Whatever the screen held, Jerrod Maruyama drew. From Kermit and the gang to a cat who hated Mondays to a gaggle of droids, they were all fair game for the bright-eyed youth who just took to drawing as a sort of hobby. That is until a redheaded mermaid swam in and became a part of his world in the late ‘80s. “That changed everything for me. I knew I wanted to be a part of this type of storytelling. That’s when I decided to pursue a career in the visual arts.”
And that’s where we pick up with this freelance illustrator who definitely visualized and made his goals a reality. From art school to working with some of the biggest companies in the world, this is Jerrod Maruyama.
Kendra: One of the oldest stereotypes about art school graduates is that they won’t work in art but you’re far from that. However, were you ever worried that your degree would lead you far from where you wanted to be?
Jerrod Maruyama: I knew what I wanted to do – what I wanted to draw for a living- but never had a clear image of what that actual job was. This was in the time before the internet – which makes me sound incredibly old. But it was truly a different time then. Information was difficult to come by. You really had to pursue and explore and apply and ask questions by mail. Other than animation, I didn’t know what else was out there for a character artist. My education was a very traditional Illustration program and some animation. I was just worried about finding a job and less concerned about being fulfilled as an artist.
Kendra: While you did land a job at an art director for an educational software company, did you ever feel creatively restricted in that field?
Jerrod Maruyama: It was a job. It was a good job – benefits, stability, set schedule, time off and all that. Those factors are very seductive and it’s easy to get stuck. It was close enough to what I wanted to do that I probably would have settled had that been an option. Fortunately, it wasn’t. I was let go and found myself in a position where I was forced to seek freelance work merely as survival. It was not some adventurous trek into the unknown. I wasn’t that brave. I had to make money.
Kendra: Deciding to freelance in any realm is tough. I know. So what made you decide the time was right, and how long until you started to feel it was the best decision you could have made for yourself?
Jerrod Maruyama: I went full-time freelance when it was obvious to me that I was making more money going down that route. It was a long, laborious, painful process to get there but eventually freelance made the most sense.
Kendra: In terms of being a freelance artist, do you have any advice for those thinking about it?
Jerrod Maruyama: In my opinion, it is strictly a financial decision. When you are actually losing money because your day job is taking up your valuable time – then it’s time to consider full-time freelance. I would not recommend doing it unless that’s the case. There are so many factors to consider – are you married, is there a second income, do you have benefits, do you have children, is the work steady, what are your annual expenses – the list goes on and on. It’s an extremely personal decision and one only you can make. Freelance has some fantastic perks – but it’s not for everyone. Best advice – be honest with yourself about your abilities, your work ethic, and your motivation. Only you can answer that question.
Kendra: When it comes to your clients as a freelance artist, how do you go about blending your style with their requests?
Jerrod Maruyama: At this point, usually they are coming to me for a very specific reason. Clients usually point to something that I’ve done in the past and say “we want something like that…”. But it’s not always an easy path. Decisions are usually made by a committee and that’s when things start getting difficult. It’s always a balance and in the end, the client makes the call – not me. I give them my best shot and we revise from there. I’m not always thrilled with the final product, but it’s not my product. It’s theirs. They have to do what they feel is right for their brand or property. I merely fulfill an order. And then it’s on to the next job.
Kendra: Many of your clients have been staples in the childhoods of people for decades now. Do you feel that sort of work keeps you young at heart?
Jerrod Maruyama: I suppose early on that was the case. But after a while, the nostalgia fades away and it’s all work. To get too sentimental about my client work is dangerous. I reserve that for my personal work. I am thrilled to work with characters I have loved since I was a child. In many ways, these very characters are the reason I am doing what I am doing. But at the end of the day, it’s work and there are so many other factors than my affection for these properties. So, I try not to get too sentimental about the work I do. I think in the end, that leads to frustration. I’m sort of young at heart by nature and I hope that informs my work more so than the other way around.
Kendra: With that, you’re often working with characters that are not only fan favorites but also have followings so huge that the fans can be a bit rabid. Do you ever feel any pressure working on a character that does have such a dedicated fanbase? Like, you don’t want them to be upset by your reimagining of said character?
Jerrod Maruyama: For sure. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have come to the realization that you have to be sincere. You have to do what you love – what you feel is right for that character. To try and read public opinion or predict the tastes of the masses is impossible. And it certainly doesn’t inspire the best work. In the end, it is you and your specific, original voice that will shine through. I think my best pieces aren’t beloved by all. You want to inspire passion and that goes both ways. I think that’s the sign of something special. It’s always a mix so you just hope more people love it than hate it.
Kendra: What’s going on with you and your art as we head into 2020?
Jerrod Maruyama: Honestly, it’s more of the same. I just hope I can find new and original ways to present my take on these characters. I feel fortunate in the opportunities that I have been presented and I love what I do. I just want to keep getting better at it. I want to be able to refine what I do and find new ways to surprise and delight. I just hope I continue to have that opportunity. So, nothing groundbreaking currently planned for 2020. I just hope the cute gets cuter.