Not to brag, but I have some very talented friends. Some are teachers, some are doctors, some are climbing the ranks at their respective companies, and others are successful business owners by the age of 30. I’m constantly in awe of how talented and interesting my girlfriends are and it always feels incredible getting to chat candidly about work and life, not to mention have the opportunity to interview them on the blog! If you’d told me teenage me I’d meet some of my lifelong friends at blogging-related events as a 25 year old I would literally have laughed in your face, but here we are. Serena and I met at an event in 2015 and hit it off immediately. She’s an incredibly talented artist based here in DC, and it’s amazing hearing how she’s grown her business since starting it four years ago. From pet portraits and holiday cards to a desk calendar and wedding invitation suites, Serena can put her classic yet whimsical, intricate touch on anything and bring it to life. Her attention to detail is unmatched–just look at people’s facial expressions and the wedding maps she’s done here–and she never ceases to amaze me when it comes to evolving her craft, growing her client base, and expanding her offerings. This was such a fun interview, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together!
A QUICK CHAT WITH…SERENA MARTIN OF SERENA MARTIN DESIGN
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Currently live in: Washington, DC
Current profession: Artist and Stationery Designer at Serena Martin Design
When did you start your business and how did you first get it off the ground?
I launched Serena Martin Design in 2015, and truthfully I had no idea how I would get it off the ground back then. I set myself an arbitrary monthly sales goal, and if I could hit that for 6 months, then I would keep going. The business strategy evolved as it grew. I learned a lot from mistakes and just kept pivoting. I started off painting pet portraits because I had a dog and a cat, so they were naturally my first subjects. I had wonderful friends and neighbors who started spreading the word, so I started painting pet portraits for all my neighbors and friends. That’s how I met you (5 years ago!!!) at a Cheeky Puppy event!
What did you do before becoming a full-time artist?
I worked in retail management in the fashion industry, from regional fashion boutiques to the luxury sector.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Creative, global eclectic but hopefully timeless!
You’re such a seasoned traveler, and so much of your work reflects that! How does getting out of town inspire your work?
Travel does wonders to my creativity! It’s fun seeing new landscapes. I also love encountering different cultures, learning new perspectives and how a place’s history informs and influences culture. I love seeing works from different time periods – how artists create in their times and how later artists reinterpret past designs. It’s fascinating how artists react to changing political landscapes. I love seeing the world through an artists’ lens. It’s like experiencing history and life through an emotional filter.
On the flip side, what’s your favorite part about living in DC?
I love that DC is essentially a microcosm of the world. I have met people from all over the world or people who travel the world for work, and they teach me all the things they have learned. I have never known a more global city.
Tell us a little bit about the commission process.
To commission something is to create art uniquely yours and/or to bring your vision into artistic reality. Clients usually come to me with a vague idea of what they want. I then use my artistic license to create something new. I consider the commission process a form of collaboration. Clients will send me photos they want me to work from or reference, they describe their vision or story, and I create a composition from there. I first email over a pencil sketch for approval, then we edit and revise until it is exactly what we want. Once the client approves the sketch, I then move forward and complete it in watercolor. Designing stationery goes a step beyond with choosing printing methods – gold foil, letterpress, etc. This is where we can add texture by choosing liners, enclosures, etc. If I am working on stationery, I usually handwrite the scripts in calligraphy to match the style and mood of the painting. It is a time consuming process because there is a lot of trial and error, but my ultimate goal is for the work to feel delightful.
Our 2017 Christmas card!
How has you business changed in the past four years?
My business has changed both with client requests and through my own artistic evolution. I started in 2015 painting pet portraits, but as friends were getting married, I started designing custom wedding invitations, and I have come to LOVE that! Designing an invitation “collection” takes me beyond creating one painting, but thinking about design as a whole, from a cohesive color and design story, printing and assembly to create texture, to producing an experience for the guests who receive and unbox the invitation suites. It’s challenging, but when it all comes together right, it is so satisfying. I try not to say no to projects because each project teaches me something and takes me somewhere new. I design holiday cards, paint people portraits, house portraits, large scale illustrations with calligraphy, city maps, etc.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Finding my voice. I started my business when Instagram was at its zenith, which was a blessing because it allowed me to reach so many people organically, and I attribute a huge part of growing my business to Instagram, but Instagram can also unintentionally restrict creativity. I am a people pleaser by nature, so I can see on Instagram what type of content is working, so it makes me think I should create that type of content, but when I do that, I feel completely inauthentic, even if I seem to get more likes. I am still learning the balance of using Instagram as a tool for my business and a place to connect with others without being too influenced by its contents and likes.
What have been some of your favorite projects to date?
This is such a hard question! I loved creating your holiday card! My favorite projects actually have a lot to do with the clients I work with. I will always love creating for friends because it is a more intimate working relationship, and it means the world to me for my friends to support my art. Funny thing, a lot of my clients have now become friends, which is a total bonus!
What’s next for Serena Martin Design?
I’m hoping to create a travel stationery collection inspired by all the places I have been!
Organizational tool you can’t live without? Excel and Evernote (I’m old school)
Last place you traveled? Edinburgh, Northumberland, Cornwall and London (working on a stationery collection based on these places so stay tuned!)
If you could majorly splurge on a vacation, where would you go? Botswana and stay at one of their new andBeyond properties
Favorite restaurant in DC? Regular go to: Sakuramen in Admo; Another favorite is Little Serow
Go-to weekday lunch? Sweetgreen
One piece of advice? Be so good they can’t ignore you. I just finished the book of that same title by Cal Newport and also inspired by Steve Martin in his book Born Standing Up. Love both those books! I’m guilty of falling into our modern day trap of wanting to achieve overnight success, but I realize that to achieve lasting success in business, you have to put in the work. You don’t need to know everything today, and you don’t even need to know much to get started, but get started and grow, keep learning and keep striving, that is what will make you good at what you do, and never being complacent. I find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. I’m not insecure about what I don’t know, but it fuels me to be better. I hope we all strive to be better at what we do rather than how popular we become.
Photos by Audra Wrisley Photography