Case Study: Commercial Illustrator - Helen

What do you do?

Well, I work for myself as an illustrator. I illustrate children's books, packaging design and illustrations for the web.

I make complicated or difficult messages easier to understand using illustrations. So, for example, I've done quite a lot of illustration work for domestic violence organisations, making their reading material more 'friendly' for children and sufferers of domestic violence.

What is your background?

Well, I studied fine art at university for three years and came out of that floundering a little bit really, because it's not a very vocational course.

I knew I wanted to do something to do with being creative, say, art or drawing or graphic design and I did a video production course which involved animation. I really, really liked that and that led on to doing some illustration work.

My first job was from a company that I already knew a little bit. They asked me to do some illustration work for some pet products. It was a really cute job; drawing hamsters in different scenarios. And once I did that work, I realised I really, really enjoyed illustration.

After that, I just carried on looking for more work of that kind. And at that point, I realised I needed to be a bit more businesslike about it, because I was kind of just taking on little jobs here and there. So, I wrote a business plan and went to the bank and I got some help from The Prince's Trust, and started from there really. And that was eight years ago.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

I think you need to have a lot of patience being an illustrator. A lot depends on the job or the commission that you're taking on. If it's a very detailed one, for example, you need to be able to plan your time, look ahead and make a strategy, so you don't just leap into it.

A lot of creative people are seen as not being very logical and not able to plan and think about things very clearly, so they tend to just leap into the job. I think that this is true for a lot of people, and myself personally sometimes. So, I think it's very important to try to engage that logical side and develop a strategy.

Another thing is not to be too emotionally involved in what you do because it's quite a personal thing being an artist or illustrator.

Anything creative that you love doing means that your emotions are often tied up in it. So that if a client, for example, decides not to take you on for a job or they choose somebody else or they criticise what you do, you have to be able to separate your personal feelings from that and try to be strong about it. Otherwise, you could end up just being on a really emotional rollercoaster.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

I think, as an illustrator, a lot of people stick to doing the same kind of thing. They may have a reputation for illustrating children's books or CD covers, for example.

But I think it's important not to pigeonhole what you do. Especially now with the web - there is loads of illustration work you could do with the web, graphics for the web, etc.

You could even go really big and design murals.

You don't just have to work on your own; you could work in a team or you could work in creative workshops with other people.

A lot of people think being an illustrator is a 'one-person' job, but it doesn't have to be at all.

What changes will there be in the future?

As there always has been, and always will be, I think the main changes are in the tools that we use. An obvious example is the development of the web and software changes.

The way that we use computers has also changed. When I first started out eight years ago, a lot of my peers were quite scared of computers and they were almost angry at them. They thought that if you used a computer you weren't a proper artist - you were cheating, almost - and that other people who used computers were sort of stealing work from them; they weren't true artists, if you like.

But I think most of them have now come round to realising that the computer is really just another tool, another kind of paintbrush, or whatever.

I think perhaps some of the biggest changes in illustration will be the way that you get a job. A lot of the changes that I've seen have been to do with commissioning. More people are buying 'stock art' now - like a sort of library of work - rather than commissioning individual artists. This has really moved on quickly because of the web, because it's so easy to access those libraries from the web.

But I think that changes like that are inevitable anyway.

I might be wrong, but I do actually believe that with art, it's a pretty long-standing kind of thing. I think in a lot of ways, there won't be that many changes, despite technology, or whatever. People will always want it, people have always wanted it, so I don't think it will be hugely affected, apart from perhaps the tools that we use.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

A lot of creative folk don't enjoy the logical, business side of being an illustrator, so that can be challenging. Although, that's not true for everyone.

That's certainly one of the things I struggle with. The business isn't just about drawing and painting and fiddling away at the computer. I'd say at least half the time, it's about actually going out to get work, doing marketing stuff, placing adverts, talking to people and ringing clients up. I find these aspects very challenging because it's something that doesn't come very naturally to me.

I think any self-employed person has to face these things, but it's also to do with the nature of being an illustrator. You have to be a marketing person, an accountant, an illustrator and a graphic designer all in one. You have to do lots of different things all at the same time and sometimes you don't feel like doing them, so that's a big challenge.

For a lot of arty people, the work they do is also their hobby and a bit of a passion. Trying to do that when you're not in the mood can be really hard sometimes, especially if you've got clients waiting for something. So doing something that you feel is more like a hobby, when you really don't want to, can be quite challenging.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

I think it depends on the kind of person you are. If you're quite comfortable with going out to make contacts, talking to people and getting yourself out there a bit, then it's ok and you won't find it too difficult to actually find the work and for the work to keep coming in.

I think if you're a very shy sort of person or somebody who loves making art and being creative, but struggle a bit with the business side of things, I don't think it's going to be quite as easy, especially to get started.

However, I found that there are a lot of agents out there who are prepared to take on people who come straight out of college - whether it's illustration college or art college.

They like working with young talent and spotting somebody who has got potential, but obviously hasn't got an idea yet about the real world, how business works and what's involved. They're prepared to take them on to their books and represent them, but also develop their skills at the same time. A two-way relationship can develop.

Looking back, I kind of think that it would've made things easier for me if I'd done that. It would have taken the stress and pressure off because I found it quite difficult actually starting up and knowing where I was heading.

I think if you're actually going to illustration college, which I didn't do, or going into a course in illustration, you get taught a lot more about how it all works, the whole commission process and that kind of thing. So, I was at a little bit of a disadvantage there.

However, in general I'd say it all depends on who you are as a person and how easy you find it to actually go out and get the work for yourself.

What do you like about your job?

I love drawing and I love painting and I really love making pictures. I sound like a big kid really - like a kid with a colouring book!

And so when I'm drawing, whether it's on the computer or however I'm doing it, I'm just in my element really. I could even say that when I'm still working at two in the morning, knowing I've got to get something in for first thing in the morning.

If it's something I love doing, I can just about put up with it. Whereas I think if it was a job that was something that I didn't like, I'd be really fed up by two o'clock in the morning.

So, I think the best bit is actually doing the drawing - the creative stuff.

What do you dislike about your job?

I don't really like the negotiation side of actually getting work in, and the initial contact with customers when they've found me from my website or through my marketing, etc.

When a new customer first contacts me, I find it exciting: the potential of new work or the potential for a new relationship could be really, really good! But at the same time, I bite my nails and get really stressed about the idea of talking about how much it's going to cost.

I don't actually have a problem with the idea of negotiating because I think a really basic thing about life is that we all trade with each other. It's just the initial setting up of the relationship can be a bit daunting.

Once talk of the contract, copyright and licence stuff and money matters is out the way, I feel more relaxed chatting away with clients on the phone.

I also don't really love the accountancy side of things. But as a very small business I've found it's ok to do my own accounts, rather than paying an accountant; it can be hard to find a good one sometimes.

What else do I dislike about my job? To be honest, I really like my job, so can't think of anything else!

What are your ambitions?

I don't know if this sounds a little bit 'laid-back' but I haven't got any 'Richard Branson' sort of ambitions really, to be rich and famous, blah, blah, blah.

But I do really like the idea of having a bit more of a steady flow of work because since I've started it has been quite up and down. I've been very used to a sort of flow where you'll have a lot of work, and then the next month you won't have any work.

Even though it balances out in terms of income, it's sometimes quite scary not knowing if any more work or money is going to come in. So having a steadier flow of work would definitely be an ambition.

I also think to be happy with what I'm doing, and to keep being happy with what I'm doing. In terms of success, I see it as being happy with what you do and not having too much stress, not worrying too much about whether you've got enough money coming in.

I suppose a part of me - I don't know if it's the part where my ego lives - would like to have more work published and see it up on the shelves and being enjoyed. It's not so much to do with wanting to have loads and loads of stuff out there, but just the feeling that it's under the noses of people who are really enjoying it.

I think these are probably my main ambitions.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

It's important to get advice first - talk to people who already do this kind of work, perhaps other illustrators or artists you might know. Find out what their journey was like. They might advise you to go a certain way or put you off taking a certain path that was difficult.

I actually did a fine art course not illustration, but I've often thought, it might have been better to have done an illustration course because you get exposed to a lot more information about other illustrators who are doing the job successfully. You get taught how to go through the whole process of taking on a job and receiving payment, etc.

It's hard for me to advise going on an illustration course because I didn't do one, but it's really important to talk to other people who are studying on that course, and people who have come out the other side and are working as illustrators successfully, just to find out what their take is on it.

It's not always necessary to go to college either. There are illustrators who are passionate about drawing or being creative who don't take the college path, but they either go it alone as a self-employed person or look for work in a creative team within a design agency, for example.

If you want to become a freelance illustrator it might be an idea to have another job running alongside it when you start, so that the pressure is off when you first start having to survive just on your illustration income.

It's also worthwhile talking to agencies and projects who provide grants for young artists coming out of school or college who want to set up in business. I talked to The Prince's Trust and received a grant and a lot of advice on how to write a business plan and how to get help from the bank, so trying to just go it alone is not a good idea unless you've got support from your family.

A day in the life

A lot depends on the amount of work I'd have on in that day, sometimes I could be getting up at six in the morning and going to bed at two at night, eating at my computer, etc. It can be really tiring!

Other days, I might only do three or four hours a day, but in an average day with medium workload it would be as follows:

8:30 am - 9:00 am

Check emails and write any that didn't get written the day before.

10:00 am - 12:00 pm

Start illustrating.

12:00 pm - 1:00 pm


1:00 pm - 3:00 pm

Continue drawing or designing.

3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Do some accounts or paperwork. This may involve going to the bank or into town. This also helps break the day up, as working from home can give you a bit of 'cabin fever' sometimes, so it's good to go out.

4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Finish off illustration work for the day.

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