How illustrator Ross Tran makes a living making art and teaching design courses

By Francesca Margherita

Photo featuring illustrator Ross Tran from RossDraws, courtesy of the artist

Follow the artist behind RossDraws's winding path from art school to a full-time career teaching online art and design tutorials and workshops.

In our Making the Leap series, creators who’ve turned a creative side project into a full-time business share a behind-the-scenes look at how they did it.

With more than 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and an active community of members on Patreon, illustrator Ross Tran, also known as RossDraws, has been a full-time creator for the past seven years — but not before a swirl of art school, acting, and some soul-searching about what his path ought to be. Today, Ross’s Patreon serves as the place where he goes in-depth with his creative processes and shares techniques with members through tutorials and workshops. And he regularly runs new projects, including a digital art bootcamp and recurring community-driven character design art challenges, to name just a couple.

Read on to take a peek at how Ross nurtured his love of drawing into a living while navigating the uncertainties of a creative career path and tending to his mental health and well-being.

Before you became a full-time creator, what were you doing?

I was in art school. A friend recommended me to a director at Disney where I got to create a character for the 2014 film Earth to Echo, and during school I had freelance projects. But during my last semester I quit school and moved to Hollywood to pursue acting. Because that last semester I saw my whole life flash between my eyes: I was going to graduate, get a studio job, and die. And I realized that, oh my God, maybe I hadn’t been challenged enough. I wanted to start over where no one knew me or my name. I gave acting a go but ultimately quit that, too, and went back to finish my last semester of school.

Clearly, drawing ended up coming out on top. What made you decide to pursue it full time?

I knew I wanted to draw, and I wanted to make people laugh, but there weren’t many role models for me. I felt really lost. And when I was working at Disney for the film, I realized that I felt too constrained. Don’t get me wrong: I love contributing to bigger projects and working with a team of people, but I felt a little trapped creatively. My brain just needs to do a lot more. So in 2015, I decided to challenge myself, and I set up my YouTube and then my Patreon. Even just getting started was a good outlet. I got to be a graphic designer, marketer, video editor, artist … It was really cool doing everything rather than one specific thing.

Why did you decide to start offering membership?

Before Patreon, my mom was paying my bills and rent! She lit a fire under my ass by giving me a deadline: one year to figure out how to support myself. I’m like, “Fuck!" I needed to find a solution, since on YouTube I got paid nothing because I was a brand-new creator. That led me to making a Patreon. I looked at two of the biggest artists doing this at the time, studied what their business models were for memberships, and tweaked it from my point of view and what I could offer.

How did you prepare yourself to make your art full time?

Honestly, my art school training helped me with the grind culture that was central when I started. Nowadays there’s less focus on the grind and more on taking care of your mental health, which is great. But I was prepared for the long hours!

How did you feel when you first started out as a full-time creator?

When I started on Patreon, you could see the numbers of how much a creator was making. My mom supports everything I do — watches every video, sees all my posts (I’m her only child) — and she would refresh the page and see how it was going. We had paid a lot for my art education, and she was scared because I quit to do acting and hadn’t been making money. So when we saw this working out, we were both very relieved, not to mention happy, that I was able to pursue my passion and figure out my own path.

How have you built a support system around your journey?

Friends and family. I had a close friend support and work with me earlier on. And my mom, as you can probably tell, is one of my rocks. I also have friends from art school who always keep me in check. Sometimes I'm making art I'm not really proud of and they'll call me and say, “You could do better, listen to your gut, trust your gut.” I have friends who remind me what’s important because especially in this numbers-based world, it can get kind of confusing. People often attach self-worth and self-value to numbers and an amount of followers, how much they're making… It can be really toxic, and I’m lucky to have friends that help me unplug, get centered, and ground myself.

"I’m lucky to have friends that help me unplug, get centered, and ground myself."

Photo featuring Ross Tran of RossDraws

What has surprised you about the experience of being a full-time creator?

It’s really hard work! You don't see from the outside how much work goes into it, but you wear a lot of hats. You have to cultivate plans and business strategies and really be an entrepreneur. It gets overwhelming sometimes, though ultimately it’s not just a lot of work but good work: You’re putting energy and effort into yourself, into your creativity, into your community.

What have you learned?

When you’re making art full time, it’s not a linear journey. The tenor and tempo changes, your productive cadence changes, there are ebbs and flows in all of it. What you need at different times changes, and that’s okay. Don’t fear the journey: The path will wind, and that makes it interesting.

What has been the most challenging aspect?

What I've built versus who I am at the core. I’m definitely going through this right now. I feel like I have to dig deep and refine. Why did I start all of this? Why did I start creating? What art do I really want to make? At a certain point, you realize you need to re-find your center, remember what’s important, and not get stuck on the money or numbers.

What’s been the most satisfying?

There's a phrase, something like, "If you put your mind to it, anything can happen." When I first started, I didn’t know anything was possible. I thought I would be a small-time artist grinding and doing his thing. The success I’ve found surprised me. But all you’ve got to do is put in the energy and put your mind to it, and what you’re seeking can happen for you. Today, I'm not scared of trying to achieve things because I know I have the skills and capacity to do it.

"Don’t be scared of the leap. Life and growth happen in the unknown."

What advice would you give to other creators in your field considering taking the leap?

Don’t be scared of the leap. Life and growth happen in the unknown. And on a practical note, you can start slow. Unplug for a day, a week, if you can. Find a little time each day to pursue your passion. Build an audience, nurture your creativity and community, and it can all grow.

Second: Combat your self-saboteur. We all have one inside of us. When other artists or patrons ask for advice, they often express self-doubt and insecurity, and I get it. I was there once. But I think of it like: This is your world — you can make anything happen for you.

And third, build a thick skin. There are always going to be haters out there but believe in yourself anyway. Ditch your self-doubt and tap into the thrill of the unknown.

Thinking about making the leap yourself? Explore the Official Patreon Creator Community Discord server to connect with other independent creators.

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