Finding the right fit
It has taken me a long time to work out where I fit in as an independent author and illustrator. I graduated from Derby Uni in January 2009, but it took me another 6 years to pluck up the courage to try and make money from things I had made. Then it was another 4 years after that before I really started to take things seriously. Why? Well, I had a career goal to strive for a life in children’s book illustration, which was why I went to Uni in the first place, BUT I had no real clue about how to go about it once Uni was over. The world of illustration felt big and all the doors were closed to somebody who didn’t feel confident in their visual voice.
The general thought from everybody I knew, was that you went to Uni, worked hard, then you got the job of your dreams. It started to become apparent during my third year, that this wasn’t necessarily true and that the competitive nature of the creative world meant options for a real career looked limited. In fact, by all accounts, it looked as though you had to start at the bottom again (junior roles at graphic design agencies, a career in teaching anyone?). So naturally, I just found a way to survive by drifting along in any paid roles that appealed to me and that I could get (hello, retail).
The enjoyment of retail led me to try selling my own hand illustrated cards one Christmas in 2015 at a local wedding venue, Horsley Lodge. I managed to drag my partner Tom into it as well, and we both had a go at selling cards and prints. I drew little line drawings, then photocopied them and hand coloured each one, mounting them onto cards. Tom created beautiful little lino cuts using a small hand press to print directly onto cards. We had no idea what to expect, and luckily it was a busy evening, where we seemed to make a decent profit. Lots of family and friends came to support us too and the whole experience was positive. However, the amount of work that went into preparing for this one event whilst working around our day jobs, meant we didn’t do any more for a few years!
Fast forward to the present day, and I am now joining in with various markets when I can and when time allows. I still find them incredibly hard work, but now that this is my full time job, I can be flexible enough to work around drawing, tasks and orders during the day. I remember feeling sick with nerves at my first Derby Book Festival stall, a year ago, and wondering whether it was all worth it. But once people started arriving and buying my products, I settled in and enjoyed the experience of talking to people. I know my confidence has grown with each stall that I do, and I am always looking for ways to improve my displays (I think they have got better each time).
2. Consistency is key
I never lose sight of what it is I want to achieve. The thing that I am most passionate about is storytelling through illustration, and all the while, I am looking for ways to get better and better at this. I have a real love for children’s picture books, as you are probably well aware by now, so anything that I create has this kind of brand identity. My goal is always to make the next children’s picture book, but because they take so long to make (and nobody is paying me to make them), I have to work on other products to survive.
I didn’t really intend to go quite so heavily into greetings card designing, but it seems to have happened! Steadily my card range has grown and with it, an improvement in my designs. The thing I like most about designing cards is finding my “niche”, the thing that separates me from others. I like designing windows into little worlds, and I try to tell a story through each image. I’m just not the kind of person to stick a simple font or a graphic shape onto a blank card, I like to add as much detail as possible, just like my books! Through learning to bulk buy cards at the printers (to get a better cost price per item), I now enjoy releasing card collections. For the latest Christmas cards, for example, I liked the idea of showing what a family of red squirrels might get up to in four separate scenes. The storyteller within me just refuses to draw one squirrel stood in the snow with a Merry Christmas banner – it must be: “What is the squirrel up to? What’s the relationship with the other characters? How does it relate to my idea of a perfect Christmas?” etc!
The more card designs I come up with, the more ideas I have, and the more my illustrations improve. When I look back to the hedgehog and robin Christmas cards of 2019, as nice as they are, they look a little sparse and not very “finished” (by my standards today, anyway). Greetings cards satisfy that need within me to create an idea from start to finish in quite a speedy way, compared to a fully finished picture book (which may take years). Not only that, but they really do keep my very small business ticking over now, so I have come to rely on them quite a bit.
Keeping this steady work flow throughout the year – whether it’s cards, books, commissions, calendars or sketchbook research – REALLY has improved my work over the years. All these little projects running alongside each other also help me work out what I want to communicate and work out why they resonate with people. A lot of the time it’s guesswork, and I never create products for a target audience, I am just trying to find like-minded people with the same interests as me.
While we are on consistency, I also try really hard to promote myself on various free apps on social media whenever I can. It’s never enough to just “make the thing”, you’ve got to find a way to show people, if you’re trying to make a living as an artist. I have noticed a real difference since I started showing up every day whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Threads, Pinterest, Etsy… Some apps work better than others, but overall, I have made contacts and sales through all of the apps mentioned. It’s a hard slog, but I try to treat it as if I have a boss breathing down my neck telling me to market the business every day or I won’t get paid!! The only way I can make it work is to promote stuff first thing in a morning, dabble with them at lunchtime/evening, then use the rest of the time to actually do the work! It is hard though and I don’t blame people for giving up with some of them. The key is to find a way to enjoy them – then it doesn’t feel like work. I have surprised myself this year by enjoying creating Reels on Instagram. Generally they take a bit more thought and planning than posting one image, but I’ve started viewing Reels as another way to “tell a story” and I get quite excited about them now.
3. Never miss a sale
A rule/motto/mantra that I created for myself when I gave up the security of a regular paid job! I figured that every sale from something I made, however small, was a step in the right direction and should never be taken for granted. I think this way of looking at things when sales are slow has helped me carry on the will to survive in this business. It also means flexibility is of the upmost importance. The way that people shop online now means that they will buy things at all hours of the day, any day of the week, so I just decided that I would keep my online shop open pretty much all the time! I also make sure that it’s as easy as possible to contact me, anytime, anywhere. Freelance work demands this, but you can still put boundaries in place so that you have time off/breaks when you need them. I don’t mind this way of working at all, and I’m the kind of person that struggles to fully switch off from work…mainly because I just absolutely love what I do. There are too many ideas in my brain and never enough time to create them!
4. Stick with the magical people
I know can’t rely solely on the constant support of friends and family. After all, they have their own busy lives and life goals to achieve. However, it is also impossible to go through life without them cheerleading me on! I feel sure I would have given up a long time ago without this.
When you start a small business, at the beginning, it seems like the whole world wants you to succeed and it seems like the attention will go on forever. Naturally, after things have settled, it becomes harder to keep people’s attention. Some people drift away and some people stick with you, and some new people pop up to offer a little unexpected magic…just when you need it the most. These people see the unique things within you and champion that fact, which gives you the courage to take a few more risks to carry on. It’s so important to remain connected with the true friends and family members who will keep you afloat when times are at their toughest.
5. Compare yourself to others
Not in a competitive false idea of what success might mean, but in a more positive, inspirational way. During Uni I was unhappy with everything I made because I was under the impression that I had to mould myself into something that I wasn’t. Everyone seemed to be banging on about the importance of digital illustration, but every time I tried this, my artwork felt flat and soulless. I realised digital illustration was a whole new skill that I had to learn well if I wanted to succeed in it. The reality was, it didn’t interest me enough to put the hours in to learn how to do it well.
I spent a long time looking at successful children’s book artists (and still do) to work out why they had longevity and what exactly was it that appealed to me so much. All of them had a “hand drawn” look to their styles, and the stories that stuck with me were the ones that I could connect with and relate to in some way (even as an adult). Once I realised it was perfectly acceptable to work in whatever way I chose, it really opened up the creative flood gates. I was basically holding myself back…for no reason!
After the Raymond Briggs exhibition in Winchester, I felt even more confident in what I wanted to achieve. Looking at the detail in his original hand drawn artwork was all I needed. Every time I look at his work, and other artists like Shirley Hughes, they make me raise my own standards. I look at my illustrations and wonder how they could be better. I can spot my weaknesses and know where I need to improve. Keep going, keep growing…always.