Interview with Holly Heisey

We sat down recently with powerhouse creator Holly Heisey to talk about how they balance their various artistic pursuits, and their thoughts on freelancing, representation, and professionalism. Enjoy!


Dream Foundry: You're a creator who wears many, many different hats. Can you describe some of those hats for us?

Holly Heisey: Hats! So, honestly, as fashion statements and labels for creative pursuits, I’ve never been that good at wearing hats. 

I’m always trying to figure out what I want to be. Just one thing, like you’re supposed to do. But I have this driving need to make art and writing and music and at least ten different sub-interests for all the above. I want to do everything. All at once. All of it! I really want that instant-learning Matrix chair to be real. And possibly cloning. There are so many things to make!

I’m not sure I’ll ever face the reality that I can’t do everything I want to do in one lifetime, but I am trying to learn I don’t have to do it all at once. I try to limit how many projects I have on my plate at any given moment, but I always have my hands in at least a dozen front and back-burner projects and shift between them based on my current interest level, energy level, if my skills are up to what I want to do, and finances… in that order. 

My very first paying job was as a web designer, which led to work as an illustrator, which led to cover illustration and designs like I do today. Somewhere in there, I took a break and decided I would be a full-time fiction writer. I quickly decided I hated being a full-time writer when I also wanted to make art and music. And then I became an almost-full-time book cover designer because it was shiny and I got to illustrate glowing things and starships—and also got reliably paid, which is a nice bonus—but after a while I really wished I could spend more time on my own art projects and writing. I also have overlapping projects I want to work on, like comics and interactive fiction games. 

So my hats and interest in projects are always pulling me in different directions, and the challenge is to find some balance between them all. But I’m starting to think that the tension between my dual careers (and triple, if you add the distant third and mostly stalled career of making music) isn’t that I don’t have enough time to spend on each of them, but that I’m still looking at them as separate things. 

Like, I have a writing career, and I have an art career. Both are doing decently, sometimes one pulls ahead of the other, etc. But the reality is that they aren’t that separate. Things like when I illustrate my own stories or work on music I might use for an art tutorial video definitely shows the overlap. Sometimes I’ll make a project, like my ongoing passion project of making found-document-style alien poetry, and I’ll stand there for a long time thinking, “Okay, which career does this belong to? Art or writing?” I don’t want that tension. I don’t want to be just a writer, or an artist, or a musician, or any one of the above—I just want to be a creator that does all the above and lets it flow and overlap as needed.

So… hats. Yeah, I have a thing about hats!

DF: Do you feel a tension among your different creative pursuits? How do you choose what to work on at any given time?

HH: Definitely, and for a lot of the reasons I said above. Within specific projects, though, my biggest causes of tension are deadlines and money. Without those two things, I’d be pretty happily bouncing from project to project, adding a little more to each as the whim hit. That’s what I did when I was younger, before making my creative projects into careers. And, that’s what I’m searching for a way to get back to. That sort of world-innocent creative storm.

It’s hard balancing creativity—which is so dependent on what my soul wants to do and say—with outside influences, which are dependent on other factors and sometimes (often) take me farther from what I’m really longing to do at any given moment. 

I create because I have to, because if I don’t, it’s like a volcano building up inside me. It has to come out. But if I have, say, five projects on deck, I often end up choosing for any given day the one that can bring the most immediate income, or has the tightest deadline. 

Which is tough. I might desperately want to spend the next three days blazing through the end of writing my novel but have an art deadline I have to meet. Or, I might really want to finish making an epic space battle scene for a client, but I owe edits back for a story I sold. 

More often than not, writing takes a back seat for me to art, because art is what’s bringing 9/10 of my income. It can also be hard with the types of projects I’m working on. I might want to spend a solid month learning how to make better space art, but my next month of client projects are all character covers. I also deal with a chronic illness, which can wreck extra havoc with scheduling and then I get none of the projects on my plate done in the time I need to. All of the above can create a lot of angst, frustration, and strain, and over time, it starts sapping the joy out of making things if I’m not careful. 

I’m not saying freelance life isn’t worth it. It is so, so worth it. Everything I do (minus paperwork and, blah, taxes) is creative. I can set my own hours, shift schedules around, work in my pajamas, choose the projects I want to take on. And any one of these projects, given their own timing, I’d be jumping over. But falling out of balance—either with art and writing, or with doing too much client work and not enough of my own soul-work—can be so tempting and easy, justified by life stuff and expenses. More income in the present is worth little, though, if I burn out and my physical and mental health suffer, taking away my ability to do good work or work at all. Which has happened to me more than once, and it’s not a fun place to be. It’s a place that requires honesty of what I can and can’t do, and what my heart really wants to do, to get back to making meaningful creations again.

I’m working on that balance. Allowing myself more time to do personal work is a huge part of it. Learning to schedule less and know how to market spec projects like tutorials or illustrations that clients can license vs commission has helped.

I think somewhere in freelance work there needs to be a bit of mystical trust—kind of like the trust you put into creative work in the first place. It will, somehow, all work out. You give it your all. You pour your soul into it. And if it’s just not working, you adjust accordingly. 

Self-care is so important. And I’ve learned, especially dealing with a chronic illness that can greatly affect times of burnout and vice versa, that self-care might be the most important freelance skill you can have. You have to nurture your joy in creating your work above all else. 

DF: What are some ways one type of creative endeavor has informed and unexpectedly bolstered another?

HH: I study movies, TV, books, art, music, and comics I love obsessively. Sometimes from a story angle, sometimes from an art/composition angle, sometimes trying to pin an exact emotion so I can understand it. If anything has ended up making my creative pursuits overlap in crazy ways, it’s from this.

My study of cinematic visuals has led to dozens and dozens of movie still studies, which has led to getting a better grasp of cinematic techniques and framing in book covers. It’s also informed how I portray the descriptions of people and places in my writing, and my own internal visual sense of story. I have this weird sort of synesthesia when I’m writing that if I don’t like the “feel” of the colors and atmosphere I’m creating, the cinematic language in my head, I have to shift something. The characters, the mood, something. Once that cinematic language is playing in the right colors, then I can keep going. 

On the flip side, storytelling has greatly informed my art—as an illustrator, I’m always looking to tell a story. To catch a scene or character mid-motion. To convey a sense that there was a moment before this image and a moment after and letting the viewer fill in what those moments are. There’s almost always some sense of movement in my art, and I’m always trying to make that deeper.

And of course, in starting to move into comics and designing my own games and music, it’s basically all the above. Everything informs everything.

DF: You've engaged with issues of representation and professionalism on several fronts in your career. Are there common themes or shared issues across different areas you work in, or does each have its own issues?

HH: A common theme across all areas of creativity right now is the lack of portrayal of underrepresented groups—POC, LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, different religions, neurodiversity, different body types, etc. And I think some creative fronts are better with this than others, and in different ways. 

The literary world seems more on top of representing these groups than, say, Hollywood. Comics, even big-publisher mainstream comics, are also making a lot of strides, and webcomics are often subversively wonderful and way ahead of the game here.

The world of illustration and commercial art, though, is behind the curve. If you go on Artstation.com, which is the largest portfolio site for artists working in the gaming, movies/tv, and illustration industries, you will see a lot of gorgeous art. You’ll also see a lot of art that objectifies women, almost no art that portrays queer people, and even less that portrays disabilities. Body shapes are idealized. And while there is a lot of wonderful art featuring people of color, as artists on Artstation are from around the world, it’s still less proportioned to art featuring white characters.

 I think part of the problem is that a lot of this commercial art is done for and informed by Hollywood and the gaming industry, which in turn informs the visual language and design of our movies and games, and so the cycle repeats. The same is true for book covers. The people putting out the big projects are more likely to keep doing what’s always been done, which is—unintentionally or not—minimizing representation of minority groups. Because it’s worked before. This is even pretty rampant in indie publishing, where authors tailor their branding to what other successful authors are doing.

In the indie book industry especially, there’s a large issue going on with the lack of diverse resources for photo manipulation artists and designers. Many large image resource companies have actively discriminatory policies against portraying LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities, and don’t have many good poses portraying POC and diverse body types, but there’s a grassroots movement to make these diverse resources available. Several current and former cover designers—like Dean Samed with NeoStock, Regina Wamba with The Stock Alchemist, and Rebecca Frank with Bewitching Book Stock—are forming their own stock image companies and releasing diverse images as fast as they can shoot them, which is a wonderful thing to see.

DF: What are examples of multi-media or multi-format projects that have inspired or impressed you?

HH: The moment I decided I wanted to be an illustrator was when I picked up Tales of King Arthur illustrated by Rodney Matthews. All of the sudden, the world opened up, and I realized the pictures didn’t just have to be in my head or on the cover. There could be whole worlds inside the pages, too. I think, from that early introduction to mixing story and art, I’ve always intertwined the two.

Really good cinematic trailers are also a huge inspiration for me—the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok is almost perfect. I’ve been over it so many times. So much artistry goes into good trailers, in the leading of dramatic tension in such a short time, the colors, composition and mood, and the music which pulls it all together. Every moment has to be evoking or leading you to an emotional response.

I love pouring through concept art for movies and games. The beauty of the art, attention to practical details, and storytelling that goes into creating these images is astounding. Some concept artists have made incredibly detailed worlds around their art, like Noah Bradley’s Sin of Man project—which started with art and expanded to include stories as well. And the popular YouTube artist Ross Tran with his Nima project. I also love when writers like Brandon Sanderson incorporate worldbuilding in symbols, maps, and art into the books themselves, like in the Stormlight Archive series.

And I can’t forget comics! I have an obsessive love of comics. I especially love the art of Christian Ward in the recent Black Bolt series written by Saladin Ahmed—art informed story informed art. It was mesmerizing.

DF: If you had to share the most important lesson you've learned about craft in any format, what would it be? How does or doesn't it apply to other formats?

HH: I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen. To not be set in any one way, or rigid in my ideas, but to flow with where I’m going and listen to whatever I’m creating has to say. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I need time to step back and listen. And this applies to writing, art, music, life, all the above.

It’s okay, and sometimes necessary to step back. Or set a project aside. I often set aside stuck art to dive into writing or vice versa, or go binge watch something, take a walk, or read to get my mind off the problem…but honestly, it’s just clearing the mental space so I can listen. If I’m trying to bring everything I know to the table, or trying to follow certain rules or a sure formula for success, it just doesn’t work for me. If I trust that the work itself will always bring something new, that’s when I know I’m listening. And that’s when the really cool stuff happens.

DF: When you're developing a new skill, how do you approach it? How does your breadth of experience inform that approach? (Or, does it?)

HH: I’m always learning, and always reaching for something more, and always analyzing every creative thing I take in. For me, it’s compulsory. So when I’m watching a movie, I’m taking in everything. And if it was particularly good, I’ll spend hours or days in my head analyzing it afterward from every possible creative and emotional angle. Same with books, art, music, etc.

I don’t approach skill building in a traditional way. I’ve never been very good with standard courses—I basically designed my curriculum in high school around what I loved and schooled myself (I was homeschooled), and never felt the need to go to college. I honestly don’t think I would have done well in that kind of learning environment. I find something shiny, something I want to learn, and I find a way to learn it. And I become obsessed with it and can’t think about anything else. Whether it’s analyzing why something works, or trying to recreate something myself, or using tutorials on YouTube, or courses targeted to certain skills, it’s always a compulsion for me. If the learning isn’t fun, or I don’t have a driving need to reach a goal… I just won’t do it.

This is how I’ve been learning 3D software (which is REALLY intensive)—I do make myself sit down and do some courses in there, but they’re courses that I want to do so much that it hurts more not to. And I give myself the freedom to move around in what I’m learning, not just focus on one thing, or on linear learning, or on getting the basics. (The basics are usually boring.) I dive right in!

I definitely have some gaps in my skill set from this approach. But then, I have some really broad areas of knowledge, too. Like my study of all things cinematic that’s informed almost all areas of my creativity.

But, this is my approach to learning. I know my brain is uniquely wired. And the best thing I’ve ever done to help myself learn is to let myself learn the way that works best for me. When I push, I often end up hating whatever I wanted to learn. Nurturing your own learning style is really important.


How do you learn new skills and methods for your art? What's your experience when it comes to balancing different aspects of your work? Let us know on the forum post for this blog entry!