We catch up with Ben the Illustrator to find out how he began his journey and what life is like as a freelance creative. Working self-employed for nearly 20 years in the industry Ben has taken his distinct style and carved out a successful career as an illustrator.
Starting as a freelance illustrator can seem an intimidating and daunting career prospect, but for those wanting to take the plunge a good starting point is The Illustrators Survey. Created by Ben in 2017 with 1,261 participants Ben takes the responses and creates concise instructional reports, and the project has continued to grow since. Whether you’ve just graduated with a degree in illustration, or starting a freelance practice The Illustrators Survey is a fantastic place to learn what life is like as a freelance creative.
Now in its third year we speak to Ben firstly about his own work, the survey itself and his latest findings from the 2019/00 report.
Hi Ben, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey as an illustrator?
Thanks so much for chatting to me! Originally I was focused on animation, I did a degree in animation in the late 90s, just at the time when Pixar was starting it’s run of epic CGI films and music videos were well budgeted and full of experimental animation. Graduating in 1999 I was commissioned to animate and direct music videos for Sony, Skint records and Channel 4, so I became self-employed from day one. I then went on to form a small animation and design studio in London, we worked on children’s tv, web animations and a huge variety of creative endeavours. It was then that I started to take some small illustration commissions, in time I realised that that was my passion, so we disbanded our studio and in 2005 I became ‘Ben the Illustrator’. Since then I have developed as an artist, evolving my styles over the years and taking illustration to as many areas as I can from advertising and textile patterns to coffee packaging and wraps for cars.
Your work has a very colourful, clearly defined, distinct aesthetic. Could you talk us through your creative process and where did you draw your inspiration from to develop this style?
I work in vector illustration, I find that creating clean geometric shapes and flat colours to be a very therapeutic process for me, being able to get everything aligned and tidy is quite meditative to me. I’m especially inspired by places, landscapes and interiors, I like to experience them visualise them with all the rough edges taken out and everything summed up in simple clean lines. I’m especially inspired by modern architecture and mid-century furniture, it’s as much approach the designer’s approach to lines and angles as it is the finished place or product. I take my sketchbook wherever I go and will sketch anywhere, I’m sure it drives some traditional artists wild but I actually sketch with a ruler and circle templates! I’ve tried drawing on digital devices but as yet I’ve not found a perfect replacement for pencil and paper, I think better on paper, better ideas come from the pencil. After that of course it’s all digital, I scan my drawings and trace them in Adobe illustrator then play with colour for as long as humanly possible!
What role do you think Social Media plays for artists/creatives in today’s society? Is the community aspect important for you?
I think it has its pros and cons. For many years I worked from home, with my wife out of the house I only had my dog for company, so social media became a huge community for me, as it has a lot of creatives. The social media community can be there for support or socialising, but it can also be there for your business, to share your work with potential clients or commissioners worldwide. I can’t express how important the community aspect has been for me over the years, it was those discussions I was having that spurred me on to create The Illustrators’ Survey in the first place.
In your opinion what are some key requirements to becoming a successful illustrator?
You need to be dedicated, above and beyond, you need to be prepared to deal with some instability and really believe that a predominantly self-fueled career is for you. I consider illustration to be a perfect balance between graphic design (usually functional, often providing a service to a client) and fine art (bringing creative concepts, telling stories, or adding life to a subject), and I think the best illustrators understand both sides, you can’t create to your hearts content, as an illustrator you need to work to your client’s brief and whatever constraints or rules that includes. It’s not the same for everyone, but I personally think have a strong visual aesthetic to your work can make or break an illustrator, finding an illustration style that you are comfortable working with, that people enjoy and that works commercially in some way.
Could you tell us about The Illustrators Survey and how you started it?
I started the survey in 2017, I’d had a fairly slow year in comparison to previous years and was discussing this (on social media) with some peers, I started to wonder if others were in similar position and wanted to ask a broad spectrum of illustrators. And so the survey was born! Now in it’s 3rd year and I am so proud of what it’s achieved so far and where it’s heading now. I was surprised how well it was accepted by so many illustration communities, the key I think was the fact that it was out together by an illustrator, so it wasn’t marketing for a company to profit from illustrators, and it wasn’t guided by any industry body or sector, the questions are curated and analysed by illustrators and for illustrators.
Looking through the results of the 2018/19 survey there’s some really interesting statistics. What trends have you noticed stand out?
Over the past two years we’ve had some stand-out results with regards to mental health, but thankfully this spurred a lot of people to take action, magazines like Digital Arts have run some brilliant articles full of advice and shared stories, now that we know the depth of the problem. The AOI too have been fantastic in using the survey results to look for solutions to industry issues, especially in areas like agreeing fees and building a sustainable business. One set of statistics that I’ve been interested in is those based around the work/life balance. Last year 64% of us said we require more exercise and 60% wish they socialised more with other illustrators. It actually breaks my heart a little that we’re spending so much time at our desks, on our devices or hiding away at home, when we could be out there being enriched by life, all of which can inspire new illustration work and give you positive energy to put into your business.
From the survey what would you say the biggest challenges facing illustrators heading into 2020?
I think its instability, the freelance life is not for everyone, and ensuring you earn a sustainable living is not easy when you have to be not only the illustrator, but also the accountant, the PR department and take care of every admin task under the sun! In the UK we have had a temperamental period in politics and business, and alas this is still rolling along, some clients are tightening budgets due to the uncertainty, and we have to find new ways of bringing in work. Creative businesses are a huge part of the UK economy, and freelancers make up a monumental workforce, and yet it often feels as if no-one has got our backs. This is another reason I do the survey, to try and build a community that can look after itself, bring advice to the surface and learn from each other how to build sustainable businesses across the board.
How can people take part in the survey?
Just head over to http://bit.ly/IlloSurvey, the survey will be open until 13th January and is open to anyone who has earned money from illustration in 2019. Around half of the participants (in previous years) have been full-time illustrators, but we also love to hear form part-timers, newcomers to the industry and students who have started taking commissions on the side of their studies.
And finally, what’s next on the horizon for you?
More illustration! This tear I moved into a shared studio with a friend, Neil, it’s the first time I’ve been working out of the house in years and I’m really enjoying it. We’ve been working together too, Neil is a creative director, predominantly working in branding and we’ve started operating as a team on some projects. This year we re-branded the Moneybag savings app, utilising our strengths in brand design and illustration and making something very special, hopefully we’ll have some similar projects together in 2020!
Ben, thanks so much for chatting to us and giving us such a great insight into your practice, the industry and the Illustrators survey. I wish you the best of luck in the future.
You can see more of Ben’s work here.