When an artist embarks on their artistic journey, they’re met with a fork in the road that has big implications for their future career: either walk down the path of a fine artist, creating one-of-a-kind work for galleries and museums or choose the one that leads to commercial industries, like advertising, design, or animation.
When Lois van Baarle, the artist you may know as Loish, had to make that choice, she didn’t hesitate to take the commercial path. Ever since she was a child, clutching a hand-me-down VHS of The Little Mermaid, she’d wanted to create bold female characters — and she saw a career in animation as the best way to achieve that goal.
In 2013, her dream came to fruition: she was asked to be a part of the team that developed one of the most famous female video-game characters of the last five years: Aloy, the hero of the best-selling Playstation 4 title, Horizon Zero Dawn.
Upon the game’s release in 2017, gamers were immediately smitten with the teenage, post-apocalyptic warrior, both for her rich character design and her ability to take down massive mechanical dinosaurs with a bow and a spear. But when Guerrilla Games asked van Baarle to help develop Aloy, the game’s designers weren’t sure what direction to take the character.
“I felt instantly connected to the project when they showed me what they were working on,” says van Baarle. “And it's funny because right before I joined the project, (Guerrilla Games) had just done a focus test, kind of looking at people's response to the designs that they had at that time. And the feedback was that she was too princessy. She was too young, too pretty, too perfect.”
Van Baarle points to Horizon Zero Dawn as the project that proved she was capable of producing “girly art” at a massive level. Though she found the challenges of creating art with big brands inspiring — “I think some of my best work was created for these companies because they always pushed it to the next level” — there was a dark side to her success: She no longer had time to develop female characters of her own, a practice she’d kept alive since high school. “I wasn't doing any more studies, any more explorations, I wasn't doing any more rough gesture sketches — I wasn't drawing in my sketchbook as much anymore.”
Worst yet, due to the non-disclosure agreements she signed at the request of her clients, she often couldn’t share any of these projects with her fans:
“I reached a point where I was doing so much client work, and a lot of that work just never saw the light of day — it was under NDA, it was in a vault,” says van Baarle. “And even after years, they wouldn't release it, because they were like, ‘Well, we might use it someday in the future.’ So it just became less-creatively fulfilling in terms of being able to share what I had created with the world, which for me, has always been really important...I don't feel satisfied when I create something and nobody sees it.”
It took achieving success for van Baarle to realize that, though she loved showcasing her artistic abilities on a major scale, if she lost her own artistic voice in the process, it wasn’t worth the trade off: “I'd rather focus more time on my own thing, and then...record the process, make a tutorial out of it, put it in an art book, or just put it out there for people to learn from it.”
Today, Patreon is helping her get back in touch with the joy of creation. With the monthly support she earns from patrons, she’s able to say make space in her schedule for her own projects, like publishing her third art book. She still has a few commercial clients, but if that comes at the expense of her own art, she now has a powerful word at her disposal: ‘no.’
“If you have a lot of job opportunities in the creative industry, the main skill you can teach yourself is saying no, and just being like — ‘Well, this is a company. Companies have different priorities than me.’ I love getting paid. I love surviving (and) being able to live as an artist...even though you can sometimes feel very connected to their creative goals and projects, they are just a company trying to make a lot of money at the end of the day, and you as an artist are a creative soul that needs to be nourished.”