THE GRAD: Sam Tomlins
THE JOB: Illustrator
THE PRO: Matthew The Horse
Sam Tomlins graduated from Leeds College of Art’s Visual Communications BA earlier this summer. He met up with illustrator and educator Matthew ‘The Horse’ Hodson to discuss his portfolio and life post-graduation as a budding professional illustrator.
Matthew Hodson: You graduated from Leeds a few months ago, what are you up to now?
Sam Tomllns: I’ve moved back to Stoke, and I’m living with my parents at the moment.
MH: So what’s the plan, what are you going to do next?
ST: The plan at the moment is to get a part-time job and carry on working on my illustration as much as I can, try to find a good balance. In August I’m going to be in a show at Beach London as part of the Just Us Collective. I’m trying to keep myself going with other design work, logo designs and things like that.
MH: It’s great that you’re going to be in a show in London. It demonstrates that you’re hustling and I think the most important thing you can do when you graduate is to keep your momentum going. You’ve got to keep the ball rolling, so to have exhibitions coming up, and just to be having an opportunity to make fresh work and get out and meet people is really good.
ST: Is this the kind of thing you did when you graduated?
MH: Very much so. Although when I graduated I initially got myself a job working five days a week and subsequently really struggled. I had some freelance jobs coming in but was having to do them in the evenings and at the weekends and it really started to grind me down and I actually had to turn down work just because I couldn’t manage it all. So I quit my full-time office job and got myself a part-time job and that allowed me at least one or two days a week at a desk where I could spend a full day in silence working as an illustrator. I think that that’s really important after you graduate.
ST: How did you get your first proper illustration job?
MH: As a student I exhibited some work in Bristol and that work was seen by a designer who liked and bought some of my prints and got in touch. He got me work experience in his studio for a couple of months working on various in-house stuff. After that he started giving me little freelance jobs where we could work together. Actually, I developed a really strong working relationship with that guy and what I realised is that by developing genuine human relationships with people it’s easier to work and collaborate with each other. He understood the way I was working and valued the work I was making and vice versa. And so from then on I decided I needed to start building proper lasting relationships with people. Fairly soon after that I got my first commission from The Guardian and that came as a result of doing some unsolicited emailing – which I can thoroughly recommend. I was just grabbing all the email addresses I could get my hands on. I used to go to WH Smith and go through the magazines and look for the contact details of art directors and editors. I’d talk to friends too. My buddy had done a job for The Guardian and he gave me the email address of his contact so I just spammed them. I was always spamming people! And it paid off: The Guardian got in touch, they’d seen something I’d done and asked me to do an editorial piece. Although I’d done some editorial pieces for smaller magazines, that was my first proper paid job and that was a really good one to start with and also provided a really good learning curve. The other thing I did a lot of at that time was tracking down contacts at magazines that maybe weren’t as high profile as your Guardians and New Scientists, maybe like smaller independent music magazines and even projects people were doing. I’d ask if I could get involved or help out and work for free but things were still getting printed and I was still getting briefs and that was really useful. It’s a really good idea to be proactive and get in touch with people you’d like to work for. Is there anyone that you’d like to produce work for, or any illustration jobs that you’d like to pursue?
ST: I’m interested mostly in editorial work but I’ve found it difficult since I’ve got home to push forward with it. It feels like I should have a proper and ‘normal’ job as well and that I should probably be focusing on that rather than illustration.
MH: Well, you’ve got to pay your rent, haven’t you?
ST: Exactly. It makes me wonder how things have changed since you’ve graduated. How has the industry changed? Is it easier to find work now, do you think, and ultimately, is it possible to make a living, is it worth being an illustrator?
MH: I would say yes of course it’s possible to make a living as an illustrator but you’ve got to decide why you want to do this. When I graduated I was never asked ‘why are you doing this?’. I loved illustration and getting lost in this visual world but no one ever asked me ‘when are you going to feel like you’ve succeeded?’. You have to kind of figure it out yourself. But there is so much satisfaction to get from it and there is a lot of work out there – but you’ve got to find a way to link what you do with that work. That’s the challenge. In terms of how illustration has changed, I think it’s become a commodity of popular culture rather than just a craft. Now an illustrator doesn’t simply answer briefs – there is an opportunity for illustrators to create products independently and make a living from that. Personally, I like to divide the two things up and talk about illustration being the image
making that accompanies ideas, and then maybe that notion of making art for people’s walls outside of the fine art establishment we could call that graphic art. As an image maker you can and should exist within both fields and that’s what’s changed now. llustrators have to recognise that producing graphic art can potentially become part of their practice, as much as answering briefs. Where do you see your practice? Would you also be interested in selling prints or making comic books?
ST: Absolutely, although I think it’s probably best to keep the two things separate but I definitely feel it’s important for me to develop a more commercial aspect to what I do….
MH: You said you’d been doing some design work….
ST: I suppose my current way of working is divided three ways between almost a fine art practice, a commercial illustration practice and a very commercial graphic design and illustration practice, and doing the latter is all I can really get paid for at the moment. So I have been working on some logos and diagrams and technical illustrations and business cards for people. I’ve possibly got one of my technical drawings coming out in a scientific journal next month.
MH: How much does that differ from your graphic art practice?
ST: It’s really different but actually, it kind of informs it, especially the diagrammatic illustrations. I think it’s important to have a lot of different briefings, to try a lot of different things just to keep what I’m really doing fresh.
MH: When I look at your portfolio I see a unique type of energy and humour and charm – and that’s key, you have to hold on to that because that’s what stands your work apart from anyone else’s. You now have to work out how you translate that unique voice into something that a client can commission and use. You’ve got to start thinking who can use this kind of work and to start approaching people about what you’re doing. How would you describe your visual language and approach to image-making?
ST: Essentially what I’m trying to achieve with each picture is something that makes me laugh, that’s a real measure for me. I feel like I’ve made a good picture when I’m laughing at it.
MH: Good stuff, I do this myself and I think it’s a great way of working if you want to make funny work. It means you then have a system by which you can evaluate the success of anything you make. And I can tell you that it’s working, because when I look at your work, I find myself smiling – it’s very charming. What do you think the weaknesses might be to your portfolio at the moment?
ST: All the work is quite similar so I worry that that there probably isn’t as much diversity as there needs to be.
MH: I’d actually say there’s a coherence to it, which is good. You can tell it’s all the work of one unique maker and that’s really strong. Perhaps one thing to consider is that your work is very lo-fi and while I understand that your style is naive intentionally, I do think that you have to make sure that clients know and understand its potential. You have to start looking at your work and imagine it on a page of copy, visualising it alongside an article and understanding how well it can do its job. The musical timeline piece is a good example of how it can work but it might be interesting for your portfolio to produce some other pieces where your illustrations sit alongside some copy. That way, people looking at it can see how they can potentially employ this style, this madness that you’re producing, and put it alongside their copy or products. I really like this piece, Draw A Dog. It’s really nice to see you working with shape, as well as the line drawing and felt tip stuff. This piece is equally as lo-fi and handmade and yet it has a slightly more graphic sensibility and I think if you’re interested in editorial this (and this is just my opinion) has more potential for an art director to see and think ‘I can use this’, so I’d encourage you to do more work in this vein. The final major piece you’ve got from your graduate show, 2,000 Ideas, is a really engaging piece of work that I want to explore and I wish I could see more of it on your site. These are the kinds of projects that as a recent graduate you’re blessed with the time to make and could be worth including on your site in such a way that people can really explore and enjoy it. I feel that your online portfolio at the moment is very simple, you might want to provide a little more explanation of what people are looking at and also I think it needs editing. There’s a lot of work here and ifl scroll down and look at some of the earlier pieces there are some lovely extracts of sketchbook work and I recognise in them – as I recognised in my own graduate website – these are pieces where perhaps you had a little breakthrough or they helped you understand your own practice a bit more. Some of them have such a lovely human voice to them but they don’t necessarily need to sit with your current commercial portfolio anymore. Do you feel that you’ve got a bit of an emotional attachment to some of these pieces of work?
ST: I guess so.
MH: For a professional portfolio, you really need to show one consistent approach to doing things – your own unique tone of voice. That way art directors can easily develop a relationship with your work and then say ‘right, OK I’ve got an article here that’s irreverent and lo-fi, I’ll get Sam to illustrate it’. Over the next five years I’d advise you to continue to develop this unique visual language of yours. I think you should keep using that ‘does it make me laugh’ system to further develop your ways of making work.
ST: Can you give me any advice about what to charge for my work, and also what jobs to take on for free?
MH What you’ll find is that some clients will have a lot of money and can pay you really well, and others will have less money but really interesting and challenging briefs. It’s down to you to balance those two opportunities and keep doing work you love whilst being able to pay the bills. As a general rule, if it’s a collaborative project and doing it will benefit both of you, then go for it. But if someone has or is going to make loads of money and you’re not going to get a thing, then it’s probably not worth it. Be wary of folks offering you ‘great exposure’. Of course good exposure does have value but you need to use your common sense as to whether or not what is promised really is worth your time and input. There are so many middlemen running websites where they are basically trying to sell your work for a profit and give you a tiny percentage. Why not make your own prints and sell them via your own website instead? In terms of what to charge, if you charge £100 an hour, you’re probably not going to get much work. The truth is that more often than not you’ll find that people will offer you a fee for a particular job. I figured out an hourly rate that equated to my salary when I had a five-days-a-week office job so that when people asked me what I’d charge, I could work it out. However, I’d always advise asking a potential client what their fee or illustration budget is before you suggest a fee of your own. It means you don’t potentially price yourself out of a job and allows them to be honest with you about the money available.