I wanted to start this article with a very important and reassuring point: that it doesn’t matter when you start your career as a freelance illustrator, but knowing why you want to is what will really help you get to where you want to be.
My name is Melissa Kitty Jarram. I am a South East London based illustrator/artist, who has been lucky enough to attract clients such as Nike, WePresent and Bandai Entertainments. I graduated with a BA(hons) in illustration and animation from Kingston University in 2013. That’s six years ago now (ancient history), and I’ve only been swimming in the alluring freelance pool for less than two years.
I graduated from my course really lost, not knowing what I wanted to be or why. All I knew was that I didn’t want to carry on living in London, doing internships and struggling to pay rent, so I left. My courage to leave partly came from a guest talk we had at uni from the illustrator Nick White. He admitted that when he graduated, he found himself in a cloud of apathy about what he wanted to do. He felt so detached from it all that he stepped away from illustration entirely, instead opting to work in a bar and other various jobs for three years, before figuring it out and making a big come back… the point he was making was that there are no rules about when you’re allowed to step into the world of illustration. There’s a lot of pressure for people to leave uni and walk straight into a career, so I think that some people do this and don’t end up where they want to, whilst of course there are also those who know straight away and nail it. I wasn’t one of those, and I think it’s fine not to be. As cliché as it sounds, I knew that I needed to see the world, travel and have experiences before I could make any work which I found to be honest, original, or held any kind of conviction. These things were always important to me, and up to this point I knew that I only had a very narrow life experience and understanding of the world. I wasn’t ready to be seen yet.
To support myself, I did whatever work I could find which often included things like graphic design for small companies and clients (you know, the obligatory catalogue/poster/social media post designs etc which seem like a rite of passage for every designer) whilst working in child-care, retail, and the service industry. Then I would leave for months at a time, exploring places like India, Indonesia, Nepal, Australia, the USA and even spots around the UK. In addition to the aesthetic side of it all, I have such a huge interest in anthropology, history, psychology, morality and human nature, that I guess I just saw it all as an opportunity to further my education. I travelled alone mostly, because all of my friends were being sensible and building their careers, but this proved invaluable in the whole learning experience because it allowed me to be open to meeting an array of different people and vice versa. During this time, I never stopped reading and drawing, but the drawings would never end up anywhere because in my mind, they were undercooked and still not ready to be seen yet.
So, at the expense of looking like a “waste man” for three years whilst all my friends seemed to be setting roots down in their careers, I finally achieved what I had set out to do and moved back to London. I found myself in an amazing community of creatives, who all reminded me of why I wanted to be part of this industry. I suppose, upon reflection, I fell out of love with illustration for a little while before remembering why it’s actually so important and an integral part of our culture. There are a lot of interesting voices in the industry, exploring a huge array of genres and concepts, but above all illustration is about communication and collaboration. It’s a collaboration with musicians, writers and journalists, fashion, filmmakers and animators, designers, commercial brands and businesses. Armed with three years’ worth of exploration/research, and a renewed passion for the subject; I was ready to be seen.
Once I felt ready, becoming recognised seemed to be a natural process. Starting from the bottom meant that I was broke for a while, I kept my head above the water with a coffee shop job, but I was always making personal art work in my spare time and uploading it to Instagram. Instagram gave me a platform to curate an easily accessible portfolio, whilst also being able to express my personality and start networking. I suppose it’s kind of like the LinkedIn of the art world but with better content. It also has the hashtag feature, which I never use, although I’m told it’s a good way to get your work seen (it’s clearly not necessary, and personally I think it looks nicer when you don’t). In less than a year, It’s Nice That came across the paintings I made exploring Greek Mythology and relationships, and interviewed me about my work. It really helped to know exactly why I was making the work I was, and what I wanted to achieve with it, and you could say that this was my “big break”. Their network is huge, which meant that I was finally seen.
This story was just my own personal journey to help demonstrate the following points:
It’s okay to go on a wild journey, completely change your career or step away from the creative industry for a while in order to take your time and allow yourself to develop your work. It’s better to be showing work that has matured into something you are confident and happy with. Whilst you’re in the process of maturing, pay no attention to what other people think you are doing. A lot of successful illustrators who left university and dived straight into the freelance world did so because they were passionate enough to go on the dole and spend all their time making their own work, which is a struggle in itself. If you already have conviction in your work, this is a good way to do it, but if you don’t then search for that first. Like I said, it’s not about when you do it, but why. Don’t be ashamed or let anyone make you feel ashamed to have to have a side job, this will only distract you from your goals.
Your passions and interests will set you apart from other artists, help you develop an original style and identify a niche. This is your voice amongst thousands, and if it’s different then it’s more likely to be heard. It comes with a lot of research too, so don’t be afraid to take the time out to explore subjects and read, see shows, watch films etc. As an illustrator, your job is to communicate. People will naturally pay attention if you have something interesting/funny to say, and you will find that the work you get will be in the realm of what you are interested in because clients will seek your work through your niche, which is very satisfying.
Collaboration allows you to share your passions and work with others to create something bigger. I love it because of the joy I get from sharing experiences, feeling part of a community, and working in a team; it’s just fun. Another thing that I have found with collaborating is that it really helps to extend your network. Although this isn’t the reason why I do it, the truth of the matter is that it really will broaden your audience. Form a collective if you can, get involved with events and shows. All of these things help when it comes to pushing your work out into the world.
PRIORITISE YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE
This is so liable to change, given the speed at which technology advances, but right now I would say Instagram is probably the best platform to use. Make sure you curate your page well and engage with your audience, try not to litter it with unnecessary content. Hashtags are controversial because they can look a bit like a beg, having said that I know that it really works for some people so this will really depend on your own taste. I think the best way to get the most of Instagram is by following other artists and companies whose work you admire and are interested in, if they like your work too they’ll follow you back. Don’t be afraid to send out DMs if you’re interested in collaborating with someone. A lot of my clients approach me through Instagram and get to me via DM, maybe they find me through features and reposts. And last but not least, make sure your email and website are easy to access on your profile, so people can easily get in touch when they want to work with you or buy your services.