Illustrator Sophie Tivona on Overcoming Setbacks and Painting a Life She Loves

You might know Sophie Tivona from her captivating time lapses, 20-second process videos of her watercolor portraits that have gained a following on Instagram. But behind the shower of emoji comments is a hard-working woman who has been steadily building a business for four years. We caught up with the illustrator and watercolor painter to chat about her influences, balancing two jobs, and how when rejected from art school she made lemonade out of lemons (and then illustrated them?) Thanks to our guest photographer, Nicola Parisi, for this photo shoot of Sophie in her Oakland studio.

How did you get into illustration and painting, and what led you to starting your business?

I started painting while studying art at UC Berkeley fifteen years ago. After graduating, I attempted a career as a fine artist with gallery shows and was not very successful. I thought if I had an MFA I would have more credibility and be able to teach, so five years ago I applied to seven MFA programs around the country. As the rejection letters rolled in one by one I was of course discouraged but also a bit relieved… $100,000 in debt to get another art degree felt overwhelming. I had been working as a waitress for years and I envisioned my life with an MFA as exactly the same, waitressing to pay bills and struggling to get a foothold in the art world.

I signed up for a six week illustration class at CCA and met my mentor, Caitlin Kuhwald, an illustrator who taught me about the business of illustration. I realized I could make money doing the thing I loved – creating paintings and using them on paper products. I’ve built my business from the ground up, learning as I go from my mentor, my classmates at CCA, and people I meet along the way. I’m now four years into my business and I’m getting more successful every year! Five years ago a rejection from graduate school turned out to be the best thing that could ever happen to me.

“I started receiving a lot of attention on Instagram after posting time lapses of my process. I love watching other people paint too, so I get it! It’s magical.”

Art can be so personal, did it come natural to you to start self-promoting and sharing your work, or did you have to work up courage or wrestle with any self doubt?

I didn’t initially realize how hard it would be to self-promote. I kind of dove in with a ton of enthusiasm and when I didn’t immediately get business it was hard. I turned to Instagram to share my journey and it’s been incredibly useful for me as an artist and businesswoman. Any self doubt I had in the beginning has diminished with all the positive feedback I’ve received online. I love sharing my world on social media and I work all the time to keep my feed interesting and beautiful.

Most of your work depicts natural elements: rocks, crystals, animals, sometimes food. Why are you drawn to painting and illustrating those things?

I paint things I love… my mom raised me as a single mother working as a professional gardener and landscaper. I spent a lot of time in the gardens she tended and it shaped who I am. My middle name, Tivona, means “lover of nature” in Hebrew so I think my mom was manifesting something when she named me that! I’ve always loved nature and being outside so it’s easy to be inspired to paint what I see.

You’ve built up a great following on Instagram. What do you think makes your feed stand out?

I started receiving a lot of attention on Instagram after posting time lapses of my process. I love watching other people paint too, so I get it! It’s magical. Sometimes I don’t even know how I painted something until watching it as a time lapse. I learn a lot from watching my work unfold. As far as my feed goes, I try to keep it fresh and beautiful and diverse in the compositions of the photos and what products or paintings I’m featuring.

Most people don’t know that to support yourself you have been a waitress for years. What are the challenges of pursuing your business and having a second job? How do you keep motivated?

I have been a waitress for about twelve years now. Sometimes it’s great because it’s so different from sitting alone painting and listening to podcasts. I go into the restaurant and I get to talk and joke and walk around for nine hours. It’s a nice balance. But it can be hard to get everything done and to stay on a good productive schedule since I work nights. It can also be really, really motivating when I have a bad night or week and I’m just so tired of working for tips and having shitty managers that I think, THANK GOD I have my own business. If I’m especially burnt out on one job I usually work more at the other. It works well.

One other thing people might not know is that you are actually from the Bay Area. How do you think growing up here influences your work?

I love the Bay! I grew up in Berkeley and Oakland and I’ve never lived anywhere else. I’m lucky that my friends and family have always supported my art and made me feel like I’m doing the right thing. So having my community so close definitely helps. Also being able to escape to nature whenever I need to; it’s so easy to drive an hour and be completely immersed in a beautiful setting and get recharged. I love living and working in the Bay.

When you look back on your journey in this business, what are some of your favorite moments? What are you looking forward to?

I think my favorite memories of my business have been those “aha” moments when I realize how to do something better or more efficiently. Like making my line sheet more streamlined or fixing my website to work better. I am so proud of what I’ve learned from others and what I’ve taught myself. I never thought I could do this as a real job and it feels like a dream! I’m looking forward to building my product line and my retail presence. I’m working on a new Spring line and I’m excited to share it with the world!

Visit the Sophie Tivona Illustration profile.

Thanks to Nicola Parisi for the photos in this piece. Nicola is a freelance photographer and graphic designer based in San Francisco. Over the last year, she has particularly enjoyed documenting people in their homes and studios – spaces that show a lot of character and enable people to be most at ease. When she’s not behind the camera or computer, you’ll usually find her making jewelry, refurbishing skateboards, cooking without recipes, riding her bike, or making chocolate from scratch.

Filed under: InterviewTagged with: , ,