Born Freelance

What is the life of an illustrator like? An article I wrote for BLUME magazine, published May 2017.

It is well known that illustrators get out of bed around the time people with proper jobs are having their lunch breaks. Idly sipping the first coffee of the day, the illustrator leafs through the newspaper, watches birds clowning outside the breakfast room window, and daydreams. Three or four coffees later, the illustrator is suddenly struck by inspiration, jumps up from the chaise lounge, rushes – still wearing pyjamas – to the large antique oak desk and works furiously for a couple of hours, creating watercolour paintings for a children’s book that will later become a bestseller and make a small fortune. Exhausted, the illustrator sighs, pushes back the chair and thinks, ‘Time for an afternoon nap before supper!’

Or, as a primary school boy told me on a recent school visit: ‘Isn’t it unfair that you get paid just for sitting around doing drawings?’ I hoped the little brat would get detention for this insolence, but no such luck.

You get the idea – these are the preconceptions. But what does an illustrator’s work day really look like?

Firstly, there is no sitting around waiting for inspiration to hit you like a sudden bout of diarrhoea. All professional illustrators I know have fixed work habits and daily routines. And deadlines – once the printing presses are booked, they wait for no one. As illustration great Quentin Blake puts it, “I don’t wait for inspiration. I’m not, in fact, quite sure what inspiration is, but I’m sure that if it is going to turn up, my having started work is the precondition of its arrival.” Having no bosses, illustrators have the luxury to figure out the routines that suit them – 9 to 5, graveyard shifts, fit the work around your children’s school days – but with no routine, little gets done. I start my work day at 7 o’clock in the morning these days and finish after about eight hours.

Where do illustrators work? In their homes, mostly. Illustration is a cottage industry. Now, working from home is fraught with dangers. The fridge is never far away from the desk – if you’re not careful, you’ll get diabetes or something. Also, you’ll never have the wonderful feeling of coming home after a day’s work if your work is at home. If you live with someone, they have to suffer with you if you’re dealing with a problematic client. But I have tried both – working from home and working from a rented office, and I prefer working from home. I can contact overseas clients more easily at weird hours of the day, my art materials and books are all in one place, rather than always at the place where I am not. Also, I save travel time. That said, I still like to whinge about the daily commute from my kitchen to my studio, just to wind up friends who spend every morning sitting in traffic jams listening to breakfast radio.

There are so many different types of illustrators! Have a look around you, you will find illustrations everywhere: magazines, book covers, packaging, advertising, signage, instruction manuals, science publications, cards, architects’ proposals, and yes, children’s books. The little picture of a strawberry on your jam jar – an illustrator did that. The drawings telling you how to put together your flat-packed furniture – an illustrator is helping you there.

Is illustration art? Now, I’m not going to get into this cage fight, but it’s odd that the term “illustrative” is still used to describe bad art. Poor illustration! Illustration is the embarrassing bastard child of fine art and graphic design. It is too grubby and practical for the fine and very fine artists, and too flighty and artsy for the designers. “That’s not art, that’s illustration!” Considering that pop stars are called artists, I reckon illustrators can call themselves artists if they want.

Not that I care. I’m happy to see myself as a craftsman. The main difference between illustrators and artists is that illustrators work on assignments. Artists create first, then sell their “product”. Illustrators get commissioned, just like artists were in the old days. Michelangelo didn’t like his commission to paint the Sistine Chapel at all – he would have preferred to return home to keep working on his sculptures, which were his true passion. Instead he had to lie on his back on scaffolding and have paint splatter into his eyes. I imagine some cardinal walked in and said, ‘I showed your work to the team, and the feedback was that it is a little…illustrative. Also, the Client was wondering if we could try a version with Adam changed to a general on horseback, just to see if it works better with the target demographic.”

Most of us illustrators are freelancers. The expression “free lance” was originally used to describe mercenary foot soldiers who weren’t sworn to any lord and would fight for money. Guns – or rather, spears – for hire. I began working as a freelance illustrator in London in the late 1990s, way back in the last century. I used to carry my finished illustrations to the local Indian corner shop that doubled as a Post Office and sent them to my clients by snail mail (which back then was just called – wait for it – mail). For urgently needed illustrations, the client dispatched a courier. I enjoyed the adrenaline of these faster jobs back then, using a hair dryer on the wet drawings with the helmeted motorcycle courier waiting. Then off he raced with the artwork, weaving through the traffic.

What I’m saying is, I’ve been in this game for a while. And the game has changed. Some changes are fantastic – now that I am sending illustrations as email attachments, I am able to live anywhere I like and work for clients all over the world. Some developments are not so marvellous, such as the shrinking of traditional illustration markets because the 2008 banking crisis and the rise of digital news and e-books. Many illustrators feel that the best way to deal with the negative changes is to think more like an artist. As new and affordable avenues have opened for producing and distributing illustrated works such as books and graphic novels, independent of the large publishing houses and other gatekeepers, illustrators can now work on projects close to their own hearts, and find an audience afterwards, just as artists do. Incidentally, working on personal projects is also a proven method to keep your illustration work fresh and your enthusiasm high throughout a long illustration career.

Recently, I sometimes think about the Swiss Renaissance artist Urs Graf. He was a book illustrator, printmaker, goldsmith and painter. And every now and then, when he wanted to earn some extra money, he got his sword out of the cupboard and worked as a mercenary soldier.

But I have to wrap up now. I must get up from my divan, change into fresh pyjamas and put on my fancy silk bathrobe. I have a business meeting to attend in twenty minutes. •