A self portrait by Francis Vallejo featured on the cover of The Find magazine
“The key to life is new experiences, and when you feel those butterflies in your stomach, it usually means you’re about to do something good!”
Francis Valejo has worked in many different styles, from caricatures to comics and ink drawings to oil paintings. However, no matter which project he’s working on, some things remain constant – his desire to constantly improve, his dedication to art, and his enduring love of hip hop.
He can still vividly recall the day when he decided he wanted to become an artist. Aged five, and sitting in his uncle’s basement in his home town of Detroit, he answered the immortal ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ question with one simple sentence: ‘I’m gonna be a comic book artist!’
From then, young Francis’ mind was made up. Nothing else mattered. He spent his school lessons drawing in the margins of his notebooks (when he probably should have been listening to the teachers!) and was once put into detention for his creative passion after drawing the fabulously irreverent South Park characters for his friends!
It wasn’t all bad news, though. One teacher, Mr Bines, saw the potential in Francis and encouraged to work towards his dream, while his guitar-playing pops was also happy to support him in whatever he wanted to do.
How Hip Hop Changed Francis Vallejo’s Life And Art
He also discovered the music that would become the soundtrack to his life. Growing up on the famous 8 mile, hip hop not only opened his ears to new sounds, it also gave him the confidence to follow his heart and become an artist. His dad had bought him a boombox and, although Francis’ first CD was the unlikely choice of British anarchic rabble-rousers, Chumbawamba, his ears were opened to music that challenged the Status Quo. The rebellious nature of hip hop was therefore a perfect match!
There was just one thing standing between Francis and his art, though. During school, Francis had developed another love besides art – basketball. He was faced with a difficult choice in his senior year at school – should he pursue his dream of becoming an artist or become a Power Forward instead?
Thankfully, basketball’s loss was the art world’s gain, because Francis chose to follow his heart and took every single creative class he could, dropping all the other subjects which might distract him from doing this.
It was a huge gamble, but it eventually paid off. After being rejected by local art schools (his work was mainly based on comic book characters and he still needed to work on his composition), he got a lucky break more than 1,000 miles away.
Why Art School Isn’t Always The Best Option
When the catalog for Ringling College of Art & Design dropped through his door, Francis didn’t need much convincing. “It had a picture of a pretty girl standing next to a palm tree. As a young man from the gray skies of Detroit, Michigan, how could I refuse?” he laughs.
He had a great time at art school and, in George Pratt, met the artist who would later become his mentor and studio partner.
“George had started off drawing comic books and made the transition to painting,” explains Francis. “He was heavily into blues music, and the way this music inspired his work really resonated with me. We always used to say that we wanted our work to somehow look like the music we loved!”
Although Ringling gave him a lot, Francis says the expense of going to art school is a real issue. “Although art school was great, I’d find it difficult to recommend it because it’s so expensive,” he explains. “I left art school with a debt of $140,000 and, with so many great alternatives such as online learning now available, I’d urge young artists to consider it very carefully before going down this path.”
Francis on Going Freelance
Rather than going to work in a studio, Francis made the decision to go freelance shortly after leaving art school. It’s not been an easy journey, but Francis wouldn’t have had it any other way. “The struggle and the hustle has been crazy,” he says, “but I’ve always been attracted to the romantic notion of the artistic struggle!”
Along the way, he’s worked on all kinds of projects including comic books and T-shirts, and has also built up a great reputation for teaching others while based in Austin, Texas.
He’s now in the middle of a 15 month project for a children’s picture book and is enjoying getting back into painting after concentrating on his drawing and draughtsmanship. Norman Rockwell has always been a huge influence on his work, as has his long-term friend and mentor, George Pratt.
His love of hip hop remains, and Francis will often put together mixes of his favorite artists (such as Kanye West and The Roots) to listen to while he works. In fact, it’s his passion for this music that’s behind his next big move – relocating from Detroit to Los Angeles.
“I know the clients I want to work with – people with clothing labels, music producers and everything related to hip hop,” he explains, “and, for me, LA is the place to find these clients. The key to life is new experiences, and when you feel those butterflies in your stomach, it usually means you’re about to do something good!”
Listen to this week’s show and learn:
- Why going to art school isn’t always the answer
- How music can help make you a better artist
- Why taking risks and having new experiences are scary, but awesome!
People on this Episode:
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