5 Mins, Illustration 1 year ago

Being a freelance illustrator for 14 years with Steven Wilson.

We caught up with super talented Steven who gave us an insight into his world, what it actually means to be an illustrator and the realities are that surround that. Here’s what he said…

So, why Illustration? What excites you about it?

I don’t feel restricted by Illustration work which is what excites me about it.

You can experiment and explore with your work as you please, and then if someone sees a use for it they will commission you. Obviously you have a brief to work to as an Illustrator when you do work on a commissioned piece but that in itself can be good.

I think it’s a real skill to be able to produce good work usually under immense time pressure and with the restriction of a brief. If you can still produce great work under those constraints that still has your personality in it then you have done a good job and it’s being able to do that which sets Illustration apart.

It took me a long time to realise just how important it is to do the kind of work you want to be commissioned to do when creating your personal work.

The work you create in your own time and put out there for people to see is the kind of work you are going to get asked to do commercially so it’s important to create work you love and feel excited about doing.

Illustration now is so varied and broad you can create work any way you want and someone will find a way of using it in a commercial sense so long as it is engaging and interesting work.

Steven Wilson Illustration Work

Steven Wilson for Citroen.

Steven Wilson Illustration Work

Steven Wilson for Citroen.

Give us an idea of your average day, how you work and how do you get your creative ideas done?

I usually work from 8 in the morning to around 6 in the evening but sometimes I work later into the evening or get up early to start work if I have a lot of deadlines to meet.

A lot of the work I do is from the US so obviously the time difference means I am usually emailing and that kind of thing in the evening. I work from home, one of the bedrooms is my studio and I also have 3 kids so it’s quite chaotic even though I am out of the way in the top of the house (one of my kids is humming The Imperial march from Star Wars over and over as I write this) and conference calls with clients are always interesting with a child shouting in the background.

I try to shut myself away in the day while I am working.

The way my wife and I live and work means that the lines between work and life are all but gone.

I’ve always worked from home so I don’t know any better and I actually enjoy hearing the kids running around in the background. I work in a number of different techniques so how I complete projects varies from job to job. Some jobs are entirely digital, so for those I will just draft up an initial sketch for the client and send as early as I can to gauge an initial reaction. Then, I develop it from there.

Occasionally, I will make something by hand such as some recent projects I have done using marbling.

The ideas themselves I can’t really be sure where they come from.

I think all creatives are constantly absorbing as much as they can and that manifests itself in your work down the line.

I am interested mostly in working methods. So more often than not I will try to use whatever working process I am interested in at that point, on my next commissioned project if the client will allow me.

I always find it difficult when a client refers to a very old piece of work, it’s hard retreading old ground and feeling excited about doing so.

Steven Wilson Illustration Work

Steven Wilson for NYCGO.

How do you attract new work?

The vast majority comes in via my agents Breed in London and Levine Leavitt in the US. They handle all of my marketing. Additionally in the last year or so I have been using social media a fair bit to add to that.

It took me a long time to start using social media. I guess that’s because I started out before any of that was going on but I quite enjoy it.

In particular like feeling like being part of the design community which social media helps to do. For me having agents has been great. Breed and LLreps are both excellent and they are a very important part of my setup.

I am in contact with both of them every day. But before I had agents I would send emails and printed promotion to potential clients. As well as going to meet people face to face. Which I still like to do and something I feel is important.

How long have you been an illustrator and would you say it’s your career?

I studied Illustration at Brighton Uni between 1998 and 2001.

As soon as I graduated in 2001 I became a freelance Illustrator.

I started working from home and have done so ever since so it’s about 14 years now.

If I’m honest the first few years we’re a lot of toil with no reward. I was very naive which was good in some ways. If I had known how difficult the first few years were going to be I might not have persevered.

Having graduated from Brighton which has a good reputation for Illustration with a first class degree. So I expected the phone to be red hot straight after my degree show.

Needless to say it did not ring. It took me about a year to get my first job after a lot of e-mailing and post outs to various Art directors. The first commission I landed was for the Guardian Guide and paid around 300 GBP.

I remember thinking ‘This is it, I’m on my way’.

I took my girlfriend of the time out for a slap up meal with the money. But it was about another 6 months before I landed another job.

However eventually I built up a stronger portfolio as I was constantly creating new work and trying new things. About 3 years into my professional life, I landed a few high profile commissions. Then I got myself a good agent. Thankfully I have been busy ever since, so yes for me it is most definitely a career! and one I hope to be doing my whole life.

Steven Wilson Illustration Work

Steven Wilson for Hunter Boots.

Steven Wilson Illustration Work

Steven Wilson Illustration Work

Steven Wilson for Hunter Boots.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in illustration?

I think most importantly stick at it.

I had loads of times where people (usually family members), advised me that I ought to go and get a ‘proper’ job.

But I was stubborn, and stuck at it.

I think everyone has their own journey into design and how they carve out a career. I wouldn’t want to give any definitive advice that is a ‘must do’ in terms of how you approach things. But experimentation with my work has been extremely important to me.

From day one I have always tried to find new and original working methods. I give myself as many tools as possible in order to find solutions. That way I overcome problems when they are put in front of me by clients.



Check out more of Steven's work on his site



I've worked in the Creative Industry for 10 years. I've been employed, self employed and also ran my own businesses. I'm passionate about finding, talking too and learning from other creative people.

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