Malika Favre is one of the most genuinely cool people I know. You’ve probably seen her illustrations on the cover of The New Yorker, in Vogue or the New York Times, among many other places.
I admire Malika because she doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do or how to define herself. She has always trusted her instincts and taken her own path, and it worked out pretty well for her. Below are a few pieces of wisdom Malika recently shared with me on The NTMY Show podcast. Read them, remember them, live by them. Or don’t. Malika’s not about to tell you what to do.
1. You have to know the rules to break them well
“For me, it was always important to know how to do things right so then you can deconstruct them,” Malika says.
Look at Picasso, who broke all the rules with his art. He created an entire movement with his abstract, disjointed style. But before that, even as a kid, he could draw anything with perfect proportions. He knew how to draw human features exactly right. And from there he completely deconstructed it.
Malika says this is the greatest tool for artists pursuing any style. You need to understand how something works so you can turn it on its head. You have to know how to do things right to effectively do them wrong.
“I’ve always liked beautiful things and perfection,” says Malika. “I couldn’t do what I do now if I didn’t learn how to draw technically really well.”
This is even something I learned pretty early on in my own career. When I just started out as a designer I shamelessly copied other designers. I never published any of that work of course, but what happened is that I got really good from a technical perspective. I learned how to properly design within grids, which ultimately led me to break them. And this is where the magic started.
2. You must constantly reinvent yourself
As an artist, you’re usually commissioned for work you’ve already done – not for work you’re going to do. So it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of creating the same old thing you always do, especially when people are throwing money at you.
“It’s already quite frustrating when you see people ripping you off, but the reality is that 90% of the time you’re ripping yourself off.”
Your reputation can suffer for it. Eventually, you and everyone else is bored with your work. You’ve become irrelevant.
“Sometimes I just say no based on the fact that I can feel in the email that the client wants exactly what I’ve done for their competitor or another client,” says Malika.
It’s a struggle, she explains, especially when you make your living as an artist. Sometimes you can’t afford to say no. That’s why Malika reinvents herself through her personal work, self-initiated projects.
“That’s the only time when you can do anything you want,” she says. And if your personal work is strong enough, it becomes part of your portfolio, and then clients want that. “So you always have to reinvent yourself, and it can be quite exhausting.” But it’s worth it.
“Money shouldn’t be what motivates you. Otherwise you’re destined to fail as an artist,” says Malika.
If money is what drives your art, you won’t get very far. You work needs to come from passion and curiosity and love and happiness or sometimes despair. Money doesn’t inspire, it’s just a perk.
Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand what money can do for you. Money is still important to keep the lights on, but it is rarely or I’d say never the reason why great art exists. If you hate to deal with money, you may do it like Malika. Get an agent.
4. Do yourself a favor and ask for what you want
At the beginning of her career, Malika had an internship at a studio called Airside. They didn’t have a full-time job for her then, so she ended up getting one somewhere else. But she still had Airside on her mind.
A year later, she bumped into someone she previously worked with there during her internship, and he said he was leaving his job at the studio to go freelance.
“The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Can I have your job?’” Malika says. “It just came out. And he looked at me and said, ‘Maybe?’ And the next day I had a call from the boss.”
Of course this was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time. But because Malika had already proven herself and felt confident she was qualified for the job, she forgot about being polite or professional and simply asked for what she wanted. It paid off.
Don’t assume or speculate. Don’t let other people guess. Always ask for what you want, it makes the world so much easier for you and those around you.
5. The way you start can ruin or make your first year of being an artist
“A couple of bad projects can kill you at the beginning,” explains Malika. “If you take on too much work, if you take on the wrong clients, if you produce the wrong kind of work, that’s what’s going to stay. That’s what people are going to perceive you as.”
When Malika decided she wanted to go freelance, she eased into it by taking on freelance projects and saving while she was still at her full-time job. Since she was at the beginning of her career at the time, she couldn’t necessarily afford to be picky with projects. But her savings created a cushion, meaning she didn’t have to freak out about the money side of things. She was free to turn down projects that didn’t align with where she wanted to go as an artist.
Malika is convinced that those decisions can make or break an artist’s future.
“If you work on a project and you’re already thinking about the next one and when that one is going to come in, it’s just not good. Nothing good is going to come out of it. You need to be focusing on what you’re doing right now.”