Adrian Forrow started his career in visual arts much earlier than most. In middle school, he would decorate the binders of his classmates in exchange for snacks. Now, he creates whimsical art for brands and publications with international reach allowing him to buy his own snacks.
Adrian’s bold use of bright colours hits you like a fresh cup of coffee, ramping up your heart rate and revisiting a simpler time, back when Saturday morning cartoons were a thing. His work is playful and variously textured, yet it has a charming naivety to it.
An artist after our own heart, Adrian really isn’t afraid of experimentation. He’s not one to shy away from different mediums and tools, and can be often caught dabbling with ceramics, printmaking, or even whittling.
With an impressive resumé that spans across multiple industries, including advertising, fashion, and social media, we just had to explore the depths of his creative mind.
How did you get started in this business?
I was always drawing and painting even before school. My circle of friends knew that I was passionate about visual art. As my friends created music or others forms of art, we would often collaborate on album visuals, packaging, posters, skateboard graphics, etc.
I guess I was lucky that my friends needed art and we could help each other grow our passions and portfolios. I tried to never say no to a new creative opportunity. A new experience had value.
With the time, my circle of friends has grown and so has my experience with designing visual art for clients. I became the "go to" visual artist for hire. Even in my current career and after diverse client experiences, I still feel a connection to the way I initially established myself as a visual artist. Making pictures is still my thing, so I still find opportunities to collaborate with interesting people that are passionate about what they do.
In middle school, friends commissioned me to decorate their binders/notebooks and they paid me in snacks. Now I illustrate for clients all over the world and get paid to be creative. I just buy my own snacks now.
Looking back, would you do anything different?
Starting a career from scratch is tough. Looking back, there is one thing that I wish handled differently. Once I finished school, I had a bit of momentum with freelance clients and the projects that were coming in. I didn't fully trust my ability to be a full-time illustrator, so I took on several part-time jobs that I thought were necessary to pay the bills. The part-time work became more full-time and I had less time and energy to lean into the momentum that I had going on in my illustration work. If I could go back, I would trust my abilities more and invest my time and energy in myself, rather than other jobs outside of illustration.
What is your creative process like? Where do you start? What do you usually have on or around you?
My art practice is mixed. I like the diversity. I get bored quickly and love to experiment and explore.
I don't always have a clearly defined process and I try to allow room for accidents and mistakes to become authentic celebrations of creativity in my work.
My personal work is a bit all over the place. I've been dabbling with ceramics, printmaking, and recently started whittling. I'm always experimenting and exploring new mediums and tools. I find that my experiments with personal work tend to eventually trickle into my commercial work.
Carving out specific time for experimentation is sometimes challenging, but I find it extremely rewarding. The one thing that stays with me no matter what I’m exploring is a dedicated sketchbook practice. I always have at least one sketchbook on go at any given time. I'm not fussy about the type of paper or size, as long as it has a fairly decent spine for durability.
Most of my personal projects, experiments or commercial work start with a sketch in a sketchbook. I'm not a fan of tablets for sketching ideas initially. I don't like how easy it is to erase bad ideas or mistakes when using a tablet to sketch. Sometimes you realize that the mistakes are the best part of the image. In my sketchbook I never erase anything, I just move on to the next page. When I look back and review my sketches, I usually see interesting things that I initially missed. I'll often try to include these things in the finished work.
I do move the sketches to the computer at some point, but I find that starting with analog sketches makes me more comfortable and confident to progress the work to a final piece of art. I even sketch out my ceramics before I build them. I sketch out everything!
Pushing a pen or pencil around on paper suits me well. I'm a bit of a brute when I sketch, so I usually use ballpoint pens and HB Staedtler pencils. I also use a Pentel pocket brush pen, and a Lamy Safari fountain pen. It's nice to have these drawing tools around for a range of mark-making when I’m drawing.
What do you do to get out of a creative slump?
A creative slump can be such a bummer. Inviting experimentation into my practice has really helped me escape the creative blues. If I'm really stuck I try to take a break and shift focus. I'll ride my bike or try to learn a new skill if possible. Sometimes a camping trip can really help me reset. I try not to put too much pressure on myself to force creativity.
Once I'm engaged with an activity, I usually start to get ideas and begin to desire the creative stuff again. In the beginning of my career I was so afraid to step away for a bit. My view has obviously changed since then.
I find that it is also good practice to make work that isn't "successful" all the time. With social media, I feel that I have to be constantly producing and sharing to stay relevant. It's not always sustainable for me and that’s okay. I want to create work that allows for failure. I try to remove the pressure of constantly turning out content and focus on the images that bring me joy. That way, my creativity is able to be sustained and not reliant on mass output.
You have worked with some iconic brands and publications. What is the one project you're most proud of?
I've been fortunate to collaborate with some amazing people. I feel very fortunate for all the opportunities I've had. One of the stand out projects I recently worked on was for Loblaws, on their PC Express service. It was one of the biggest projects I've ever worked on. There was lots of freedom and the client was very collaborative. It was also a major foray into the advertising industry. I learned so much!
Loblaws is a national grocery store brand, probably one of Canada's biggest retailers. It was really exciting to see my work roll out in such a massive campaign. My illustrations were a major part of subway takeovers, here in Toronto. There were also billboards, motion assets and TV commercials and even some augmented reality stuff (first for me), for the campaign. I created close to 60 unique illustration assets for the campaign with a relatively short turnaround time.
I was proud of the work that I was able to create and also excited to see the images integrated in so many unique ways. Often times, you kill yourself to make the best work you can and it almost seems anticlimactic with the reach and impact it has. This project was definitely ground breaking for me, especially in regards to its visibility
What is one tool at your desk or workspace that you couldn’t live without?
I really couldn't live without my sketchbook. It's something I use on the daily. I see them as a free space to quickly jot ideas as they come. It also has the most overlap into all facets of my practice and interests.
I think I love ideas more than images, so the sketchbook is my place to capture ideas above all else. The work is usually raw and crude in these books. My sketching style is quick and loose, almost like a "shorthand" style of sketching that only I would be able to interpret.
Filling a sketchbook with good ideas makes me feel rich and powerful. I usually flip through old sketchbooks for ideas and use them in commercial work or personal projects. I've had a dedicated sketchbook for years. I take them with me on almost all my travels. I don't think I'll ever give it up. I just couldn’t function without it!
Where do you look for inspiration these days? Are there any artists, designers, or illustrators that you are loving at the moment?
I try to find inspiration in all aspects of life. Sometimes, the small things that are overlooked lend themselves to the greatest creative possibilities.
I'm most interested in tangible, off-screen inspiration. I love digging through old books and magazines at flea markets and antique shops. It's a bit challenging now that things are locked down, but the hunt for inspiration at these places comes with less anxiety than most online inspiration that I consume.
Illustration gets a bad reputation for fleeting trends, lookalikes, and bandwagoning. I try to be conscious of what is having an influence on me and seek out less illustrative influence. I love the work of Sean Lewis, Kellen Hatanaka, Tau Lewis, Markus Uran, Jim Mezei and Vanessa Maltese. I'm always excited to see the work that these individuals produce. So much talent!
As a university instructor, what advice do you always make sure to give to your students?
"Stay curious and take risks!" Curiosity has taken me to some great places in my career. I never want to stop learning or let cynicism mask my ignorance. That would be a terrible fate for creativity.
Risks are also important. I don't think you should jump off a cliff, but we often get stuck or complacent and our fears can limit our potential.
Curiosity and risk taking are relevant to all aspects of life for students, graduates and experienced artists alike. The habits and behaviours we establish in the beginning of our education/career can stay with us for a long time, especially if we aren't conscious or reflective of how we are growing.
Also remember to stretch and take regular breaks. A sore body and bad posture can mess with your productivity.
What does the future of design look like to you? What changes do you foresee in the near future that will affect your work?
I'm always trying to be a student of the illustration industry.
At the moment, I have a growing curiosity about copyright law and intellectual property. These topics seem to be coming up more and more as I take on larger clients and projects. It's something that I always struggle with and would love to build my confidence in. I'd also like to help others understand and use better terms that help protect and clarify one's creative practice. There is so much uncertainty with fair compensation and how to approach the legal side of copyright law in illustration, especially when starting out.
I'm also learning more and more about motion and have a growing desire to make my pictures move.
What's next for you?
I'm excited to continue to coach my illustration students and try to cultivate creativity in the illustration industry.
I've always been a bit reluctant to sell work online. I have a few personal projects on the works that I'd love to get to people via my own personal online store. I've sold print in the past, but I have some greater ambitions in regard to building a diverse online retail business.
Besides that, I'm always in the lookout for collaboration. Working alone as a freelance illustrator makes it difficult to feel like you’re part of a community. I'd love to continue to put my illustrations into new and exciting collaborations.
Personally, I'm motivated to stay active and pursue hobbies like camping and cycling as often as I can. The pandemic has been an interesting time to reflect on the things we may have taken for granted. I'm eager to spend time in nature, looking and learning about the things that are right under my nose.