The vast landscapes of the American West have had a deep hold on so many of us. The pull is rooted in adventure, sure, but also culture, aesthetics, philosophy.
For graphic designer, illustrator, and hobby film photographer Abby Leighton, those landscapes are the essence of her work. A current resident of Moab, Utah, Leighton initially studied design in New York City at the Pratt Institute and did time interning for big names like Marvel Entertainment and PledgeMusic. But when she found a job listing for a national parks souvenir designer for Eagle River Designs in Moab, she readily headed west, trading skylines and subways for red rocks and desert sands.
After working the souvenir design job for a couple years she headed off once again, this time into a full-time career as a freelance artist and graphic design brand strategist working one-on-one with brands to create logos, websites, and an overall strategy and message.
She also sells her own souvenirs as well as nature-themed goods through her shop, Abby's General Store, which she opened in Moab's co-op design studio, Goblin Studio, in May 2021. Leighton also recently finished a three-year-long project: a book of hand-illustrated maps for every national park.
We recently caught up with Leighton to talk about her artistic process, her career as a freelance artist, and her connection to the American West.
How would you describe your artistic style?
It's like an extension of me—any art that artists make will be in their style. I like to describe it as 'whimsical Western,' that's a term I like to use. It's very Western and I feel like it's very warm-toned and colorful. Both in my film photography and in my design work, I use lots of pinks and oranges and turquoises and I really love going after specific color schemes.
"You shouldn't become irrelevant if you're not posting on Instagram for two weeks."
How did you get into film photography?
Two to three years ago, I was on this road trip to visit my aunt in California, and I had this longtime friend named Angie and her husband Matt and they just got this job running a film photography store in Kanab, which is this awesome, cute, old Western town in southern Utah. It's called Terry's Camera Trading Co. and they have every film camera and film you could possibly imagine.
I was going to Death Valley and Yosemite on this road trip, and they said, "Why don't you just take this Mamiya RZ67 on a road trip? We'll teach you how to use it, give you a free roll of film and develop it for you."
Honestly, half the roll did not come out because I had no idea what I was doing. But a couple of the pictures came out and there was this picture of Half Dome I took, it was this misty winter morning, and I just loved it so much. And that was the picture that really made me fall in love with film.
What camera do you shoot with now?
I shoot with a Pentax 67 and I also have a Canon AE-1. I would like to get nicer ones, and an additional medium format camera, but I think those do a good enough job for me. I usually shoot with Portra 400—I feel like everyone does that, but you can't really go wrong with that film. I really love the colors it creates.
You went to design school in New York. What draws you to Moab now?
Living in Brooklyn was a lot for me. Personally, I thought I was a city person, but living there for two years, I realized that I'm not a city person. I really love being immersed in nature and being amongst red rocks and beautiful landscapes because I am inspired by that stuff so much and I work on things that are themed around that every day. It really helps to be able to just look out my studio window and see the Moab rim and the colors and the sunset.
Did the move inspire a change in your design work?
Definitely. My senior thesis was basically this book called National Parks Maps where I illustrated a map of every national park. It started at the beginning of senior year and I didn't finish it until after I moved to Moab—I was living here for about four or five months before I actually finished it.
Even just working on that project, and then moving out here and finding inspiration in different typography and signage and landscapes out here, I could definitely see my design style shift. Looking back at maps that I made when I first started that project, I would do it completely differently now.
What is your relationship with social media like as a freelance artist?
I definitely have a love-hate relationship with it. You can build a really awesome community on there. It's where I get most of my income—most of my clients come from Instagram and other social media platforms, like Pinterest and Reddit, but it can also be very easy to compare yourself to other people and then feel down about yourself.
And the whole "Oh, you have to have a posting schedule, and you have to post on your story multiple times every day, and you have to post four times a week, and make reels…" I feel like there's this culture around that that is pretty toxic and overwhelming. Social media management itself is its own job. There shouldn't be as much pressure; you shouldn't become irrelevant if you're not posting on Instagram for two weeks.
Do you have advice for photographers or artists who want to work for themselves and get into the freelance world?
I would say just do it, but you do have to have some leverage to fall back on. You have to build up the freelance work first, before you quit your job, unless you have a significant amount of savings. You need to be able to support yourself for a long period of time. Get your work out there and share it, even if you're just cold emailing and DMing people—people shame that, but honestly, the worst that can happen is they say no, and the best that can happen is they say yes.
Any cool trips coming up?
I might be going to Alaska, which will be awesome. I'm really excited about that and I'm also going to New Mexico, which I've never been to before. There's a lot of cool, abstract landscapes there that I've been really wanting to shoot. Those are just fun travel trips. I try to do those pretty frequently because that's where I find the most inspiration.