Tory, Freelance Illustrator and Gardener

When I first started up this blog, I knew I was going to need something to make it official — a logo or illustration to bring it all together. When that idea hit, I knew exactly who would be the perfect person to collaborate on it, my friend Tory.

Tory and I met at work, sitting next to one another at a San Francisco startup. We started and quit our jobs within a month of one another, each departing to follow some sort of adventurous inner calling. I left to travel the world, and Tory to pursue her dreams of illustration and gardening, not many months after returning from a three-month cross-country trek from Mexico to Mammoth Mountain in California along the Pacific Crest Trail. My departure was definitely inspired by Tory's adventures, so she was the perfect person to express the feeling I needed to capture to with this project.

Tory was known around the office as a free spirit. An artist/painter/BBQ'r/beer-lover/hiker/rock-climber, with big beautiful floral tattoos and rocking alternately dreadlocks and chic asymmetrical pixie cuts. She is always laughing and is always straightforward, and just can't stand spending her entire day indoors. Read more about her, and hire her for your next illustration needs:

If you had to explain your style of imagery to someone who has never seen it before, what would you say?

I would say it is very organic, almost doodles that are not really thought out beforehand very much. I just kind of go wherever it feels good on the page to let my hand wander. Sometimes I’ll think them out beforehand, but usually not.

It’s like the Ouiji Board of illustration!

Hahah, yeah! It’s very inspired by nature, by patterns found in nature. I’ll have sections of a page that are a honeycomb pattern or a feather or something like that. And it’s graphic, with heavy line work. There’s not a lot of variation in tone or color. It’s usually stark black and white and then I like to throw in splashes of color for contrast. It’s kind of similar to tattoo style, but very detailed. Probably a little bit more detailed than you can get into tattooing, for obvious reasons. 

So how did you get started illustrating? You were pretty young, right?

I was always interested in art, and was always doodling. When I was in third grade I had a really cool teacher who let us doodle on our desks during class. It was really fun, so it was kind of distracting because I would be more interested in the drawing I was making on my desk, than in the actual lesson that was being taught. So that was maybe why I didn’t get such good grades in third grade. 

Then as I grew up consistently art was what I wanted to keep doing. It was where I spent lunch hour in high school, in the art room — drawing. I wanted to keep doing it after school. I kept sketchbooks, and I would say I didn’t really consider doing it professionally at all until halfway through college.  And then freelancing in illustration has kind of just happened through desire and necessity and the fact that I quit my full-time job recently!

I wanted to talk about that! Because that’s the

best part of our shared story.

I would say quitting my job was the best decision I made in the last three years, haha. And you know, getting that job was probably the best decision I made in the last three years. I was 24 when I started working there.

We started and quit at the same time! It’s crazy pants.

Yes! The wheel of life, just keeps on turning in corporate America. So yeah, just sitting in an office all day wasn’t doing it for me, and I was finding that I was really stuck and apathetic to everything. And it really lights a fire under your ass to figure out what you really care about when you don’t have those paychecks coming in every couple of weeks, figure out how to make money with what you care about. It’s easy for me to sit down and do a drawing, I love it so much. It’s just finding people who need that, you know? So that’s how I professionally moved into illustration.

That’s what all designers do, we’re trying to make everything as balanced and beautiful as mother nature does.

With leaving your job and thinking what you want to do with your life, how does your outdoors/gardening/farming/connection to nature feature in that?

It also ties into the work, because it’s so informed by what I see every day in the garden. So when I quit my job, my other passion and interest apart from art and illustration is gardening and working with plants, learning about plants. I picked up a part time job gardening around SF three days a week, which is really interesting because I get to get very intimate with these plants, and these organic elements.

Haha, that sounds inappropriate.

Haha, I get very inappropriately intimate! And the way that they are structured always ties back into my drawings. You will see a beautiful pattern in a succulent or sunflower, and I’ll try and repeat it in my artwork. Sometimes I’ll find myself doodling a pattern in my artwork, and I don’t even make the conscious connection that I saw that pattern in the garden, until I see it in the garden again, and I’m like “oh, that’s where that came from. That’s so funny, I thought it was just sitting in my head.”

It’s legal appropriation. Instead of taking other people’s work, you’re stealing from mother nature. But she’s not going to slap you with a copyright lawsuit!

Exactly! And that’s what all designers do, we’re trying to make everything as balanced and beautiful as mother nature does. So that’s a really cool thing, and those two jobs really work beautifully in tandem. So I have my computer, creative, doodle, sketchbook time. Then I get to go out and be in the sun and stick my hands in the dirt, and prune roses. 

That interest in nature has always been an underlying theme in my life, pretty much since I was a kid. My dad took me backpacking when I was really young, and I always had a little garden patch in our house in Palo Alto. I would sit outside and play with fuchsia flowers instead of playing with dolls, it kind of is a natural extension of what I liked to play with as a kid. Both jobs are, doodling on desks and playing in the garden just turned into a beautiful synthesis of professional activity.

You just mentioned backpacking, so let’s talk about backpacking! You were away for four 

months? Can you talk a little bit about that.

I took a four month leave from my job, that I recently left, and with my boyfriend decided to backpack part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes to the border of Mexico in the States, to the border of Canada and the states — through California, Oregon and Washington. It’s about 2500 miles total, we didn’t hike 2500 miles, not even close. We ended up hiking about 750 miles from Mexico, it was pretty insane. 

So we started in Mexico at the border, then we hiked through the desert, pretty much for a month. And then we got to the Sierras and we slowed down a lot in the Sierras. We spent another month just in the high Sierras, which was just amazing. I mean, beautiful. We stopped at Mammoth Mountain, which is on the eastern side of the Sierras, where the resort is. Really, really beautiful. It’s so crazy. The western side of the Sierras is so gradual, starting miles away, these foothills into small mountains, and then finally the big mountains. And then the eastern part of the sierras is just BAM, valley. It’s just Sierras, then sea level. Oh my god, that’s very dramatic. That was a really cool experience, and I would say that adventure paved the way for me to eventually leave my full-time job.

And it really lights a fire under your ass to figure out what you really care about when you don’t have those paychecks coming in every couple of weeks, figure out how to make money with what you care about.

Those were pretty close, and when you got back (at our job together) we could kind of tell. You weren't really feeling this whole indoors thing anymore!

It was a hard transition coming back from that, just having the freedom to manage your day-to-day existence and really paring down your existence to the very very essentials. Food, water, shelter, clothing, warmth, keeping cool, and taking one more step even when you are so tired and your feet are so blistered. And finding ways to pass the time. Like singing, and playing 21 questions until you know everything about the other person. Or i-spy, or anything like that. And then going back into an office environment, where even if it’s a cool one, like the people that I worked with were amazing. 

But you know, it was hard and I think working in that environment five days a week isn’t an actual thing for human beings. And I couldn’t see myself doing that for that for too much longer. So it kind of became an essential move for me to get out of office work full time, and move into something else. And also find agency over my own work again. Find that inspiration that had gone by the wayside while I was raking in the dough, over three years. 

And also I just think having agency over your day is such a gift. If you can work and have agency over your day, and make your own hours — try to do it. It’s fabulous.

I want to talk a little bit about your process, that’s part of what we collaborated on. You do a lot of hand-done, physical steps before you transition digitally. Is that how you do all projects?

If it’s a personal project and I have a blank piece of paper and no specific idea of where I want to go with it, I’ll just take a pen to paper and see what happens. A lot of time I’ll just start with one mark, and then build on that eventually it turns into a whole piece. Sometimes the organic components will remind me of something else. A vague shape, and then I’ll turn it into that vague shape. The process really informs the final outcome. 

With commissioned work, where I have a specific idea of the outcome, where I know what I want the piece to look like in the end, then I always start with a sketch. Just pencil and paper. 

I prefer mechanical pencils, and no one else likes mechanical pencils, but I just love them. I think they're so great. They’re as detailed as I want to get them, and they’re cheap.

So I just use mechanical pencils, and then I’ll do usually a basic composition of an entire page, I’ll just sketch that out. And then from there, move onto the more detail work. And that always changes the eventual outcome, too. So once I get into the pencil detail work, often times the original composition sketch will start changing too just depending on what fits where, and where the piece is going. 

And then I ink it with Micron pens, and from there I will scan it in really high res, and then depending on how detailed, or if it’s a little bit on the simpler side, I will vectorize it and work with it in Illustrator after that. If it’s really detailed, or if has some sort of color changes, if it has kind of a watercolor effect that I want to keep, I’ll work with it in Photoshop. 

Once it’s digitized, the changes go a lot faster. I get the structure or skeleton of the piece done on paper, analog style, and everything else gets filled out digitally. Usually the final piece is a digital file or a print of a digital file, or a screen print, woodblock print, paper cut. 

SEE MORE OF TORY'S WORK HERE: WWW.TORYVANWEY.COM (AND DON'T MISS HER RECENTLY OPENED SHOP)