Let me offer you some advice. Actually, forget that. I’m not even remotely qualified.
No one is more surprised than me, but people occasionally swing by the kiosk looking for a bit advice on being an illustrator, and I’m never really sure how to answer. I don’t mean this in an overly modest, imposter-syndrome, kind of way, (which I think everyone feels unless they’re slightly psychotic), what I mean is, that my experience is only really relevant to me.
Basically, the route I took in my life and career is directly responsible for where I am now and the work I create, and yet, I cannot for a second recommend that route to anyone. Let me try to explain.
I think it’s time I told you my ‘origin story’. Strap in, it’s pretty dull…
So, I studied architecture (although even from the beginning I wasn't sure if I wanted to be an architect) and after I finished my degree, I headed to London to seek my fortune, or because a mate asked if I wanted to rent a flat with him, I forget which. I mainly wanted to get an idea of what was out there, so I started out freelance, working for several practices and try different things, including architecture and landscape architecture. But I also considered work in a camera shop and a cheesemongers, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t exactly laser-focussed.
I did this for a couple of years and kind of knew architecture wasn't quite right but didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I worked in lovely offices with good people, so I just carried on. I took a break for a year and lived in New Zealand, came back, worked in architecture for another year, then went away again and returned with the idea of being an illustrator. This wasn't out of the blue, as I drew all the time as a hobby, (it was a big part of my architecture work too, I submitted one of my university projects as a comic, for example), and in my working life, the element I always enjoyed, regardless of the job or practice, was always the drawing part.
Realising this, I started drawing all the time, on the train, going to life drawing, making stuff up, making comics, etc, everything I was interested in. There was so much energy in me once I had a direction in mind.
I left architecture and said, 'I'm an illustrator' and waited or the phone to ring. Of course, it did not. It seems obvious now, as I wasn't good enough and nobody knew who I was, but I thought of a way to get into it by using a world I was familiar with. I specialised as an architectural illustrator, and this worked a lot better, I built up a reputation and clients and slowly moved forward.
This took a long time, maybe eight years, and I realised it wasn't quite moving the direction I wanted. Architectural illustration had become much more sustainable, but it wasn't really what I wanted to be doing creatively, so I made a conscious effort to rebrand and place myself as the illustrator I always wanted to be, right at the beginning.
The work I started to make was more specific to my interests and the experiences I’d had in the passing years, and I brought in everything I had learnt from my time making comics and working in architecture/architectural illustration.
People seemed to really respond to this new work I was creating and one thing led to another. As a result, in the last few years I have been lucky to work on lots of projects and types of work that I never would have imagined. This also led to me getting an agent which helped even more.
What does that all boil down to? Well, it certainly makes it impossible for me to say what I did 'right' or 'wrong'.
For example, there was a time when I wish I had studied illustration and not architecture, but I couldn’t justify the expense or time needed to retrain formally. Now, I'm very glad of my architectural background, as it’s one of the unique elements of my illustration work. I also find it hard to separate my working and personal life (which is good and bad), but so many of those other factors come into play and are responsible for the work I have ended up making.
I'm very aware this sounds like a cliché, but my only suggestion is to do what you love, as everything else is a guess. Work I create that I’m passionate and interested in always turns out much better and I think people see that in what I produce. And if they don't, at least I did something that I liked and learnt something from it. Chasing an idea of what I think I ought to be doing is not fun and frequently doesn't seem to work out anyway.
So, the two things in there that sound anything close to ‘advice’ are:
1. Draw all the time. (Really boring, but yeah, if you want to be an illustrator, it shouldn’t be. And if it is, maybe it’s not for you.)
2. Make what you love, and you’ll never be truly wasting your time.
Here’s a case study. Several years ago, I drew this modernist seaside town.
I did it because I wanted to draw it. I was interested in historic modernist architecture, I was interested in drawing isometrically, I was interested in developing a new colour palette and colouring digitally. The drawing helped with all those things, and I even sold a few prints, although that wasn’t the motivator, it was a happy bonus. It also helped me work out the concept for the eventual town of Victory Point in my book of the same name. So, an illustration I had done just for me, then had many lives beyond anything than I hoped for it.
Recently, the musician Tom Rosenthal, asked to use it for the cover of his latest song ‘Buried The Day’ and again I had no idea this would happen when I embarked on drawing it years ago, and nor should I.
Even those two points above might not be useful for everyone, and they certainly don’t guarantee success, whatever that is, but don’t get me started on that. What do I know anyway? I’m just an unqualified guy in a kiosk, so it should all be taken with a pinch of salt.
Actually, I have some salt, here’s a sachet for the road. Use it wisely. Pop it on your chips, rub it a wound, or de-ice a small section of pavement, the choice is always yours.
See you next time, and try not to overthink it.
Owen D. Pomery
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This really lifted my sprits Owen! I am a 3rd year landscape architecture and I so badly want to avoid following the common practice route that many of my peers are finding work in. Reading this has shut the doubts from my mind and I'm going to put all my energy into what I know im best at. If I may ask, was there ever a time where you took a side job as you were building your reputation? I have no intention of being wealthy but I would love to leave the States in search of something new. My only concern is finaces and I see remote work as being the best option for that, any suggestions?
Also in your next post I would love to learn more about your digital coloring and scanning process. Cheers!
I have that seaside town print along with a lot of my favourite comic art on a wall in my living room. It's nice to hear a little of the backstory behind it because I always feel really drawn to it, like somewhere I'd love to actually visit.