Questions & Answers

Hello, all

My name is Mike Nash. I studied at UCA Maidstone, spending a year working on a Foundation course followed by a three year Degree in BA Illustration. I graduated in July 2007 and have been working professionally ever since. I am currently an Illustrator and Concept Artist working predominantly in the fantasy and science fiction genre for the young adult and adult audience within books, film and games. I have worked with a number of large clients such as Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as well as many fledgling authors.

I’m going to answer these questions as truthfully and accurately as possible, based on my personal experience. I was underprepared when I left Uni and there are many things I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn before graduating. With this in mind I will expand upon some of the questions you’ve asked to include extra information I think you’ll find helpful. I hope my reply offers some clarity. 

Q. What were your experiences of finding work after graduation? 

I graduated in July 2007 and it wasn’t until six months later that I obtained my first commission as a freelance Illustrator. Upon graduation, my portfolio was a non-cohesive jumble of art projects i’d completed during University. I didn’t feel it portrayed a clear indication of who I was, what I enjoyed and what kind of work I wanted to attract. Also, at that point I’d no experience in digital art. So I set to work learning a new skill and building a better portfolio that portrayed my interests accurately. There is no reason why you can’t get your first commission sooner than I did, if you put together a strong portfolio sooner.

My first job was to create a book cover for an amateur author just starting out in his creative work. It was very low paid and I cringe at how little I’d agreed to work for. However it was invaluable experience and a fun project. It’s unlikely you will jump into high paid commissions as soon as you graduate, it simply doesn’t happen unless you are extremely fortunate or highly skilled. Be prepared to have a day job bringing in money for bills whilst you practice and build your portfolio in your spare time. This is very common practice and rest assured you aren’t doing anything wrong if you end up in that situation. A creative career is all about starting at the bottom of the ladder. From then on it’s up to you to self-motivate, improve your skills and prove yourself to the industry you’re working in, which may take several years. It will test your resolve, but it can be an incredibly varied, enjoyable and rewarding career if you persevere. 

Don’t expect to have much of a social life with a freelance profession. You won’t be earning a steady wage each week. There is no scheduled time off. There is no sick pay. Simply put, any time you aren’t working, you aren’t earning or progressing. However your work schedule is flexible, you can take a day off if needed and switch working hours around. You are your own boss as a freelancer. 

Some of you will feel very alone once you graduate and it can be hard to remain motivated after you’ve left that learning atmosphere and your friends behind. Life as a freelancer can also be stressful. The success of your business is solely on your shoulders, you either sink or swim. Therefore using your time at Uni wisely, working hard and getting as much advice as possible is vital. Try to be as prepared as possible, it’ll make the transition after your Degree easier and you’ll hopefully avoid some of the issues I encountered.

Q. Do you think establishing a good rapport with your clients helps promote your work?

You will often encounter clients who have never hired an artist before and most will feel apprehensive. Therefore putting a client at ease and befriending the them is crucial. Not only will a friendly, yet professional, manner raise the chances of the client hiring you, but it also creates a pleasant working environment in which ideas can be expressed easier. Simply being nice to a client will increase the chance they will hire you again in future and promote you to other people who may wish to hire you. It may benefit you to drop a past client an email or phone call and check in on how they are doing. This ensures they don’t forget you nor your availability to create more work for them.

I’d also advise you to ask a client for a testimonial after a project has been completed. This is merely a few paragraphs that hopefully highlights how delighted and impressed they were with your work. This is excellent information to place on your portfolio website, right where a potential client can see it. It could well be the very thing that determines whether they hire you or move on to your competitors!

Be aware that you will find some clients difficult, fussy, abrupt and even rude. But that is no reason to lower your guard and act irresponsibly. Always be polite towards your client and never spread bad words about them via social media portals; Facebook and Twitter is not a dumping ground for your angst. This is very unprofessional. Not only could the client see the comments you make, but your fans and potential clients are also watching and this will reflect badly on you. No matter how laid back your working relationship becomes with a client, always remember you are providing a professional service and you have a reputation to uphold. 

Q. When designing book jackets, what is your relationship with the author? Do you have a lot of freedom with the images you produce?

So far, yes. When a client hires you, they are doing so because they like your art style and want you to be creative. In my experience, authors are often excited when they see you creating ideas they’d never thought of, in fact they encourage it! As I mention in further detail later, these clients are often the most relaxed and enjoyable to work with. 

Q. Do you have any pointers on how to approach clients?

To somewhat echo what I said above, one of best ways to approach a client is to be calm, friendly and confident. Don’t exaggerate your abilities as this can trip you up when they realize you can’t deliver on a promise. Yet, remember to promote and be proud of the skills you CAN wield. If you’re writing an email to a client, company etc, keep the wording concise so it makes swift reading. Make sure the text flows and your grammar and spelling is correct as this gives a good impression of professionalism. 

When you start out as a professional you might feel unsure and perhaps embarrassed to even try and approach potential clients, particularly if they are big names in the industry. But being timid isn’t going to help you progress or find work. It’s better to ask, the worse they’ll do is decline gracefully. They might give you advice on how to improve your chances next time or even refer you to some useful websites and other contacts!

Remember that you aren’t always the one doing the chasing. A fair share of my clients have been the ones to approach me. I achieve this by joining as many art websites as possible and posting a collection of my art on their site with a link to my main website. My main website is home to my larger portfolio, clients can find my contact details there too. Building your presence on the internet successfully is like creating a web. Think of your portfolio website as the centre of that web. Each site you join, and promote your work within, adds another thread to that web. Build more connections like this and you’ll increase your chances of a client finding their way to you. In addition, the more sites there are linking back to your portfolio website, the higher your site will rise in search engine results i.e Google and your exposure will increase further still.

Q. Do you find it’s better for you to promote your work through blogs and magazines or get help from agency?

I have been applying to agencies for the past four years and it was only a handful of days ago that I finally acquired one! Therefore my answer can only be based on theory at this point, but I’ll share my thoughts nonetheless.

An agent will job hunt for you. More to the point, they have a greater chance of getting you higher paid, higher profile work, due to their heavier presence in the industry and access to a longer list of contacts and clients. Art directors, publishers and mainstream authors will generally only pick artists who are part of an agency. It’s easier for them to find and choose an artist this way, rather than scour the internet for obscure talent. Artists who have gained an agent worked hard to prove that they are reliable in order to obtain one. Naturally any client finds this an attractive quality as well as reassuring. 

However, an agent will take a percentage of earnings from work they find for you, usually between 25-35%. It’s important to point out that the agency will attempt to net a larger amount in order to cover their commission and not leave you with a meager sum for your efforts. Chances are you’ll still earn more than you would have without the agent’s assistance.

As I eluded to earlier, it may be some time before an agency sees you fit to accept into their ranks, so be prepared for a barrage of rejections. In the meantime there are plenty of other ways you can promote and find work. One of which is magazines, in the form of adverts. I avoided this method as this kind of advertising can be extremely expensive and won’t necessarily prove a fruitful expenditure. However, my work has appeared in ImagineFX, a monthly fantasy and sci-fi art magazine, on a few occasions within the Reader Gallery and other articles. I wasn’t paid to appear, but neither did I need to pay. The result, free advertising on a much larger scale. So my advice is, enter competitions in art magazines, it’s good practice as well as great promotion. You may even win an award, which looks great on your CV.

There are still more ways to advertise that require even less effort and cost. During an earlier answer, I discussed joining art websites such as Hire An Illustrator, PNWorldwide and Behance Network. Promoting your art on these sites is cheap advertising and starts to get you recognized within the art community and attract work. There are many out there for each individual facet of art and design. Don’t forget that most art magazines also have online websites, which tend to have an online gallery too, free to join and share your art with viewers.

Blogs are a great way to share the rough sketches and work in progress that you wouldn’t display in your main portfolio. Having this kind of online diary not only generates attention from potential clients and fans, who then start following your work, but it’s also satisfying witnessing your art develop over time. However, to reiterate a point made earlier, don’t criticize past or current clients on your blog. You never know who may be reading so maintain your professionalism. In addition, a lot of fantastic artists out there have blogs containing incredibly useful information, so it’s well worth hunting them down.

For an even more unique way to advertise, try YouTube. I’ve recorded myself painting some of my artworks and posted them online. The response has been incredibly positive and proven to be excellent publicity.

Finally, social media. You could create a Facebook page for your art business and update it in much the same way you would a personal profile. You can also set the updates to post the same information simultaneously on your Twitter account, automatically. People worldwide use Facebook and Twitter, including art directors, and it’s free. What better way is there to advertise your availability for work?!

Q. Do you find that artists you work around are stylistically similar?

So far I have only worked alone as a freelance Illustrator opposed to part of a large design team or company. This has been my preference, because I like being the soul person in charge of the art created. I enjoy the feeling of working through a project and overcoming it’s challenges by myself, it’s a great feeling of satisfaction! I was the same whilst at UCA. I have learnt that often the fewer people involved, the fewer the delays and frustrations. There are exceptions however, I’d have no problem working with a small group of talented individuals. The key to any groups’ success is when each member is efficient and skilled in their own right and doesn’t shirk their responsibility to the rest of the team. 

When at University I surrounded myself with people who were good friends, liked similar things and shared similar ideas, but we all had different art styles. Crafting an art style, distinct to you, helps your work stand out against your competitors. Following the crowd and copying another person’s art style, whether a colleague, tutor or otherwise, should be avoided unless used as a learning tool. Individuality is at the heart of what makes art enjoyable. It should be encouraged and never repressed by a ruling hand. Even when you are illustrating a client’s project and following their rules and criteria, always find a way to make the art speak with your voice. After all, the client hired you for your personal unique touch, never lose that element to your work!

Q. What role and input do you have regarding the text accompanying the illustration?

It’s not uncommon for a separate graphic designer to work on the text after an artist creates the illustration. Ask the client if they need you to design the text as well and tell them if you’d rather just work on the illustration. Be sure to adjust your fee accordingly.

I like to work on the text and illustration to be sure both aspects compliment and gel as a whole. Sometimes a client chooses to go against your proposal and will use a different text layout and font. A bad font choice can spoil your hard work laid down beforehand and can often lead to the artist being wrongly accused of the offending typography. It can be a little disappointing, but that’s how some jobs turn out.

Those of you who enjoy using/drawing typography as part of the design itself are perfectly entitled to do so. Be sure to illustrate this in your preliminary sketches so the client knows what you are planning.

Q. What jobs do you find most enjoyable and most challenging?

I enjoy working with first time authors the most. They are always so enthusiastic and thankful for the work you do for them. Naturally they are creative people themselves, often like-minded and appreciate the effort that goes into creating art. It’s common to  forge friendships with them too, which makes for a great working environment. They generally offer the most freedom too, concerning the generation of ideas and the flexibility of deadlines. There is a down side however, these projects are often the lowest paid, as the client has yet to make their mark as an author and is thus unlikely to command a large budget. But they are excellent clients to begin a career with and very welcome when you find yourself between those more lucrative projects!

I find logo and tattoo design particularly challenging, because it can involve a lot of alterations and refinements before a client is happy with the design. This means you can often put in more hours than you anticipated, which can delay other projects you have scheduled. It also makes this kind of project difficult to price, because you can’t be sure how long it will take. In this situation it is best to quote an hourly rate rather than a fixed price. If you quote a fixed price for the whole project, the client could take advantage of this and get as much art out of you as possible. However if you charge per hour, they are aware that the longer they keep you the more they are paying. This payment method allows them to control how much they are willing to pay and prevents you from getting sold short. If you go down this route, be sure to record how many hours you spend working and update the client frequently with a running total. Communication and trust is paramount here.

Foolishly I once quoted a fixed project price to a client wanting a logo design. He had me work for months on and off and by the end I’d amassed 31 different designs (any of which could have made an effective logo, he was just incredibly fussy). To make matters worse he disappeared without paying me, but thankfully I hadn’t been quite foolish enough to send him any design files. The lesson is, handle this kind of project with caution, outline the work arrangements clearly in a contract and have them sign it before you begin.

Q. What are the biggest struggles/complications you face when working with a client? 

This question was somewhat answered above, but I have a few additional points I can add. Large companies are often fussy clients. If they are paying you a large sum they will want to make sure the art is tailored perfectly to their needs. This is reasonable, however it can still be a struggle, particularly if the project also has a tight deadline. As an Illustrator or Designer you can often find yourself working into the small hours of the morning and weekends in order to get the job done in time.

I’ve worked on projects involving Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and The Lord of the Rings, plus a few others. Projects that are based on a well known franchise require accuracy. The art director will scrutinize every detail you draw making sure it matches the original source in order to maintain continuity and canon. Naturally there can be complications if you get things wrong, but that can simply be avoided by thorough research and paying attention to the subject/reference you have been asked to illustrate. An art director is usually happy to provide further reference details should you ask for them, it is their job to organize and look after you whilst you are working with them.

I’ve never NOT been able to deliver a job, so I’ve never struggled in that sense. I’m a very cautious person and I only ever take on a job if I know for certain I can complete it to the best of my ability. I suggest you adopt a similar approach. Anything less than that could cause problems with clients if your work doesn’t come up to scratch. Failing to deliver or having poor quality work published will only do you a disservice. That said, don’t shy away from taking on a job altogether. It’s good to challenge yourself in order to improve your skills and expand your repertoire. This can only improve your chances of acquiring bigger and better commissions in future!

Closing Comments

I hope this information provides the answers you seek. Good luck with your creative careers!

Kind regards,

 Mike