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How I Got My Job: Making a Passion for Food Illustration a Full-Time Job

Marianna Fierro went from website and graphic designer to in-demand illustrator and merch creator

A collage featuring a photo of Marianna Fierro as well as some of her illustrations of cocktails, pasta, and garlic. Illustrations by Marianna Fierro

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Marianna Fierro.

It makes sense that Marianna Fierro loves food. Growing up in Udine, Italy, a northeastern city about an hour from Venice, she spent countless hours in her father’s pizza shop. Her favorite childhood memories include watching her parents cook and gathering around the table as a family to eat. But she didn’t turn her passion for food into a career until recently: She only went full-time with her freelance food and beverage illustration work in November 2022.

The long journey to this point, however, is partially responsible for Fierro’s success. She studied design and typography — specifically International Typographic Style (also called Swiss Style) at Kent State University — which provided a foundation that allowed her to secure roles in graphic design, UI/UX design, product design, and art direction. “I learned that all those hours spent on Tumblr, saving graphics and looking at fonts, is called graphic design and that you could do that for a living,” she says of her college experience. “There was a lot of cutting out paper and studying the basic elements of design, like contrast, balance, and scale.” When she decided to follow her heart and try her hand at food illustration, she found she had all the experience she needed to thrive.

The only snag? Fierro couldn’t actually get paid for her food illustrations because didn’t have a green card. “At first, I was really faking it till you make it,” she recalls. “I built a portfolio over two years that looked like it could have been client work. So by the time that I finally got my green card in 2020, I was able to call and email people and be like, ‘Hey, here’s what I do. I can do this for you.’”

It took another two years of juggling her full-time job developing websites for Google, Spotify, and Nike with freelance food illustration gigs for Taco Bell, Tender Greens, and the Los Angeles Times for Fierro to decide to fly totally solo. Here, she shares how she has quickly established herself as a go-to food illustrator and, now that she has, what will come next.

Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?

Marianna Fierro: Everything starts with research because I want to represent the brand in a way that appeals to their customers. The target audience and visual inspiration sets the mood for the art direction, which then leads into me illustrating and designing. And if the client also wants support in photography or marketing on social media, I can also do that.

Recently, I provided art direction for Hedley & Bennett’s holiday campaign, working on creative for Instagram and newsletters. I’ve also supported Fishwife on the marketing end of things, evolving their brand guidelines and visual design. I designed the Food52 holiday popcorn tin for BjornQorn, which was super fun. I’m very, very happy with that collaboration. We have been fans of each other for many years and finally we were able to make it happen.

I also have my own online store, where I sell merch. I like useful gifts, so instead of coming out with prints, I started with kitchen tea towels in fruit patterns. With a tea towel, you can keep it as a piece of artwork or use it to wipe your counter. I really like the duality of that. My big break was with the mortadella tea towel set last year, which led to a mortadella beach towel, T-shirt, stickers, and wrapping paper. Now, I do offer prints, too.

In my previous full-time job, I spent the past few years working on websites for Google, Spotify, Nike, and Converse. For 2023, the goal is to be able to create websites for restaurants and food brands and beverage brands. I want to bring those two worlds closer to each other. That’s what I’m aiming to do.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

I thought I wanted to be a brand designer, focusing on visual identity. So creating logos, choosing color palettes, working on typography and iconography, illustrating — all of the elements that make up the visual identity. Then things progressed in a different way.

How did you get into the food industry?

I grew tired of working on branding projects, so I transitioned to UI/UX, which then led to becoming a product designer. I was working on mobile and digital screens beyond mobile, but that also ended up being not as creative as I wished it would be. Basically, by 2017, I was burned out and I was getting even more into cooking and posting as a way of hanging out with friends and meeting new people and building a little bit of a community.

And I had always, even in college, admired people that were in the illustration branch of the program. I was like, Man, that’s cool. I want to do that, but I don’t know how to draw. There was this project called the 100 Day Project and I just decided that I was going to draw a different food item every day for a hundred days straight. The caveat was it shouldn’t take me more than 20 or 30 minutes. It would be something that I would do on my lunch break.

Because it was something that I was doing in the office, it just made sense for it to be digital instead of drawing or painting. That’s how I ended up working digitally, which also made me feel more comfortable illustrating something that wasn’t completely realistic — it was more like my take on it. A hundred days later I was like, ‘Dang, I really freaking enjoyed this.’

When was the first time you felt successful?

During that first year after getting my green card in 2020, anytime I would get a project felt like a really big win. My first official paid freelance gigs were for Culture Pop Soda, Tender Greens, and VinePair. I would say the early highlights were working on a Taco Bell campaign and with Vampire Weekend.

How did the pandemic affect your career?

When people couldn’t get together and photograph food and drinks, many brands and editorial platforms started relying more on illustration. And the restaurant world was looking for new ways to generate income, so I started making merch for customers to support the businesses that they love. I was fortunate that I was able to keep working.

Did you have any setbacks? What were they?

Food illustration is definitely niche, which is both great and challenging. To make this a full-time career that pays the bills, while still working with restaurants that are small businesses, means balancing mom-and-pop projects with commercial work that isn’t always immediately related to food and beverage. It’s a lot of extra work.

I’m also learning about everything that goes into being an illustrator from the business perspective. A big example is licensing and educating the client as to how that works, to make sure the value and longevity of the work is understood.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

The decision to go full-time freelance was a long time coming. I was very fortunate that the Los Angeles design studio where I was an art director allowed me to move to part time in April 2022. I went from five days down to three. In November 2022, I took off the training wheels and left that job, knowing that I will be working on a few very exciting projects in the near future. I can’t discuss them in detail, but I can say I will be illustrating a whole cookbook and doing branding for a food YouTube series.

What would surprise people about your job? Why?

It takes a very long time to illustrate in my style, especially my editorial work, since I don’t have to worry about printing costs or color limitations. It can get very, very detailed and it can take a very long time. The most recent Thanksgiving package that I did for Simply Recipes included a lot of potluck tablescapes with hands and many sauces. Each sauce had at least a hundred plus tiny little pieces and took more than an hour to create. At times, it even surprises me just how long some illustrations can take.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

Keep your work honest to what you’re passionate about because then it will resonate with the right people. The right people will find you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.