Ever considered a full-time or part-time career as a fine artist? Hear from Michael Auger of Auger Artwork Studios, who’s had a solid career as an illustrator, painter and graphic designer.
Photo above used with permission. © Copyright Michael Auger. All rights reserved.
From a very early age, Michael Auger filled his bedroom walls with drawings and created picture books using the back sides of his father’s government reports. In school, Auger quickly became known as the “class artist.” He contributed cartoons to his school’s newspaper, literary magazine and other various clubs designing posters, t-shirts and even an animated opening for the morning news broadcast.
He graduated both elementary and high school with medals of recognition for excellence in art. Outside of school, Michael took additional art classes from a private tutor, Marion Osher, and also illustrated and self-published a children’s book called Fish Tails that featured the collected poems of his sister, Jeanne Durso.
Michael attended the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio on a four-year merit scholarship and graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Afterwards he returned to Maryland, where he established his freelance graphic design and illustration business: Auger Artwork Studios.
Michael has been employed as an art teacher, graphic designer and an art director in addition to his freelance career, which has been his full-time profession since 2006. In addition, he also actively creates offbeat paintings which are exhibited at various events and galleries in the Washington, D.C., area, and are unapologetically bold, colorful and fun. They feature a wide assortment of whimsical characters that appeal to the young at heart and are guaranteed to provoke a smile.
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Michael!
Michael Auger: Thanks for having me, Colleen.
Colleen: I love how you drew on the backs of your father’s government reports. I bet he loved that.
Michael: Yeah, yeah, he did! Actually he’d bring back these big reports and we were just short on drawing paper, so I’d just flip them over, and I’d make my own storybook from the other side.
Colleen: That’s hilarious because we never had enough drawing paper in my house either, for me, because I drew all the time. So I used to use the back of old dot matrix paper that my father would bring home from work.
Michael: There you go. Same kind of deal. Yep.
Colleen: Yeah, with the green and white bars on it. That’s really old. You’ve made a successful career as a graphic designer, an illustrator, and painter. What do you do more of, and what do you enjoy doing more?
Michael: Well, actually it’s roughly split 50/50 between the traditional fine art paintings, and then the other half is creating custom illustration graphic design projects. It’s really hard to say which I enjoy most. If I didn’t do one, I’d miss the other. If I focused exclusively on one, it wouldn’t be as fulfilling. I definitely like the diversity.
Colleen: I’m kind of like that with print design and then web design. I like the techy and then I like the creative.
Colleen: And would you say that graphic design is more about the client, and then fine art is more about someone connecting with your work and your personal artistic style?
Michael: Absolutely, yeah. I’d agree with that.
Colleen: And I was born with a pencil and drawing tablet in my hand too. I used to draw faces and houses, but I could only draw realistically. I had no style. I could never do anything cartoony, or cool, or off beat, or anything like that. And I think that’s why I make a better graphic designer than illustrator.
Michael: Sure, sure.
Colleen: You’ve had a unique style, and you’ve had it for many years. And I remember your work from high school. I knew you went to an art college. How did art college affect that?
Michael: Well, going to an art school, I mean it definitely helped to develop my skill. I learned all about different color techniques, and various perspective and lighting, and how to draw better. It definitely influenced my style. But I think in some cases, to a certain regard, you have that innate individual uniqueness that all artists do. It’s just basically intensifying that and pushing it to the next level, is kind of what school did.
Colleen: It’s not gonna create a talent where there isn’t one, but it’s gonna enhance what you’ve got.
Michael: Exactly, exactly. I think that’s what education does, and there’s plenty of artists that have developed a style on their own without the schooling. Naïve style, and untaught, they call it “art brute.” There’s lots of labels for it. But, it’s really just putting in the hours. If you have talent, yes, sure, but the more that you devote to it, the better you’ll get. It’s kind of like the catch 22, are they born with it, or did they work to get there? If you love doing what you do, then you’re gonna put in the extra hours, so naturally your talent grows. People say, “You must be so lucky to be born with it.” You’re only born with so much. It’s the work that gets you the rest of the way.
Colleen: You said illustrators kind of have an inherent talent, but do you think illustrators have an inherent style? And is your style something that you can change? I mean, you said you could develop it, but could you change it? Or do you think that most illustrators and fine artists, they have this one style, and you can usually tell it’s their work? Have you ever seen any that have a bunch of different styles?
Michael: Right, yeah, I mean, I definitely agree that you can change your style. You can experiment and grow. But when the focus is on the expression of an idea rather than just copying someone else, I think that’s when an artist’s unique style is revealed. Yeah, every artist has the potential to provide the world with something as unique as they are. To a certain regard, that’s their style or talent, whatever you wanna call it. But it takes that devotion. You can be taught certain techniques, and change and experiment to develop your calling card, your look.
Colleen: Right. I’ll never forget when a guidance counselor at our high school told me that I had to take French, I had to learn French, because I wanted to study art in college. And all the artists were French is what she was saying. And I’m just like, okay, I was taking Spanish, and it’s so crazy because my favorite artists were Miró and Dalí, so I actually did add French, but I kept going with the Spanish. But I thought it was funny because she said you have to learn French because that’s what you’re gonna … You’re only gonna study French artists in college or something.
Michael: There’s so many other kinds of artists.
Colleen: Right, right. Absolutely. I’m wondering what artists inspired you?
Michael: Well, the artists that inspired me, there’s so many, Ronald Searle, who happened to live in France, but there’s Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, from Calvin and Hobbes, Tim Burton, Jim Henson. I mean, I think of these as all filtering into my subconscious. I filter it out, or not filter, but it filters in, and it comes out in my own unique way when I create something. But I’m definitely inspired by lots of different great and offbeat artists. There’s just so many.
Colleen: It’s almost like you have … That’s almost like your niche within a niche. The illustrations, and the paintings, but then your niche for the niche is your style, is your offbeat style.
Colleen: Do you think that’s helped your career in that sense?
Michael: Having a niche? Yeah, I think that it helps I think other people more than me to peg me as a certain type of artist. People like to classify. It makes things easier. So, certain people might think of me as a custom pet portrait maker, other people might think of me as a graphic designer or a custom illustrator. Of course, I do it all, but having those various categories helps people say, “Okay, when I need an album cover I’m gonna go to Michael Auger,” as opposed to thinking of … When you say you can do it all, people need something to hang on to. It’s almost too much overload. So categorizing yourself into different niches helps you connect with all those various different categories.
Colleen: Almost like you don’t wanna be seen as the jack of all trades, master of none. You wanna be remembered for something specific.
Michael: Exactly. That’s the danger. Especially with someone like me because I do do a lot of different things, but I don’t try to market myself that way, if that makes sense. I like to focus on solving individual problems. So I’ll, for example, my custom pet portraits, I have as—
Colleen: I love them.
Michael: Thank you. But I have a website domain that goes right to that page. So if you do custompetportraits.com, it goes right to that page, as opposed to all the other different things that I do. If you go to my main website, you’ll get to everything, but I’ll also have these little categories that help when I wanna focus in on the various niches that I’m trying to promote myself as.
Colleen: That’s brilliant. What is your typical creative process like? I think I read that you start with sketches and then if something really … if you really wanna develop it, then you’ll paint it. Can you kind of go into a little bit about your creative process?
Michael: Oh, sure. With my fine art, the paintings, my inspiration really is the subconscious, my dreams. So, I’ll start with—
Colleen: Like literally?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. When I close my eyes at night, what I see is those crazy cartoons that I—
Colleen: Oh my God! I wish I saw stuff like that. I’m waking up thinking about HTML code and deadlines.
Michael: I guess it all depends on what you focus on in the waking world. But yeah, I dream in vivid color. It’s this strange wonderland.
Michael: So when I wake up and I do stream-of-consciousness drawing, and I’m just drawing in a sketch book and letting my mind drift, and then the lucky doodles that I deem worthy become my paintings. That’s how the fine art goes.
Now, with my graphic design and custom illustration that I’m doing for clients, that’s a lot more structured because I’m usually solving a problem that they’re requesting. So that’s a different process, but for my fine art, it’s usually just anything goes.
Colleen: Right, that sounds cool. I’ll have nightmares about work, and you’re dreaming of really cool stuff.
Michael: Well, some of them can be kind of spooky, but yeah, most of the time it’s pretty fun.
Colleen: That’s neat. What tools do you start with? You get a start with a pencil? Do you do any charcoal work, or conté crayons? And then when you go to the computer, what do you do? Do you have a Wacom tablet?
Michael: I do, yeah. I definitely have a stylus and a very big tablet that I sketch on for my digital drawing. For the traditional, that usually just starts with a basic ballpoint pen, and I just doodle straight ink on paper, and it just comes from doodling out. But with the Wacom tablet, using computer programs, it’s basically the same thing, but I’ve got the power of undo. That’s always nice. Because I don’t do the pencil drawing, so I don’t erase or anything. But with computers, you can just go back a step. My digital drawings usually are a lot more polished than my sketch books are.
Colleen: Sure. Yeah, but the sketches have a really unique quality all their own too, you know.
Colleen: Yeah, I love looking sometimes at old sketches. But then I’m just like, I wish I could draw some more, but I feel like it’s been so long since I really sat down and done it, I just don’t know that I could.
Michael: Of course, you can. It’s just a matter of nothing to it but to do it.
Colleen: I do have all my art supplies though from back in college.
Michael: That’s good.
Colleen: The conté crayons, the charcoals, the Prismacolors. I love the Prismacolors. Those are the best.
Michael: Yep, yep.
Colleen: How do you decide, when you’re creating fine art, how do you decide what’s gonna sell? Do you take requests? Is there demand for certain things? I know you do a lot of animals.
Colleen: Creatures, and—
Michael: Well, I’m lucky in that I usually get away with doing whatever I want and because—
Colleen: That’s really nice.
Michael: It is. I’m very lucky that people like my work. So it’s not like I really have to cater to anyone, except for when I’m doing a custom piece. But that’s usually a pet portrait or something like that. Yeah usually it’s just whatever I feel like drawing that day. And then hopefully it sells later. Usually it does, yeah, so I’m just fortunate enough that my personality comes through in my work, and people seem to like that, and wanna connect with that, and show off their offbeat style by connecting with mine.
Colleen: That’s awesome. When you decide to price your work, what kind of things do you take into consideration?
Michael: Size usually with the fine art. With the digital stuff, with the graphic design and the illustration, it’s different. With that, it’s three things: how soon they need it, the complexity of the piece and the usage rights that they want. For most of the art work I create for clients, it’s for a specific use, like a magazine ad, or a t-shirt, book cover, something like that. Because buying the limited rights for a specific use is much less expensive than a full copyright transfer.
Michael: It grants the rights to do anything they want with it. I usually only provide full copyright transfers for things like a logo. Most of the time, they don’t need that kind of thing. It depends on those various factors, how fast they need it, how complex it is, and what rights they want. That helps me figure out a flat rate for those kind of projects.
But with my fine art, it’s usually just priced by the size. If it’s small, it’s this price, the bigger you get, the more expensive it is.
Colleen: And do you ever produce more than one of the same type of piece?
Michael: Sometimes. Very rarely though. I don’t like to repeat myself. When I do recreate a piece, I usually make it a different size, or use different color scheme. I try to make every piece one of kind. I’ve had limited prints made of some of my popular pieces to provide less expensive option for those on a budget. But yeah, I usually don’t like to repeat myself.
Colleen: And where do you sell your work besides on your website? Do you sell anything on Etsy or other online places?
Michael: I’ve joined a bunch of different sites, but I haven’t really done too much with them. It’s mostly my website, or through galleries, and events and cafes, and the real world.
Colleen: Do you ever put your designs on any products from like CafePress or Zazzle? Like mugs, and shirts and stuff like that to sell?
Michael: I mean again, I’ve done it, and I will do it if a person says, “Hey, I love this painting. I can’t afford the painting. Can you make me it into a t-shirt?” I’m happy to do that individually.
Colleen: Oh, cool.
Michael: But I usually don’t market myself that way. Again, I’ve got accounts with all those print on demands sites, but I don’t really actively use them.
Colleen: They don’t pay you enough either when you sell stuff.
Michael: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s the markup. You’re better off printing them on your own through a printer.
Michael: You’ll get more of a return on your investment if you do it that way. But on the flip side, it’s more of an investment because you’ve got a whole bunch of these things. Now you have to sell them. Yeah, I prefer sticking with the paintings. It’s a little more traditional, but, yeah, I’m always happy to oblige anybody that wants a t-shirt. I’m happy to make it for them.
Colleen: That’s cool. I mean, that’s a really great downsell. That’s a cool thing to have.
Colleen: You can’t afford the big painting, I can give you a t-shirt.
Michael: Sure, sure. I’m a problem solver.
Colleen: Okay, so you said you don’t do too much in terms of marketing, right? How are you promoting your work, outside of, you said you have some custom URLs that point to specific work.
Colleen: Do you ever approach any publishers and say, “Hey, I do illustration, and this is my style, and here is what I normally do.” Do you ever approach and publishers about doing things?
Michael: I should.
Michael: That’s a great idea. Yeah, no. Years ago, when I was first getting started I did a lot of that, and got a lot of rejection letters. And I built myself up over the years though, I should really give it another go, because I might have better luck this time. Yeah, truthfully, I keep pretty busy, so I haven’t felt the need to actively do things like that, but I really should. The website, I’ve had it since, a long time, the new century. It’s the beginning of the century. Wow! Yes, 2000, I’ve had my website. So a lot of people have found me and continue to find me through that, and then word of mouth is, of course, the best form of promotion. Past clients recommend you to other clients, and then there’s also the occasional interview, like today. All of this helps to promote, yeah.
Colleen: And how about social media? Do you promote your work on there as well?
Michael: Again, I’ve got a Facebook fan page, and an Instagram account, but I don’t use them as much as I should. I waste too much time on Facebook-
Colleen: Don’t we all?
Michael: But, yeah, I mean occasionally, I will promote my shows and stuff. So at least my small circle of friends will know when I’ll be out next. But I also have a mailing list, so Facebook is kind of redundant.
Colleen: You had a lot of solo exhibits and then group exhibits that you’ve been apart of. How does that work, and how do you get that opportunity to do that?
Michael: My group exhibits are usually juried. I apply to calls of entry for various shows, and when I’m selected I show my art work, and then that leads to connections and invitations to other exhibits.
Colleen: Oh, nice.
Michael: Yeah. The solo exhibits are usually invitations from gallery owners or invitations who have seen my work and contact me directly. That’s the best because it’s not—
Colleen: Yeah, that must be awesome.
Michael: Yeah, it’s definitely a high one when I get one of those invitations because there’s no all the leg work of applying, entry forms, and getting your CV ready and all that good stuff. You don’t have to do any of that because they already know you. They’re knocking on your door.
Michael: Solo shows are much nicer.
Colleen: Of all the efforts, what do you think gets you noticed the most? The word of mouth?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. I mean I wish I knew the ultimate secret or key that would get me noticed because I’d probably be a lot more famous.
Colleen: I’m still looking for it too.
Michael: Yeah, I just keep creating, doing my thing, shamelessly promoting myself. So, to all your listeners out there, please visit arty4ever.com. Just keep plugging, and that’s all you really can do. And hopefully more and more people will take a second look.
Colleen: Right. Earlier you mentioned copyright and licensing. I have some side projects. I have some animal-themed designs that I’ve done, years ago, and I need to update them and add more, and see what’s actually going on in my CafePress and Zazzle stores. See what’s been added to new items and … because they’ll just add them. And it doesn’t necessarily line up. So I have to go in there and check them, and I haven’t done that in a very long time—years actually.
Michael: Sure, sure.
Colleen: I have found people ripping off my images, and using them for their profile pictures on Facebook, and all over social media, and when I’ve contacted them and just politely asked them for a credit line to my, put a link to my stores, because I take all the … all my proceeds I donate to animal rescues and shelters—
Michael: That’s wonderful, that’s nice.
Colleen: All I’m asking for is, hey, give me a credit by giving me a link to my store.
Colleen: They’re using these profile pictures to promote animal rescue and awareness and stuff. So I’m like why don’t you do that? They get so nasty with me.
Colleen: It’s like people just think that if they find it in Google images then they can use it. I’m wondering have you every had any issues with people ripping off your images in situations like that?
Michael: I have. I hope that it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. Years ago, there was this one website that was selling my work they had swiped off. I sent a cease and desist letter to their internet provider, which had them take it down right away. But I would hope that these days most people know that you just can’t steal stuff without getting the original artist or photographer’s written permission.
But, yeah, I mean, the way … I try not to worry about it too much. I only post low-res images, and I always add a credit line on the image, embedded in the image so that they really have to think about it. If they’re gonna remove my credit line, they have to be aware of what they’re doing. They’re taking off the copyright warning, and using it incorrectly. It’s not like they can plead ignorance and say, “Oh, I didn’t know it was yours.”
I make it really easy to track me down. I’ve got my name and my website on every image. And most artists like you, me, most artists, are very happy to negotiate. We all just wanna make a living. I’m lucky to be—
Colleen: I don’t even want money, I just want a link to my store.
Michael: Just some recognition, right?
Michael: It is a problem, but I try to make it as easy for people to track me down as possible and just hope that they will do the right thing.
Colleen: Do you ever go so far as to actually update or add the metadata in your files, before you post them online?
Michael: Again, I should do that. Getting into the weeds, I usually don’t do it, to be honest, but I’ve got that blatant text right there on the bottom. I figure that’s probably more effective because it’s visual. They see it. They have to snip it out. It’s not this hidden thing that, “Oh I didn’t know that there was metadata on there.”
Michael: It’s like it’s right there.
Colleen: I’ve gotta know, have you ever thought about designing stock illustration sets with your little creatures and animals?
Michael: Yeah, I’m wary against stock. It turns me off, the whole idea of selling a bunch of this stuff for super cheap, and then getting these little tiny royalties on it. It just doesn’t make sense. I’d rather have somebody contact me to do a custom thing that’s just for them. Yeah, they’re gonna pay more, but it’s gonna be worth it because it’ll be exactly what they want it. And most of those clip art ones, I feel are not … can’t hold a candle to a true custom illustration by—
Colleen: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Yeah.
Michael: So why should I put my illustrations and up the quality level of those? I’d rather them be the bottom dwellers ones that can’t afford the real thing to settle for that. That should be settling. Clip art is not good.
Colleen: All right, great. Well, this has been really fun.
Colleen: I would love to tell the listeners where to find you.
Colleen: Your website.
Michael: Yeah, so it’s arty4ever.com is my main portal that gets you to everything. And then I’ve got a whole bunch more, but those are just for individual sub-pages. But yeah, arty4ever. That’s a-r-t-y the number 4, e-v-e-r.com.
Colleen: Thanks for being on the podcast.
Michael: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Colleen.