When I was at art college, guest lecturers would regularly wow us with their intimidatingly wonderful accounts of high-profile projects and clients – but few ever talked about what happened in those initial wilderness years between college and their successful destinations. They never mentioned mistakes, rejections, wrong turnings, self-doubt or money worries. I always thought an honest-as-possible account of such things could be just as instructive. This in mind, 8 years ago I wrote a kind of diary looking back at my first 6 months as an illustrator after college, which I shared on my old blog. Here’s a slightly edited version of this piece.
Our tutor Jasper urges us to think of the degree show as our birth. At college we were cocooned in the safety of the institution within whose walls we functioned – but after graduation the real work begins. The walls are gone, and suddenly everything – and maybe nothing – seems possible.
I letterpress some little books of observational drawings and bung them in the post to a fairly random selection of industry folks. I don’t know what to expect. A week goes by and no responses. My tutor Ian warns me that I need to follow up all my mailers with phone calls, but I have a phobia of making calls at the best of times. I’ve even been known to stutter on the phone to National Rail Enquiries. I explain this to Ian and his typically dry response is “if you want to do this enough, you’ll overcome it.”
So, one Wednesday afternoon, I sit there with the phone, pacing my room and psyching myself up. It’s a while before I’m brave enough the punch the digits of the first person on my list, Brian at Central Illustration Agency. To my surprise, he is charming and instantly puts me at my ease. He remembers receiving my book, and proceeds to chat pleasantly about what he thought.
“There’s no hurry though, Peter”, he says. “Go out there and get yourself some paid work before looking for an agent. Oh, and enjoy it.”
I make the difficult decision to leave Brighton and move back to Dorset with Mum and Dad for a while. I hope it won’t be for too long – just until I make enough money to rent my own place. It feels strange to be back in the bedroom where I spent a good deal of my childhood. Space is immediately an issue. I have a cramped computer desk, with an old hand-me-down iMac. My A1 drawing board just about fits in the room, but it takes up the entire floor. I have to dismantle it at the end of each working day.
I relax a bit in August, but one day I come back from a day out by the beach in Weymouth to find an e-mail from a London-based magazine. They received my letterpress book, liked it and urgently want me to do a commission. I don’t get this message til 6.30pm, by which time everyone has left the office. I wait til the following morning, only to be informed that the job has gone to someone else.
“You really should have put your mobile number on the book! Editorial is too fast-paced for email” counsels the art director. I sense that he feels sorry for me though. He agrees to meet in person and take a look at my portfolio the following week.
Going to London from Dorset for appointments will be a problem, I can tell – the off-peak train fare is £40, the peak fare nearer £100. I’m forced to rely on the National Express coach – which takes three hours. Not wanting to be late for my 10.30 appointment, I opt for the earliest coach. This means leaving the house at 5.30am.
By the time I get to the magazine’s offices on Tottenham Court Road, I’m exhausted and nearly sick with nervous anticipation. A bored receptionist points me to a seat in the lobby. A few moments later Stephanie, a designer, comes out of the lift. “Richard is too busy to come down – but I can give you a couple of minutes”. She flips hastily through the folio. She isn’t rude, but I can tell this is a bit of an unwanted hassle for her. Five minutes later I am back out on the street again, wondering how that could possibly have been worthwhile.
A couple of weeks later, on a Tuesday afternoon, my question is answered when that magazine calls me with a job – a full page illustration to head up a listings section. They’d like a rough ASAP and final artwork by Thursday AM. I spend ten minutes dancing round my room in a paroxysm of delight before the reality hits me… Oh, I actually have to do this.
No-one at college ever explained what a “rough” really was. For instance, should it be in colour? How much detail should there be? Should you send one, two, three or four rough ideas? Not knowing any better, I jot down four black and white ideas. Version one takes me five minutes and looks really good. The other three take two hours each and look rubbish. Wednesday morning, I send the roughs across, and the art director picks that first, five-minute version.
In the afternoon I start to rework my sketch in colour. For the first time I experience the painful ailment I shall come to know as “rough-itis.” This occurs when a rough sketch captures a certain je ne sais quoi which one is then depressingly unable to recapture, let alone advance upon, in the final piece.
By 6pm on Wednesday I am starting to panic about this. I feel a nebulous weight of expectation upon me – the sheer clammy horror of wanting this illustration to be far above average, without knowing how to achieve it. It’s my moment – I’ve been waiting years for this. I want it to look great and be a manifesto for my new career. I silently remember all those days in college when we students used to sit round with the Sunday supplements, high-handedly dismissing all editorial illustration as “shoddy crap.” I sit amongst screwed up scraps of paper, realizing that my dreams have hit the brick wall of reality. Nervous tension makes my hand behave differently, and all the subtlety drips away from my line work. Drawing on demand is tough. By 8pm I have lost any ability to step back and assess the quality of what I’m doing. By 10 I have entered a new hinterland of inactivity, as the drawings stare menacingly back at me, resplendent in their artlessness.
By 2am I have pulled myself together, realizing that there are salvageable scraps of decent work in the bin. I start to cut them out and glue them down in a last caffeine-induced attempt to save my skin. I’ve never done collage before but needs must. The sun rises, and things look a little better. I have a completed image which I don’t like but am not too ashamed to send off. The art director nods it through unenthusiastically. It’s not the most auspicious start to my career, but I guess I’ll live to fight another day, right?
My days become filled with research. Obsessively I stand in a newsagent flicking through every single magazine, working my way across the shelves inch by inch, as I attempt to add to my list of names and contact numbers. It’s a depressing state of affairs. So few magazines use illustration. It’s like hunting for a needle in a haystack. One magazine, a surfing quarterly no less, does stick out. Their current issue features an absolutely stunning illustrated cover (by Paul Willoughby, I subsequently discover). Whoever commissioned that knows their onions. I put five stars against that mag and bump it to the very top of my promotional list.
The following Monday, I do a new batch of mailers. The surfing mag get an extra, extra special package, including postcards and a set of hand-finished books. To my amazement, their editor-in-chief Mike calls me two days later. He explains they’re arranging a last-minute trip to Ireland to generate content for a future issue, and would I like to come? I breathlessly agree – completely forgetting to ask about money.
After hanging up the phone, doubts seep in. What the hell was I thinking? I have agreed to take a train to Bath station this Friday, to meet a man I don’t know, who’ll drive me to Western Ireland where I’ll spend a week with a whole bunch of other new people, most of whom are surfing enthusiasts, sporty cool kids with whom I may well not share any common ground! And no mention of a fee…
Friday comes quickly. I have no idea what awaits me, but I feel impelled to take the plunge. Outside Bath station I wait for Mike’s car. A Land Rover pulls up and a big man with a beard opens the passenger door. Gingerly I climb inside. Mike’s voice is gruff, with a London accent. There’s a touch of the Ray Winstone about him. He starts to give me the full lowdown on the project. He’s got the gift of the gab and no mistake, this man. The intention, he declares, is to generate content for the new issue of the mag, and to work on a further body of work, which he intends to later publish in a book. Mike tells me that the project is very free flowing. They have a lovely house booked in the Irish countryside for all of September, into whose walls any number of surfers and creative people will be passing. The bad news is that there might not be enough beds to go round.
“Have you been to a festival before?” he asks. “Well… it’s that sort of vibe.”
Elsewhere in Bath we pick up another passenger – Spencer, a young photographer. We head on to Swansea, where we pick up Tara, another photographer – plus Adam her assistant and Polly her stylist. Strictly speaking there is only room for three people in the back seat of the car, but Tara re-assures us that Adam is “only very little.” For the next six hours I must endure a safety belt clip up my arse.
It’s nightfall when we reach the western extremity of Ireland. We’re staying in a house, miles from any sign of civilization, with sheep and cows for neighbours. The place is crowded with tall, tanned, beautiful people clutching bottles of beer. One randomly snaps Polaroids of his mates, while another stretches his bony figure out across a couch, idly strumming a guitar. Some of these people are world surfing champions. I’m introduced to the third best longboarder in the world. I want to ask him what a ‘longboard’ is, but instead I opt for “wow”.
The week passes slowly. Night-time is pretty horrible. I’m an insomniac at the best of times. I count off the miserable twilight hours, sometimes in a sleeping bag on the hard floor, sometimes sharing a single bed with a snoring Mike who, semi-dressed and comatose, is a frightening sight to behold.
Daytimes are surprisingly enjoyable. Silver-tongued Mike has persuaded a beer company to “sponsor” this whole endeavour. There are also a couple of people on hand to rustle us up healthy meals. Most of the surfers are incredibly friendly and kind. My biggest fear was that I might be sidelined by all these cool kids during their dinner gatherings – after all, I’m not one of them and they have no particular reason to be nice or interested in me. Whenever I fall silent, though, one of them ushers me gently back into the conversation.
My phone has no reception here which is a bummer to say the least, as it saddles me with a particularly annoying form of helplessness. The house is a great distance from anywhere, so going out alone to sketch feels rather risky. Several times I am rescued by the surfers, looking windswept, miserable and utterly lost at a road junction. As a non-surfer I know my week can’t help but be different to everyone else’s. They’re all off excitedly chasing the perfect wave, while I cling to my sketchbook like it’s a comfort blanket. It’s the only thing that justifies my presence here.
On the first day I do fifty drawings. One of them is a small A6 image that I sketch after clambering over rocks on the beach. I find a huge warning sign, explaining that I am leaving the lifeguard zone and entering a place of unpredictable tides. It’s not a great drawing, but when I add the caption “I feel I’m on the very edge of something”, I know I’ve captured the essence of my week. I am at the fringe of this social group, but also perhaps on the cusp of something wonderful that I can’t quite see yet.
I become good friends with Spencer the photographer during the week, and on the Thursday Mike decides that he and I should go off to the Aran islands on a kind of mini-assignment for the magazine. Mike has now discussed a fee with me, and as we step off the ferry onto one of Ireland’s most unspoiled and remote communities, I feel a ridiculous thrill of delight. I am actually going to be paid for this. We check into a B&B, then I roam across a windswept mountain landscape dotted with sheep and ancient dry stone walls. This is a paid job, I remind myself. I almost feel guilty at the mere thought.
Back to Poole with a bump, and the autumn brings complete radio silence. There was something so bizarre and delightful about the Ireland experience, but as weeks go by, I suspect that it’s no signpost of things to come. Perhaps it was merely a slightly intriguing red herring.
Spencer and I speak on the phone, and doubts creep in about the job we did. I submitted scans of my Ireland sketches a few days after getting back. Mike e-mails me to say he loves them and will send over a commissioning form soon. Thereafter, nothing.
From one of the other surfers, I finally learn that the magazine has gone bust, and there will be no Ireland issue, and no payment. A brilliant, delightful and wonderfully creative magazine has gone tits up. I’m sure the Ireland trip was the overspend straw that broke the camel’s back.
Life as an illustrator can be weird and lonely, never more so than at times like these. It’s impossible not to start questioning reasons for doing things. On the one hand, you see, it would seem incredibly ungrateful to bemoan my Ireland trip – a week’s free holiday with nice friendly people and the chance to sketch to my heart’s content. On the other hand, my nerves are jangling as I look at my bank account – running on empty with no spare cash to buy a winter coat. Free holidays in Ireland are cool for now, but how long can I keep on doing things for free? Plus, I worked damn hard on those drawings. They were meant to be seen.
It’s the lack of communication that I find hardest – but which I, like all illustrators, will have to learn to bear. As a freelancer, I’m at the bottom of anyone’s priority list, which I do understand. I know that other people have it much worse in this scenario – Mike and the magazine staffers are all out of work. It’s a sad ending to a journey that seemed to promise something really great.
Dusting myself down, I hit the promo trail hard once again. Each weekday I put a new set of tailor made folio samples into the postbox. Each Tuesday I make at least five follow up calls. Most people in publishing are reasonably cool with getting cold calls from illustrators. Only about one in ten (if that) express any particular interest in seeing me face to face though. I can’t guess how many of these translate into jobs, but I do know this – however depressing it seems, the alternative (hoping your name will get out there by some weird magical osmosis) is far worse. Being proactive is essential.
Things start to look up a little bit. The magazine which commissioned me back in August comes back with a couple more assignments. Meanwhile I’ve been targeting a particular international fashion magazine which uses illustration in an interesting way. I reckon my work would fit in there, and it would look great on my client list. I finally get through on the phone to their art director, who asks me to send over some jpeg samples.
Things move quickly from there. The very same afternoon he calls me back.
“It just so happens we’ve got a job here which could be perfect for you. We’re close to press day so it’s all very last minute though”
“That’s fine”, I gush, “Send over the brief and I’ll take a look.”
“Now… about money” the art director continues, “We’ve spent all our budget for illustration on this issue. If we give you a nice big credit line, would you consider taking this on pro bono? We’ll definitely pay you next time – and this is going to be a great advert for your skills to other clients.”
I feel backed into a corner somewhat, but agree to this loathsome proposition without hesitation. He’s right in some sense – at this stage in my career it’s far more important for me to get great names on my CV, and to concentrate on learning how to work to deadlines. Many creatives do unpaid work experience and internships – I guess I can choose to rationalise it as part of the deal.
As soon as I put the phone down, though, the grapes turn sour. How dare an international fashion magazine have the cheek to even ask me this? I flick through back issues and see photoshoots of razor-jawed models on sun-kissed LA beaches. They fucking well could afford to pay me if they wanted to. However, I’ve already neatly provided my own answer to the question of why they don’t – they asked me, and I didn’t tell them to sod off. Case closed.
I worry at my leisure about how irresponsible and damaging the simple act of saying ‘yes’ to free work is. The ripples spread out far beyond me, to future generations of illustrators. Unless people start to call this magazine out, they’ll keep asking. Then, when other magazines learn they don’t pay, the practice will spread. Yet, another voice in my head points out that if I’d said ‘no’ the art director wouldn’t have missed a beat. He’d have phoned another recent graduate and would easily found another person willing to do it. I’m coming to realise that taking an ethical stand is no picnic. It’s packed with grey areas and doubts.
The job itself is, mercifully, very easy. They don’t want a rough, and I spend a happy afternoon producing a great bit of work. The lack of a financial responsibility helps too – it feels like more of a personal project. I send it off and receive a delighted response from the client.
A day later, however, there is a further response. “The editor said he actually wanted something a bit more psychedelic. It’s our fault really because we didn’t properly discuss the finer points of this… So we’ve put a filter on your artwork in photoshop. Let us know what you think.”
I almost projectile vomit when I see what they’ve done to my sensitive, delicate drawing. They have ruined it with some crappy filter, plus a day-glo textured background. For the first time in my career, I have to put my foot down.
“Under no circumstances publish this. It’s no longer my work.”
To my surprise they acquiesce and apologize, publishing the piece as I had originally intended. Reflecting on the experience, I feel I’ve learnt a lesson about free work. When a client isn’t paying you, they often tend to take the assignment more lightly. In other words, they might not get their shit together and deliver a really tight design brief because they just don’t have so much invested. Money has a knack of focusing the minds of all parties. It’s not just a nice thing to receive – it’s also a kind of bond between artist and client. You treat their financial commitment conscientiously, but they also use it to signify their respect for you. Without it, you run the risk of being treated as worthless, and who wants that?
December finds me truly busy. I’m trying to get everything sorted for a pre-Christmas break with my brother, so everything gets brought forward. I’m sending out handmade Christmas cards to clients and working on several commissions for friends. Time speeds up.
Two very different jobs come in around this time. One is for the Christmas special of the same London magazine I worked for back in August. It has an extremely inauspicious start. The art director calls me and says he wants a quarter page drawing of a dog serving Christmas dinner. My heart sinks.
Sometimes I wonder what my portfolio really communicates. It’s filled with personal work – mainly observational sketches of scenes in my life. To a casual observer I guess the body of work boils down to ‘This guy is good at drawing realistically.’ But I’m still wary of people extrapolating the conclusion that ‘This guy can draw anything.’ There’s a difference. Example; I’m not a big fan of drawing animals, and I’ve never drawn a dog. I didn’t grow up with dogs, I have never observed them and I know nothing about the different breeds and varieties.
I always believe in being honest, so I tell the art director this.
“Come on, you can do it!” he says chirpily. “You don’t have to know about dogs, just get onto Google Images and get some reference!”
I’m still such a luddite. I’m aware of Google Images but thus far I have avoided it altogether, on principle.
“I don’t know…” I say with hesitation “It sounds like you’re looking for something quite cartoony – a dog serving Christmas dinner? That sounds like a cartoon to me, I don’t know if it suits my style.”
Oh, what the hell am I doing here? I’m talking myself out of a job.
“OK” sighs the art director, “Here’s what we’ll do. You pop off for an hour and see what you can come up with in your style. I’m not asking you to change what you do. If you still hate this job in an hour’s time then, no hard feelings, I’ll ring someone else. But at least give it a go.”
This moment stands out in my early career as an act of kindness, a chance very nearly lost through my own lack of faith. Thank goodness for the confidence and optimism of a good art director.
I go away, feeling tense and unsure. I do a few minutes of picture research online, then sketch an Alsatian removing a turkey from an oven. Just for a laugh, I write ‘Dog’s Dinner’ as a caption. It’s a bit of a magic moment. I scan it and send it – 40 minutes after the initial phone call.
The art director calls me back.
“I think we just proved a point!” he smirks. “I’m going to print that as it is. I know you considered it just a rough sketch, but… well, I think it’s a final artwork. Well done, send me your invoice!”
I have learned a massive lesson here, never to be forgotten – people will ask you to do things you don’t believe yourself capable of doing, but you have to take the leap of faith and to some degree mask your doubts. In only minutes I have produced a piece of work that will remain in my folio for years to come.
My second December job is very different in outcome, though. It comes from a small magazine produced in the West country. They would like an illustration to accompany an article about nappies. Yes, nappies. Their budget is small, but they promise me carte blanche.
“Read the article and then let your imagination fly!”, they exclaim. “No need to send us a rough. Also, no particular size constraints. Just do your thing and we’ll adapt the page layout.”
Looking at the calendar before my holidays, I have just one free day to spare. Riding high after my ‘Dog’s Dinner’ triumph, I decide this will be more than enough time. I accept the job.
The article, when I receive it, is possibly the most boring thing I have ever read, a dry series of facts and figures, related to that most unsexy of topics – baby crap. I knew the time would come when illustration would veer away from the exciting worlds of surfing competitions and high fashion. Here I am, I’ve arrived.
I can barely read the article without my eyes drooping, and everything I draw seems clichéd and dull. That’s no excuse, I know. My job is to put a clever and accessible sheen on these topics. They want something by 5pm and I’m struggling quite profoundly for an idea though.
When a deadline like this looms, the choices are stark; miss the deadline (which is of course completely beyond the pale) or just do your best and submit something, anything. When the deadline rolls round, I convince myself I’ve done an OK job under the circs. I can enjoy my Christmas break with a clear conscience.
The first working day of January hits me with a bang. A horrible e-mail, the kind that every illustrator dreads receiving but which few (from what I ascertain) can avoid in a working life.
The West country mag have got back to me. “This didn’t work for us. We’ve decided to ask another illustrator to have a go at this one. We’ll pay you half the fee…” Being an illustrator means putting yourself out there, and having your work critiqued and oftentimes rejected altogether. And rejection really hurts. When you care as much as I do, an e-mail like this feels almost like a physical blow.
I’m reeling from the shame of this, but I do also quickly realise that the art direction was a factor here. A few clues about what they wanted to see wouldn’t have gone amiss. More importantly, though, if they’d asked me for a rough sketch, I’m sure we could have thrashed out something acceptable to both of us. I’ve learnt yet another big lesson here. I used to dislike the idea of producing ‘roughs’. They used to seem like another pointless hoop I had to jump through, a way of distancing my final artwork from that initial spark of inspiration. But roughs are brilliant, and from now on I’ll positively insist on producing them, even if they’re not asked for. They’re like an agreement between artist and client, an insurance policy to make sure both sides have similar expectations.
I have to accept responsibility for turning in a bad performance, but with a focussed, on-the-ball art director the outcome here could have been very different. In this case, they ended up having to pay out half the fee and I didn’t see my work published. It was lose / lose.
I’m really upset but am reminded of something a tutor at college said. “Some people will love what you do, some people will hate it – believe neither.” I think he was trying to say; don’t be seduced by fawning praise, nor allow rejection to demolish you.
Nevertheless, the next day I wake up feeling profoundly de-motivated. My confidence has taken a knock. What I really need is some good news, a positive sign-post into the future…
At 11am my phone rings. A lady called Helen introduces herself. She’s an illustrator’s agent and likes my work. Would I be interested in coming to show my portfolio? A new phase begins…