Ben Tallon is a longstanding AOI member and champion illustrator (represented by Illustration Ltd). You might have heard him on his brilliant podcasts Arrests All Mimics, or read his book Champagne and Wax Crayons.
Ben is celebrating 10 years working as a professional illustrator – and at this momentous milestone he shares six of the best lessons learned from a decade as a freelance illustrator.
Build according to the purest vision
In my earlier days, the most important jobs I managed to pick up were thanks to a portfolio built entirely of self-initiated work that was made with passion. After spending too long chasing and mimicking trends, I realised I did not feel excited about creating the style I graduated with, which was not true to my character. Of course I did my share of less than thrilling projects, but they never saw light of day, knowing this stuff would attract more of the same. The self-initiated work stood out more, winning work with The Guardian, When Saturday Comes and The Big Issue, clients I wanted to work with. Create what you believe is expected and you’ll lose your way. The best compass is always within.
Weird is a compliment in our world
I’ve created work that I worried would offend or struggled to see fitting into any particular field. It would have been easy not to take such risks but they’ve routinely paid off when I have. Last year at the World Illustration Awards I made the shortlist, but felt soundly beaten and galvanised by the winning entries. That was a healthy reminder – because they had created incredibly personal, fascinating styles.
Clients want to be surprised – They want weird, funny, striking and bold. They want soul. Stevie Gee deservingly won several awards for campaigns for Adidas and Stella McCartney and it was clear that they’d bought into the abundant sincerity and personality that shone through. So get off Pinterest and explore the murkiest pits of your subconscious without second-guessing what you find.
Take care of yourself
On the whole, we’re sensitive, curious, empathetic people. These tender qualities enable us to see layers in the world. This also means we are easily upset, prone to ups and downs. So be honest with yourself. If you do not hit the ground running, winning big work quickly, that’s common and fine. Get a job, work in a café, whatever it takes to get by and fund the dream. Do not feel guilty about it. People seem very quick to write themselves off as a failure when it can take years, even decades to reach a level where you can work as an illustrator. Miss Led told me on her Arrest All Mimics podcast episode that she spent 8 years after graduating doing other jobs before she felt ready to work artistically. We’re all on different timelines and for some, support from outside is not just financially smart, but great balance for the solitude, pressures and unpredictability of freelancing. Build according to your character and be sympathetic to the mind you have.
Share now, share always
Sending work out to others is critical. I’ve had comments that have initially hurt, but opened doors and triggered epiphanies. Deny the fragile part of your personality and put work online, on desks for studio mates to comment on, in front of portfolio consultants and friends at every opportunity. It can bring collaborations that help development, tease new ideas from a fresh pair of eyes and different mind, not to mention win unlikely commissions. Keeping things guarded and precious is a classic artist trait, but it guarantees that none of the aforementioned benefits will come your way, so what’s to lose?
Run with the negatives
Shit happens all the time so it’s vital to find ways to respond positively. Most setbacks have turned out to be long-term positives. Frustration, anxiety, pressure and rejection are not things anyone would seek, but if you accept their inevitable presence when leading your career with creativity, they can be wonderful motivators because we see and act differently when they are around.
I knew that the highly edited world of social media was not the truth and my frustrated blog musings in response to this and a frustrating quiet spell evolved into an unexpected book deal in the UK and Japan. This was followed by global lecture bookings and spawned Arrest All Mimics podcast, all of which have set a new and intriguing course in my career.
Be ambitious, embrace chance and know your limits
I’ve managed to work for two bucket-list clients on a regular basis. This wasn’t luck. Chance plays a big role in most creative careers, but if you’re not open to seeing the opportunities when they present themselves, they’ll pass by. It was a strong knowledge and love of football and professional wrestling that got me bucket list work for Leeds United and WWE because they needed people who knew and loved the product.
During my ten years, I’ve had a few horror shows of roaming beyond my circle of competence. Most times, experiments and collaboration are fun and valuable, but if you have no faith or experience in something and claim to be able to do it well, it can lead to all kinds of embarrassment and attacks on your reputation. These days, I have a keen sense of where my competence ends and the domain of another specialist begins, at which point it’s better to hand over to them or work together.
Many thanks to Ben for the valuable insight!
See more of Ben’s work on his website.
His book, Champagne and Wax Crayons is out now (you can read a review of it here) and his Arrest All Mimics podcast is free to listen here.