So much illustration is just about a cool style and to get good at it you have to spend time perfecting it,” says Greg Burne of creative agency Big Active which manages a roster of imagemakers. “If it becomes fashionable, you then spend your time trying to keep up with the demand, while other people start imitating you and snapping at your heels. Then all of a sudden you’ve done one campaign too many, and demand for your style is gone. It can be a very quick rise and fall (often measured in months). Actually building a lasting career is no mean feat.”
The impact of the internet has speeded up that process greatly with images of an illustrator’s work quickly spreading around the world, where once they would have taken years to filter into the awareness of commissioners and consumers. That rapid assimilation from cutting edge to mainstream was a subject that CR debated at an iStock-organised event in London last month which featured Burne on the panel. He argued that maintaining a career in illustration is a delicate balancing act that can be upset by just one ill-advised commission.
Advertising supports the careers of many illustrators but, although a big agency commission is usually very welcome, there are dangers. If an artist is linked with a specific brand, it can limit their appeal to other companies, particularly in the same sector, for example. And the enormous reach that advertising has can add to the problems of overexposure for an illustrator.
Things are further complicated by the growing trend for brands not simply to employ the services of an artist, but to collaborate with them and use their involvement with their brand as part of a PR plan. “Until quite recently, it was very unusual for a brand to want to use an artist’s name in press materials about a specific job, but now it’s become quite commonplace,” says Burne. Alex West, Mother London’s head of talent and partnerships, was also on the CR panel at the iStock debate. He explained that, “What we now realise is that if we engage with a great artist and work with them to genuinely embed the vision of a client in a particular project, we get a huge amount of additional mileage. It’s about tapping into something that people are interested in. If the project is authentic then people in that world will take the message on and blog and Facebook and Tweet and Flickr and everything else.”
One of Big Active’s artists, Sanna Annukka, has a fruitful and ongoing relationship with Finnish homewares brand Marimekko who, Burne explains, “represent many of her values, share similar cultural heritage and who have the necessary manufacturing and distribution organisation. Sanna is very choosy about the brands she works with and, wherever possible, will prefer to work with brands who share similar ethical and creative values.”
In a project initiated by Wallpaper* magazine in 2009, illustrator James Joyce created designs to adorn a Victorinox Swiss army knife, which was marketed with his signature on the box. Joyce tells us he’s recently taken on two similar collaborative projects, with luxury phone brand Æsir, and also with Ercol, with both brands stipulating the importance of the resultant work being recognisable as his and that his name will be used in all the press materials relating to the projects. But how does an artist know which of these kinds of jobs are right for them? “Always make sure you work with brands that you respect and who respect you,” is Joyce’s advice.
While there are no hard and fast rules for illustrators wanting to know how to avoid that one commercial job too many that will cause market saturation and, ultimately, the phone to stop ringing, Burne points out that understanding how clients wish to use your work and leverage your reputation and credibility is crucial to staying in the game.
“People always assume that all PR is good for artists, but in my experience, that’s not the case,” Burne says, explaining that clients often assume it’s OK to document the making of a piece and publish it on a blog featuring the artist in question’s name. “If that work is for a not-particularly-aspirational brand, then it could be that while the artist is happy to do the work, he or she doesn’t really want it to be shouted about from the rooftops and for their name to be forever associated with it. If the work is for Nike and ten years down the line the artist’s work has evolved and now appeals to Reebok, they might Google his or her name and see it linked to Nike and no longer consider using that artist. So clients shouldn’t assume it’s OK to use the artist’s name like this. We have recently changed our standard contract to take out the right for allowing this unless it’s agreed and paid for. Advertising changes all the time and artists and agents need to be watchful and wary of how these changes can affect their practice longterm.”
Sometimes artists have to deal with being linked or associated with a brand in a way that isn’t down to contractual details. Last summer UK-based street artist Eine found himself in the unlikely position of receiving a call from Downing Street. Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Sam wanted to give the US President Barack Obama and his wife a painting of his as a gift. Eine had to make a decision. Would collectors of his work think any less of him for knowing that the Camerons are also fans? Eine made his decision based on various factors. “At the time it really seemed like Obama could make a positive change in America,” he recalls, “and there was a connection between Obama and street art because of the Shepard Fairey poster. It was made clear to me that there wasn’t a big budget to pay for a piece of my work but I recognised it was a great opportunity for me to raise my profile, particularly in the US.”
Eine notably kept a low public profile after the story made TV and newspaper headlines. “On the back of that surreal experience pretty much every existing canvas of mine in various galleries sold. But I didn’t put up my prices and, despite being inundated with strange requests to do shows around the world, I said no to pretty much everything because I wanted to take stock. I still want to be selling paintings in 30 years time, so I had to manage the situation carefully to best ensure I’m doing that.”
Constantly taking stock of your position and your direction as an artist is good practice, agrees Joyce, whose reputation has often been compromised by copycats. “Sometimes other illustrators produce work that is uncannily similar to mine and I always have to take action because you have to protect your reputation and your work. I’m lucky to have a great agent [Breed] who is always willing to fight my corner and approach guilty parties on my behalf and to go legal if necessary. I have daily contact with my agent and regular meetings to discuss where I’m at and where I want to go, which kinds of clients should I be working with, what kind of work I’d like to be doing and then actively pursuing these goals,” he says. Burne’s role as an agent has also seen him discuss the effect of copycat work with some of his artists, none more so than Jasper Goodall. “Jasper was the first artist I started working with,” says Burne. “He went through an incredible purple patch when he first started, and in many ways his work helped define the vector-based look of the early noughties. Exciting as that was, the end result was colleges churning out Jasper impersonators and the style became dated. Fortunately, we saw this coming and have constantly been able to reinvent his output.”
But despite all these factors, Burne says, for illustrators, the key to lasting success still comes down to talent and the ability to work well with others to deliver what clients need. “If you stop providing a good service, then you don’t deserve to stay in business,” he says, bluntly.