Meet My Art Friend: Franco Zacha
On making art for intimate topics, plein air painting, and the future of illustration
Welcome to the third edition of Meet My Art Friend 🎨 You can expect a new interview with a fellow artist every month or so, right here in this newsletter.
Today we are joined by illustrator Franco Zacha based in Brooklyn, New York!
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Meet Franco Zacha
CYOO: How did you first discover illustration? Were you into other fields of art before that?
I discovered illustration in a precollege course at Ringling College in Sarasota, Florida. In college, I figured illustration was a fitting major because I liked to draw. Growing up I was always doing some sort of art thing. There were times I thought of pursuing architecture or design, but I ended up in illustration.
You’ve made illustrations for a wide range of clients from The New Yorker to the On Being Project. What sort of work or briefs do you enjoy doing the most?
The ones that have the most impact on me are dealing with a really intimate, sensitive topic, particularly in the way that we navigate the world. There was one assignment from The New York Times that wanted to encompass this idea of grief after reaching the one millionth death of COVID. It was a humbling assignment because the scope of something so big like that is daunting. But for me, it really put me in a mindset of being able to flow with that feeling, to wrap my head around it and try to illustrate it. As challenging as it is, it’s also cathartic to be able to do that.
You've shared a lot about your process and sketches. Would you say you have a standard process for ideating and making your pieces?
It's morphing a bit lately. I used to make around a hundred thumbnails very often, and when I was starting out and building a portfolio, that was very helpful. Now I’ve gotten to the point that I do so many thumbnails that it’s not really a worry.
Instead I'm trying to find new ways to interrupt my process. My brain works really well when there's a lot of chaos that I can then try to organize. Sometimes that’s creating a bunch of colors on a page or a canvas and then trying to find an image within that. I want to find new ways to get my brain excited to find new compositions and other fun elements.
Do you want more mystery in the process?
Yeah, I don't want to feel like I know exactly what I'm doing anymore. If I have to only draw with a pen, I can get very tight and I know exactly what I'm doing. But when I'm looking at a splotch of color, I can try to find some sort of composition in there that feels more organic. Right now I'm working on something where I created a bunch of colors in Photoshop and am using filters to blend them together and see if there are images I can find from those combinations.
Was there a particular moment or piece of yours where you felt that you were a “serious” illustrator?
I always point back to a book that I self-published in 2020 called The Library of Clouds. The book was a bunch of short stories that I wrote to accompany cloud paintings I had made.
At the time, I had just come out of an internship where I had been making a lot of illustrations on really tight deadlines. I was producing a lot without having time to think about what I was doing or why I was doing it. The book was a big moment for me because it was something that I had wanted to make since college for no primary reason other than it being fun. I worked on the book for six months, which was great because nobody was hiring at the time and I had nothing else to work on.
I also started to paint more while making this book. At the time I was mostly making pen drawings and coloring digitally, which was fun but I wasn’t resonating with it as much. After I finished the book I really started to lean more into painting as part of my process.
I know you enjoy plein air painting as well, and you were recently part of Giant Robot’s group exhibit Sitting Outside II. I'm curious how the practice of plein air informs your work.
It’s been very new. Only in the past few years have I jumped into the practice of painting outside. I’m realizing more and more lately how important it is to have a space where you can practice technically. I was always worried because I’m not the biggest technical drawer. I don’t do a ton of figure drawing or still lifes. I realized that plein air painting is a great space for me to train technically, to forget about concepts and just really look at color and light.
Plein air also has an aspect that’s very journalistic. You’re capturing a moment in time in which you have to be very present. It’s an old tradition that I like being a part of, knowing that I can carry it along and explore it in my own way.
You got your Bachelor's in fine arts and illustration at RISD. What did you learn during the program? Do you have any advice for people who didn't formally study illustration, and consider their lack of formal training to be a weakness?
The people you meet in the program make a big difference. That probably goes for grad school programs, or any workshops that one does as well. The people you are surrounded by will push you and influence you. The work that I made in college was a reflection of who was around me. And that's for good reason, because everybody was really talented and inspired me to keep going.
That being said, the more that I've been out of school I’ve realized that art school is not what’s important—whether it’s what school they went to or whether they went to school at all. The biggest thing is to have a really good art practice. If you sketch or paint every day, if you read books or watch videos, if you’re talking to other artists and going to gallery shows and such, those are what’s formative. I didn’t always take advantage of those situations even in art school.
I’ve met lots of illustrators [who didn’t go to art school] that I feel very humbled by and think are super talented. We all come from very different backgrounds, and that’s awesome because we benefit from these voices being in the art world. Schools or professors can unfortunately diminish your voice than amplify it.
You’re also an art director at Creature Conserve. What is it like wearing different hats for art direction versus illustration?
In working as an illustrator, there’s something inherently a bit selfish about making art and it’s a lot of time that you invest in yourself. That’s great and necessary. But with art direction, I’m really getting to explore the idea of establishing a greater platform—in this case, with wildlife conservation—where I can hire artists for opportunities and think about potential projects where I can bring people in. I may not be a good installation artist or be able to make films, but I know a lot of people that can. So it’s really cool to think about the impact I can have on projects the team is envisioning, and give other people a chance to join.
There’s also a lot of eye training that happens with art direction, and I’m able to visualize things more quickly. Everything I learn and practice with Creature Conserve, whether it has to do with designs or exploring different angles, I can come back and apply to illustration. I can step back from the drawing every day and indulge my cerebral brain.
I've always appreciated how frank you are about the challenges of being an illustrator. What worries you most about the industry going forward? What gives you hope?
As I keep working in the industry I feel very lucky about the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve gotten to work with. The work itself is very rewarding. But I think one of the things this past year I’ve started to note is being realistic about the scope of the industry itself. In other industries there are more traditional jobs that come with benefits and endorsement, such as a company wanting to hire you for it. I do envy that at times, but I think the nature of art making and the possibility of working with different clients by freelancing isn’t something I’d want to take away.
My biggest worry is about how much support illustrators are getting. When we’re working on projects, who can we reach out to and say, this isn’t working out? There’s no HR for freelance illustration, unfortunately. I was recently talking to my brother how sometimes it’s not a matter of how much you’re doing or trying, but it can be the nature of the industry itself. That can sound discouraging, but for me it takes the weight off thinking that I’m not doing enough.
As artists, we can feel that our work is self-indulgent and fun, and a lot of people tell us and try to convince us that it is not work. But the matter of fact is that it is a lot of work. It requires a lot of hours, sometimes more than a regular office job. So I feel relieved by the thought that in a lot of situations, the industry itself is not equipped to support the needs illustrators have.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of great client projects I work on are also underpaid. If we want to work with clients with inclusive, exciting, and visionary projects, it’s likely that those projects are also underfunded. Then illustrators are also underfunded by doing those jobs. It’s a sad cycle that highlights what we prioritize in society today.
But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. There is hope! There are more and more people interested in a freelance lifestyle. With that, I hope freelance jobs will be more normalized and desirable and that there will be a safety net for people to support themselves.
I get a lot of hope from folks who’ve been illustrators for a while and are finding ways to contribute to the community beyond making work. And the illustrators who are new and upcoming remind me of that itch that we all have to pursue this path. It lights a fire under me that we’ve got to keep trying to make illustration sustainable by demanding higher budgets and reasonable work accommodations.
How did you find confidence in your artwork? How much of that do you think requires validation from external sources versus your own self-worth?
The satisfaction I found from my own work bloomed the most when I hit rock bottom from other people's validation. There were a lot of times that I checked the boxes of awards, client recognition, or social media validation, but it still felt underwhelming. It made me retreat and reflect on why I wasn’t satisfied and I began thinking about what things truly excited me, what I wanted to make.
That’s when things became clearer. I realized it’s really a matter of noticing what I want to do, and getting back in touch with those things. Starting from the book I mentioned earlier to even today, thinking about the questions or images that excite me is always going to be my true north. The more I do that and put the awards and social media and clients aside, the more I am taking steps towards making work I really like and hopefully getting hired for those things.
On that note, what projects are you currently most excited about? Anything we can look forward to from you in the near future?
Right now I’m working on my first book cover! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s for a small publishing house with great books, mostly nonfiction. I really resonated with this project and I’m excited to find a way to conceptualize the work and give it the look it deserves.
Thank you so much to Franco for sharing his process & insights! You can see more of Franco’s work on Instagram or his website. If you have any additional questions or discussion fodder for Franco, please drop them in the comments.
Loved this interview! So insightful and honest. Thank you both :)
It's great to read what artists are thinking and feeling about work and art. Another great newsletter.