Business Insights: Ben the Illustrator

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I originally studied animation at Central St.Martins and the Surrey Institute, after graduating I worked predominantly on independent music videos, later forming a small animation and design studio in London. While working at the studio I began taking on some illustration commissions and soon realised that that was my real passion. left the studio and became ‘Ben the Illustrator’ in 2005. Since then I have worked in advertising, editorial, surface pattern design, corporate and many other creative areas.

You can find out more on my website, or by following on twitter or Insta.

How did you get into illustration?

Working in animation I had become adept at using Flash and in my own time started using it to make flat colourful art; this was the early 2000s, and before there were some very exciting new avenues opening up in digital art.

Working as part of a small animation studio I had a variety of roles, sometimes creative director, sometimes producer, but with every project I found myself hooked on one aspect… how it all looked.

I was excited by character design, background art, colour palettes, etc etc, and would focus far more on those areas than the animation production.

From here I started using Adobe Illustrator and haven’t looked back.

I was lucky to start getting illustration commissions through my animation contacts and before long was a point where I could go solo and focus on the illustration work.

Talking business – how do you make sure you are on top of the business side?

“The key for me is to keep the administrative side of things regular and small. I don’t like things to pile up and get out of hand.”

I know others prefer to do all their admin, accounts etc in one big session, weekly or monthly perhaps.  But I prefer to address things in smaller chunks, often first thing in the morning or early afternoon when I’m in the right mood to get something achieved and tidy up loose ends.

I will invoice every project as soon as it’s signed off (essentially believing that the sooner you invoice the sooner you’re paid!).

I am quite obsessed with keeping my inbox as empty as possible so any enquiries should be dealt with efficiently.

I would say that the business side shouldn’t take up more than 25% of my time. I never chose this profession to be a business person – I chose it because I love to solve problems and create artwork and work alongside creative people – but the business side is essential to sustain the business.

I also have some help with the business, I have a trusted accountant to do my annual taxes and also last year started working with a local bookkeeper who is far more passionate about keeping receipts and bank statements in order than I am.

“I have an aim for what I want to earn in a month, essentially in order to pay myself and live sustainably.”

I reach this figure from a few different incomes; I sell art prints, I have a handful of good regular editorial clients, I freelance for design studios and I frequently work on what we’d call ‘corporate’ projects.

These aren’t necessarily as big or boring as they may sound. Often it is illustrating for a company’s internal mailers or published documents, it can be taking a company’s process, for example a manufacturing company, simplifying the work they do and visualising it so their employees and customers can understand it.

A lot of clients come to me because I create clean, colourful artwork and I can bring some dynamism to what they may consider to be a ‘dry’ subject. I always enjoy working in a variety of areas, and having this corporate resource of clients means I get to work alongside a huge variety of people. As an example I have worked alongside an HIV research company to illustrate their 5 year plan and relay it to staff worldwide; I have illustrated the manufacturing process for an Irish product design company for a wall mural, and I have illustrated the cover for an environmental packaging company’s annual reports.

The one downside of this area of work is that a fair amount of it is internal for my clients only, so I can’t always add it to my portfolio and it can often go unseen by anyone outside of my client’s business or (often niche) industry!

For me the corporate work is my bread and butter, it brings in an income so I can also focus on unlimited creative work, experimenting, illustrating new art prints, making artwork for fun.

Any advice on negotiating fees?

One route I always take is breaking down a budget in order to know how much time it is worth.  It’s perfectly fine to do a low-budget magazine illustration, but not if you spend a week on it.  How long will it take you?  And (comparing it to being employed) how would that work out as a daily rate or annual salary?

“I often base a fee estimate on previous jobs where I know the agreed fee was fair for both me and my client.”

I also think there can be an avenue for honesty, if a client is willing to suggest what they were hoping to pay, be open to discuss it openly with them to reach a fair number that you can agree on.

How do you manage your wellbeing?

Being your own business, it can be hard to separate your private life from your work; in the past my business has been effected hugely by focusing on family issues or dealing with grief.

In order to maintain some kind of balance between work and my own health and wellbeing I am a dedicated dog walker, getting out every morning before starting work.

A few times a week I will go running in the evening which is always good for the wellbeing, whether it’s relating to work or not.

“I have also learnt that on a difficult day it is perfectly fine to drop everything and get outside, usually renewing my mind for when I return to my desk.”

Thankfully I’m happy to eat any time, and will always make time for lunch (and snacks) throughout the day, I limit my coffee and try to keep a glass of water at my desk.

I have also seen great benefits in knowing it’s ok to take time out of the illustration bubble, and it won’t necessarily effect your career.  I listen to a lot of podcasts but more recently have been finding that non-illustration and design ones have been far better for my mentality while working, for example listening to comedy, writing or story-based podcasts.

What wisdom would you share with your peers?

Make time for business and admin but don’t let it rule your time, you’re an illustrator, illustrate!

Bring other skills into your illustration practice; I have a good understanding of branding and creative strategy for brands, this often comes into play and helps me with corporate work.

Keep reminding yourself that illustration really is everywhere, it can serve a multitude of functions and appear in any media, there are no limits to where you can take your path.


9th April 2019
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