Freelance Illustrator Ben Tallon is now our regular columnist, penning his thoughts and ideas on freelancing in the creative arts industry. To kick us off, his first column covers his first steps from graduation and into freelancing.
Starting the adventure
Ten years ago, I floated around the Guildhall Theatre in Preston, the proud recipient of a fresh 2.1 BA Honours degree in illustration. Standing still with my parents and brother, this felt like a life moment, which it undoubtedly was. What came next would surely be revealed to me soon. But it seemed to prefer hiding to seeking.
My only realistic route into a career as an illustrator was as a freelancer. Very few people are adequately equipped for running a business so soon after university, including me. With several friends heading into £25k per year graphic design jobs, I lacked any clear direction.
The first six months were very difficult. Transforming my weekend job with Waterstones book store into a full time role meant that I could pay the bills and have a few beers, but the trade off was that I would return home in the evening tired and far from motivated to produce creative work. Furthermore, with the sudden loss of everything that full-time education brought; tutorial guidance, collaboration, shared ideas and a work space, I found myself trapped in my bedroom on a plastic garden table, calling it a studio; wishful thinking that not even I bought into. My output reflected this difficult transition. It was terrible in quality and little in quantity.
Searching for easy answers in an industry built on passion and hard work, unbeknownst to me at the time, was futile. I had vastly underestimated just how crucial those things were, having taken them for granted during my studies.
The turning point came when a friend hired out a former stable, which had more recently served as a mechanic’s workshop and now lay dormant. I needed to change something, so I took one of the five available spaces. It was freezing, basic, far from glamorous yet affordable and something inside me was immediately reactivated when I set foot in the place because once more I was surrounded by people.
Over the next few months, I would arrive in the evening after work and my thirst for progression returned. Now, the full time job took on huge importance because it funded kit, space and small investments in assets such as a website, promotional print runs and a phone contract that allowed me to call clients whilst forcing me to use my limited time efficiently. I was back in control.
Now that everything felt possible again, I spent most weeknights and weekend days in the stable and I developed fast because I was having fun, fulfilled by the rush of progression. I had constructive criticism from the other occupants, a friendly face at the kettle and separation from my home.
It took a year an a half to produce a strong enough portfolio in which I had enough confidence in to present to prospective clients, but I had as much fun, wrapped in several woolly jumpers, hats and scarves in that time as I’ve had on any job since and it showed in my rapidly advancing creativity and productivity.
What I learned then and continue to realise is that we’re all on very different journeys, none of them right or wrong, just yours. Thinking about the destination of that journey can be a heavy weight to carry and it is pointless to do so when we can only truly own the next part of the journey. Illustrator Boneface graduated from UCLan and was flown out to America to work with Queens of the Stone Age on their album art direction not too long afterwards. Miss Led, as detailed in episode 4 of the Arrest All Mimics podcast, spent 8 years in the creative wilderness, yet now enjoys a hard-earned place in the upper echelons of the business.
No matter the creative discipline, we each respond differently to adversity, success and the rampant madness that makes the creative industry so wonderful, terrible and exciting. What people so easily forget for a myriad of reasons is that they started doing this many moons ago simply for pleasure. So seek above all else, enjoyment of the journey and creative process. Listen to your mind, body and others to learn what works for you. Be open to criticism, chance and change. Hard work, patience, ample rest, collaboration, your personality/interests, networking and financial income are all vital, but procrastination, guilt, fear of failure, mimicry, self-imposed pressure and excessive isolation can be damaging. Sound confusing? It often is and it’s rarely easy.
The first steps are a new adventure. Embrace what course yours takes. Even the inevitable bumps in the road heighten the thrills of good times if you allow them to.