"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."
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.