Matt Twombly’s Leap to Freelance Illustration

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Screen grab from http://www.matthewtwombly.com

KU Grad Matt Twombly posted on Facebook that he had left his job at National Geographic and begin freelancing in 2015. He was a stellar student and won the Don Breter Illustration award when he graduated in 2008. So, I was curious about his transition and sent him some questions.

1. What was your job title at National Geographic?

Matt Twombly:  Graphic Editor. The job was basically designing, researching, and illustrating graphics. One project might call for a data visualization of some kind, say a chart, diagram, or graph, and another might be better suited for an illustration. But I left that in December 2015.

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2. Why did you leave NG? Did the recent acquisition by Fox have anything to do with it?

In short, no. It was a hard decision leaving the Geographic. At times I felt like I was crazy and at other times a transition felt necessary. Basically, it came down to reasons outside my professional life. I wanted to buy a house and set up the foundation for starting a family. DC is great, but expensive. Plus, my wife was offered a position up here (PA) in her old school district, which got her out of teaching in DC public schools, something pretty much unsustainable for even the most dedicated. So we took advantage of that offer to move back to PA.

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Coincidentally, the merger with Fox and creation of what is now National Geographic Partners happened just as I was leaving, but it wasn’t a motivating factor for me. The magazine was facing some big changes and up against some big challenges, but nothing that the entire magazine publishing industry as a whole wasn’t already up against. With the merger, some good talent left, or was pushed out, but I was still thankful for the job I had. Not to mention the fact that the staff there, and the graphics team especially, was moving ahead and would keep doing some great work.

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Fantastic Beasts for Entertainment Weekly, 2106

3. What did you learn from freelancers at National Geographic?

The most important lesson I learned is what it’s like for the editor on the other side, – hiring freelancers. That was me for a time. A lot of editors find freelancers they like and keep going back to them again and again. Freelancers we worked with were known for their specialty, either a specific style or a specific subject matter: space art guy,  3D guy,  paleo art guy, etc.

Freelancers we used regularly had already established themselves in a particular specialty. But they we all very professional, never missed deadlines, always delivered and didn’t push back on feedback from us. If you get a chance to do a job, do it well and you’ll be asked again some day.

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4. How did I you get your first freelance job?

Well, some of my first freelance jobs came while still at the Geographic. Someone might see my work in the magazine. Or word of mouth. Mutual friends or colleagues might recommend me. In my case, the first big job, a poster for the Parks Service in Alaska, came from an ex-employee I had known from the Geographic who already had her own working relationship with NPS.

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Poster for National Parks Service, Alaska, Archaeology Month, 2016

Not much has changed in how I land jobs now. How I get jobs from National Geographic now probably goes without saying. They know me, know what I’m good at. But I’ve been able to work with some new clients in my first year freelancing. Most of them just by introducing my work to the appropriate editor/art director. Obviously, a lot of people know the Geographic’s work and some are already familiar with my work, so that gives me one advantage. Also, some people from the Geographic (or my first publication, Science) now work at other publications. So in most cases I’ve just sent email introductions. 

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5. How much time do you spend on self-promotion?

Probably not enough. It can be awkward reaching out, especially to total strangers. And it’s discouraging if you fail to get a response. While I was on staff at NGM, I’d occasionally get a mailer or mass email from illustrators hoping to get work. Most of the time, that didn’t have a big effect on my hiring an illustrator. Part of that is because NGM requires such niche work. But just as much because editors already had a trusted pool of freelancers to draw from. Breaking into that is tough. For that reason, as a freelancer I opt for personal email introductions with a link to my website.

These days most of my self promotion is through social media (Instagram and Twitter) and the occasional email self-promotion.

6. Did typography classes from Kutztown pay off?

Ha, I’m probably the wrong person to ask. At the very least, I think it’s important to have an appreciation for type and all of its crazy intricacies. KU classes were certainly my introduction to that.

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Mangrove, for World Wildlife Magazine © Matt Twombly

7. Any big ambitions or particular projects?

The biggest one is continuing with the professional relationships I’ve made this past year. Hopefully expanding that net wider to more publications. I’d also like to diversify my sources of income. What I mean is find other things besides illustration for publications to make money for myself. Whether that means making handmade goods, collaborating with other businesses, or even teaching in some capacity, I’m open to it all. One thing I’ve gotten into is making art prints to sell on Etsy or Society 6. It’s small potatoes now, but it’s fun and personally gratifying. I’d really like to turn that into something bigger!

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See more of Matt’s amazing work on his portfolio site: http://www.matthewtwombly.com  Follow him on Instagram, mjtwombly.  I am especially impressed by his comic-book style work, including animated illustrations. Check out a great one about looting in Syria. All images in this post © Matt Twombly.

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