea. Then I sketch, either on paper or directly onto my iPad using the Procreate app. I turn my drawings into finished motifs and a repeat in Adobe Illustrator on my Mac desktop. I like to combine elements of playfulness and fun with polish and sophistication. My aim is make art and designs that uplift and add beauty to our everyday experiences.
What tool or art supply can you not live without?
The tool I couldn’t live without is a pencil. That’s where it all starts. And if you have nothing else, you still have something to record your thoughts, sketch out ideas, or even create a beautiful drawing with. What’s your favorite quote?
"Creativity takes courage" - Matisse
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome in your surface design career to date?
One of the biggest challenges in my surface design career has been getting my work licensed. For many creatives, including myself, it isn’t easy to successfully self-promote, and the business end of being an independent artist can be overwhelming. Over my portfolio building and pitching experience, I have had some great opportunities. I was offered and accepted a design position working remotely for a small gift wrap company using my surface pattern skills and did that for several months, and I have sold my designs on pod sites and seen my art on products. But licensing feels elusive at times. It has taken time, courage, and surely some luck, but I have now had my pattern work both purchased outright and licensed. And that feels awesome.
How do you balance your design work with building a brand? I have taken on freelance work and design jobs at times. It is hard to balance that with building a cohesive portfolio and reputation as a surface designer. Especially when working in limited chunks of time. I will always put my family first, and all the life events that come with them. My business as an independent artist is also really important to me. Making art makes me feel like me. One thing I do pretty consistently that helps me with balance is writing down tasks. It is simple, and I am a list maker and a visual person. Ordering my thoughts and tasks on paper and checking them off as I go is super helpful and satisfying. I aim to complete 2 bite sized art business related tasks and 2 home centered tasks during each day while my kids are in school. My “brand” continues to develop slowly over time, and that seems to suit me. When you see a pattern you love–what is it about the pattern that attracts you?
I am drawn to patterns by shape and by color. My favorite patterns to look at use clever repeats, have pleasing movement whether geometric or organic, and use beautiful colors with an unexpected twist. I have an appreciation for all types of patterns, but I see color first, then shapes.
What pattern or piece of work are you most proud of?
I can’t think of one pattern or piece that stands out in particular. But the most special to me are the ones that are inspired by people I love. I am currently working on a mini collection inspired by my oldest daughter. Her middle name means chrysanthemum in Japanese, so I am trying to create beautiful florals that I can be proud of and that she will love. Finish this sentence: Wouldn’t it be cool if...
Wouldn’t it be cool if my designs made someone’s day a little brighter? That is always my goal. Create to bring joy, beauty, and inspiration. What could be cooler?
What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your work?
I have learned that creativity is in each of us, that uplifting others makes us happier, and that learning doesn’t ever end.
Doesn't that last answer just ring true to you? It does for me.
Thank you so much, Erin, for sharing with us! You can find more of Erin's work here: