For many of us, we create because we have things to say. We have opinions and stories inside us, and what we create allows us to share them. For Hallie Bateman, this is particularly true — left dissatisfied by using purely words, drawing has allowed Hallie to communicate her ideas in a new way, a way that reveals the essence of the idea so concisely. We chatted to the New York-based illustrator & writer about drawing as writing, overcoming doubt, and how she quit her first job.
Your newsletter, Pen Parade, is, I would say, an exploration of how our tools influence our work. Is the selection of the right tool — the perfect pen — an important part of your process?
It is and it isn’t — I try to embrace the idea of just making do with what you have. It’s so limiting to say “Oh, I need to have this certain pen or I can’t do it.” I’m like that with so many things — if I just had the right camera, if I just had the right paper. It’s an excuse. You work with what you have.
But at the same time, the freedom a particular tool can give you is really important. When I sit down to do a comic, sometimes I know exactly which pen I’m going to use, but sometimes I just uncomfortably try a lot of things until I find the right one.
In college, I took an art class as a requirement — I didn’t particularly love the class, but we were made to use nib pens and dip ink. Using that pen, I started to see my drawings so differently — it just made everything look beautiful. I was like “Now I have this pen, I can do anything.” It allowed me to see all these possibilities where there had been none before. Using new tools can take your work into totally different places — it can be really liberating.
Photo by Wesley Verhoeve.
How did you come to illustration — you majored in English at college, right?
Yeah, so my parents are both journalists — studying English felt like something I’d just be able to do. But I remember feeling so frustrated in my writing classes — I just didn’t feel able to get my ideas across. Discovering illustration was actually really instrumental to my writing: it was like a new vocabulary for me, one that I’d lacked before. Illustration, I think, is now just the means by which I write.
Certainly, the words are so integral to your work — would you consider yourself a writer who draws, then, or an illustrator who writes?
I’d say I’m a writer who draws. The drawing usually comes after the writing — it’s a way of balancing out the writing, almost. In most of my drawings, there isn’t much rendering, or detail — I try to keep it simple, so that it doesn’t have any more impact than the words. In a way, the drawings function similarly to the words: the simple lines make them almost another letter, another form.
To me, your work exudes happiness — a feeling that maybe, after all, things are pretty okay. Would you say that you’re happy?
I’m actually really relieved to hear you say that, because I’ve had people comment before that my work, to them, seemed motivated by darkness, or depression, which made me feel a little scared — that my work was being misunderstood. I would say that my work is primarily motivated by the idea of finding the positivity in something dark.
And yeah, I would say that I’m happy. Of course, I’ll have moments where I’m not. I think it’s important to acknowledge those too. Happiness is more potent when you’re living with awareness of the alternative.
So, speaking of that alternative: what keeps you up at night?
I think about this constantly. I’m kept up at night thinking about what keeps me up at night. It’s such a scary time — your body is trying to let go, but your mind just won’t shut up.
I’m often kept up by ideas for art projects — on certain nights, they don’t stop and I have to just go with it. Other times, what keeps me awake is just that frantic dashing between the fields of past & future in my mind.
Is there a point in your career that you particularly regret?
I’d say that I regret the way that I left my first job — as an art director at PandoDaily. I waited far too long after becoming unhappy to quit, and in the interim, my work suffered. I was just so terrified of quitting — I didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. I held on to the security of that job as I was figuring out what I wanted to do, and I do regret that.
If I were in that situation again today, now that I have more confidence & experience, I would act sooner on that feeling of dissatisfaction — that feeling that I needed things to change. You never want to be delivering anything less than your best work. My employers were so good to me in those last few months there, and I don’t feel like I responded in kind.
That said, finally making that jump felt so good. Like, I still feel good about it. It wasn’t an unpleasant parting or anything, but quitting that job makes me feel happy, like, every day.
What’s your definition of success? Do you feel successful?
I've recently redefined this for myself, actually. To me, now, success is simply having a good day. Waking up and being like “Yep, I wanna do the things I have to do today!” In the past, I’ve tried to define success in ways that have involved far-off goals, but it’s really liberating to just be able to go “What am I going to do today that will make the day enjoyable?” and have that be all the success you need.
What about long-term success? How do you want to be remembered?
I would just hope that the people I'm close to would remember me as being there for them. For not being a jerk. As far as my art goes, I don’t have that focus — when you’re making work for the internet, the things you’re making are so immaterial. You’re just putting ideas into the æther. I mean, I hope the things I make have a positive effect on the world, but who knows?
And in terms of making work for the internet — how different is that to working for print?
Earlier, I was talking about having the drawings feel like words, in their simplicity — I feel like that’s a style I developed specifically for the internet. When I first started publishing comics, I would try to incorporate scrolling into the work — have the images and the words work together in the way a column on the internet does. That approach doesn’t really transfer over to print.
I occasionally have the idea of making a book of my online work, but I worry that ultimately it’d be disappointing, because the work is so specifically created for an online format, especially in terms of pacing. Working on stuff for print is a totally different mindset — you have to think about the timing of a word as you turn a page, for example, which is very different to the timing of words as you sprinkle them through a column on the internet.
Finally: You’ve clearly had considerable successes in your career — What are the personality traits that you feel have contributed towards your success?
Having supportive friends & family — especially when you’re starting out, is a huge thing. Having people who encourage you, even when you objectively suck, is amazing, and I feel really lucky to have had that.
So in turn, I’m trying to be that for others. I try to encourage everyone around me in whatever their pursuit is. That can mean giving people feedback, or collaborating with people, or helping people get a gig — anything. I’m not a competitive person at all — I just don’t have that in me.
I think I’m very idealistic. I remember my sixth grade art teacher saying that anyone can be — and is — an artist, and I think I’ve maintained that attitude towards art. My enthusiasm for art just overcomes any failure, or doubt — things which are usually so inhibiting. Like, if somebody says to me that a drawing I did is awful, but I still had fun drawing it, then who cares? I’m having fun — you’re the one who isn’t happy in this situation.
I think that’s helped me a lot — even when my work was terrible, I was having enough fun to cancel out other people not liking it.