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Friday, 29 November 2013

Interview: Elise Hurst

"I think the biggest asset of an illustrator is doing great work and a lot of it. The challenge is to find that work. That is the same as it has ever been." 
(Elise Hurst)

I recently had the utmost privilege of asking three exceptionally talented Australian illustrators some questions about the industry and their own work. 

In the answering seat for my first interview is the talented Elise Hurst, hot off the tail end of her own personal exhibition held at No Vacancy Gallery at Fed Square. The work on the walls at her exhibition made me gasp, made me smile and even brought a lump of emotion into my throat. The imagination of this artist is of another world. I was truly moved and inspired taking in the fine details Elise Hurst creates and felt honoured to see this work up close and personal.

Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions regarding working as an illustrator.

First of all congratulations on your last exhibition: “Tiger. Hare. Girl. Bear.” The work you produced was exquisite! Can you describe a little of the process of putting together your own exhibition for No Vacancy Gallery?

The work follows on from a series of drawings that I have been doing in little sketchbooks which explore an alternate world of mine. So, happily, the concept was already set - it was a matter of coming up with the individual images. Over the years I have gathered a large number of favourite reference pictures - from obscure vintage photographs to buildings I've found on my travels. The starting point for many images was to trawl through this material and see what sparked an idea. Often the initial image formed only a tiny part of the final picture - sometimes none, but it got me thinking.

You also have to think about the show as a whole and how the images will make sense next to each other. Each gallery is very different and I find that I need to take the location into account a bit when designing a show. The No Vacancy Project Space at Fed Square is quite small, so drawings were a natural choice. However, given that small drawings are quite underwhelming from a distance, I wanted to include a small selection of oil paintings, so that someone glancing in the door would see some colour and get a glimpse and a feeling of the world that I was presenting. 

You are listed on The Style File– a website promoting the works of book illustrators in Australia. How does an organisation such as The Style File assist you and other illustrators in your career?

I think it is great for new illustrators and publishers hoping to find a fresh new approach. Because there are a lot of illustrators on the site - it's always worth a publishing house having a look through. I think a lot of individuals with their own projects in need to artwork have a look through it too. I don't think I get much traffic from it at the moment but that actually suits me. I am generating my own texts at the moment (writing and illustrating) so I am not really looking for a lot of emails there. 

Does having an illustration agent greatly assist illustrators in helping find work?  Can you find work without an agent?

I love my agent, Jacinta di Mase, because I hate to do the negotiation and chasing work of a job. With many publishers, the editor is sometimes the person with whom you have to discuss contracts and have a creative relationship. Some people find it easy to switch hats and others don't. My agent has directed some work my way but generally the publishers approach me directly. If you are an illustrator, you generally need to be willing to make your own contacts and follow them up. If you write too, an agent will help look at your ideas and direct you to the most likely publishing houses and provide introductions too. A good agent is a sounding board for projects in stages of drafting so that you can get some perspective on whether you are ready to submit it an editor. And some editors will prefer things to come through an agent because they know that the ideas have been through this process.

You can definitely find work without an agent and I think it is much easier if you are an illustrator because people love looking at pictures and it is immediately obvious if you have something special, or you don't! 

You have an incredible list of children’s books behind you including the beautiful and highly acclaimed The Night Garden  which was shortlisted for the 2008 CBCA Book of the Year. How do you go about publishing a book? Is it preferable to self publish or to work with a publishing house?

That is a huge question! The short answer is that I would only recommend self publishing if you are as interested in the business of selling and marketing as you are into creating. Creating the book is only a small part of selling a book. That is why I definitely choose to go with publishers. It takes enough of my time writing and illustrating, without trying to pick up another 6 part-full time jobs too. Basically, if you aren't willing to learn to do everything (editing, layout, researching printers, organising the print run, freight, storage, distribution and marketing) then you end up paying a whole lot of [people to do aspects of it for you. That's a big outlay for a product that has no guarantees of selling. You don't have to sell through mainstream bookshops though. If you have a way of selling directly to people it is a different story. You will still be doing a lot of work though! 

I haven't self published, although I do anticipate doing it one day with the perfect project. It will definitely have to fall into the category of specialist book, where I have my own way of marketing and distributing it.

(Side note: Above is my own personal copy of The Magic Garden which I got signed by Elise - yes, it's a treasure to keep forever! Here is a close up of the little magical inscription. Or as I like to call it, Elise's prescription:)

To work with a publishing house as an illustrator must be an incredible journey of hard work and passion. Do you recommend approaching publishing houses as an illustrator or is it best to go through an agent?

I would go straight to a publishing house. If you get some work offered to you and you are not confident negotiating for yourself, that is an excellent time to talk to an agent. You are much more likely to secure an agent if you have an offer on the table, then if you are starting out and you have no work behind you. It helps to be flexible though in the work that you are willing to take on. You will probably not land your dream job first off and it is good to be able to show your dream publisher that you are capable of following a project through. Look at educational publishers, greeting card companies, advertisers… make your own prints and cards and stories. Find a way to show them that you have what it takes and that you can work to a brief. People don't just want great artists, they want professionals who can be relied upon too. And fill your portfolio with all of the kinds of things that you want to do. Work hard to find what makes you unique. It may take a while but that development time is incredibly important. You are embarking on a journey, not arriving at a destination with every job, and you will change with every passing year.

Where do you think the main opportunities for emerging illustrators lie? Is it a matter of creating your own work or do you think collaboration is key?

Everyone is different and I couldn't say. Looking to your own personal interests can help you get a start - music lovers may try hard to get work doing cd covers by contacting companies and artists. Lovers of fantasy YA fiction may try submitting fake covers for some of their favourite books - particularly vintage ones that had odd covers (be careful not to trash something that the publishing house are proud of!). YOU can always come up with a fake book idea and do a cover. Creators are all vying for attention to get the chance to show what they do. Having a strong interest and area of expertise could help you stand out from the crowd. There are a lot of fairly simple styles out there that are not to hard to emulate, but it is the work that is particular to you and interests that will make you happy and give you the greatest opportunities. That is where a collaboration can shine too. here two people passionate about something create a truly unique work. You have to be careful about speculative work though. SOme people end up doing a huge amount of work with an author without it ever leading anywhere. If you are are doing this for a living, you do have to measure your time.

Do you ever work with design agencies on commissioned works?

Not really. I have done a few pieces companies and I find it both rewarding and difficult. Rewarding to see your work up there, especially if the company have embraced your personal style. Difficult if you are working with people who aren't used to making visual creative decisions. It is quite common to get tied up in a lot of 'I'll know what I want when I see it'. It is always best if there is a designer involved who will have some say in the ongoing and final decisions. I do quite a lot of private commissions and make sure that these are things that I really want to do. At the beginning of my career I was happy to take on any work at all, but it was usually deeply unsatisfying and harder to do work that didn't really interest me.

How did you start your own illustration career? What drew you to this as something you wanted to do for work?

If you have a passion for drawing and would do it anyway, paid or not, if you are compelled to create, then it is probably the job for you. It will pay very badly some years, it will be hard work, you will have to continually improve and develop - but if it is what you love to do and what you can't stop doing, you will put up with it and make it work!  A passing interest will not see you through the hard times. I started almost by mistake - doodling in a class at uni and having someone look over my shoulder and tell me about someone who needed an illustrator for pretty much what I was drawing right then. I got my first couple of jobs that way. It was harder after that - looking for work, building skills, thinking I had to be all things to all people. I did a big number of books just for the money and practise before I really started to feel like I was zeroing in on what I really wanted to be doing. Now I am taking on less work to give time to making each book as good as it can be, and for them to be things that I am really really engaged by. They are more long-term gambles but it feels like the right time to make them, now that I finally have something of my own that I want to share.

What challenges do you think Illustrators face in a contemporary market place?

I think most of it is the same as always - try to get noticed, try to get work… It is much easier to show your work now that we can have online folios (instead of leaving expensive bad colour photocopies copies to be lost in filing cabinets). That's great. And people can present themselves in a very professional way online. The work itself hasn't changed that much although many publishing houses are doing less of it than they used to as they try to cut costs. 

The help yourself, you can study illustration, but you certainly don't have to. There are societies to give you support and tips for developing your career and skills. You can print your own work and get noticed, make web pages and ebooks, blog, tweet… In the end you just have to get creative and proactive and work out how you are going to earn money for the time you spend. Although there is a lot to be said for social media, I think the biggest asset of an illustrator is doing great work and a lot of it. The challenge is to find that work. That is the same as it has ever been.  

Do you think the digital age has made it easier for illustrators to get their work out there?

Online folios are The Best.

To see the incredible work that Elise produces and to stay up to date with her exhibitions, books and projects please visit her website:Elise Hurst

Stay tuned for the next two instalments of my interviews with amazing Australian illustrators!

all images of artwork belong to Elise Hurst.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

I Hope

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning."
(Albert Einstein)

I love this quote by Einstein. I have been holding onto hope this month more than ever. The big question for me is "where will all of this passion to illustrate take me?" 

But the more I have pondered on this, the more I try and let it go.
I think the important thing is really not to keep looking too far into the future. Instead it is to grasp what is in front of me right now - that is to LIVE FOR TODAY - and trust and hope that these day to day workings will gather momentum and plant seeds that will sprout so gradually and naturally that I will be standing in a field ready to be reaped before I even know it. 

So what is in front of me today?

Firstly, my studies. I am just months away from graduating. There is still much to be learnt before the end of January. There are connections to be had with my classmates as we inspire each other along. There is a wealth of information to be sought after from my teachers. There is the joy of knowing that as a student I have the right to make mistakes - and fail spectacularly if needed. It's part of the process of learning after all.

Secondly, my work as a drama teacher. Although this work is not illustration based, it is fuel for inspiration and passion. Children need you to be present and awake to reach them. And when you reach them the magic can happen. I recently directed three casts of about 60 kids in each in a musical version of the ugly duckling. Earlier this year I volunteered to create the poster for these performances. On the weekend the last show was played with the final cast. It was when I was doing one of the final runs of the show that I realised I had a group of seven year olds peering over my shoulder with concentration while waiting for their turn to go on. They were pointing at my doodles, which until then I had not noticed were on almost every page. As they waited for their turn to go on stage they excitedly waited for the page of my script to turn so that they could see the next drawing I had absent-mindedly scribbled while nutting out directing notes.

As they smiled and moved closer to inspect my work the words of one of my favourite writers - Ralph Waldo Emerson - suddenly flew before my mind's eye:

"To laugh often and much
to win the respect of intelligent people
and affection of children…..
This is to have succeeded."

The joy on these kids faces was infectious. If kids are loving what I do then I must be on track. After all, if a child doesn't like something - they will tell you! They are the best and most honest of critics.

The show poster I designed for Honk:

So what else is in front of me?

Well, this is the obvious one. My sketchbooks, my pencils, my pens, my Wacom and my computer. The artists tools. Drawing almost everyday is second nature now. I am jumping at chances to take my pencil for a walk on the page. After recently joining Twitter I started to seek out other illustrators across the globe. I found a little fun weekly drawing challenge set by a design agency in the UK - Broccoli Creative Design.  To keep my pencil moving and inspired I have entered a sketch every week called "Saturday Scribbles" based on a set theme for the last month or so. It's been fun to see my work shared and retweeted and to know that oceans away people are engaging with what I love to do.

Here are some of my contributions:

Theme: Moustache

Theme: Bears and Bandages

Theme: Fireworks

Theme: Frost

Soon I will be sending my portfolio out into the world to seek representation from an illustration agency. This is a little bit nerve wracking, but I am feeling that perhaps an agent might point me in the direction of actual paid work. While thinking about my hopes and my dreams I drew this picture (which prints are now available from my Etsy shop I hope - print for sale)

So what are your hopes and dreams for the day? I hope that you have hope in your own hearts.

- Lou

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Problem Solving

"All his life Klaus had believed that if you read enough books you could solve any problem, but now he wasn't so sure."
(Lemony Snicket)

So at the moment I am a little overloaded with information. I have entered into a subject this last month or so where I am required to learn coding for web design. I keep getting flash backs from high school maths class. 

I used to get so worked up reading mathematical problems that my heart would beat faster, I could literally see the pulse in my eye and I would have to choke down tears brought on by the anxiety. My best friend in high school would pass me the answers secretly so I would pass the subject. She even let me copy all her homework. It wasn't that I didn't try. I remember putting equations up on my wall and writing notes and I even had a tutor for a while. I just couldn't conceptualise that which I could not see. 

After about half way through this maths course I dropped the subject and took up an "easier" maths. It was called Maths in Society. I called in "Maths in Space".  A course for the space cadets like me. The "non bright ones". I passed this course - but only barely.

It wasn't that I wasn't bright. 
In fact I think the concept of "brightness" is a dull one. 

There are so many different learning styles and time frames for learning. And there are so many different kinds of intelligence. I am a kinaesthetic learner. I need to DO to learn. Then I back it up by doing again. And again. And again…. Repetition and experience.

So although my brain fills like it's about to explode with web code, I am trying to breathe deeply and remind myself that I will learn in my own time and in my own way. Coding is important in this digital age. But it's not my passion. And there are people who do have this passion. So lucky me that in the future should I need coding I will understand a little about how it all works and hand it over to the professionals so I can focus on my own passions with illustration and design.

I was thinking all of this over as I walked to the train station this morning as last night I was up late pouring over textbooks and trying to understand my homework in time for class today. And as the fates would have it a little sign from the universe prompted me to thinking about learning and problem solving in action. A man got on at my second stop. He was perhaps a few years older than me. Wearing an old style cap, knitted jumper and cardigan with big pockets, he was ordinary but just a little extraordinary. 

But then…..

He promptly pulled a Rubik's Cube out of one of these pockets and began to twist and turn it with an intensity of one running an Olympic sprint. I was mesmerised by him. His focus and his commitment were palpable.  A few amused onlookers smiled. But he was oblivious to them. He was deep in the zone of problem solving. He stood the whole time right in front of me by the door which gave me a chance to really take in this man lost in the pursuit of his goal. At one point a bead of sweat rolled down his face. He pushed it aside in half a heart beat and continued to twist and turn with increasing fervour. He was a man on a mission. One and a half stations along (under five minutes), the jumble of colours suddenly matched up on all six sides.

He had done it. Problem solved. A calm overtook him. The train pulled up to another stopped. He let out a satisfied smile and exited the carriage.

We are all good at something. We all have those moments when our expertise is needed to solve problems. Maybe not Rubik's cubes, or mathematical ones. But seeing this man this morning reminded me to not compare my skills to others skills. Just to focus on the skills I have right here at hand. And to value what I CAN do. I got off at my station, went to coding class (yes, it was HARD!) but felt inwardly a lot calmer.

During the class, (In between taking web coding notes, asking the teacher questions and practising code on the computer) I did a little quick sketch of the Rubik's man. Sometimes multi tasking actually helps me focus. And tonight I have added a little colour to bring it to life. 

Because that's what I do well: Colouring-in ;-)