Yas Imamura is an artist and founder of Quill & Fox, a design studio that produces beautiful hand painted cards and stationery. In addition to having a successful online store, her work has been stocked by major brands like Anthropologie and is sold around the world in stores from Paris to Beijing and beyond. We caught up with Yas to learn her story and find out what advice she has for aspiring artists.
You’ve changed careers several times, can you tell us about your personal journey and how you decided to start Quill & Fox?
I think the career changes I’ve made have a lot to do with the fact I went to college straight of high school. In the Philippines, where I grew up, most kids go to college at 16, which is a really flighty age. Even though I’ve illustrated since I was a kid, and have collected, throughout the course of my reluctantly artistic early years, quite a few regrettable artworks on deviantart (ha!), when you’re forced to pick a career path so young, the choices you make become easily influenced by anxiety and parental expectations.
I thought then that the advertising industry was the perfect balance of doing something creative while making a living. It wasn’t too long and quite soon before the burn out and long hours happened, that for the most part, it was neither. I felt limited within the constraints of the city I grew up in, and it was then that I decided to go to art school here in Portland. I wasn’t completely disillusioned by the corporate world yet that I had hoped to revisit that path here, this time with a proper advertising degree. Ironically though, it was during my senior year, when I found myself having way more fun creating the illustrated take‐aways for my portfolio, (there were these pop‐up books I’m still super proud of till this day that I enjoyed crafting from start to finish, all ten of them) that I started to realize that maybe creating art that I enjoy was viable.
I met my husband Andrew during my last years in school. He’s a storyboard artist, and I remember just marveling at the countless hours of sketching they had to do for their classes. A little envious even, that I started bemoaning being in the wrong major yet again.
It was our wedding invites that became the creative project I could really sink my teeth into. The medium of paper could be so dynamic if you’re able to create an experience through the right composition of packaging, illustrations and design— it was a challenge I was happy to take on, and was something I strived to do when I eventually branched out to designing for other brides.
I started Quill & Fox mostly as a custom invitation company, but with a few selection of cards as my first collection. I started right at the cusp of pinterest being the then driving social media force, and I attribute much of what I think was chance
successful exposure, through that platform.
When you first started out, did you think you could make a living off of Quill & Fox, or was it a side project? How long did it take you to be able to do Quill & Fox as a full time job?
I had more moderate expectations for it when I started. I’m always grateful for my parents, as I don’t think I’d be in such an advantaged position to really take my time building my own company if not for the certain things that have afforded me to do so. Andrew was also incredibly supportive during the conceptual stages of Quill & Fox. In a way, it had always been a full‐time work for me, but it took about 6 or 7 months until it began to demand full‐time hours, most especially when I landed my first wholesale account.
Do you need to market test what you produce, or do you pretty much release whatever pieces you like?
I’m a little ashamed to admit that I mostly release what I like. There are a few pieces that don’t quite get the attention I expect it would, and a few that I didn’t expect to be so popular. Throughout the years, I think I’ve gotten a better understanding of what the market looks for, and striking that balance between being an artist and a business owner; creating art you enjoy, and putting work out there that resonates with people. I don’t think my work would be so fulfilling if it tipped too much on one scale.
Can you talk about your creative process, and how you take a piece from concept to finished product?
I start with pencil sketches, or sometimes washed ink to plan out an illustration. If it’s heavily nature‐inspired, I wing it and paint right away. If there are more designed elements involved, I would scan those first and plan colors and details in Photoshop, eventually using that as reference for when I paint the final piece.
What do you use to create your work? Do you work completely analog, or do you also use digital tools?
I used to do a bit of both before, but I’ve completely gone analog lately, using a combination of watercolor and gouache. Scanning, clean up, correcting colors and exposure in Photoshop will always be part of my process however.
How did you get such a wide variety of stores, including some big names like Anthropologie, to stock your work?
It feels a lot like luck, honestly. Their buyer had chanced upon my shop on etsy when we first started and was the first retail store to express interest in our cards (along with our first small consignment shop stockist in Atlanta).
What was the biggest challenge you faced creating Quill & Fox, and how did you overcome it?
I used to be anxious about what other shops are doing and if I’m keeping at pace with the industry, if I’m staying on brand. It gets in the way sometimes of the unbridled enjoyment I used to have when I first started. It’s important not to lose that. Even as it becomes harder now with platforms like instagram where I can so easily fall into self‐criticism and be so hard on myself and what I’ve accomplished, I think at the end of the day, I field much of the anxiety by just doing what I do, and keeping at it, sometimes with head ducked low.
Don’t be afraid to share work you truly believe in; genuine passion tends to attract great opportunities.
Although you produce fantastic art, you are also running a business. How do you handle the business side of running a shop, dealing with many clients, shipping items, accounting, etc.? It seems like a huge task.
I still struggle with this, but it has gotten better with some help. I have a production assistant that comes a few days in a week to help me get caught up with orders. Having a reliable fulfillment software like Stitchlabs has been godsend for us. Really cool app overall, I’d recommend it to anyone managing wholesale accounts and invoicing. I still need to get better with quarterly accounting though, especially when it comes to taxes, and not just cramming it all in come tax day.
What advice do you have for a young creative who wants to make a career doing art?
Keep improving, get inspired, find tangent inspirations in different areas of art and design, not just your niche work. Fill up your sketchbooks, even if it’s a piece you’re not completely fond of. Amass finished artworks, good and bad, that help you discover who you are as an artist and boost your confidence. Hone your technical skills with hours of just doing (you’re guaranteed to get better), as talent can only get you halfway there. Don’t be afraid to share work you truly believe in; genuine passion tends to attract great opportunities.
What goals do you have for Quill & Fox, and for yourself as an artist?
I’ve been interested in doing more published works and perhaps less on seasonal cards, though I think greeting cards will always be a part of Quill & Fox. As an artist, I want to be able to do more than illustrating, maybe write, or produce short animations. Finally finish whatever miniature‐inspired project I’ve sporadically started. I love stories, and I wish to explore more of my creative expression through set‐building and stop‐motion. Someday!