Preparing for illustration fairs: An interview with three illustrators

The festive season is nearly here and so are illustration fairs, including the much missed London Illustration Fair which is now returning after a pandemic break. We are ourselves very excited to be back as partners this year, bringing a day of (now sold out!) 1-1 Portfolio Consultations with illustration agents this Friday 2nd December.

Sociable and often lucrative, illustration fairs are an exciting way to step out of the confines of our digital worlds, physically test products and even establish relationships with potential customers and commissioners. AOI Members James Barker, Sue Gent and Emma Zanelli will be present in London Illustration Fair this December, and together they kindly give insights and tips of what to expect and how to prepare for any physical trades.


What can we expect to see from you at the London Illustration Fair? Do you have a new or popular products you’re excited to present?

Emma: I’ll be selling a selection of prints of recent works in various sizes, most of which I haven’t made available to buy until now. My online shop was closed for a really long time for various reasons, so I’m just excited to be selling prints again! I’ve done so much new work I’m really proud of in the last couple of years and I’m definitely curious to see how it’s received.

James: I will be showcasing a range of prints inspired by nature and natural history as well as other curiosities drawn from my travels and interests. I’ll also be selling other items such as enamel pins, socks, colouring books and fair trade tote bags. I have expanded my range with new designs this year which cater more towards adults than children than previously, which I’m looking forward to showcase in person.

Sue: I’ve never exhibited at London Illustration Fair before and I’m really excited about it. I’m taking three new prints that seem to be getting a positive reaction online, so I’m looking forward to showing those alongside a selection of my others – basically as much as I can fit in the biggest suitcase known to humanity. Honestly, I could fit in that suitcase… 

Emma Zanelli

2. Are illustration fairs a lucrative source of income for you? Do you have any tips for covering costs or keeping track of profits?

James: I have found illustration fairs in particular a great source of income, not just in terms of sales at the event but also in meeting shop buyers, commissioning editors and connecting with the wider industry. In comparison to more general craft fairs, visitors are more discerning and know what to expect so in turn you get a better flow of customers. 

With regards to covering costs, it certainly helps to have a good selection of items beyond prints along with a decent price range to cater for everyone. It was crucial to spend some time to understand my audience, what they were willing to spend or buy and striking a balance between my interests and a more broader appeal.

Sue: It varies, but generally I seem to do OK. For me, though, it’s not just about profit on the day. I’ve had many people buy from me online long afterwards (sometimes a certain print will just stick in someone’s mind). I’ve also had commissions from clients I’ve met at fairs – it’s such a great opportunity for people to see your work in real life, where it often looks so much better than on a screen. And the most useful thing for me is chatting to people about my work – it’s brilliant for improving confidence and gauging what people like.  

In terms of keeping track of profits – I make a spreadsheet in advance and then use a notebook on the day to scribble down sales. Then when I’m home I can tick them off. Plus it’s much easier now I have a card machine that logs each sale.
 

Emma: This is actually my first illustration fair, so while I certainly hope it’s lucrative, I’m going to try and manage my expectations. I normally don’t keep a lot of stock on hand, so I definitely had to budget accordingly for this. Quality is also really important to me, and as we all know quality can come at a cost. But I plan on selling anything I don’t shift during the fair in my online shop which I’m currently resurrecting. As far as keeping track of profits and expenses, I must confess that I do love a spreadsheet (I know… an artist who also knows their way around a spreadsheet. Hot stuff!).

Sue Gent
Sue Gent

How do you present your work at illustration fairs? How do you make your space stand out?

Sue: It can be hard because every space is different and it also depends on lighting… you have to think on your feet a bit. I always take a velvet sheet (doesn’t need ironing, and you can hide loads of stuff underneath it!) plus a few racks – It’s great to get as much work as possible standing/hanging up so it can catch people’s eye as they walk past. I have a nice rechargable light that I usually put somewhere on the stall if it’s a bit dark. I try not to have too many prints of the same design out – I feel like they look a bit more ‘special’ if there are fewer of them. Any unusual items help you start conversations with people – I recently found a mechanical hand that holds my business cards, I think that’s my favourite thing! 

Emma: I plan on presenting my work pretty simply. I have a fun table cloth and some simple display stands and clips for hanging things. I’m just at a table this year so I want to make the most of the space I have by not cluttering it up with too many things. As someone who frequently suffers from choice paralysis, I’m also hoping a curated stand will mean people have an easier time choosing something they might want to buy! 

Standing out is definitely a challenge when you are selling alongside some of the best in the biz. I’m kind of relying on my work to do the standing out…I’m selling large, bright pink prints of Dame Barbara Cartland, and I’m 99% sure I’ll be the only one doing that.

James: Each fair is a bit different with table sizes and spaces, so it became a constant challenge to showcase all the different items I had to offer. I would take rails and place them on the table to gain extra height to display tote bags that could always be seen from everywhere, which certainly didn’t hurt. I use a lot of wooden displays and boxes to prop up my items to keep it neat and relatively organised, I think it also gives a slightly more ‘professional’ look which helps.

James Barker
James Barker

What are 3 essential things that you bring with you to every illustration fair?

Emma:

1. My boyfriend to fetch me things, take over when I need a wee break, and give me compliments and pep talks if sales are lagging.
2. My iPad so I can do some drawing.
3. Sneaky purse wine to take away my shyness and boost my sales prowess (just kidding…maybe).

Sue:

1. Snacks. 

2. Pen and paper (people often give some great recommendations/inspiration when you get chatting)

3. More snacks.


London Illustration Fair is open Friday 2nd – Sunday 3rd December. Get your entry tickets here.

Many thanks to Sue, James and Emma for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to follow their works below.

More AOI Members will be present at London Illustration Fair, including Jasmine Chin, Joseph Lattimer (Collectible Cities), Mamen Morillas, Yu-Ching Chiu and Yuki Uebo. Make sure to say hello to them and check out their works!


25th November 2022
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