When I started out with aspirations of making a living from freelance illustration, it all felt very confusing. For some time, nothing happened. Motivation seemed to have been locked inside the university building and many alternate careers crossed my mind, most of them due to panic and not feeling ready to face the fight ahead.
Full time work at Waterstones paid a very basic wage, but left me tired when I would arrive home around 7pm.
Eventually, I regained something close to a spark and set about resuming the journey that had taken me from my parents’ kitchen table, creating artwork simply for personal pleasure, via GCSE art, BTEC National Diploma graphic design and BA (Hons) Illustration, right back to… well, a kitchen table, this time shared by three graduates without a clue.
My first steps to creative rehabilitation went like this:
- Buy a £20 plastic garden table from B&Q
- Put up several posters and the work of personal heroes on the wall
- Split the price of a copy of ‘The Artists and Writer’s Yearbook’ between each of us and share the magazine and book directories within
- Join the Association Of Illustrators
- Register my business name with HMRC
- Start a contact database with my rudimentary spreadsheet skills
- Painstakingly build a website with non-existent coding skills and a ‘Dreamweaver For Dummies’ book.
Then the hard work began, the long hours pestering people I wanted to work for. The nerve racking phone calls to art-directors who probably had better things to do than spend time listening to a stuttering northerner ask if he could send over a portfolio link, then the silence following wave after wave of introductory emails.
Eventually, my portfolio would start to improve and I gathered a smattering of encouraging acknowledgements by some magazines, tiny lights at the end of the tunnel to keep me going.
I didn’t stop to assess whether the style I had developed might fit the kind of publications I had put in my database. With hindsight, some of them were simply a waste of time because I went down the route of specialist style with a masculine edge and these magazines catered for a readership that did not really match.
Then I started to smarten up. After picking up a copy of the now defunct Leeds United Football Club glossy magazine, Leeds Leeds Leeds, an act that had become ritualistic to me since it’s inception in the late 1990s, I had wondered why they never utilised illustration. Traditionally, sporting magazines were photography heavy, but having drawn (mainly Leeds United) footballers for pleasure throughout my childhood, it irked me that I had not yet been given the chance to do this professionally for the club. So after leaving the copy of the magazine on my bookshelf for months, I finally called them up.
By this time, I had been published in The Guardian for who created one music illustration and one cricket illustration. When Saturday Comes gave me my first commission in football just before that, equipping me with a nice showcase of what I could do. To my surprise, I was greeted with a friendly voice, which told me that the publisher was aware of my work, having read The Guardian and that I couldn’t have timed my approach any better. They had held a meeting the day before in which they agreed to revamp the look of Leeds Leeds Leeds. I worked for them every issue for the remainder of the magazines existence until 2011.
From that point on, I have not relied on clients who already commission my services. Whilst these are obvious targets, I find that many people are open to suggestion an oftentimes, it is simply the case that they have just not thought about using illustration, or been unsure of how the process would work and therefore reluctant to gamble. This means that far fewer of my competitors have approached and the odds of me gaining a project are much higher.
To this day, even with existing clients, I like to think beyond the initial brief and come up with my own ideas, ask them if I can buy them coffee and elaborate, thus generating my own work opportunities. If the magazine feature in which my work would fit perfectly does not yet exist, who is to say that I cannot come up with the idea and pitch it? It’s happened many times and continues to do so!
These days, it’s a savagely competitive industry, so avoiding the beaten path is not the worst thing you could do.
Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries and host of Arrest All Mimics, the Original Thinking and Creative Innovation podcast.
He works with WWE, EMI, Channel 4, The Guardian and The Premier League among others.