We had the good fortune of connecting with J. L. Barnes and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi J. L., putting aside the decision to work for yourself, what other decisions were critical to your success?
This may seem counter-intuitive, but not limiting myself to any single genre or “popular” theme has been incredibly rewarding. I get to draw what I like—which ranges from adorable animals in dapper clothes to terrifying nightmare monsters—and, as a result, my art’s gotten a wide range of fans. When someone comes up to me at a convention, it doesn’t matter what their favorite genre is; I’ve got something that will catch their eye. You can never tell what someone’s going to click with, but if you do what you love, the passion really comes out in the piece.
One of my favorite encounters was with a six or seven year old girl—I think her parents saw my gentlemen animals and thought she’d like a dapper otter or sloth. She starts looking through my portfolio with 120 different prints, very solemnly looking at each piece before flipping the page, and pretty soon she’s out of the cartoon animals and “cute” sections and looking at the dragons. She flips to this dragon that’s all skeletal, glowing from the inside with necromantic power, and taps it. Her parents look at the print, then look at me, and all of us just kind of grin at each other while she pulls out this tiny coin purse and hands me cash for this undead dragon print. She knew exactly what she wanted, and I loved it. People are complex—they don’t always like just one thing. Brands can be complex too!
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
For me, art really started as a side hobby. I was working as a technical writer and used to update our group’s whiteboard every day with little cartoons—pretty soon, half the office was coming by our area to see what the characters were up to! My group suggested I make a series of the cartoon animals, and those became the Gentlemen Animals series (which then branched into the Lady Animals series, too). I started working booths at conventions to sell my art a few weekends a year, which then fed into my online stores. I’ve always been a pretty hardcore introvert, so I leaned on my extrovert friends to help teach me how to make sales in person—my friend Mandi, who works with the amazing RPG company Gooey Cube, is the most dedicated salesperson I’ve ever met; she used to pull in everyone she could find to introduce to me at the booth.
The largest challenge I’ve had is also the main factor behind a lot of my success. Back in 2016, I ended up getting a spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, which resulted in basically having constant head pain for months. It’s a positional headache, which means lying down makes it feel better—so in order to distract myself, I would draw. All day, every day. For nearly two years, most of what I could do consistently every day was draw, so I got a LOT of practice. When the head pain started to get better, I was able to do a lot more promotion online for a lot of my art and company, DragonCrest Studios. I still have all kinds of medical problems, but I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them! I’m endlessly grateful to be able to do my art and share the stories behind each piece. And there is a story behind every piece—I have a background in creative writing, so I can’t help coming up with back stories for everything I draw!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m pretty sure good visits must involve great food, so I’d start with a spectacular breakfast at Bon Ton’s Café in Old Colorado City! Once we’re all fueled up with deliciousness, I’d head over to Manitou Springs and wander the shops and arcades. Assuming my friend is crafty—which, honestly, all of them are—we could finish up the first afternoon with a trip over to Who Gives A SCRAP, which is a fantastic shop collecting all sorts of art and hobby supplies. Dinner or lunch the next day would definitely have to be at Arharn Thai (their massaman curry is my favorite), which is this great little place with crazy good food and even better sweet rice. (Look, I go out to eat for the desserts and the sugar. I have priorities.) A stop over at Dungeons & Javas is another must—not only do they display local art, including mine, but they’ve got dozens of games and in-house meet-ups for anyone that wants to play while they holiday. For a mid-visit attraction, I love the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, no matter who’s come to visit. Regardless of how many zoos you’ve been to, Cheyenne Mountain is the most up close and personal you can get with a huge variety of animals—plus they’ve got safety precautions to help minimize the pandemic, and when you’ve got medical problems, that’s a major win! For another spectacular meal with a unique nightcap, Shuga’s is a quirky café offering an artsy atmosphere and epic flavor combinations. (Definitely give their almond butter cake a try!) Toward the end of the trip, I’d check into a show at the Pikes Peak Center or sign up for the Glen Eyrie tea service, which both make for great laid-back entertainment. And for a final offering, Chiba Bar downtown will impress even the most traveled friend—it’s the only cyberpunk sushi bar out there!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’m lucky to have an amazing support network of friends and family! I come from a family of engineers, who you’d maybe expect to not “get” the arts, but not so. My dad’s been a consultant my whole life, and I’ve learned so much from him on how to speak with clients and plan for deadlines (and I’m still using his invoicing templates). My mom has a crazy good eye for what will sell, and she’s my go-to for staging displays. My brother is my go-to for brutally honest and yet extremely accurate art opinions. Then there’s my sister-in-law and my entire crafting group, who are the best cheerleaders and inspiration!
Other: Prints, Originals, & a Dash of Magic: https://www.etsy.com/shop/DragonCrestStudios Clothing, Accessories, & Home Decor: https://www.redbubble.com/people/FishWithATopHat/shop
Mandi McNabb (@camera.mandi)