Speak­ing to the win­ners of the World Il­lus­tra­tion Awards 2018, we find out what it takes to make it in il­lus­tra­tion to­day

Computer Arts - - Contents - EMILY GOSLING


As sum­mer turns to au­tumn, we be­gin to leave be­hind the hot, heady months packed with not only sun-laden In­sta­gram hum­ble brags, and news­pa­per fea­tures ded­i­cated to at­trac­tive women en­joy­ing heat waves, but some­thing a lot more se­ri­ous: de­sign awards. There’s no deny­ing that the likes of D&AD pen­cils, the V&A Il­lus­tra­tion Awards, Brand Im­pact Awards, and AOI’s World Il­lus­tra­tion Awards mark im­por­tant and po­ten­tially ca­reer-lever­ag­ing points in a cre­ative’s ca­reer. But how do il­lus­tra­tors get to the point where they’re not just con­fi­dent enough to en­ter such awards, but ‘good’ enough to win them? And are these com­pe­ti­tions help­ful for their ca­reers?

An­dreea Do­brin Dinu, who won the AOI New Tal­ent award for com­mis­sioned ad­ver­tis­ing, found that the ac­co­lade was a great con­fi­dence boost as some­one rel­a­tively new to full-time il­lus­tra­tion. She hadn’t en­tered the work – her de­signs for the Art Sa­fari fes­ti­val in Ro­ma­nia – into any other awards event as “I don’t have the time,” she says. “I had no ex­pec­ta­tions, so I’m still blown away by that recog­ni­tion!”

While a great In­sta­gram feed, a jazzy web­site and a tonne of en­thu­si­as­tic emails to po­ten­tial clients pay div­i­dends, awards are a chance to guar­an­tee that your work will be looked at by some of the big­gest in­dus­try names. As Jim But­ler, who won the 2018 AOI pro­fes­sional, un-com­mis­sioned book de­sign cat­e­gory puts it, “it can be very hard to have your work no­ticed by peo­ple who might want to com­mis­sion it. If you just send an email, you have no idea if peo­ple will ac­tu­ally see it. Awards are a good way of fo­cussing you to get work to­gether and an ideal op­por­tu­nity to get your work seen,” he says.

Any­one who’s ever even glanced at so­cial me­dia un­der­stands how em­bar­rass­ing the com­pul­sive el­e­ment is that comes when chas­ing likes – not to men­tion the vam­piric at­ten­tion and time-suck­ing it re­quires. The ben­e­fit of such plat­forms, how­ever, partly lies in their forg­ing of com­mu­ni­ties – cre­atives the world over can eas­ily con­nect, and with vis­ual in­spi­ra­tion. But there’s noth­ing worse than see­ing artists ap­ing oth­ers in pur­suit of those lit­tle hearts and thumbs ups; the last thing we need is a Jon Burg­er­man copy­cat pitch­ing at (and miss­ing) those same notes.

Brighton-based il­lus­tra­tor Paul Thurlby scooped the 2018 AOI site spe­cific pro­fes­sional cat­e­gory win for his il­lus­tra­tions com­mis­sioned by John Lewis for use in their win­dow and store dis­plays themed around na­tional trea­sures. He con­sid­ers so­cial me­dia to be both a curse and a joy. “Things are dif­fer­ent now to when I left univer­sity,” says Thurlby (with 114,100 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, and count­ing.) “You can just get com­mis­sioned through In­sta­gram now!”

Dinu found the sheer vol­ume of pro­lif­er­at­ing im­ages on In­sta­gram, Be­hance and the like in­tim­i­dat­ing when she was start­ing out. “There’s just so much out­put and so many cre­ative peo­ple putting work on­line, it’s quite over­whelm­ing,” she says. “You feel you don’t even have a chance of be­ing vis­i­ble.”

For Es­ther Goh, win­ner of the AOI’s 2018 com­mis­sioned pro­fes­sional cat­e­gory, how­ever, Be­hance proved in­valu­able as a tool for get­ting her work no­ticed by peers from around the world. “De­sign sites wrote about it; peo­ple shared it on Face­book and Twit­ter; oth­ers pinned my im­ages on Pin­ter­est,” she says. “A few projects were also se­lected by the Be­hance team and fea­tured on their cu­rated gal­leries. Over time it had a snow­ball ef­fect – the more peo­ple fol­lowed, com­mented on and liked the work, the more it ap­peared on peo­ple’s feeds, and so on.”


For But­ler, one of the most cru­cial things in em­bark­ing on a cre­ative ca­reer is main­tain­ing a sense of co­terie – in the real world, as well as on­line – with other cre­ators. At uni, you’re sur­rounded by other peo­ple mak­ing work by de­fault, and it’s im­por­tant in nur­tur­ing a sense of self-iden­tity as a cre­ative to foster that in the real world. That could be as sim­ple as stay­ing in touch with for­mer class­mates. But where phys­i­cal prox­im­ity is lost when stu­dents move to dis­parate parts of the coun­try, it’s worth seek­ing out col­lec­tives (But­ler en­thuses about his post-uni time at Hot Bed Press in Sal­ford), or work­ing on DIY ex­hi­bi­tions, zines and other projects.

“It’s your peers that keep you go­ing, and keep that sense of [mak­ing cre­ative work] as be­ing cen­tral to who you are,” says But­ler. “That’s the most im­por­tant thing, rather than how quickly you start get­ting com­mis­sions. If in a year af­ter leav­ing uni you can say ‘I’m an il­lus­tra­tor or print­maker or artist,’ and you think that’s what you still do, there’s a good chance you’ll make it.”

Even so, no one said mak­ing it as a full-time il­lus­tra­tor was go­ing to be easy. “It was scary,” says Dinu, “but I had a gut feel­ing it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t 20 years-old, I was a bit older, and I un­der­stand that things don’t hap­pen fast – I still very much con­sider this a ca­reer path in its be­gin­ning.”

Mak­ing it as an il­lus­tra­tor is, of course, about much more than just great work. Goh ad­vises hav­ing a backup plan, and enough sav­ings to last you at least six months while you work on mar­ket­ing your­self and build­ing a solid port­fo­lio. “Put up only your best work on­line,” she adds. “Learn how to write con­tracts, li­cense your art­work, how much to charge and what fac­tors you should con­sider when do­ing a quo­ta­tion.”

As with any other dis­ci­pline, there’s no set path­way that neatly leads to an il­lus­tra­tion ca­reer. But­ler ini­tially worked as an en­gi­neer be­fore de­cid­ing later to do an il­lus­tra­tion de­gree, and con­tin­ued to work three days a week in engi­neer­ing while mak­ing his first steps as a cre­ative. Sim­i­larly, il­lus­tra­tor and pic­ture book-maker Soo Kyung Cho ma­jored in ceramic art for her BA at Hongik Univer­sity in Seoul, be­fore study­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­sign for her MA at Kingston Univer­sity. Dinu

first stud­ied busi­ness man­age­ment be­fore mov­ing into graphic de­sign, later mov­ing from her na­tive Ro­ma­nia to Ham­burg in 2016 to set up her own stu­dio, which now works pre­dom­i­nantly in il­lus­tra­tion with a some in­stances of graphic de­sign. What unites the bunch is an en­dur­ing pas­sion for draw­ing – what­ever job they did to keep land­lords at bay, they’d still be doo­dling. “Work­ing a pay­ing job and mak­ing in­ter­est­ing work aren’t mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive,” says But­ler.

Be­fore she even had any clients, the first step for Dinu was to sim­ply start mak­ing work for her­self and putting it on In­sta­gram and Face­book. From there, some small mag­a­zines got in touch and her first “proper” work be­gan trick­ling in. She also emailed a tonne of peo­ple, and par­tic­i­pated in a few In­sta­gram com­pe­ti­tions. Her ad­vice to oth­ers con­sid­er­ing mak­ing the leap? “If you’re ok with a very min­i­mal life­style, try it out, but I’d al­ways sug­gest hav­ing a par­tial backup plan.”


A com­mon route for some free­lance il­lus­tra­tors is if they’ve pre­vi­ously worked full-time in an agency. Lon­don-based Guy Field, who stud­ied graphic de­sign at Fal­mouth, has been free­lance since early 2018 af­ter work­ing at Stu­dio Moross in-house for around six years. He landed that cov­eted job thanks to an up­front port­fo­lio in the shape of his Give Me a Job zine. “When I was younger I thought be­ing an il­lus­tra­tor as a ca­reer was like be­ing a pro­fes­sional foot­baller – only the one per­cent make it,” he says. “That’s why I went into graphic de­sign, do­ing il­lus­tra­tion on the side, as that seemed like the mid­dle ground.” He was lucky to find work in an agency that com­bined both dis­ci­plines, and over the years took on free­lance com­mis­sions dur­ing evenings and week­ends, even­tu­ally de­cid­ing that the next log­i­cal step was go­ing it alone. “It’s been good, and in­tense, so far,” he says. Most of his work now comes from word of mouth, “through know­ing peo­ple in sim­i­lar pro­fes­sions – an­i­ma­tors, de­sign­ers and peo­ple who work in agen­cies. Peo­ple just email you be­cause you’re some­one’s friend, or some­one rec­om­mended you, but you have to have the work to back up the rec­om­men­da­tion.”

Clearly it’s not as sim­ple as study­ing an il­lus­tra­tion de­gree for three years, doggedly haul­ing a port­fo­lio around town and show­ing your work to po­ten­tial clients such as pub­lish­ers and ad­ver­tis­ing or de­sign agen­cies, as il­lus­tra­tors once did. In­stead, they have to un­der­stand and make good use of so­cial me­dia, be savvy about the busi­ness side of things, and be canny in how they make work and show it to peo­ple. “When I started out I made a point of go­ing out to show my port­fo­lio more, which I ac­tu­ally re­ally liked,” says Thurlby.

“I loved go­ing to dif­fer­ent build­ings and show­ing my work, even if when I look back now I don’t think it’s that good. But I be­lieved in it at the time, and that’s the main thing – to be­lieve in your work and show that you’re pas­sion­ate about it.” At the start of his ca­reer Thurlby fre­quently vis­ited mag­a­zines and pub­lish­ers he wanted to work with, gar­ner­ing mixed re­sults. “Once, I was show­ing my work to a pub­lisher who was say­ing ‘it’s great, we’ll def­i­nitely be com­mis­sion­ing you.’ I looked up and he was look­ing out the win­dow. I learned that some peo­ple say things for the sake of it.”

Then as now, per­sis­tence is key. Thurlby was keen to work for The Guardian – in par­tic­u­lar, its sports sec­tion. He sent his port­fo­lio over, only to be told the work wasn’t quite what they were af­ter at the time. “So I adapted my work to fit what they were look­ing for,” he says. “I didn’t make it into a style that wasn’t me or that I didn’t like, but I made it more graphic.” It paid off; the pa­per called while he was at the bar­ber’s to let him know they’d be com­mis­sion­ing him.

So while, as Thurlby’s story proves, it’s worth hav­ing an eye on what com­mis­sion­ers are af­ter, it’s equally im­por­tant not to just ape other artists and lose sight of your own per­son­al­ity in a bid to win work. It’s sadly a rare oc­cur­rence to see not just in­flu­ence, but plain rip­ping off in the il­lus­tra­tion world; Ma­lika Favre, Christoph Nie­mann, Thurlby him­self and many more are fre­quently par­o­died to the point of war­rant­ing law­suits (or at least threats of them).

How then do you make work that’s in­dis­putably yours, but ir­refutably


com­mis­sion­able? Every cre­ative dreams of hav­ing an own­able style that’s recog­nis­ably, dis­tinctly their own. Yet in a world where we’re bom­barded with vi­su­als at every turn, it’s im­pos­si­ble to not un­in­ten­tion­ally ab­sorb cer­tain ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to mer­rily just copy. “At the very least try and cre­ate some­thing from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, that has a unique flair to it, be­cause re­ally that’s one of the main rea­sons dis­cern­ing clients will pick you over ev­ery­one else who are do­ing the same sort of work,” says Goh. “And these are the clients that you want to keep.”


Of course, il­lus­tra­tion work that fits into a cur­rent trend is em­i­nently sell­able. But by their very na­ture, the style that dom­i­nates such trends is mu­ta­ble, so don’t just fall into the trap of groom­ing your­self into that same one-trick pony. “In com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tion it’s best to be ver­sa­tile in terms of the styles you of­fer,” says Goh. “You wouldn’t want to end up with some­thing that looks ob­vi­ously dated, though some trends tend to move in cy­cles or stay for quite a while.”

Field points out that while all il­lus­tra­tors are os­mot­i­cally in­formed by one another, it’s im­por­tant to recog­nise when that in­flu­ence plays out too much in your own work. “Stay true to your nat­u­ral way of do­ing things. You just have to keep grind­ing away for ages,” he says. “It’s im­por­tant to pay at­ten­tion to trends so that you have an aware­ness, and as an il­lus­tra­tor you’re go­ing to be in­ter­ested in other peo­ple’s work. A lot of your own style comes down to your hand – the way you nat­u­rally do things other peo­ple don’t.”

One of the keys to de­vel­op­ing a unique ap­proach as an il­lus­tra­tor is con­stant ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with pro­cesses, colours, scales, per­spec­tives and ma­te­ri­als. “For me, cre­at­ing a style is also about flex­i­bil­ity – hav­ing a unique style that works across var­i­ous themes is im­por­tant,” says Soo Kyung Cho. “It’s im­por­tant to be able to read trends, but I don’t be­lieve it’s im­por­tant for your work to fol­low them.”

Another in­valu­able piece of ad­vice is to look out­side of the il­lus­tra­tion world. In­ter­est­ing work, much like in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, comes from be­ing tan­ta­lised and cu­ri­ous. “Take an in­ter­est in things you don’t usu­ally no­tice,” Goh says. “It could be a cer­tain tex­ture, some­thing out of or­di­nary – see if you can find ways to in­te­grate it into your art. Fig­ure out a sys­tem: for ex­am­ple, if you draw hu­mans with tiny heads and large feet, then maybe your an­i­mals should look like this too? The key is to be con­sis­tent.”

Just as mu­sic jour­nal­ists, au­dio data­base Discogs and ba­si­cally the whole in­ter­net love the easy cat­e­gori­sa­tions that mu­sic gen­res of­fer, it might not al­ways be help­ful to make hard and fast dis­tinc­tions be­tween whether il­lus­tra­tors are re­spected artists or sim­ply com­mer­cial cre­atives, slaves to the com­mis­sion­ing edi­tor and the dead­line. Many dis­tin­guish be­tween il­lus­tra­tors and ‘proper artists’ in that the for­mer work to an ex­ter­nal brief, while the lat­ter are sim­ply cre­at­ing without for­malised bound­aries. Soo Kyung Cho, though, sees “no rea­son to sep­a­rate fine art and il­lus­tra­tion so strictly. Cre­ativ­ity and meet­ing a client’s need at the same time is re­quired for them both.”

But­ler, who works on a mix­ture of com­mis­sioned il­lus­tra­tion projects and self-ini­ti­ated prints and artists books (which he sells), views art and com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tion as a “broad con­tin­uum”, and he too thinks that it isn’t im­por­tant to make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween them. The only is­sue that he’s found is when ex­hibit­ing work in group shows dom­i­nated by prac­ti­tion­ers firmly in the “fine art” camp. “Some peo­ple might be­come a bit sniffy when they find out you work in or stud­ied il­lus­tra­tion,” he says. “I’ve never had any prob­lem with the idea of sell­ing art, or that art is com­mer­cial. Un­less you hap­pen to be mar­ried to landed gen­try, sell­ing your work is the only way you can make the time to make work. Surely that’s the point, to be able to buy your­self out of other jobs to make more [art] work - it’s cycli­cal.”


As Thurlby points out, “il­lus­tra­tors al­ways have to do self-ini­ti­ated projects to pre­serve their san­ity, so where do you draw the line? It’s all art re­ally, isn’t it?”

Now that YouTube tu­to­ri­als are ten a penny and soft­ware is far more ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able than ever, ques­tions arise as to whether those wish­ing to pur­sue il­lus­tra­tion as a ca­reer need bother spend­ing four years and thou­sands of pounds study­ing at art school. The ben­e­fits, of course, are struc­tured learn­ing, meet­ing like-minded peo­ple (as both pals and po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors) and ac­cess to equip­ment with guid­ance on how to use it that few peo­ple are likely to have at home. Where many sug­gest an art school ed­u­ca­tion is lack­ing, how­ever, is in its pre­par­ing stu­dents for suc­cess­ful prac­tice in the real world, such as how to pitch or the busi­ness side of things.


For Dinu, the ad­van­tage of for­mally study­ing graphic arts rather than be­ing self-taught was the men­tor­ship she had. “It’s the re­la­tion­ships I had with my pro­fes­sor and the other stu­dents that have im­pacted me most in how I think when I cre­ate an im­age,” she says. “That’s what joins up the think­ing process. Be­fore I went to art school I would never have con­sid­ered my­self an artist, but by the end, I had started to think like that.”

As well as work­ing on his own projects, But­ler also gives lec­tures on il­lus­tra­tion and book arts at Cam­bridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin

Univer­sity. Some­thing he al­ways tells his stu­dents is that “we’re not look­ing to start or end with the fin­ished ar­ti­cle in three years.” You might have 50 or 60 years of work ahead of you when you leave, and the way that tech-based cre­ative tools will change in that time is un­pre­dictable.

“It’s not just about be­ing au fait with tech­nol­ogy. It’s about be­ing able to adapt to the vis­ual world and play with vis­ual ideas,” he adds. You’ll adapt to the medium ac­cord­ing to your own in­ter­ests.” Much of But­ler’s own work deals in very phys­i­cal, ana­logue pro­cesses: screen printing, col­lages, mak­ing rub­bings (as in his AOI award-win­ning Black­rock Se­quence book, a project in which he col­lab­o­rated with a poet), etch­ing and more. “I en­joy us­ing my hands, and the phys­i­cal na­ture of how cer­tain inks sit on cer­tain pa­per weights, and how things can hap­pen ac­ci­den­tally. When on a com­puter that’s con­nected to the in­ter­net, I get dis­tracted and can’t make de­ci­sions,” he says.

In his teach­ing, But­ler en­cour­ages stu­dents to learn mul­ti­ple types of me­dia – phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal. The one es­sen­tial thing for stu­dents want­ing to be a pro il­lus­tra­tor is how to draw. “You need to have a real feel­ing for draw­ing, and an un­der­stand­ing of draw­ing as an il­lus­tra­tor. You need to be able to han­dle the fig­ure and nar­ra­tive. You also have to un­der­stand that you need to put in a lot of work to open up ideas and make things bet­ter; have an open­ness to rein­vent­ing your­self, not just go­ing for the first and eas­i­est so­lu­tion.”

He adds: “Some peo­ple ‘make it’ quickly, and some take much longer than oth­ers. To me, ‘mak­ing it’ isn’t just about hav­ing an il­lus­tra­tion pub­lished in The Guardian or The New York Times. If peo­ple are still mak­ing work, and that work is mov­ing on, then they’re ‘mak­ing it.’”

ABOVE Es­ther Goh cre­ated this key vis­ual as part of her art di­rec­tion and il­lus­tra­tion work for the Sin­ga­pore Writ­ers Fes­ti­val 2016.

ABOVE From Black­rock se­quence by Jim But­ler

ABOVE De­tail from Paul Thurlby’s Na­tional Trea­sures project, a com­mis­sion for John Lewis’ flag­ship Lon­don store.

ABOVE A mask by Soo Kyung Cho, who won the Chil­dren’s Books, un­com­mis­sioned, pro­fes­sional cat­e­gory at the AOI’s 2018 awards.

ABOVE An­dreea Do­brin Dinu’s il­lus­tra­tion for Ro­ma­nian arts fair Art Sa­fari, 2017. These won the com­mis­sioned ad­ver­tis­ing new tal­ent 2018 AOI award.

BE­LOW Art­work for a print work­shop with Make Good Prints by Guy Field, who went free­lance ear­lier this year af­ter six years at Stu­dio Moross.

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