A few years back, I was working as an illustrator at a digital publication, drawing editorial illustrations and gifs. My position wasn’t full-time, so I had some spare time on my hands to do freelance work for clients and pursue personal passion projects. Being young and inexperienced as I was, and without too many clients at my doorstep, I knew I needed to promote myself in any possible way. I was already promoting my work on Instagram, Behance and other social media channels, and cool and exciting projects were coming in. But as far as I was concerned, good self-promotion as an illustrator included getting your work shown in illustration exhibitions, too – not that I was counting on group exhibitions as a reliable source of income in my career.

What I was hoping for was to gain some experience, exposure and a bit of networking with other creatives. Above all, of course, I saw exhibitions as a golden opportunity to work free of the constraints of client demands and to experiment with new techniques and ideas, while still having a set deadline that would keep me from straying too far. Taking part in international art shows had also been a dream of mine since my days as a student – I wanted to travel around the world, meet new and interesting people and fuel up on inspiration through design and illustration conferences.

Pierre Kleinhouse Maritime Silk Road Exhibition

Or at least that’s what I envisioned illustration exhibitions to be. The truth was, I didn’t have much luck getting my work out there. I spent a lot of time looking for group exhibitions that I could join. I did find a few small, local ones, and I was starting to get into several international exhibitions, too. But all of those events were very small-scale and low-budget, which meant that they could never afford to fly me in for the occasion. I would send them the final file over email, and that was it. At the opening night, I wasn’t mingling with fellow illustrators, gallery producers and exhibition visitors. Instead, I was home, watching Rick and Morty reruns, hating every moment of it. I needed to step up my exhibition game, but wasn’t exactly sure how.

I realized that what it all came down to, was what I call – a rejection loop.

Rejection loop by Pierre Kleinhouse

Having no experience in participating at big, international events, I was much less likely to be invited to showcase my art at the very same big, international events. Exhibitions (just like studios or clients), look for people with the right credentials, and the inexperienced are left to hustle in the sidelines in the hopes of eventually gaining the experience that’ll get them in the game. I desperately wanted to break free of that loop, so when a Milan-based artist invited me to take part in a local show in Italy that she was organizing, I decided that this time would be different. I created two illustrations, which I again sent back over email.

Slow Animals Pierre Kleinhouse

Slow Animals, Pierre Kleinhouse

Slow Animals by Pierre Kleinhouse, for “Freak Me Out” illustration exhibition in Milan, Italy.

But I wasn’t about to miss out on all of the fun, this time. I decided that there was no point in waiting around until someone invited me over, so I figured I’d go ahead and invite myself to Italy. I wrote back to the Italian producer, saying I’d love to create a third piece for the show. It’ll be a one-off painting, created by hand on a huge wooden panel. So unfortunately, I explained, it wouldn’t be possible to send via email (wink wink). It would hence be necessary, I went on, for me to fly over to Milan and paint the third piece live, at the opening event, in front of gallery goers.

Pierre Kleinhouse painting

She loved the idea. “Sounds amazing,” she wrote back, but regrettably, due to budget constraints, they would not be able to support my travel expenses. I thought they might say that, but I did the math and decided it was a price worth paying. I had a job, and if I considered the trip as a marketing expense for my illustration business – it was a small price to be paid compared to the average business owner’s marketing budget.

And so it happened that I had a green light from Italy and I was about to fly over for an exhibition for the first time. I was thrilled, but there was this one thing – I hadn’t painted by hand since art school, and my style had evolved and changed since. No need to panic, I figured, just a bit of practice and I’ll be fine. I got myself a large wooden panel which hardly fitted through my apartment door, and started painting. But nothing worked – the colors were all wrong, and I wasn’t getting the sketching right. My friends couldn’t figure out why I was even making the trip to Italy if I needed to bare the expenses myself. The opening night was soon approaching and I was repainting the panel white over and over again to try and start from scratch once more, and frustration was building up.

Pierre Kleinhouse illustrations for the Museum of Communism, Prague
A series of illustrations for the Museum of Communism, Prague, by Pierre Kleinhouse.

It might have been the deadline breathing down my neck, but at the very end, I managed to pull it together last minute.

The opening night in Milan was lots of fun. I got to tour the beautiful city and meet a lot of people in the exhibition. It was great. Painting live with an audience around you is very different from drawing on the computer alone at home. I really enjoyed it. I’ve since made it a habit to paint by hand every once in a while, whenever I have the time. And most remarkable of all was that when I was back from Italy, people saw me as the international artist that I had wanted to become, and not as the guy who invited himself to Milan (which is what I truly felt like). A short few months after that exhibition, I was invited to give a talk at Pixel Show, a major design conference in Brazil, which completely took me by surprise. There I was, sharing the stage with incredible designers, such as Stefan Sagmeister and Studio 2Veinte. I was later invited to spend a memorable week in China with the Maritime Silk Road Exhibition, attending the opening events in both Beijing and Nanning, and I even had the time to travel around the country.

I’m currently in the final preparations for a new exhibition that I’m especially excited about. It’s not only my biggest exhibition to date, as it’s a collaborative effort between just me and fellow illustrator and good friend, Shimon Engel – but it’s also a fully funded event with the support of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

Pierre Kleinhouse for Stella Artois
A Stella Artois special edition illustrated by Pierre Kleinhouse.

These international exhibitions and talks at major design conferences, including a talk I gave at OFFF Tel Aviv (which this blog post is partly based on), have all happened within a year and a half since my self-initiated trip to Italy. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that this one decision managed to break me free of the rejection loop I was in. So much so, that I could even quit my day job and immerse myself solely in freelance work, personal projects, and the occasional painting. We all have our own dream jobs or passion projects that we put on hold for some other time. More often than not, all you need in order to break free of these cycles is one weird and silly idea.


Read more by Pierre Kleinhouse on his blog, Firecamp Blog.