On Wednesday this week I attended an event put on by The AOI (of which I and others of us are members of) called Head to Head, which presented "illustrators Jenny Bowers and Garry Parsons, who create imagery for a broad spectrum of commissioners, including editorial, children’s books, broadcasting and design. They talked about their work, careers, motivations and how they find work. The evening also included discussions moderated by Rod Hunt, covering a range of topics, including, Have you compromised your ethics for money? Do you feel the need to adapt for the future? How do you deal with clients, and other issues raised from the audience?"
It was a really good evening; I haven't been to an illustration talk for ages now and it left me feeling so inspired. Both illustrators gave a short talk about their work, what they do, how they got started, lots of useful things like that. Let's start with Jenny Bowers:
Her work is so lovely and so fun, the exact style I love. She has a unique visual language and I really aspire to have my work be so uniquely 'mine'. It's not quite there yet.
Jenny is part of the Peepshow Collective - a very established collective, set up in 2000, who have been going from strength to strength. She talked about how she joined (she wasn't an original member) and what they do when they are approached with projects; whether jointly, singularly, or just a few of them taking part. As a collective aesthetic, they're rather eclectic, which works perfectly on a lot of the things they do, especially large animation projects for clients like Nike, etc.
Above all, they are not precious about their contacts and ideas - everyone works together, and there's no sense of 'this is my contact, I'm not going to tell you' between them - if they feel like they can't fit the brief but someone else in the collective could, they tell them. It also means clients and art directors can approach them almost like an agency - all members can pitch for the brief and then it means that someone in the collective will probably get it - keeping that relationship with the client within the Collective so future commissions may come.
Garry was second and had a slightly different story, although many threads were the same. He isn't part of a collective so has gone the more 'traditional route', eventually getting himself an agent. Both agents talked about the merits and disadvantages of having an agent for a bit - Jenny having only just recently acquired one, Garry Parsons having had one for a bit longer. I think the message overall was this; you don't need an agent to be successful, and some illustrators prefer to not have one, but they can be useful for negotiating higher prices that you normally could, for getting to clients that you normally couldn't, and above all, being able to fight your legal battles with you (such as when clients steal your copyright or your work!).
Garry has 2 threads to his work; Editorial and Advertising (as above) and Children's Books. He keeps the two portfolios very separate and this seems to work well for him; both careers have run simultaneously and when one dries up a little, there's always something going on with the other one. This I think is a really healthy approach to have and shows you don't have to pigeonhole yourself into one 'type' or even one style - even though both portfolios are clearly 'him', both feel different.
Garry was originally a painter, and eventually arrived at illustration a few years after graduating. To this end, he still produces all his children's book work with paint and ink; but his editorial is done in Photoshop. This is mainly to save time, as editorial has very short deadlines, but also does lend that slight different aesthetic, which gives a nice differentiation between the two.
Garry has also had a long and successful career so far, and went fully 'full time' a few years ago now too, agreeing with Jenny that you have to juggle part time work with illustration for a good while in order to become fully established. He was lucky in that he was working 3 days a week in retail, and could spend the rest of the time illustrating; for those of us with full time jobs it becomes harder to balance the two. In the end he said, you just have to fit in the illustration where you can and eventually, it will pay off.
When talking about how he got his first paying client, he said he simply started the traditional route, and fired off hundreds of self promotional postcards to magazines. Eventually, he was offered work by a Nursing magazine; 11 years later he still does work for them! Which is amazing and pretty rare I think; but he offered a good piece of advice - don't ignore the lesser heard of, trade magazines, such as nursing, or financial/mortgage type things - they will often take a chance on less established illustrators, rather than chasing The Guardian or The Times; start small and move up to them.
He still now sends postcard mailers and says he still finds them the best method of getting new clients. Jenny agreed, and said don't underestimate the power of free work, or work done for exhibitions; even though they don't pay, the exposure can lead to paying clients spotting them and contacting you. For example, she did some free work for an exhibition, which the V&A spotted and then commissioned her for something similar:
Vases for Concrete Hermit exhibition, Jenny Bowers
At the end of the talk, there was a Q&A session, which had really varying questions, everything from What's the best way to get an agent, to what's the worst client experience you've ever had. (Amusing, some of them, but probably not at the time. Everything from over-demanding, underpaying clients, to big names that steal your work *cough*Topshop*cough*) It's refreshing, although somewhat worrying to hear these stories - it's not just the slightly dodgy, non-paying clients that can screw you, so you have to really know your contracts, know your rights, and above all, not get disheartened. The Aoi are great at giving advice and have all kinds of knowledgeable people that can help you out, it's one of the reasons why I'm a member. Luckily, I haven't experience a bad client or getting ripped off - thankfully.
A really insightful and interesting evening, and has definitely inspired me to get cracking on more self promotion and pushing myself further. Some food for thought on the whole Collective side of things too; things that we'll be taking on board I think!
What are your experiences with starting out as an illustrator? How did you get your first client, or are you still working on that? Had any disasters or successes? Do share with Tea & Crayons!