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Interview with Chandra Michaels, aka Sugarluxe

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Today I took the opportunity to interview Chandra Michaels, artist and illustrator based in Austin, US, who is also a successful entrepreneur and the creative force behind the Sugarluxe brand. This talented artist and designer has proven to be a successful businesswoman since starting her own company and creating a growing demand for her signature style. Her vector art is brilliant and has the perfect balance of color and line, which could easily be a inspiration for any aspiring vector artist.

Here she shares with us how she started her career, the challenges involved and how she overcame the obstacles along her path. She seems to be a perfect example of a fiercely independent lady, determined to follow her dreams and goals despite the overwhelming odds with her heart in the right place. She hopes that she will some day pave the way for more artists to make a living doing what they love.

1. Hi Chandra, give us a little background bio on yourself and where and how did you learn all this design craft?

I'm Chandra Michaels, but most people today know me by the name Sugarluxe. I am a self-taught artist and designer.

On a more formal note:  After undergrad I wanted to pursue a Masters in Cognitive Psychology and it's the time I spent in the Ed Psych department that first helped me to hone in on the power of imagery and its effect on your mind and mood.

Let me add, my parents are magnificently creative. My mother taught me so much just by getting to watch her work. She is the reason I learned how to make something out of nothing.  She's so inventive. My father illustrated patents (I used to sneak into his drafting desk and loved playing with all those tools) but he actually started his career as a linguist, specializing in Asian languages, particularly Korean. So, I believe I was destined to find a way to combine all of these wonderful influences into my work life.

2. How did you came up with such a sweet and aptly named studio, Sugarluxe, any special reason or story behind this name?

My husband and I had been best friends since college. We've known each other for a long time...and so for 10+ years he has always called me Sugar. It truly makes me smile every time I hear it.

In 2003 we got married. Two months before our wedding, I was laid off unexpectedly from my job as a Creative Director. It was my very last corporate gig ever! That's when I knew I would finally start my own business. At that time, I registered my business name, even though I didn't actually launch Sugarluxe until 2005.

Oh yes, and the luxe part comes from my freelance experience as a brand consultant and my background in cognitive psychology. Academic research suggests that their is a special acoustic symbolism attached to the sounds of the letter x and the letter k. Those letters are said to help reinforce brand recognition.

So, I'd like to think the word Sugarluxe is the perfect mix of love and linguistics.

3. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a commercial artist?

That's a great question Sonali, because really, I've never given much thought to what kind of artist I am. I'm simply compelled to create.

My fuel for life comes from the opportunity to make something out of nothing. That can manifest itself in a variety of ways. I love to paint, illustrate, and design. I work with base metals, lacquers, adhesives, pencils, acrylics, latex, a computer - whatever tools I have at my disposal. So, to fulfill this creative compulsion - it made sense for me to be a commercial artist, if by commercial, you mean to make money from my artwork.

The commercial aspect of what I do allows me the chance to keep doing what I love. And in all honesty, I need to be my own boss. I wanted to dictate what I put out into the marketplace - not the other way around. Sugarluxe art and accessories are now available in 1200+ stores around the world and managing that can be complicated. So I think I also like the creative challenges that come along with organically growing a business from scratch.

I hope more and more artists move away from the age old cliche that to monetize your art somehow debases it. The truth is...if you create something of value that people are attracted to, someone will always be ready to make money off it. My philosophy is that the artist should make the lion's share. Not corporations or galleries or agents. I'm for artists first, no matter what their medium.

4. How easy or difficult was it to start your own brand, the niche for your products.

I'm sure everyone here knows that ideas are always the easy part. It's the execution that's hard.

In 2003, my role as a Creative Director was eliminated again (this was my third layoff in three years from the same company). In fact, I learned so much back then about how to make do with very little, that it helped to prepare me for the hard economic times ahead.

That summer, I registered my business and trademarked my tagline too. That's also the year I got married. I was simply trying to come up with a way to quickly proliferate my artwork. I freelanced for two years and then I finally launched Sugarluxe in 2005. Those two years of freelancing during the day meant I was working every night like a mad-scientist trying to make my prototypes. I would never show anyone what I was working on. I'm sure I looked like I was making crack in my kitchen with those late nights torching, boiling, soldering, and pounding.

And I knew I had limited choices back then.  Buy 10,000 pieces of something overseas and hope to hell I could sell it all.  Or try Café Press and Zazzle, except those are not solutions for someone who wants to sell work to retailers.  So that meant I had to figure out how to make things myself – and fast.

I had a huge sense of urgency.  I completely dreaded the idea of going back to work for someone else. Creating my own products gave me the control I so deeply desired and creating my own website gave me the ability to make enough profit that I could continue funding my dream gig.  You can't do that if someone else is holding the reins.

5. What are the challenges involved in maintaining your brand?

I never wanted to be at the mercy of corporate downsizing again so success for me meant I would have to do more than create pretty pictures. I had to build a viable business, a brand name and a strategy to get that name out there.  And I had to do it all on a shamefully tiny budget.  That's where a DIY disposition comes in really handy.

As far as maintaining the brand – there are many challenges.  First, there wasn't such a sugar craving as I call it – when I first started. Since 2003, I've seen so many new female-centric names surface with sugar this, sweet that. Sometimes I feel it might have lost some of its unique flavor...but at the core, I still love it because for me it isn't a trend thing...it really has a personal meaning.

Another constant challenge that I face, and I know I'm not alone in this, is that with more visibility comes greater risk. For example, I was so excited when a big phone company asked for one of my pieces for their pre-loaded image.  So, that was pretty cool…my artwork, the main image on three million phones.  Except within a few months, a suspiciously similar image appeared on tons of fashion accessories and billboards half way around the world.

It's impossible to control what big firms and major retailers will do if they see something that sells.  This goes for designs, products, artwork, all of it. So, I feel like my livelihood depends on trying to stay ahead of the curve.

6. Walk us through the creation of a typical artwork. What software and tools do you use and how much of the time goes from initial inception of the idea to execution?

My process has certainly changed over the last few years as I had to learn how to balance the demands of a growing company with my constant desire to create new imagery.

The answer to striking that balance for me is Adobe Illustrator - my holy grail of artistic freedom. Illustrator is the application I use every day for almost everything I do. I attempt to communicate a visual message with the least amount of detail possible and Illustrator lends itself well to my work, stylistically.  Since what I create is often adapted onto a variety of products by other manufacturers, too...the scalability of vector work enables me to easily resize the art to meet the requirements of the products specs without losing the intended structure of the original image. So, from my work on vodka bottles to large scale giclees in home decor stores, hotel room installations to big vinyl wall graphics - it all starts and ends in Illustrator.

I do 3D conceptuals in Illustrator so that a factory can make the molds from my designs for our accessories. I create all of our print collateral and I do the package design in this program, too. But most importantly, all of my "Sugarluxe Girls" are happily vectorized, even if they were painted first.

I love to paint, I love to sketch.  But when it comes right down to it…my business has been built on the ability to render my ideas digitally without depending on anyone else to do it for me. Sometimes I will get something done in a day, but more times than not, now that my schedule is so booked up...it takes awhile before I get to take an idea from concept to completion. There are so many things floating around in my head that I just need to get out.

Bongspirit-Vodka

7. What are the projects in your career so far that you are proud of and which you think have contributed in your success?

The Sugarluxe Room (504) - Invited to do a room for the Hotel Des Arts in San Francisco is a definite career highlight. Shepard Fairey was scheduled at the same time…that was cool because I was able to spend some quality time with Shepard and his lovely wife, Amanda (whoa - talk about beauty and brains!)  So in addition to it being a fantastic experience…I made some super connections while working on this project.

The Sugarluxe Bong Spirit Vodka Bottle – Selected as the first (and only, so far) female artist for Bong Spirit Vodka.  I like to do things people don't expect. And I'm really into working with other entrepreneurs who have a like-minded approach to business and art.  Plus, no doubt - it's a sexy brand and it tastes terrific, too!

Sugarluxe in the Home of Miley Cyrus – yeah, yeah...I know, so poppy.  But hey, when her family was buying a new house in Hollywood last summer and Miley decided she wanted to hang a Sugarluxe piece in her room, who am I to argue with the world's richest girl? Suddenly, interior designers around the nation were calling me to do private commissions for their clients whose daughters wanted the Miley Cyrus Artist. It's crazy!  And I've done a number of celebrity things before, but we should never underestimate the power of teen idols.

Sugarluxe in Z Gallerie Stores Nationwide – Less than two years after launching Sugarluxe, I signed a deal to have my art (on canvas) not accessories, in one of the hippest, eclectic home décor stores in the states. And since I work digitally too, I could scale any image and reproduce it quickly – which is key when negotiating a big deal like that.

So, there are several other biggies for me, but anyway...I think the most important message I can impart is this: People often believe that getting great opportunities can make your career.  I think that's true…as long as you know how to make the absolute most out of every opportunity you're given.  That's the secret.

How do you get great opportunities?  Well, that's what I work on every single day.

Z Gallerie

8. I see that you have a fabulous blog and a great reader turnout. When did you get into blogging? Has it improved the promotion of your artwork? If so, how?

Thank you Sonali.  I take that as a huge compliment.  I love your blog and I love Vectortuts+, which has been so helpful to a self-taught artist like me. I wish I was better at keeping up with my blog (shameless plug – sugarluxeblog.com) and posting more.  It's definitely difficult to tend to everything that requires my attention.

I get a lot of questions on MySpace and through email asking for help. So, I thought I would provide a place for some business tips combined with ways to keep up with my collectors and customers.  You get a little of both there and I think the buyers of my work appreciate getting to see some of the behind the scenes advice - even when it's directed toward aspiring artists and designers.

My only regret about the blog is that I didn't start it years ago when I launched the main website.  It's a slow build, but so worth it.

9. What activities and hobbies do you enjoy when you're not on the computer designing or painting?

I love music.  My husband is a musician...that's how we met.  He was on stage and I thought he was amazing.  I love to watch him play. And since its SXSW week here in Austin (where I live), there is never a shortage of things to see and do.  This is a perfect city for creative, artsy types.  It's very liberal and laid back.

But honestly, in my spare time, I am compelled to draw...and I love to read. 

10. What is your favorite and least favorite thing about being in the art and design industry?

My favorite thing would probably be that my work gives me the opportunity to meet people all over the world and I get to travel to great places because of it.  I may not have a style that resonates with everyone, but for those that do connect; they become lifelong friends and wonderful sources of inspiration.

My least favorite part about my chosen field is it's under-valued. I'm concerned about crowdsourcing and endless user-generated content capitalized on by corporations – big and small - who dangle carrots in front of hopeful creatives. I was fortunate that I was able to establish myself before the onset of many of the crowdsourcing sites, so I'm not worried from a personal standpoint (or maybe I should be…ask me in another three years).

I realize this is a point of contention with people. I do see both sides.  It's just that I'm always going to be for the little guy (or girl)…and not big companies.  It bothers me that the majority of the money that is made off of most artists/designers goes to corporations and not the creators.

I'm interested to see how these seemingly technological advances impact the industry. I wonder if it might exploit the endless pool of new, eager talent.  And if so, that's not a way to enhance the perceived value of creative resources.

11. Talking about vectors and Illustrator would you like to share with us any of your favorite Illustrator tips, tricks or techniques?

My secret tip I've never shared before is more about digital illustrating in general.

Years ago when I got my first tablet, someone saw it at my desk and literally said, "If I had a magic pen, I could do what you do too." I laughed.  Does a paintbrush make you a master painter?  Does a compass make you an expert architect?  No!  So, why are some people so dismissive of digital art?

When I was freelancing, the best way I could help clients understand my fees (which some might have considered hefty) was to bring my tablet and pen to every pitch meeting.  I would open Illustrator and then invite everyone to try their hand at drawing on the tablet.  Guess what?  If they couldn't draw in real life, the magic pen did not turn them into an illustrating wizard.  In fact, 100% of the time, they said it was harder than drawing on paper.

Suddenly, every one in the room had a deeper appreciation of the skills I brought to the table. They enjoyed the interaction. I gave a visual and tactile understanding of my value and they remembered me more than anyone else pitching.

I have never worked on spec and I won the bid every time, even though my rate was typically higher than anyone else.  A pitch is about making a sale.  And selling is about educating.  And education starts with not being put off by what people don't know – it's helping them to understand what they didn't realize they need to know in the first place.

12. I see you print your illustrations in a variety of mediums. What are the do's and don'ts and the technicalities that you keep in mind while creating your digital vector arts which you plan to print?

I have an artist's attitude about staying true to my voice; I've been fully dedicated to defining my style.  However, I also work as a designer in that I am not so married to my art, that I can't tweak a color or remove an element if requested by a client.

That's why Pantone Colors play an important role in my process.  I'm looking two years out right now.  By the time one of my pieces has enough traction and provability in the marketplace (with early adopters) the palette is then on target with big box retailers right when they are ready to buy. That's partly how I landed the Bed, Bath and Beyond deal last year.

Many of my pieces from years before were perfectly matched to all of the bedding products rolling out for their upcoming Back to Campus campaign.  I was sent swatches from DKNY, Nautica, Roxy, and a few other big lines and it just worked beautifully for everyone involved. Plus, every single piece has my signature on the front.  I was doing 14" by 14" gallery wrapped canvases and I put my signature on each one as clear and big as I could without being absurd...so not only did I license the work, but it was like I was getting paid to advertise.

I can't tell you how many people tell me I can't do something because it's not the way it's been done.  My point is to say "why not?" to everything.  I will politely overstep the bounds at every opportunity.

13. Where does the inspiration comes from?

Inspiration comes mostly from my relationships. I married a musician so music can definitely enhance my flow. But the women in my world are probably the biggest influencing factors. That's why I say my work is a personification of certain characteristics. I don't paint portraits, I don't try to simulate an exact likeness...I really just try to interpret and capture the remarkable personalities of the amazing people in my life.

14. Describe your work in three words

Sexy, confident, and optimistic.

15. Thanks Chandra for joining us here on Vectortuts! Would you like to give any advice or tip to artists and designers who are trying to be successful in this growing field or work?

Protect your juice. You can't fully protect what you produce so it's critical to protect your juice!

If you've lasted more than a year in this business, you're bound to have been lied to, cheated, not paid, swindled, copied, and ripped off.  It's the nature of any industry flush with resources.

But if you let that stop you, get you down, or you dwell on those negative aspects...it will drain you of your creative juiciness and that's such a waste to watch a talented artist get sucked dry.  You have to learn how to detect the vampires because they are everywhere.

We are not just great creative people, we are creators of great possibility and that's why it's worth protecting.  Perhaps that sounds hopelessly optimistic, but I believe it.

Chandra Michaels on Web:

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