Modern Aquarian: Making Hand Lettering a Full-time Business
Ashley White is the amazing artist behind Modern Aquarian. She has done hand lettering, sign art, and has even designed tap handle labels for businesses all over Tucson (including Diablo Burger, Red's Smokehouse, Batch Cafe, Johnny Gibson's Downtown Market, Tucson Hop Shop, and more), as well as in other locations like Oakland, California and Scottsdale, Arizona.
The art of hand lettering is one thing and the art of making hand lettering a business is another! Ashley White gives us some advice on taking this artistry more professionally, what she feels about going into a different direction other than her Bachelors and Masters degrees, how her journey started and more!
When did you initially first start experimenting with hand lettering and sign art?
I’ve been doing lettering pretty much since I was in grade school. I would make elaborate notebook covers for all my classes. Do the words for the class in all these different fonts and make each letter a different symbol. I stopped once I got into college and started doing other things and picked it back up a few years ago when I was looking for another job. I saw a posting for a restaurant that needed a chalk menu. I hadn’t done any kind of lettering or commercial art in a long time but I needed a new job, so I just responded. I didn’t have a lettering portfolio but I had a drawing portfolio and he hired me! I biked over there everyday after work. It took me two weeks to get it done but I just loved it! So it got me interested in sign art, sign painting and hand lettering.
What do you love about it?
I love the combination of the art with the functionality of it. I never really had ambitions to be a fine artist because someone says, “Draw something!” and I’m like, “What do you want me to draw?...” I like the concept of someone giving me parameters to work in. For some reason that allows me to be even more creative. If someone just says, “Make art,” it can be anything. It’s almost a bit overwhelming. But if someone says, “Here’s the text that I need and the style, can you make me something cool?” That helps me be creative! I love doing the letters and then supplementing them with illustrations or doing them in different styles. It’s really fun!
At what point did you decide you wanted to turn this into a business?
When I got that first job! When I had that first commission to do that chalkboard menu, I didn’t know if I could make it a full-time position but I knew that I didn’t want to keep going in the field I was in so I thought I would get a job at a coffee shop or something just to supplement and see where it went. Or I thought I’d apply at Trader Joes as a sign artist there but I actually, from the beginning, had pretty much non-stop commissions of one kind or another. The demand is there. Economically, I have the demand and I’m one of the only people in town with the supply. So I’m still working out the formula to make it profitable or “livable” but commercial art is definitely where I want to stay as long as possible.
Why the name Modern Aquarian?
I was struggling to think of a name for my business and I didn’t want to do something punny that a lot of sign artists do because it’s just not my personality. I was also doing a lot of different kinds of art so a lot of menu artists’ names have to do with chalk or whatever and that doesn’t really quite capture everything… Because I was doing window painting, sign painting, menu art, portraits, making jewelry and I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to stop. I just wanted to think of a name that could be anything and Modern Aquarian just popped into my head in the shower one day. I think it comes from me being an Aquarius. An Aquarius is artsy and kind of eccentric and quirky but also, really focused on justice and humanitarianism. My whole philosophy with my business is to provide art that’s artistic and interesting, vibrant and eye-catching but also has this functionality to it. So when I’m doing a menu for you, it’s not just that it’ll look pretty but it will look functional for the customer because that’s the whole point - to sell your product! An Aquarian has that artistic and intellectual balance that I approach with the artwork that I do for people, whether it’s for their wedding or for their restaurant. I also try to offer a range of pricing because I can design as much or as little as you want to fit your budget. So that’s kind of the humanitarian quality. Then the Modern just comes from today! That’s just how I think about it. I’ve debated whether or not to keep the name but I can’t think of anything else so I’m just going to keep it.
And who was that first client (if you don't mind me asking) and what was that like?
Oh! It was for this restaurant that’s not open anymore called Social House (SOHO). It was back in 2013, so a couple managers back and they just needed a “specials” board where it’s like “Monday it’s this special and Tuesdays it’s this special” and then their beers on tap. I was just in my office looking on Craigslist for work. I actually wanted to get into nonprofit work, that’s where I thought I wanted to go but I just stumbled across this ad and thought it’d be a one time job. So yeah I would leave work at five and bike over (because I didn’t have a car) there everyday and leave until 8:30 or 9. Then bike home to Armory Park, which is why it took me two weeks! I was exhausted but it was really fun and the manager was super chill. I was using these really crappy markers that didn’t last at all and I drew a grid for every little inch and was really nervous trying to get it to be perfect (which is also why it took so long).
How have you evolved as an artist in your craft from when you first started to now?
I would say I’m much more confident in my ability to just free hand stuff. I’m definitely a perfectionist by nature so I’ve had to do a lot of work where I had to tell myself it’s okay that it’s not perfect. Perfect is not always the best because then it kind of looks like it’s printed or doesn’t have the same character as something that was freehanded. I’ve been trying to be more confident in my own artistic flow rather than planning everything out and measuring everything out. I mean I still measure everything to make sure it’s still nice and neat but when it’s hand done it’s more eye catching. Definitely been evolving in that way. Other than that, I’ve been more confident in offering my own suggestions for what would work and what wouldn’t. I’m trying to be more creative with clients and offer different ways they could do things because I think the basic chalkboard menu is going out of style. I’m trying to help my clients stay on the edge of what’s new as far as what weddings and restaurants look for to make them stand out but still be affordable.
Since you have worked with so many different kinds of clients and have worked with all sorts of canvases (like I saw you did tap handles once), what’s your favorite thing to work on and with what material?
Well the tap handles were really fun but that was also kind of scary. That was one of the first jobs that I had and they basically were looking for someone who made tap handles. I was asked if I could do that and I said, “Sure!” As soon as I got home I searched, “how to make a tap handle.” It’s actually not that hard, you just need the hardware (which you can order online) and then anything can be a handle, as long as you have the proper fitting. So I got to design logos for each of his cocktails and then paint that on a tap handle. It was this whole, big learning experience and now I know how to do it. It’s always fun when I get asked to make something I’ve never made before! I love any commission that’s referential to art nouveau or art deco or the ‘60s because those are my biggest design influences. Not necessarily influences but I love art nouveau style and I love old ‘60s and ‘70s band posters, which a lot are influenced by art nouveau. The work I did for Tucson Hop Shop is one of my favorites because they basically said, “This is what we want to say and we love Grateful Dead posters. Can you do something like that?” and I was like, “Heck yes!” I got to design this ‘60s art nouveau style, hop vines coming out and then I did an art nouveau style lady that’s holding a beer goblet because she’s like the beer god. I love jobs where I get to be clever with references but not replicative because that’s boring. As far as material, I don’t necessarily have a preference. I’m still working with paint to get more comfortable with the brush and using different types of paints. Markers are quicker and easier but they don’t last as long so they all have their pros and cons really. I still love doing portraits and drawings with pencil or color pencil! I don’t get commission to do those as often. I like them all and I like to switch in between them!
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in doing this line of work?
I would say definitely make sure you have some savings because I did not. You’re going to need to learn a lot with not just the materials and how to use the materials because there’s a lot of manufacturing involved. You’ll get requests like build boards and build wood signs and stuff. Try and not to offer clients something you can’t do without really researching it first. Practice! The other suggestion I would have is not to undervalue your work because I’ve made that mistake big time. It’s a learning curve because I always underestimate how long it’ll take me to do a project and how much it’s going to cost. There’s always this balance of not charging your client full price because you’re still learning something but also not selling yourself so short because that also undermines everyone else’s prices. Not only researching materials and technique but also the business aspect on how to be a commercial artist is really important!
I feel like that happens a lot, no matter what line of work it is but if you’re self-employed... making sure you’re not selling yourself short or undermining your work!
Right! And it’s hard with art. For one thing, nearly every job is different. With wedding signs, it’s an exception because a lot of the brides want the same thing. So that I know how long it’ll take me and how much the materials cost. I can be pretty confident with the price for that. With a menu for a restaurant, pretty much every restaurant wants something different. So it’s always a guess how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost. You get better at guessing but you’re still guessing. There’s that guessing on your end but there’s also the client's opinion of their preconception or perception of how long it’s going to take or how much it’s worth. I feel like a lot of people see art and think, “Oh, you just sit and draw it!” It’s a lot of planning. Luckily, a lot of people see the value but some people are surprised by how much goes into it.
Speaking on this, what are three of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your journey so far?
The first one would be what I just said because it’s a huge one! Not undervaluing or underestimating the cost of what I’m doing because when I’ve done that the business is not sustainable. If a client doesn’t have enough money to pay for what they want, I have to say no or offer another option because otherwise I can’t do the business. Figuring out the money, the price point, has definitely been the biggest challenge. Just having the confidence to back up my pricing, which is still really low by the way. I’m still figuring that out.
Second one would be just saying no to people. Turning down clients who don’t feel like they’ll be a good match. Just really trusting my intuition because when I first started I was very trusting of people and so I made the huge mistakes of not getting deposits or providing sketches before I got a payment for anything. I had some people take my art and have someone else paint it or love design but couldn’t afford it so I lost a lot of time and money that way. So just being really careful in who I’m taking on as a client and making sure that everything is legit as far as payments. Really just protecting myself to where I don’t do any work without a deposit. Free consultation but no work without a deposit. And make sure they’re invested in the project
The other lesson I’ve been learning or working on is being willing to let certain things go or realize certain things while I want to do them aren’t profitable or fitting into what I want to do right now. I have a lot of ideas for things that I want to make. I’m starting to make my own products and attend markets and setting up an Etsy shop this year. Last year I made the mistake of going around and buying all these supplies that were on sale and what not because I was going to make these things and then I didn’t have time to make them. Now I have a loaded studio full of supplies and have no time to make them because I spent all my money on these supplies that now I need to focus on commission to just pay bills and stuff. That’s where having the savings comes in! Just learning how to focus small at first and let it grow from there once you have your footing. Not to get completely overwhelmed with ideas. Things that don’t make sense for the wallet.
You went to school and got your masters in higher education. I feel like some people who have a degree are afraid to kind of let that go and move into a different career field, especially into the arts. Did you have that where you were hesitant about going a different direction?
Not really… If I were to say that I regret something, I regret not taking more art classes. I just didn’t know that this could be a career when I was in high school. When people told me I should go to art school or be an art major, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be a fine artist.” It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, I just don’t express myself through art the way you typically think of how a fine artist does. I thought, “What am I interested in?” I’m interested in people so I went into a Psychology major and I still am! I thought about going into criminal psychology or justice work. I’m interested in a lot of different things but as I was in school for psychology I realized as much as I’m interested in it, the thought of working in the field doesn’t appeal to me. Then I was involved in student organizations, planning events and leadership stuff in college so I thought I’d do that for a career! So that’s when I went to get my Masters. As I started working in that field I realized that as much as I’m interested in that and love working with students, the actual job aspect isn’t a good fit for me because it’s very structured and there’s a lot of money involved and politics and bureaucracy (just like in any large organization). I realized my personality wasn’t a good fit for it but because I had my whole job basically helping out students figure out what they love, I thought I’d listen to my own advice and just figure out how to do that for myself. It was difficult to leave because I was in a job where I was working with students directly on a daily basis and I had that kind of interaction and saw the results of my work when they would come back and tell me their successes. Going from that to being in a job where I’m by myself pretty much all day was a little bit of a challenge! I do miss the advisor aspect of it. It was part of my personal development being in college so I don’t have any regrets about going to school for Psychology. I learned so much about people and how to work with people. I can’t say I’d be in the same place without that.
It comes full circle!
Yeah exactly. The only thing I wish I would have done is practical art classes because I think that would have accelerated my learning different techniques and working with different materials and stuff like that.
What goals do you have for your business in this New Year?
I have lots of goals! Number one is to get out of credit card debt! That’s how I survived in college is through credit cards. Student loans is going to take a while! I did a big chunk of this last year so that was good! So just to be more financially stable. Right now I’m living off my deposits and I want to be on the flip side of that, living off my savings.
Then I want to open up my online shop and have my good base of inventory so I have that ready to go! I want to do more stuff that I make beforehand and then sell, just so I have more supplemental income coming in the background.
I’m doing the Spring Street Fair for the first time! I want to do that and maybe one more new market, maybe up in Phoenix. Expanding the retail aspect of my business and being more selective with the commission aspect of my business would be really nice.
Also, take weekends off!
Want some exclusive content from this interview? Sign up for the JRECOGNIZE newsletter!