How a Young Artist Gained Freedom by Building a Career Out of Their Passion

Many artists make a living off of online commissions, and many turn it into careers in animation or illustration. But Alex Garcia’s passion for drawing saved their life.

Alex Garcia’s illustrations have a striking mix of horror and beauty, with “a dash of Christian iconography.” Some might think this is because halos and stained glass are haunting, evocative images. But for Garcia, it reflects their real life struggle between the only life they've ever known — and the freedom to acknowledge their true identity.

Growing up in a small town on the East Coast of Mexico, Garcia — who uses they and them pronouns — struggled to fit in with their religious family and community. They described it to as “a very controlling and restrictive way to live, because all of your free time is consumed by this religion. You don't really have time to develop any of the other things that bring you joy as a person.”

Garcia says their family’s community devoted themselves to performing religious work before the end of the world, leaving little time to do anything else. 

“As I was growing up, I just always wanted more than just waiting to start my ‘real life,’” Garcia added. 
Garcia’s late grandfather was the one family member who knew there was "something different" about them, and helped inspire them to start drawing. 

"I remember he used to copy the cartoons from the morning paper in the margins, and I started copying him, doing the same,” Garcia remembered.

Garcia realized they were a lesbian around the age of 14, something that isn’t accepted in their family’s religion. 

"I just remember being like, not very shocked by the revelation. I was just like, 'Oh, that's a thing, but I'm never going to be able to act on it,’” Garcia said. 

Garcia was only used to socializing with their family and religious congregation, so finding an LGBTQ-friendly community online was a breath of fresh air. Their community on Tumblr became the only place they could be their true self, and share their art. Many modern artists start off their career in a similar way — make a Tumblr for fan art of popular characters from film, TV and comics, gain a following, and do commissions of favorite characters for cash. Sometimes this turns into self-publishing webcomics, going to school for animation, or becoming an illustrator for picture books, comics or graphic novels. What begins as a fun hobby can become an online community for support, networking and creating a portfolio.

However, Garcia wanted more than just a virtual community. They convinced their family to let them attend college in the U.S., which was the first time they say they had any personal freedom, even to do simple things like make friends in school or take the bus.
But on a visit home to Mexico, barely a semester into college, their parents discovered Garcia’s messages with their then-girlfriend on their laptop. Their parents said they couldn’t go back to college, and that’s when Garcia realized they couldn’t survive living like their family.

"I was like, 'I have to do something,’ and I just remember having that realization,” Garcia said. “I was just lying in the living room and I was like, 'Oh my God. I can't live my life like this.'"
By then, Garcia had already amassed a decent Tumblr following by sharing their fan art of favorite characters. They reached out to the community asking for help, which was how Garcia, then only 19, was able to secretly raise money to leave home.

“I raised a couple thousands of dollars on my PayPal in secret, and I just made a plan and ran out in the middle of the night with two suitcases. And that's all I had on me,” Garcia said. “I went basically from living under my parents' roof, being told what to do every moment of the day, to being on my own entirely, with no in between. I had to figure out everything about how to pay your bills, how to pay your rent, how to feed yourself, how to just keep a budget.”
Learning how to be an adult on their own, with no prior jobs or higher education, taught Garcia the ins and outs of being a freelancer and a small business owner “the hard way,” they say. 

These days, Garcia supports themself mostly through commissions, which people can solicit through their Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr profiles. Followers can commission anything from $35 sketches to $300 paintings. Like many other artists, YouTubers, Twitch streamers and podcasters, Garcia also uses Patreon, an online service that allows consumers to directly support independent creators on a monthly or per project update basis, to supplement their income.

Garcia says they’re still learning about the “not fun side” of having a creative pursuit. Being an illustrator, like any freelancer or small business owner, requires doing everything yourself — from invoices and taxes, to social media marketing. Although Garcia is proud of building financial independence off of being an artist, they advise aspiring artists to learn everything they can about finances before trying to strike out on their own, if possible. 

“It's a daily grind living paycheck to paycheck, commission to commission, but it's possible,” Garcia said. “It can happen for you. You just got to do all the parts of the administrative dirty work so you can actually get to sit down and draw all day.”
Now that Garcia’s art business is self-sustaining, they’re looking to expand. Garcia recently met up with at Flame Con, a New York City-based comics convention focused on LGBTQ creators. Many artists tour the country (and even the world) to sell prints and other items with their designs at conventions, competing for tables “like a Black Friday sale,” Garcia says. 

Aside from helping to grow a business, spaces like Flame Con can be very affirming in a field that can be very lonely, Garcia says — the artist usually works out of their bedroom or at coffee shops. 
“I really love going to cons and being able to showcase my art there and selling prints because you get to actually meet all the people who have been seeing your art online, sometimes for years,” Garcia said. 

And there’s something special about meeting a fan face to face—and realizing the impact your art is making, Garcia says. 

“Sometimes I think it doesn't come across when you're getting notifications and likes. It's nice, it's validating, but it's not the same as just seeing people face to face, and them telling you, ‘Oh, your art has inspired me so much.’”