Andrew Cefalu on Belief & Creating

Andrew Cefalu interview (1)

Andrew Cefalu is a freelance illustrator and educator living in Boston, MA.

With a great sense of humor, we talked about how belief impacts what we create and how we create it. The journey we all take to find out where we feel the most at home in our art and in our lives takes us down many roads.

We started out chatting about Imposter Syndrome, so let’s dive right in.

AC: I feel I’m in that perpetual always up-and-coming state.

Me: We always feel like we're beginners. To an extent, you should always feel that way in any field. But artists definitely admit to having feelings of being out of our league throughout our careers.

AC: While at conventions and workshops I hear big name artists talking about some of their fears; it goes to show you that everyone suffers from the same anxieties as every other artist.

Me: I find no matter who you talk to, no matter if it's a person that you hugely respect… We all have moments in our personal life and our career looking at our art where we think, “Who the hell am I? Who do I think I am making this?” I think we put so much soul into our work that it can feel like a personal rejection if it's not doing what you want.

AC: I wish I put more soul into my work. Sometimes I feel like I'm just a cog.

Me: Let's talk about that. Let's go there.

AC: I don't do a lot of personal work. I've done a couple personal pieces, but a lot of the work I've done is for clients and it's usually doing some of the lower end tier of the game art market.

I have some weirder IPs that I don't really relate to. I kind of relate. I'll think, “How can I turn this into a wizard casting a spell?” or “How can I get excited about this thing?”

Some of the sci-fi properties I worked on… It's really funny, I'm realizing more and more as I'm currently coloring a spaceship, I don't really like doing this.

Me: So how do you cope with that feeling?

AC: Crying. 

Not really – sometimes I procrastinate. I'll play games or video games while I think, “Ahhh, I’ve got to get into it!” Or I try to find a way to make it interesting to me and treat it as a learning experience. For example, I might ask myself, “Why don't I like this?” and realize it’s because I don't really have a good working visual library how to do it.

So, then I go look and learn check out things on the interweb. Or I can have fun watching Pacific Rim 2, which is an amazing, terrible movie and everyone should go see it because it’s just that great!

Me: Sometimes we’re just excited about the effects and not the story at all.

AC: It was great because I got to hang out with my family and
I got to pick the movie. It was fun subject them all to Pacific Rim 2. And while I was watching I thought, “Right. That's how I do that dropship concept I was trying to figure out. There's an idea!”

But to get back to the original question - some of it's just fear because it's new and different. I don't know how to do this, or some of it is that I don’t get excited about that
kind of stuff. And sometimes it’s just work, and you don't always have to be excited about all the stuff you're working on. That makes it really hard to want to stay focused on it.


Rat Swarm! Vignette Illustration for Pinacle Entertainment

Me: I find for myself it's easier if I make a list of the projects or aspects that I just need to get done with technical skill. I might not be excited about, but if I at least get it out of the way quickly then I can move on to something that I really want to do.

And other times I have to flip it the other way and say, I'm never going to really get on board and do the things I have to get done if I don't have an hour to just play and do something that I'm excited about.

Have you found that you're able to work on a project while in the background you’re working on a creative project in your head that’s completely unrelated?

AC: Sometimes I have guilt around this. I think, “I should really be working on this thing, but I don’t want to right now. I want to work on this (other thing).” It's like paid practice, but then it's also learning and trying out and experimenting.

It can be fun, and I might even like it, just not as much as I like doing other stuff. It’s your brain saying, “this is boring… let's do something fun!”

Me: I think of it like the stuff in your refrigerator. The stuff that you have to eat, and you probably should because it's good for you and it teaches your body how to function. And then there's the stuff that we want to eat all the time. We want to eat candy and ice-cream, but we can't always have that.

AC: Right.

Me: Could you tell me a little bit about your work style and your process?

AC: I've learned to accept that I like to work on things little bits at a time in stages and not begrudge myself so much for feeling like that.

This may sound silly, but I passively ignore projects for a little bit and let the subconscious juices flow in the beginning.

I usually start with visual research, maybe on Pinterest or I'll google an IP that that's similar to the project I'm working on and try to get some ideas. I'll build a mood board or just put a bunch of photographs that work together. If I'm building character, I try to think about what pose to use and figure out which costuming and clothing I want to apply to it.

And then do a drawing. I thumbnail out the idea, do research and compose a drawing. Then review it and redraw, tighten it up, and then re-analyze and redraw. One of my biggest hurdles, specifically because of digital art, is that I have trouble moving forward and accepting that a piece is done, or it’s good enough, or it’s complete.

On the other hand, it can be hard to slow down and acknowledge that maybe a project wasn’t really planned out well and I just want to get to the fun part, which is coloring a section or something. That’s OK, but I still have to come back and fix the issue.

Sometimes it's good to dive ahead, because it re-inspires you about the thing that was interesting to you to begin with. But if you aren't careful, you're going to down that rabbit hole where, “Oh, I really should have learned how to render armor better before I (started painting) and now I have to repaint all that.”

Treetop Sniper by Andrew Cefalu

Me: Yeah, I think that's part of our learning process though.

There's this balance between keeping yourself interested and excited in a project. You could go down a rabbit hole of education for years with every single project to become the best armor renderer, or the best person at drawing reflections in eyeballs. There are people that specialize in all those things!

AC: It makes you wonder, does it really matter? This is rendered, but it's not fun anymore. And maybe after all that refinement it doesn't have the energy.

For example, I can see a cartoon artist that I'm inspired by and I see, right, they left out something and it looks great, why did I feel the need to (keep rendering?) Why did I battle that out so much when they just left it alone and it worked beautifully?

Me: I need to rename my business and call it The Zen School for Artists because that's really what it's all about… You just have to get into that Zen mind, where yes, you have to do the work, but you can be chill about it.

You have to find that place where you're OK if you have to render more, and you’re OK if you don't. We don’t have to beat ourselves up over it.

AC: I would say anxiety meds have helped me a lot with that. And then just acceptance that it’s OK I draw a certain way. That's OK. Being good at this and not good at that – it’s OK.

I do a lot of teaching and that's helped me, too. I have to study in the basics. When I see a student diving right in, I think, “No, no, no – you haven't solved this visual problem yet and you're just diving straight into the ice cream, man! You don't have a bowl, or you might be lactose intolerant… what are you doing?” And they say,” Oh, it'll be fine.” Then they have a stomachache.

Seeing that in other people reminds me that I do the same thing. When you see other people do it, it reminds yourself that you're not alone. Also, it’s a reminder that if I tell other people they shouldn’t do something, I shouldn’t be doing it myself.

Me: I love the way that you speak about it. I study tai chi, and there's this point where you understand something and you can see others making a mistake first. But then there’s a point when you start to see it in yourself, but you haven't yet stopped yourself from doing it. That's when you're on the cusp of changing.

When I’m learning and I get frustrated because I see myself make the same mistake every time, I’ll look back a few months from then and think, “Oh my God, I stopped doing the thing!”

Like you just said, that's the next creative leap or the next stage of development.
It's a beautiful thing to be able to help others and have them help you. I think that's why teaching is so great, because our students teach us as much as we teach them.

Bear first form for Chaostudios

AC: One of my design shop teachers in high school said that teaching is the highest form of learning.

Me: My coach says the same thing. There’s a certain point where you become a teacher because you've learned as much as you can solo, and you learn more when you're interacting and helping other people. 

It opens up a whole new level of life for you, and I see it again and again with my daughter and with my friends.

Ice Wolf starter, third form for Chaostudios

AC: Life is beautiful but challenging. We are all flowers blowing in the wind.

Me: Sometimes getting trampled.

AC: Some of us smell like poop and that's OK. We can grow past this! (laughter)

Me: I see in your portfolio you have a lot of animals and monster concepts that you work with and I'm curious how you create figures that aren't human but still make them relatable in a game setting and in your paintings.

AC: Yeah, I guess I'm just not very good at drawing people. (laughter) No – I like characters and sometimes that's what the job called for.

So for the animals and monsters for the Project Monstera game they wanted them to be closer to realistic animals. So I found pictures of animals that worked as reference and I tried to find a cool pose that would work for it.

Originally, they were going to use the art in the game, so all the figures had to be facing a certain way and then they changed their mind. So, I ended up with all these images where all the characters are all facing one direction and people would tell me, “Hey, you could have done a more interesting composition.” Sometimes it ends up like that.

I always wanted to draw dragons. And my art professor in college told me, “Dragons are magical and amazing and fantastic. But if you can make a person sipping coffee magical and fantastic then then you're an illustrator, and then doing the fantastic things is easy.

When I am building some of the creatures and characters, I try to think of something funny. The direction I want to go in is more cartoon and humor. And I'm pretty excited about that, way more than any of the other stuff I'm working on.

Earth Lizard Starter 2cd form for Chaostudios

Me: Then tell me some more about moving towards cartoonish characters. What kind of projects would you be working on? Would you do personal work in that genre?

AC: I would do it for myself to start, but I was thinking Dungeons & Dragons-based comic ideas and doing some more Hearthstone. One thing I enjoy back with Hearthstone and Blizzard is their over-the-top kind of cartoon style on things.

I always drew with a cartoony hand and I always felt like that was a crutch or a problem and I needed to learn to render more. And every time I tried to render more, I would always end up in this weird middle ground of part cartoon, part real, and I could never quite grasp the level of realism that was required for certain things.

And once I realized I really like the work of some friends that do just 3D caricature style drawing with a DreamWorks feel. I thought, “That's what I want to do. That looks like fun.” And so, I finally did it.

There’s a painting I'm working on where this adventurer is getting fed to baby dragons by the dragon mom. And the adventurer is a rogue guys who’s s#!ting his pants. He’s scared and trying to get away and the baby dragons all “You look delicious!”

I play a lot of D&D so I like to do a lot of D&D based gags, but some of it's part of my personality too.

If I get to choose, I'll often choose the funny route. If everyone's going for the badass warrior guy, how can I make that guy interesting? What if he’s caught with his pants down? That’s funny and more interesting.

Me: I think you're onto something because when you're the person people think of when they're looking for something like that, then there's your market; there's your niche.

I think it's great to just embrace yourself and come to a place where you can accept, this is what I actually like to do. And it's not what everyone else is doing and that's OK. I think that's great.

AC: Yeah, that makes me feel good.

Me: Yeah you should. If we don't find what makes our heart sing, one you're not going to do it as much, and two, you're not going to do it as well. And how are people going to find you?

Why hide underneath a protective layer of realism if that's not really what you want to be doing anyway?

AC: Exactly. 100%. Every time I do something cartoony I have to reassure myself that it’s all right.

Me: You're working cartoony, but it's not that you're lacking in references. You're not lacking in anatomy knowledge. You still have all of those foundational skills underneath you. So that makes it possible for you to be able say, this is my style and what I really enjoy doing is taking it in this direction.

AC: Yeah. When you have a cartoon element it works more in your favor to tie in humor.
Trying to get humor into realistic piece is just odd and often it doesn't hit the mark properly.

Me: I agree. There's a weird seriousness to realism, so even if you're drawing someone sitting on a toilet, as a viewer you're like, “Oh what an interesting thoughtful piece about this person taking a crap.

AC: They're caught with their literal pants down. Isn't that funny?

Me: Yeah, but you’re seeing it like a Norman Rockwell painting and it's not as funny.

AC: I'm really enjoying Norman Rockwell's work and I love like some of his basic Americana style. So, what if I do something like that with the human aspect of it and put a fantasy theme over it?

There was one image I did in college of a bar scene where I drew where an elf is getting patronized by a barmaid while he’s trying to flirt with her and there were cool adventuring characters doing just average boring stuff in the scene.

It was interesting to take some mundane things but put a trope that I enjoy working with over it and it became really fun for me.

Megaloceros Rider by Andrew Cefalu

Me: Well not only does it become fun for you but there are so many people out there that relate to that. I play D&D, and there are a lot of us out there. If that kind of artwork doesn’t exist, we can’t consume it, so if you can become that person that we look to for that kind of scene, that kind of art, then that's wonderful.

AC: This past year was a big growing year for me for a lot of reasons.

Medication, therapy, meditation – it helped. Learning to understand how I work and to balance that out. That helps a lot.

Me: It's not to be underestimated. I think our mental health and our ability to integrate everything in our lives make such a big difference. If anything is out of balance the rest suffers.

AC: I changed my diet too.

Me: I did the same.

AC: Yep. I learned to accept me a little bit better, and know that it's OK.

Me: I think as artists we feel like there's so many artists out there, and they're all so much better than us. And we look online and we're comparing ourselves to these incredible people.

When you come down to it, though, if you actually crunch numbers, there's not that many. I think we feel that way because we have the technology now to see what everybody's doing.

When we feel, “Oh my God, there's a thousand people that are so f%&ing amazing! I'm not painting like that.” Part of the anxiety that we get is that we're in a constant state of comparison and thinking that we're not at that level.

But then when you think about it, OK, so maybe you’re not at the level of the top 100 people in the world, but consider that in the whole world there’s maybe ten million illustrators. That feels like a lot, but that’s less than .001% of people that exist.

It's a very small group of people when you look at it that way. When you think of it that way, can you see how there's so much room for all of us to have a place and make a living and not feel like we're limited?

AC: That's huge. That's an awesome tip and I'm walking away with that little tidbit. That's I'm going to walk away with today.

Me: Good, I'm glad. I think people need to get out from under the weight of thinking that.

When we create, we're on the shoulders of giants that came before us. When we see people who are really killing it in the industry we can think, “I wish I was like them.”

There are people that I'm excited to talk to in the next few weeks that make me go think, “Holy crap, I can't believe I get to talk to these people!” But then you realize they have the same fears and the same bulls#!t thoughts that we all have about our artwork. So, it doesn't matter how big you get.

We'll still compare ourselves to another person over there in another country or someone who is killing it in a different industry. It doesn't matter. And that makes me think there's space for all of us to thrive.

AC: That was the thing about Illuxcon and IMC which was huge for me. My dad was an engineer and my mom was a lawyer. And, then, oh no, I want to be an artist!

Me: So many of us have that kind of story.

AC: So then you don't feel so isolated anymore at an event like that, where I just met a hundred people who are all working in this industry in different capacities. There's work, there's a future there.

You may need to make changes or accept certain things or look for certain avenues and it's going to take time and you get that part-time job. That's OK. A lot of people have part-time jobs while they're starting a business.

Me: Absolutely. It's realizing it's an investment in yourself.

AC: Yeah. And Tony Palumbo was saying that you do need to have a level of comfort to create art. Marc Scheff talks about that, too.

There are no starving artists.

You can’t make art if you're starving.You need to have all your bases covered and then you need to have a little bit of time and luxury and freedom to let your mind wander and explore.

Me: You do! I help my clients on mindset around money and mindset around the starving artists concept. It gets lodged in your body, physically as well as emotionally, and it leads to all this anxiety and negative belief. 

And when you have that (a belief that isn’t great) you actually step into your own way when opportunities come up. You don't see them, or you sabotage yourself or you just do stupid things and don't even see yourself doing it because you have this belief that in order to be a valid artist, you have to suffer. That it needs to be hard, or that people don't want to pay you. Or if they have money, it's not for you, it's for someone who's even better than you or whatever the hell you believe.

And it's so much bulls#!t because there are people who are less good at what they do than you are they are making money, right?

So, we have to figure out, how we do that? And it all comes down to mindset and then figuring out the structure that you can put into place in your life that helps you maintain it and keep believing it.

AC: Yeah that's the big one is the structure part. Girl, preach! (laughter)

Me: There are things that can be done! That’s what I do.

AC: I'm actually aiming to transition into art education because I enjoy teaching more than I do doing the work. I like a lot of these projects, and it's not that I think it's easier to teach, it’s that I have more fun working with kids to help them build those bridges and be that inspiration. To be the one saying, “You Can Do It!”

That makes me happy.

Me: Yes. And we need that! Because I want to work and learn from someone like you, who's exciting and fun to learn from, rather than to go to a class taught by someone who's miserable trying to make it as an artist. That's something you don't like. No, no, no.

AC: My friend Ashley went on maternity leave and she wanted to know if I'd cover for her at her job at Blackstone Valley Tech High School. 

And I had more fun doing that and felt like this is what I should be doing. And I felt at peace, which is weird.

And so, I'm starting a job next Monday at a national regional as a long-term substitute art teacher for a year.

Me: Congratulations.

AC: And so that was funny. I do concept art, and a lot of the work I've done is a lot for indie games. And I am now shifting gears more into art education or at least that's what I want to do. I enjoy the energy of high school.

Actually I love it.

Me: Honestly, this interview is making me so damn happy. It's inspirational to me to see an artist willingly go through what you need to go through to get where you're happiest. To have you say, “Hey, I tried this out and doing it I felt at peace and that was an odd experience.”

It shouldn't be an odd experience – that should be what we're always listening to and moving towards.

AC: I did years of summer camp and boy scouts and I was a sun instructor and a strong coach. That was my part-time gig for a lot of years, and I have this huge skill set. 

That was actually what got me into teaching art at the local art center. I was working an art-related part time job and I thought, I can teach people how to draw.

I actually love teaching old ladies how to draw flowers. They get so excited.

Me: OMG Yes! Creativity isn't just for little kids and it's not just for people in the prime of their lives. Everybody needs this in their life.

AC: Right. Exactly. And I don't mind teaching kids. Kids are fine.

I teach middle school. I've done some classes with younger kids and it can be fun, but a lot of times I've done classes with younger kids and has not gone well because it's not the skill level or the attention span that I like to work with.

It's fun but it becomes more babysitting.

Me: I understand. I think that there's something to be said for understanding where you're happiest in teaching. There are people who are really happy to work with kindergartners and I think that would just I would lose my mind, personally.

Your dream project really seems to be teaching the next generation how to pursue their dreams and that makes me thrilled.

AC: Yeah actually that's the thing I'm realizing. That's my project.

My mom watched Mr. Holland's Opus and said, “You need to see this movie.”

A friend of mine said the same thing, to watch Mr. Holland's Opus. “Teaching is your opus.” And I said, “Woah, my mom just said that, too!”

Me: Have you watched it yet? It's amazing.

AC: Not yet. And I should see it. And I will probably 100% agree with them.

Me: You’re finding your voice and finding what you want to do with your creativity. First you found it through fantasy art and illustration, then through concept art, and now through teaching and finally realizing, “Yeah that's OK.” It all led you on the journey to exactly where you need to be.

AC: Yeah. And then we have a crisis. “I'll show you…” and then 10 years later, we’re like, “OK maybe they were right.”

Me: And do you ever find that it's almost stubbornness really? Like, I don't want them to know that they were right, so I'm just gonna have to do it dramatically under the under the radar to find my way there on my own…

AC: Don't fight it. Just go into it, and enjoy it. 

For instance, the younger I start teaching, and that's what I want to do, the better my retirement will be in the end. And if that's not what I want to do and I do it for a few years, that’s not the end-all be-all.

It doesn’t have to be a straight path.

Me: We don't need to make decisions forever, and I think there is a narrative that people have about how lives are supposed to progress and how much time we think we have in our life.

People think, if I don't have this s#!t figured out by the time I'm 30, I'm never going to have a retirement bubble. But what if none of that's true? What if you don't know? What if you're going to live to be one hundred and twenty?

What if it's actually going to be awesome? If you think that it's possible that you could live to 100 or 120, why the hell are you worried about starting over at 50 when you still have half your life left?

AC: Right. My mom graduated law school in 2012. At 50 or 60. Now she's working as a lawyer. She loves it.

Me: Why hold off on something that you might love because you think that it's too late? It's never too late, it's just about what are you willing to do.

AC: Yes. What are you willing to do to make it happen and the other one is managing your expectations.

Me: Yes. Oh my God. Yes. The overnight success is not true.

When you talk to anybody or you just meet them, you're hearing a moment in their life and you're seeing them from this one perspective. You're not having access to the years that went before that. You don't know what connections were made or what efforts went in. And people really like to present it either thoughtlessly or with ego.

As we get older it's easier to understand how much life goes into these overnight successes Maybe it looks like from the outside like in that one year they skyrocketed to fame and made a million dollars, but that was a lifetime of effort.

Thank you so much, Andrew. I would love to hear down the road how everything is going with the teaching position. If you're really feeling the vibe and transitioning it into full time work that's great!


This interview was super uplifting – I really enjoy seeing people find their creative flow and sweet spot, and it looks like teaching is something that really flows and comes naturally for Andrew and is where he feels at home. 

The kids he teaches are pretty lucky! I would have loved to have a teacher that enthusiastic about art and learning, as experienced in the workaday art world, and simultaneously gifted at teaching.

You can see more of Andrew Cefalu's work at

If you are on the cusp of transitioning to a different field of work or making moves to shift something big in your life – remember that there is support out there for you. 

Whether it’s from a therapist, a coach, a yogi or a meditation instructor, take advantage of the people out there who want to help you succeed!

If you are ready to get rid of the Starving Artist script that is lurking in your subconscious for good - head over here and I'll send you a free exercise to dissolve it today. Because nobody should believe that doing what they love for a living means they are destined to be poor.


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