Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Fantasy Life of Being an Illustrator | Watercolour Dreams

A couple of months back I sat down and tried to put into words my experiences a year after graduating in Illustration. I always hoped the posts were an honest reflection of what I felt at the time, and not just a big moan! - and I'm hoping this post shall be the same.

As a young artist trying to find my way in the world, I stumbled across Twitter and blogging, as a way to get my work seen, but also to connect with others like me. I follow lots of young artists/illustrators I admire, and enjoy catching up online with all the lovely work they produce. I also feel there's a brilliant community online, particularly on twitter, between illustrators and crafty types. We all support each other, and that's so wonderful.

But I have to ask...how many of us are really making a living out of this?

I don't know if this is just me, but it almost seems like a taboo subject. We talk on and on about new projects and new prints and collaborations, but is there a little part of us that is, dare I say it, pretending?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not out to criticise anyone. I completely understand how focussing on the positives is always a better use of time, and no one wants to hear about your double shift at the restaurant anyway, do they?

 I'm just wondering if somewhere along the line illustration has become a bit of a fantasy.

All throughout school and on into uni, I had this sparkling dream of becoming an illustrator. I grew up on Beatrix Potter, and will always and forever remember the opening credits of the television series. Beatrix sitting on a hill side painting the landscape, Beatrix drawing at her desk, conveniently scattered with rabbits. My dream! I thought. I love animals, I love painting, I love working alone. That, I decided, was what I was aiming for.

But needless to say, that hasn't happened for me, and I'm 99% sure that it wont be an option for me for a very, very long time. Besides, Beatrix had her family's fortune to live off whilst producing her illustrated books - and, in this day and age, who can freelance AND buy a farm house in the Lake District?! An unrealistic dream Holly.

Despite the times changing, and the recent recession that has gripped the country, us creative bloggers and tweeters still seem determined to create the illusion that this life style, this Beatrix Potter inspired, sit-in-your-studio-all-day-painting, life style still exists and is possible. We create blog posts like 'what I did at the weekend' featuring beautiful personal projects, lovingly painted sketchbooks and baking adventures for example, or photographs of our "studio space" (cough cough bed room cough cough). We love that. I love that. Have a quick flick through my blog and you'll find those sort of posts; I'm as guilty as the next person for romanticising life and avoiding the truth.

Delusional cupcakes anyone?
My point is... that sometimes (like now) I feel like giving in and, at the risk of sounding clich├ęd, telling it how it is. Sometimes I get a little tired of the positivity. I get tired of twittering on about a painting I did at the weekend and how lovely it was to paint but NOT mentioning the night before- spent weeping at my desk, reading an article about the recession. Why do we do this to ourselves?

I'm sick of this "keep on trucking" attitude.

For one evening, tonight, now, I'm going to be honest:

I don't know if I'll ever be a 'real' illustrator.

I just don't know. I always thought that if you work really hard and you're focused and you want it more than anything, that you're guaranteed success. But then I joined Twitter and met the hundreds of other 23 year olds working really hard, focussing and wanting it the most and I thought: we can't ALL be illustrators can we? Some of us have to fall by the wayside. And maybe I'm one of those people.

I cry a lot!
I get rejected a lot!
I am jealous of others a lot!

But that's ok right, because we're all in this together? I guess that's what I'm really asking.
I know I need to stay strong, I need to keep on dreaming, both in my head and on my blog, but as the recession squeezes, and as I'm being made redundant ( sigh ) I feel it's time to russle the curtains, and reveal a glimpse of how it really feels sometimes, to know exactly what you want to do with your life, but finding it out of reach.

Say it with me now: sometimes, being an artist is not all its cracked up to be.


  1. I always joke about being a poor artist and living off my family, but its so close to being true!! Good blog post Holly! Thanks. x

  2. Totally with you here, you're describing my life! But I LOVE YOUR WORK, and I don't think you're going to fall by the wayside because you make such gorgeous jealousy-inducing illustrations!!! Please keep making Holly, they're beautiful!

  3. I think is possible to make a living as an illustrator, but not the norm sadly. I work full time as a illustrator but I've been told my tutors that I'm an exception. And I'm certainly not rolling in it; I live in cheap flat and smart price pasta is big part of my diet.
    I think the life a illustrator is a very idealised one, in reality it's lonely, it's hard work an it doesn't pay well. I do love it though.

  4. I totally agree with what your saying about there being so many 23 year old illustrator trying to get a crack at the whip but I think you should keep on trucking and even if you don't manage to become a full time illustrator,you'll still have spent a lot of time doing something you love.

  5. I felt like this for ages and only recently I have realised that actually, I don't think I'd be good at being a full-time artist. Or even really want to be. Having a part-time job (I work 4 days a week in an independent card/gift shop) really helps me to manage my time better and it's because I'm not sitting at my desk in the corner of my bedroom every day that when I do get time to do my illustration work, it feels good and I can be productive. When I have a lot of time to do something, I just procrastinate a lot and don't produce my best work. I also found when I was at college, I worked better when I had a part-time job at the weekends. I guess what I am trying to say is that I've accepted the fact that I'm not going to be a full-time illustrator any time soon, and that is, in truth, a good thing! Having a job keeps me sane, I think, and helps me to really value the time I do have for my own work. I don't think you should ever give up, though! I think I would go crazy if I didn't create things. Your work is lovely and I would be sad to see you fall by the wayside. Keep going and all the hard work will pay off one day, you'd totally regret it if you gave up! (Sorry for the mini-essay!)

  6. This is everyone's life. There seems to be be 3 options: 1)amazingly become popular and make a living, 2)don't make a living but keep illustrating, live with parents, barely afford things, go depressed. 3) get job, make living, afford rent, feel guilt for rest of life and question life choices constantly. The sad part part is that we have no control over whether we achieve the first, but are cruelly forced to choose between the final 2, feeling fully responsible for whichever depressing outcome we end up with. Life is hard at the mo, and life as an illustrator is always hard, but you are lucky to be so extraodinarily talented Holly, you are an amazing painter. Take pride in what you make, not what you sell. Make beautiful work you can be proud of, whether it's commissioned or self-initiated, for you or for the world.

  7. You do have to keep on trucking though. It's a battle, it's rare that you can make a living as an illustrator it takes a mixture of luck and knowing people to get to such a stage and some people luck out. It is romanticised but bear in mind your only 23! Loads of people struggle so young in such a profession. You talk of this community generated through twitter, blogging etc. and it's awesome, you now have a backlog of like minders to do things with, to collaborate, organise events, sales, workshops, collectives, exhibitions, something that's exciting.

    I think with this industry you have to start working with others, make friends, start something. Something more than just doing a drawing and posting it online. Think about how much further you can take it. It's a hard time and I think it's about adapting. Work with others, make books, write stories, illustrate them.

    You're work is great, team up with a children's book writer, illustrate it and approach a publisher. It's what you make of it. I'm a believer of working hard and pushing it and eventually it will bust open. It takes time and no one can ever say how long but thats the beauty and frustration of it.

    You're great, carry on!

  8. It's nice to read an honest account of what it's like to be working as an illustrator. I work full time in an office (in a graphic design role) but often feel very cooped up at work and dream of living a freelance life in illustration. However I think if i were to do it i'd also have to balance it with a part time job, as it could be quite isolating working from home each day and of course hard to pay the bills. I think it probably takes time to make a living as a full-time illustrator but keep going with it and try not to get discouraged :)

  9. Hello!

    Someone from my course posted link to this post. I also did illustration, like yourself.

    Over the weekend I ran into someone who graduated few years before me and I asked what she was doing at the moment - and she said she lives off mainly selling prints in galleries. So it is possible to live a life as an illustrator, but it just takes time and determination to finally get to that point.

    And I disagree with the Anonymous, there are other options than the 3 they mention.

  10. I think Fiona makes very good point. I literally do sit at my desk in the corner of my bedroom everyday, and I don't think I could cope with a normal 9 to 5. A lot of people couldn't cope sitting in their room all day on their own though. It really depends what suits you and I don't think any illustrator should feel bad for having a part time job if that's what works for them.

    Java Knees, I have to say I don't think it's fair to say making a living as an illustrator "takes a mixture of luck and knowing people". I make a living as an illustrator and clients approach me through my website or blog, never through friends or family.

  11. Thank you everyone for your wonderful and encouraging comments! It's always great to get other peoples point of view and find out you're not alone - and equally to gain a new insight into freelancing and even seeing the positives to having a day job! I'm definitely going to keep "trucking" (I must stop saying that - I hate that phrase!) because it obviously means the world to me - otherwise I'd quit blogging about it all the time!
    I really really appreciate the support I get through blogging, it really pushes me forward, and I hope in the future I'll be able to offer words of wisdom to others.

    I have to agree with Emma in that sometimes there is exceptional talent, Emma being a prime example, that also translates into the commercial world, which has nothing to do with luck.
    I do think demand plays a big part though, which is similar to luck. I see a lot of really amazing artists but theres just not enough demand for the work, in order for them to freelance or what have you. But I think it's important to stick to your true style no matter how unpopular it is - I have tried many a time to draw with fine liner for example and it always ends up in the bin!
    I said earlier to someone, that I think the key to being a young and impoverished artist/illustrator/creative is to find a balance. Yes push on with your work and be passionate, but don't go mental in the process!

    Easier said than done, but for me at least, talking about it really helps.

  12. Great post Holly! I definitely agree with you on a lot of points here. One of the things that made me smile is that I would consider you (among the list of illustrators I follow on Twitter etc) to be one of the 'higher tier'/more successful/'generally better than me' illustrators, as I love your style and you always seem to have work on or be doing something interesting! I suppose that proves the point that people we think are doing better than ourselves are sometimes struggling too.

    I think one of the main problems is that our 'online presence' is for work as well as social reasons so it's a bit of a vicious cycle. You're trying to keep up a stream of positivity and productivity for the benefit of potential clients and customers, and then because most other people are also doing that you feel the need to keep up the front with your peers as well; nobody wants to be the only one struggling! It's difficult to find a balance between being 'real' about everything and not being a downer though; I've found that more negative tweets seem to be badly received, which is a shame. There's definitely a pressure to keep up a front even when times are slow or hard.

    I also agree with what Emma said - the typical freelance life does work better for some than others, so I think you need to not be swayed by how other people work, and do what you need to do to cope with it. I personally find it quite easy to work from home, but I think the important thing is that if that doesn't work for you or you find it too suffocating that you find other work to complement your illustration, whether it's part-time, full-time, or voluntary. In terms of finances, again it has to be what will work for you without comparing yourself to everyone else. My partner and I both run our own businesses and although it is a struggle, for me it would be pointless at this moment to take on another job (financially and in terms of furthering my illustration career). If you need to take on other work, do it, but don't let go of your illustrating dreams, use it as your long-term goal and your motivator.

    I think as recent graduates as well you tend to put a lot of pressure on yourself to be successful immediately, when really any business usually takes years to build up a successful client base and a comfortable income. I think it's important to celebrate your achievements so far in your illustration, and not beat yourself up over why you haven't got as far as whoever else or why you're not wildly successful already. And also remember that a lot of the more 'famous' illustrators that we know are a lot older and have spent years building up to the level they are currently at.

    Sorry for the massive reply! I think the gist was that the most important thing is to do what you need to do to be happy and productive, and don't compare yourself to the apparent successes or lifestyle of other illustrators because it drives you mad. And yes, we're all in it together!

  13. Hi Holly,

    I read your blog post and absolutely EVERYTHING screamed out at me 'THIS IS YOU, TOO' Ever since I graduated I was determined to be an illustrator, I really wanted to do it. I find myself becoming increasingly depressed and feeling very, very pointless.

    I'm currently working at Paperchase and fooling myself that it's 'somewhere relevant' but the only relevancy is that it sells a small art section. (As much as I love it in there, and how beautiful it is, and how lovely the staff are - it's not spending every day illustrating)

    I have an agent, but only a part time one, which MIGHT not even sell my stuff.

    I am absolutely guilty of the 'fantasy life' although I also tweet a lot of things like 'WHY AM I EVEN DOING THIS?!' It kills me to constantly be like 'sitting in my studio, painting all day and drinking tea, love my life' because really what I'm doing is sitting on Twitter, making more tea yet again, and not doing an drawing that will get me paid.

    Jealousy plays a bit part for me too.

    I also posted a blog post about trying to start as an illustrator, basically trying to vent my feelings and frustrations.

    You will often find me sobbing in my bed because I don't know what I'll do with my life. I worked in retail for 6 years while at College, then Uni. I said I wouldn't go back, but now here I am, back in retail. I'm still poor. And spending most of my time working in a shop. I look at my shop stats in Etsy, or Society6 etcetera and the results are depressing.

    However, I was saying yesterday to a colleague at Paperchase - I haven't drawn anything in 2 weeks, I feel like something is missing. Drawing is something that makes me happy and makes me feel like I'm doing alright.

    I just hope somebody will pay me to do it eventually.

    Sorry I've probably totally bummed you out with my oh-so-depressing reply, but I realised you felt the same way and it all came spilling out.

    I do think your work is absolutely amazing, I'm always retweeting your links etcetera on Twitter - I really do believe you could do well. Perhaps you could make like Beatrix and write your own childrens book and illustrate it?

  14. Oh god terrible spellings in there - you can see I'm rushing before work haha.

  15. I just wrote a massive, long, boring history of my trials and tribulations as someone who graduated 7 years ago. But it was dull. So I'll keep it short:

    Try your best to remain positive, there will always be more successful, more talented people. Accept that. Move forward.

    Meet people. You don't have to live in London, but visit. Make connections. Keep in touch. Internet is great but real life is better.

    Promote yourself. Buy a mailing list of art directors. Research where your work fits. Get some postcards made and mail them out to those people. Try and arrange a meeting to show them your work.

    Make prints, bags, tshirts. Sell them. Diversify.

    Rinse, repeat. Don't expect overnight success. Making art should make you happy, don't judge the merit of your work by 'likes' or reblogs or retweets or phonecalls from art directors. Believe in your work, make the best work you can. If you don't think your work worth paying for, then why would other people?

    I am no ubermensch super confident artist, believe me. I have moments when I want to throw my computer out of the window, throw all my paints in the bin and burn all my drawings. But I always come back, because what the fuck else am I going to do?

  16. Holly,

    With the portfolio you have I can't imagine anyone refusing you work! You are so very talented! I went through your website and you can do everything! For me that's the sign of a real illustrator!

    Everyone doubts, it's normal... Sometimes more than others... I find it hard not to! (Especially when you've never been to art school... That's my case... I was a law student and abandoned everything to try to be an illustrator... Maybe it was crazy but I think I am happier now!)

    I wish I could help! I've recently done an art fair and what I noticed was that people are more inclined to buy art when it's on something they can wear, use... It was my 3rd art fair and for the first time I had tote bags, tea towels, brooches... and it has been the most successful for me!
    I can totally see your work on tshirts and bags... But maybe it's not the way you want to go!

    I hope everything will be ok for you!

    (And sorry if I made mistakes, I'm french:) )

  17. Thank you. Seriously. For being able to put into words what I (and SO many others) feel. I do think you can make a living off illustration, but probably 90% of illustrators are in the same boat you find yourself in.

    I'm just starting out in illustration after 10 years working in a less-than-creative industry. But I've found a job that is a little more expressive and cut my hours down to 38 hours a week, then I come home and illustrate / blog / try to get commissions etc at night. I don't get a whole lot of sleep...so it probably isn't sustainable forever, but I feel like I'm at least going in the right direction, and being able to pay my rent and eat at the same time.

    I think the key is to find a part time job that you don't hate, because let's face it you'll be there a decent amount of time, and then really structure your 'out-of-the-office' time to get some quality (and enjoyable) illustration done.

    Then hopefully, after a bit of time (and a lot of hard work) the balance will shift and you'll be able to increase your illustration hours, decrease your day-job hours.

    I think these days you also have to have your own fallback business in-between commissioned jobs. Sell illustrations on Etsy, put together your own book on Blurb, and learn how to really market yourself.

    There are a few books out there on how to cope (and learn to enjoy) your creative side being part time instead of full time, so I'm guessing it's a pretty common problem: http://amzn.com/B003TO6DN2

    You are very, very talented....do keep at it!

  18. We're big fans of your work Holly! It's sad to see talent like yours struggling but you clearly have a lot of fans and support from peers in the industry which is surely something to make you smile a little? :)

  19. Hello Holly, I was directed to this post by my girl friend and I must say it makes for a good read. you seem to just be venting what all illustrators feel whilst freelancing. There has been some really good responses to your post as well, which most of it you probably already knew, but it is always good to be reminded of it.

    I graduated in 2008 but crucially i was under no allusion how difficult it was going to be, I was the first from my family to go into freelance so had no prior connections. I worked alot of full time jobs whilst building up my portfolio with self initiated work (my work when i left uni wasn't fit to be seen by anyone) this continued for at least 2 and half to 3 years after uni, it was only july this year I started fulltime, and ive been really pleased with my progress. I never really thought i would be illustrating, it felt like i was at the same stage for years and i kind of was. for me the secret seems to be getting the right people to see your work. one of the Anonymous writers hit the nail on the head by saying pretty much the same thing, its a tedious business but it works. I just hated normal 9 - 5 work so much there was no other option than to continue with illustration. It really helped for me to work all those jobs though (some really well paid) to realise how lucky i am now. there is no better feeling than getting that email from an art director with a new brief, oh wait yes there is, seeing it published!! once you first get it, you're hooked, and you'll never look back. Im sure it wont be long for you!! It takes alot of hard work but as other people have already said, you'll be fine.

    p.s dont let the recession get you down, thats the world we live in. the last one wasn't really that long ago, and it probably wont be that long until another one comes along. If the wheels that put the recession into action were taken away, none of us would be illustrating in the first place, from what i can see any way. that last point might be a bit controversial I agree! lol

  20. The thing about being an artist is, that even when you're not making art, for whatever reason- work, procrastination, perfectionism, tiredness-- what ever your reason for not working falls by the wayside because you end up **thinking** about what you'd be doing, were you in the studio instead of doing whatever it is you happen to be doing. With all of that, in the end, it's easier just to make the art. Just to do it. So even if you do work at another job, or feel the pinch, you're still creating in your off times...you've got no choice. It's a compulsion.
    This is what keeps you from falling to the wayside. It's a perverse, exhausting, gift.

    So we toil on & history judges as it will. Current world affairs offer stardom & money to very few. And really, it sometimes seems so random. Picasso had accolades & money coming out of his ears. Picasso. I know it's heretical, but I don't think he was that good.
    But whatever my feelings about his art, his will, his drive, his enslavement to his craft are laudable. They propelled him. And that seems to be a very common trait amongst successful illustrators. If you don't produce then people don't even get the chance to shower you with sales & flowers, & where's the fun in that? Don't we, as artists, owe it to ourselves to give life the chance to surprise us?
    Fortune favors the bold.
    Something I love about your work is the honesty of it. Its really special. Try not to worry-You're already building an amazing life, but so often we're too close to really see things clearly.

    I found this quote recently-It's something I've been thinking about--

    Talent and all that are really for the most part just baloney. Any schoolboy with a little aptitude can perhaps draw better than I; but what he lacks in most cases is that tenacious desire to make it reality, that obstinate gnashing of teeth and saying, "Although I know it can't be done, I want to do it anyway

    - Maurits Cornelius Escher

  21. Every body has their days when they have to admit to the world that it ain't all roses! But being grounded helps as does believing in yourself & it seems to me like you've got a little bit of both :)

  22. It's made me happy to read all the positve comments about my amazing daughter. You ARE talented & so fortunate to be able to have a passion, be good at it & have a go. Without being a big cheese(hopefully) I rather like the following quote & wouldn't mind it in artwork for christmas! :)

    Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.

    Hen x

  23. Holly,

    It's so refreshing to see that I'm not the only person who feels like this! Especially as yourself and other illustrators that have commented here are designers that I admire! I'm having one of those days today where I feel like I've wasted time going to the uni and the 2 and a half years afterwards.

    When I started uni I knew I wanted to illustrate children's books and by the time I left I knew that was exactly what I didn't want to do. I still wanted to illustrate but didn't have the confidence to go about it or what I actually wanted to illustrate. I still dabble in different areas. Freelancing though, isn't for me. I can't sit on my own all day and draw cos it drives me insane!

    I have been working in retail since I was 16 and it is something I'm really good at so I've decided to combine my designs and retail. It is going to take a while to get going but the support from other designers has really spurred me on.

    There is always a way around these things and if you really love illustrating, you'll find a way to make it in one form or another :) xxx

  24. Wow, good, honest post Holly.

    It is refreshing to hear somebody telling it how it is. I (and I know lots of others) feel exactly the same way, but I know we are also the kind of people who wouldn't be happy plodding along doing the same old monotonous job everyday with nothing else to aspire to. We have creative and inquisitive minds and we need an outlet.

    I know that even if there weren't these types of outlets to share and promote work (blogs, websites, stalls, social networks) that I would still be drawing and making things at home, or writing stories etc as an excuse to be creative, just as Beatrix Potter did.

    Yes, Beatrix Potter did have the bonus of being wealthy, but look at Van Gogh or Lowry, they were paupers all their lives and still strived to create (although sadly they weren't around to see the impact of their work).

    We all have down times when all this pretence seems ridiculous but I will keep striving towards this imaginary goal because it is what I am good at and passionate about. I have gotten to the stage where I don't think I'll ever be able to earn a wage from illustration that I can live off of, but I will bloody well try and at least I can look back without regrets of 'if I only tried harder'.

    And remember Beatrix Potter was not content in being an illustrator, she wanted more than anything to be a biologist, a scientist, but because of the time she was born in, ladies weren't allowed to be scientists and because of her beautiful studies of animals and plants they persuaded her to concentrate her efforts on children's books instead.

    Don't give up, your work really is worth fighting for and so what if you can't make a living doing it? You're going to do it anyway, it's just what we do.