THE OCTOBER DRAWING CHALLENGE
There is something special about how the creative community comes together every year in October. Wether it’s with ink or other media, for all 30 days or just a couple, there is a wonderful sense of community and celebration of each other that I love.
I’ve tried (and failed!) many times at doing the full month of drawings. Twice I’ve barely made it past the two first weeks before it fizzled out, but more often it's been two or three days. There is always something else that comes up - work, a client project, life or a new tv show I'd rather watch. It gets pushed further and further down on the list on priorities, and usually with good reason. (Even if that reason is “I don’t want to” - it’s a good reason!) I don’t see the point in doing a month long drawing challenge if you’re not enjoying it or if it brings you nothing but stress and misery. I think where I’ve failed many times is that I didn’t set up clear expectations for myself.
I think where I’ve failed many times is that I didn’t set up realistic expectations. One time I made the project so small that it didn't feel like a priority, and I just forgot about it. Another time I planned a big research project that I really didn't have time for (or much interest in it turned out). Of course I also expected myself to do it perfectly. To no ones great surprise - that didn't happen.
GOALS GOING IN
I’ve been wanting to get more confident in including characters in my work for a long time. The time limit was inevitably going to be the biggest challenge, so I decided this would be good chance to practice speeding up my workflow and set my perfectionist self a little to the side. I have a habit of overcomplicating everything, especially in my own work - There is always an extra detail that can be added, another animal, or another bit of texture.
MY FAVOURITES FROM THE MONTH
I am rarely ever (read pretty much never) 100% on board with something I've made. It's the curse of being an artist and a perfectionist, something I'm sure many relate to. It has been quite liberating though to just go with the first (and sometimes second) idea that comes to mind without mulling to much over it. All of the illustrations are done in watercolour, Procreate & Photoshop.
Day 5: RISE
Hedgehog enjoys a cup of strong coffee and a bowl of breakfast bugs in the sunshine.
Day 10: FROG
Two fancy frogs brewing mushroom soup - or something more sinister?
Day 29: BEETLE
The Beetles (sorry!) band, on a warm autumnal day playing blues and drinking Beetle-juice.
Day 18: MATCH
I thought I had gone completely overboard with the layering of textures on this one, but in retrospect I find it rather atmospheric. The ridiculous inconsistency in the matches size illustrated the lack of thorough planning - I had an idea and went with it.
Day 31: CAT
The prompt for the last illustration was ‘cat,’ so I did cheat a little, but it is in there! The badger and mouse are my favourite creatures in this one - just the right amount of spooky for me. Another idea was to dress the animals up as things that would scare them - a mouse dressed as a cat, a hedgehog dressed as a car, and so on. Another time perhaps. And perhaps not.
I kind of can't actually believe I finished 31 illustrations in a month. Because of the time constraint there are things in these illustrations that would usually have gone over more throroughly - like the occasional pencil line that isn't rubbed out or a hair caught on the scanner, as well as a lot of the watercolours being 'looser' than my usual work. However, I am proud of myself for the effort I've put in - and overall I do feel like the second half is generally better than the first half.
Would I do it again? - Absolutely yes, but only if there's room in my calendar.
Click to enlarge
Thanks for reading x
I graduated from my undergrad in 2017 and with an MA in 2019. I dipped my toes in commercial illustration during that time, but it wasn’t really until after graduating that I realised how much I didn’t know. Why they encourage doing free work and don’t teach standard business skills in Uni baffles me. I’ve had a steep learning curve scrambling through the internet and reaching out to professionals searching for advice. I am by no means an expert, but here’s some general advice that I would have found helpful in 2017, and hopefully someone else will too.
Work hard, but work smart
If you don’t have paid work yet - that’s ok! This is the best time to create the work that you want to be hired for. I usually have a thousand different project ideas buzzing around in my head, and then feel paralysed when I can’t decide on where to start. Editorial, advertising, food illustration, packaging design, publishing, it all sounds so exciting! But, as much as I hate to admit defeat - you can’t do it all at once. Instead, pick a focus (Just for now - you can always change it later!). If you want to get into food illustration, illustrate food! If you want to get into YA book illustration, design covers and b&w interiors. Do some research and commission yourself.
Once you have some awesome work, share it. Research companies or magazine you like where you think your work would be a good fit - and send it to them with a short introduction and why you want to work with them. Post your work online and tag it appropriately to make sure people who are searching can find you.
Did I think I had to work 18 hour days after graduating in order to make it as an illustrator? Yes I did. Is it true? Absolutely not. Burn out is not cool. If an email comes in at 10 in the evening, you don’t have to reply to it immediately. If it comes in on a weekend, you can reply on Monday. You don’t have to set up a Skype call with a client after one email for a small project outline that can easily be put in an email. (For larger projects that need discussion they can be helpful though) If someone comes to you with a ridiculous deadline that would mean no sleep, you can say no. Ask for the time you realistically need to complete the project, there’s usually a few extra days of wiggle room. If a new project comes up with a very short deadline I will ask for a rush fee - to be compensated for my overtime/evening hours. (That’s also an easy way to distinguish the real rush job from the one that suddenly found more time in the schedule)
Invest in good work habits
My back thanked me immensely when I finally invested in a desk easel. Who knew that crunching over your desk with a bent neck for 6+ hours a day wouldn’t feel so good after a while? Keep a paper trail of all your commissions and email a confirmation of any conversations had in person or over the phone. Use a contract and add in not only the fee, but also project schedule, feedback schedule, cancellation fees, moral rights etc. (The AOI has a great contract template to get you started)
Competitions are detrimental
I am concerned about the amount of competitions I see online being marketed as “an amazing opportunity” or “great exposure.” Doing work for free to have your artwork printed on packaging or on social media advertising campaigns sounds cool, but it’s really just exploration of labour. It’s detrimental not only to your own practice, but also to the industry as a whole. Would you ever hire 50 plumbers to fix your broken pipe, for then to only pay the one you liked the best? (and only in gift vouchers!) Of course not, it wouldn’t stand. Exposure doesn’t pay your bills, and the only person you are giving free “exposure” is the company who is exploiting you. They have a tendency to target students and young artists new to the industry who are eager to get a ‘foot in the door.’ By not treating artists as professionals they help build the idea that we’re all doing this as hobby and it doesn’t have value.
A lot of competitions will also have really horrible contract conditions attached to them. Often you will resign all copyright to the company, have no moral rights to your work and the pay “if you are chosen” is way under industry standard. Sometimes they’ll even have you sign over your copyright, meaning they can do whatever they want to your image without consulting you, or even sell the rights to someone else.
To illustrate my point, the last time I entered a competition was for a fairytale book. I was still in my undergrad and encouraged to apply by my tutors. I was one of the selected winners and received two copies of the “book” in the mail as my prize. (That was it! 2 copies after probably a weeks worth of work!) It was honestly the most horrendous publication I’ve seen in my life. I am 99% certain the whole thing was put together in Word, text was overlapping images, images were stretched, and on the cover they had collaged (without permission!) all of the entries into one image.
(Trade competitions where you submit work in wide categories, not specifically made for the competition (like the AOI Illustration Awards), is a different category all together, and I don’t think of them as exploitative)
It’s ok to say no
If something doesn’t feel right I’m one for following my gut and don’t feel guilty about it. It can anything - a project, a ridiculous deadline, a fee that’s too low. Ask for what you need first, you don't have to accept the first offer in a negotiation. If you can’t meet in the middle however, it’s ok to say thank you - but no thank you. It also gives someone else the opportunity to say yes.
Don’t work for free
Working for free can seem like the only way to build your portfolio in order to get paid work. Big promises of ‘exposure’ and that ‘it may lead to paid work in the future’ has never lead to anything (at least not for me or anyone I know) and will only devalue your practice. Instead, it will likely lead to repeated expectations of you delivering work for nothing. And if you don’t think your work is worth anything, why should anyone else?
Instead of doing work for free that doesn’t really interest you, what’s your long term plans for you illustration practice? What kind of work do you want to do, and be commissioned to do? Do that. Commission yourself, make good work, and share it, make your own exposure. Do your research on industry rates and standards. Know what your work is worth.
(This goes for commercial illustration as a rule - gifts, collaborative projects etc. with peers are a separate story)
Don’t be afraid to ask for more money
It’s uncomfortable to talk about money - I know. But it get’s easier. In the beginning I found it easiest to make price estimates based on an hourly wage alone. (And I'd estimate a minimum hourly wage for unskilled labour, and not take taxes of business expenses into account) I always estimated wrong and when I did the maths after the project was done I had sometimes been paid as little as half a minimum wage. That doesn’t feel great. Make sure you at bare minimum can cover your rent, expenses and tax. Educating yourself on industry standard rates is really important, and also makes it much easier to say no when someone comes to you with an international advertising campaign of 7 detailed illustrations - and their budget is £400 (Yes that happened).
(Litebox.info, the AOI, and various Facebook groups like 'Let’s Talk Pricing’ are great resources to get you started.)
Patience is a virtue
Whether it’s waiting on email replies, late payment, poor communication, seemingly endless revisions or getting impatient with how long it takes to grow a new skill - patience is a good skill to have. I find it helpful to have my own project on the side when things are quiet and keep myself busy. I'll update my portfolio, socials, paint or simply take a break. Being self-motivated is a large part of being a freelancer as no one else is going to keep things moving for you. At some point you might have to prompt people, but be nice about it - everyone has their own stuff that they're dealing with.
Talk to your peers
There's this feeling I was left with after Uni of 'now I have to compete with every other illustrator out there.' I honestly don't know where that feeling came from. Competitiveness doesn't benefit you or your peers - only big brands and companies looking to exploit labour and create a feeling of scarcity so they can get away with underpayment and ridiculous project turnarounds. What helped me get over this feeling of standing on the outside was to reach out to my peers. I started conversations with people on social media, left comments, asked for advice. Pretty quickly I'd find more people, through people I was talking to and felt as if I was part of the community. It's so nice to be able to talk about the good bits, but also the hard or challenging parts with people who get it.
I'll vouch for community over competition every day. Especially considering we are in fact not competing for the same jobs. We all have different strenths and interests. If I get an inqury about a job I either can't take on for whatever reason or don't think I'll be a good fit for - I'll refer someone else whose work I love. What goes around comes around, and we are much better together.
People are actually really nice
Whether it’s peers, strangers or potential clients I’ve pitched, in my experience people are really nice. I don’t know where the idea of the “big scary client” first came from, but it’s definitely something that was prevalent in my first impression of the industry. After having asked strangers for advice, sent cold emails asking for work, had my work rejected and worked with people in various industries - I want to tell me to not be afraid to reach out - people are really nice.
As someone who is slightly intimidated by the idea of writing an Instagram caption, I’d like you all to wish be the very best of luck in this blogging endeavour. The hardest part of starting anything is always the actual starting part, so I thought I’d jump in and tell you a bit about myself, and how I got here.
I had decided on my life plan when I was about five years old (correct me if I’m wrong, mom!). Obviously the details are a little fuzzy to me, but I’ve been told it went a bit like this: My mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I proudly presented that I was going to be a baker. However, being the age that I was, and not having thought my career choice through thoroughly, it didn’t take much to put me off. She only had to highlight the hour bakers have to get up at every morning, before I quickly announced that “Ok. Then I will be an artist.”
I drew a lot when I was little, like most children. My mom is an artist, and I have other artists in the family as well, so I am very grateful to have had accept and encouragement from home, always. I was obsessed with cars, busses, hammerhead sharks and mermaids. I even had a drawing I made or Ariel from The Little Mermaid, published in the newspaper at the age of 5 (My prudest moment! The mispelling of my last name still haunts me).
It was probably when I was about 15 or 16 that I started become a bit obsessed with drawing. I would spend hours in my room, listening to Taylor Swift’s Fearless on repeat, drawing fan art of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and trying my best at realistic pencil portraits. It was also at about this age that I started to put my drawings online on a tumblr blog (please don’t dig that up!). Looking back at the work I produced 10 years ago, there is such a disconnect between the different approaches I had to drawing. I would either draw fan art and cartoon-like characters with finaliser and markers, very heavily influenced by Disney and Tim Burton (but awfully anatomically incorrect), or I would spend hours perfecting the reflection in eyes, or the shine of hair in pencil portraiture. I just hadn’t figured out how to connect them yet. I did fill a lot of sketchbooks trying though!
After I finished school, I took a gap year at a folkehøgskole in Oslo, a foundation course of sorts in Art & Design. It was a year of no grades, and full freedom to be creative 24/7. I was given almost complete flexibility, and introduced to new practices (some new to me, others not) like life-drawing, costume design, drypoint, still life painting (not my favourite!), set decoration and sketchbooking. But more than the lessons themselves, it was having the time to draw, and draw, and draw that was the most beneficial, and confirmed to me that this is what I wanted to do.
In 2014 I moved to Portsmouth. I started a degree in illustration on the south coast of England. I had never thought of illustration as a career option before I started researching universities. It felt as if I had given myself permission to see drawing as a real job. I definitely don’t think that you have to go to art school in order to become a creative professional, but it did speed up the leaning process a lot. I spent days and days in the print room, experimenting, testing new things and playing with images and materials. When do you get the chance to do that full time?
I did a lot of strange things while figuring this all out. I made a life size moose head out of papier-mache and brought it on the bus, I painted eye balls on rocks and put them in a jar and I inked up tracing paper until it was so warped it was impossible to scan. It was not my finest work, but it took be where I needed to go.
My work evolved from single media to a mixed media approach. Instead of working with pencil, ink, screenprinting, lino, monoprint and watercolour separately, I started to combine them through the magic that is Photoshop.
I was excited to dip my toes in the professional world, but I didn’t feel quite ready to risk the full dive. After exhibiting my work at New Designers in London, I did an internship at Hallmark and moved to Cambridge to take an MA in Children’s Book Illustration.
Such an amazing group of people from all backrounds, and from all over the world. Blessed with the calm of Cambridge and only an hours train ride into London, I spent much of my time in the Botanic Garden, museums and pubs drawing strangers and petting dogs. Unconsiously though, I think I felt like I needed to do what everyone else was doing - using bright colours and stylized character design to appeal to young children and picturebook audiences. I spent longer than I'd like to admit in this mindset, before one of my tutors sat me down and said "If you like drawing with pencil. Draw with pencil."
It's amazing how much clearer that becomes when someone else says it to you. Something clicked. I realized that it was illustrated chapter books, non-fiction and book covers that I love. And that I don't have to be a master of colour pencils, acrylic paints or toddler litterature (but maybe one day, who knows). If you can put together a 24 page picturebook storyboard you have my greatest respect. It made me tear my hair out. I'm going to stick to semi-realism and illustrations for humans that are a little older for now.
The last year and a half has maybe been the strangest in my life so far. After having travelled Asia for a few months (pre-pandemic), I now live in Hanoi, and I’ve been here for about a year. For the most part it has been covid-free while I’ve been here, and watching what was happening at home and in the rest of the world whilst my everyday life was relatively normal, was completely surreal. I’ve barely had to face the pandemic day to day, but I’ve still felt isolated. I’m in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, I don’t have any family, and I didn’t know anyone. Mundane things like buying groceries or a bus ticket were suddenly challenging. Not to mention, after a full year I still haven’t found a half-decent sketchbook, and it frustrates me endlessly!
The slowing down of life has presented me with a whole new set of challenges. But it has given me time to process. Being far away from friends and the structure of education has forced me to evaluate my own work and practice, without the constant input from other people. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I can’t wait for life to pick up it’s speed again.
Thank you for being here.