What I Learned from Ten Years of Making Illustrations of Monkeys, Mountains and Monsters

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Freelancing / Inspiration / Personal Development

“I love how you did the little houses and the trees, but can you make the mountains look less like breasts?”

“How about like this?”

“Yes, that works. Can you make the path around the lake a little more heart-shaped?”

These are the kinds of conversations I’ve had with clients over the last decade, working as an illustrator.

I never planned to be one.

I just sort of ended up doing it by accident.

‘Kidney Island’ 2007

When I studied geography at University in London, my friends doing other courses would joke that geography didn’t involve much more than “colouring in” and “joining in the dots.”

Little did they or I know that in a few years I’d be doing just that for a living.

Granted, illustration as a real life job is a little more than that. In the world of clients, briefs, running your own business, staying self-motivated, building a portfolio and developing a clear, commercially viable style, illustration has been significantly more complicated than it might seem.

‘Paradise Bear’ 2007

I was boisterous growing up, often out in the fields on muddy adventures with friends, playing the clown. In calmer moments, I would quietly draw pictures at the kitchen table where I’d allow my imagination to spill out onto paper.

After a family holiday to Disney world where we walked through the Aladdin movie studios, I was sure I wanted to be an animator.

Though the terrors of boarding school and worrying about my acne got in the way of spending more time making art as a teenager, my love for making pictures and creating things never left me.

At eighteen I had to decide between studying art or geography at University, both of which grabbed my attention the most in a sea of otherwise distracted classes at school. I didn’t have to go to University, but at that age there wasn’t a thought of doing anything else.

‘Urban GeoBlock’ 2008

I chose geography because it seemed more sensible, but I didn’t have a clue what I’d do with it.

After three years learning about volcanoes, geopolitics, climate change, drinking beer, writing last-minute essays, and going out most days of the week, I managed to graduate.

Except for the odd diagram for a class project, I hadn’t once picked up a pencil to draw.

A summer spent watching surprisingly addictive tv programs about buying and flipping houses, led to a decision to study a Masters degree in real estate. Obviously.

‘Azure Explosions’ 2007, for UNEP

It was a part-time course, which left extra time for other things. I worked for a property magazine in London called Estates Gazette, studying some evenings. But I also used the time to start working on making art again.

It was Tim Ferris’ book: The Four Hour Work Week, that prompted me to investigate ways to make a side income in 2006. I stumbled on iStockPhoto, a website that accepted photographs and illustrations that could be sold for royalties.

I taught myself how to use Adobe Illustrator in a few days using online video courses, which were absolutely not pirated.

Early illustrations I upload to iStockphoto.com, 2006

While still working at the magazine, I began to submit my own vector illustrations to iStock. These had to be inspected, and many were rejected, but I soon found that iStock was the perfect training dojo for developing an illustration style that actually sold.

I uploaded over three hundred accepted illustrations over two years and though I was earning peanuts in the beginning (they were delivered in small envelopes once a month), I began to see some serious income coming in after adding lots of new work and refining a style.

After a year and a half of contributing to iStock, my rent in London, which was not cheap even back then, was being paid in full by the royalties.

‘Volcanic Secret,’ personal piece, 2010

I was hitting the big time selling illustrations of cats, smiling businessmen and rusty street signs to anonymous designers across the world.

People outside of the realm of iStock began to notice me — clients who wanted to commission me for their projects from scratch. I began to work with companies like Popular Mechanics and the Singapore Business Times.

I’d also hunt for projects through freelance auction sites like Elance and had some wins that way. Though the pay from those jobs was often comical looking back, it helped me build up my portfolio and client list.

Working as a weather presenter while doing up houses would soon become a distant memory.

‘Downhill Running’ for Wired Magazine, 2012

I became a full time freelance illustrator fifteen months into my job at the magazine. With a strong desire to be unshackled from office politics, I quit my job in the winter of 2009.

I had also just self-published an ebook about online marketing based on what I’d learned as a part-time illustrator.

With the help of a small newsletter I’d been growing, and a spurt of high energy self promotion, I sold about a hundred at the launch, which gave me a little extra confidence to work for myself entirely.

I did manage to find a couple of illustration agents to support me, but that was not to say that they got me much work.

Working for myself was not all smooth. When I wasn’t basking in the glory of winning work with clients on all kinds of weird commissions, I was panicking about not getting any work at all.

‘Forest Visitor’ 2007

Many weeks would pass without a peep from a new client, a huge strain on what finances I had. London is an expensive city to live in.

Despite the ups and downs, the period taught me to take self promotion and finding work seriously.

Because I still wanted to make more income, I brainstormed ways to use the knowledge I was gathering to help others through blogs, books and courses that I could sell.

Red Lemon Club was set up in 2009 explicitly for this — to share what I was learning and to earn some extra cash.

Within about five years of working as an illustrator, I’d worked with clients from Wired Magazine, to the BBC, Kraft, Mars and Sony. I had written six books about marketing and getting clients, inspired mostly by the pain of not having clients.

Using my own advice to find new work, I did a keyword search on Twitter for people looking for illustrators. I replied to a tweet that popped up about needing an illustrator and managed to set up an interview the next day with a cloud computing startup in London.

Shipping Map, for Sierra Magazine, 2013

They promptly gave me a part-time job.

I worked with these tech renegades in trendy Brick Lane for a few months in 2011 with a great salary while also working on other client projects and my own books when I could.

I soon grew to remember why I left my previous job, feeling distracted, a bit trapped, and overwhelmed in an office.

I wanted to open up the time to work on my own projects and schemes full time again.

Once totally free, I saw how much I could do with a very specific skill and a grasp of marketing.

I didn’t need to be tied to London. All I needed to continue earning a living was my laptop, an Internet connection, and my Wacom drawing tablet.

Tron City Map for Dots Games, 2016

As my mother always says, I tend to want to go out and do things that inspire me in an instant, whether it’s from an advert, a piece of music or a film. A few weeks after watching the movie Lost in Translation, I was on a flight to Tokyo.

I spent 9 months in that glittering, baffling metropolis in 2012 and loved it so much that I have returned several times.

While I was there, I got an email from a guy at Google who’s blog I once left a comment on.

Idea for Google Plus Welcome Page, 2012

He liked my work and said that he’d set up a chat with the head of design at Google Plus. I was soon on a Google Hangout talking about making pictures with the very fellow who created Google Hangouts!

Working with Google gave me an opportunity to work with a team making things that would be seen and used by millions.

And I could do all this while slurping miso soup in my little Tokyo apartment.

Though I haven’t always been consistent, I have always shown others what I’m working on and what I’ve been learning.

‘Island Planet’ 2015

Other opportunities have come from this, like being asked to speak at various creative events around the world.

I’ve given talks in all the places I’ve lived, including at events and conferences in London, Barcelona, Texas, and Vietnam.

I would do more if I wasn’t so shy. I much prefer to work in a cafe drawing pictures of monkeys and writing.

Since Japan I lived in Ho Chi Minh City for eight months and I’m now in Bangkok writing this in my boxer shorts.

Most recently, I worked on a series of illustrations for Dots Games, involving haunted forests, cactus islands, and ancient cities.

‘Jigokudani Park’ for Two Dots, 2016

I even got the opportunity to draw some of my favourite creatures, the Japanese snow apes, in their volcanic hot spring home.

My next steps are to continue writing for my blog, but I also want to try something a little different. I want to start writing fiction — and I have wanted to for a long time — but I know that I have to be committed.

Illustration as my central focus for over a decade has been extremely positive, and I’m now looking forward to a new creative phase.

The most important thing I’ve learned is to follow what I’m interested in, to allow time for indecision and adaptation but to eventually be firm with a decision.

Despite often being emotionally drawn to things that take me briefly off track, I learned the importance of continually steering back to my main thing.

This gives time for a specific skill to be honed, the small wins to accumulate, experiences to be shared, and an audience to grow.

These things are what lead to opportunities. And they will come.

The Author

Alex is a project starter, sometimes finisher, writer and illustrator. He started Red Lemon Club in 2009 with the aim of helping talented creative people leave their mark.

2 Comments

  1. Love it. Great story, amazing how kooky and crooked the path may seem, but following your heart and gut always leads you to where you are. Thanks for sharing!

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