I was recently asked by friend Rich McCoy to answer some questions on my creative journey.
Rich is a wonderfully creative human being and it is strange how we have circled different worlds for the last 20 years or so. We first "met" in a freelance mailing list (shout out to WAUK). When I moved to professional web development I was in awe of Rich's visual design work and regularly pointed to these as examples of how websites don't have to be boring at senior management meetings of the QuANGO I was working at.
At the time Rich was living in New Zealand but jump forward a few years and was amazed to discover Rich and I had both moved to the same small town in Somerset with our families. Rich has since moved back to New Zealand but we keep in touch and I continue to be amazed and inspired by the work he does as both a designer and artist. And of course he is a very lovely chap too with an incredibly deep and caring soul.
Anyway - on to Rich's questions. I have to say I felt a bit of a fraud when asked as creativity is something I have always skirted around rather than pursued outright. But I suppose as I do have a published book featuring my illustrations I might briefly overcome my British sense of self-deprecation to indulge in responding. Am not offering any answers or valuable insights - just my own experiences to those starting out on their creative journey.
Can you share a brief overview of your creative journey, from when you first started pursuing your creative career to where you are now?
I always had a pen or pencil in my hand and am a chronic (idle) doodler. My dad was an artist turned graphic designer (he's now relapsed back to painting since retirement).
My first ever career aspiration was to be a comic artist. In awe of my grandfather felt a more academic calling so parked the art but continued drawing throughout my life. In my 40s felt calling to return to drawing and worked on a couple of comics.
Since a health scare in 2019 and its (negative) impact on my eyesight have thrown myself back into more creative work and different media. Sadly/fortunately depending on how you look at it I've had to cut my hours working which has enabled more time for creativity (buoyed on by 4am steroid-induced mornings).
What inspired you to become an artist, and how did you decide to pursue it as a career?
100% my father but also felt intimated living up to him. He was a batik artist in the 1970s who did portraiture. He loved drawing and got to travel with it but put his creative career on hold when me and my sister were born to provide for us. He initially retained a highly creative side to graphic design with hand lettering and drawing but as things gradually moved to computers he drew and painted less and less.
My fondest memories of our times together in my childhood were of us drawing together on holiday. Then when I first started reading comics I was blown away by the different artistic styles and creative opportunities of the medium. Especially as around this time we were seeing colour used more widely and also more adult-themed stories.
I decided to "jump" onto an A-Level in art having not done the GCSE but my teachers were quite critical and always found my work "too tight" so I parked things for "more noble pursuits" like getting a degree (in archaeology) earning money and starting a family. But I always kept doodling and was able to do some professional archaeological illustration for a while in my brief aspirations to become an old fossil - or at least dig some up.
How do you balance your creative pursuits with the practical aspects of being an artist, such as marketing, networking, and financial management?
I struggle. There is an element of self-marketing needed which I struggle with as someone who is quite shy and socially introverted without a few drinks in them. I also hate selling myself which is what marketing and networking really is.
Social media has definitely helped. Since doing comics professionally I've been able to piggy back on twitter and Instagram to find people, work and the communities around the creative work I do.
Also the creative work is really a side hustle. I'm fortunate that I have a well paid career that more than covers the mortgage and supports my family. Honestly speaking there is a part of me that would love to make a living by being a professional doodler of some description but it really isn't going to happen! However time spent as a freelancer making websites has also taught me some valuable lessons on the financial side of being creative and it amazes me when I talk to other creatives how widely this isn't talked about (if that isn't a contradiction).
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a creative person?
For me it is getting lost in working. As someone who has spent the last twenty years working online with computers everything moves so fast. There are so many demands on attention and drawing/creating/painting takes me away from that. I recently started playing with oil paints (portraiture) and as someone who is naturally impatient I've loved the slowing down it enforces.
I'd also have to say seeing the appreciation from others of your work. I can't deny there is a sense of narcissism in there and the ego tickle/validation is lovely but having done a comic book aimed at kids there are few things that can beat seeing a child chuckle at something you've created or saying they loved your drawings.
What keeps you motivated and passionate about your craft?
It's a fine balance between never stopping to explore and not worrying about things being perfect. I think also as life throws more pressure at me - especially around my health - creativity has given me an outlet and a distraction.
What advice would you give to young artists who are just starting out and considering a creative career?
- don't obsess about tools
- your work will never be perfect
- the journey is more important than the destination
- your best work will be from the mistakes you made not the decisions you took
How important is it for artists to find their unique style or voice?
Tough question - as a comic artist I spent years trying to find my style but after a while realised that what I was looking for was a visual vocabulary and that was totally the wrong approach.
At the risk of sounding like a wanker, once I started instead focusing on trying to capture a story or a feeling rather than a likeness or a style things came a lot easier.
Also going to contradict myself here (lesson 1 - don't obsess about tools) but I found a pen I totally love drawing with - the Tombow Fudenosuke brush pen - and that if anything I would say gives my work it's style. I guess it is like a musician and an instrument.
How did you discover and develop your own artistic identity?
Practice and long, sweaty hours of beating myself up and learning the hard way to let go. There really are no short cuts. You just have to put the hours in and wait to find something that clicks.
Can you talk about the role of failure and perseverance in the life of an artist?
See above. But really for me I've been so lucky to have had some recognition as someone who is just a glorified hobbyist. My first published work was a collaboration with an internationally recognised children's author so the failing there was in the pressure of living up to the expectation I suppose (and still not sure I did).
I am ridiculously self-critical and that really is the flip side of a world that is increasingly online. I procrastinated massively on my first main project because I was stressing out about it being perfect.
I lost myself in tools and techniques because I was wanting to impress my peers and that was totally the wrong audience. It was a kids book. I had to develop a mantra that I kept reciting which was that they really wouldn't care about the fonts used or whether the speech bubbles were inside or outside the box. They just wanted fart jokes and a talking dolphin.
I suppose it comes down to how you define failure. Did you pay your bills? Did you make something you were happy with? Did you fuck up a painting/drawing? Will anyone notice? Did you please your peers or your heroes?
Again a big part of it comes down to letting go and not sweating the small stuff. It took me a cancer scare and some tricky years with my health to learn that one (and I still struggle sometimes).
What are some misconceptions or myths about being an artist that you would like to debunk?
Well lets get this out of the way: artists are all pretentious prima donna's desperate for validation and attention but they are also the kindest most beautiful people.
I've never signed up to the idea of the tortured creative but I do recognise that for many people (and sometimes myself to) that creativity can be a powerful conduit for challenging emotions, feelings and human experiences.
Also if someone tells you how to be a better creative (myself included) totally ignore them. There will be no substitute or short-cuts for your own experiences.
How do you navigate the art industry and find opportunities to showcase your work or collaborate with others?
Largely social media but that is just one part of "community" - every town and craft has its communities. Find them. Go out and talk to people. It's hard but when people with a shared loved and shared struggles come together it makes everything 100% easier.
You will make friendships and learn that people care more about helping each other than they do about bringing other people down. Talk to people about art. Don't be afraid to show your work and invite conversations about it in public. Well, unless you specialise in photorealistic paintings of demonic vulvas. Then maybe be a bit more selective about your audience.
What are some common challenges artists face in terms of recognition and financial stability, and how can they be addressed?
Well the first thing I would say - and this might sound really trite and from a position of immense privilege - is that if you want to make a career being creative you are not doing it to make money. So worrying about money is just going to make things so much harder from a creative point-of-view.
We all know bills need paying - that isn't the privilege of the creative. We all need to do it. And when you have dependents that becomes infinitely harder and will shape a lot of your decision making. Probably one for the myths question but I hate the idea of creativity coming from suffering. I 100% agree that great art can elevate and shine a light on the worst of human nature (Guernica) and there is a fascination with the tortured creative (see above) that I think tells us more about our relationship with suffering than it does our relationship with art.
Gone a bit off-piste here but the problems are really systemic and political more than they are about creative pursuits. I live in the UK and when the Prime Minister is talking about "more valuable degrees" his is talking about humans being economic units of production.
Fuck that bullshit. Celebrate being something more than that.
How do you stay connected with other artists and the larger creative community?
Sadly mostly social media and online but have recently started going to comics conventions and meet-ups and have recently made touch with local illustrators.
Can you share any tips for artists to market and promote their work effectively in today's digital age?
Sadly it is a very competitive space so 1. you have to have a presence online, 2. just be yourself and 3. keep posting.
Are there any specific resources, workshops, or organisations you would recommend for young artists who want to further develop their skills and knowledge?
Not especially. The Society of Authors is useful for those working in comics and there is also the Society of Illustrators for those who see themselves as more pure creatives but cannot really advise outside of this. Find a local meet-up group. You cannot substitute meeting people face-to-face.
How do you approach self-criticism and growth as an artist?
I find my self-criticism comes from a broader mental health problem so when I work out that I will let you know. Growth for me comes from letting go of the small stuff. Again practice, practice, practice. If you love what you do is it hard work?
What strategies do you use to continually improve your craft?
I think just practice and practice. As an illustrator it is doodling and observation. Always have a pen and paper handy. I seriously don't leave home without having at least 5 pens on me. If I'm at a bus stop or in a pub I doodle. People. things, places. Just being playful keeps you fresh.
Have you ever experienced creative blocks or periods of low inspiration? If so, how did you overcome them?
Always. Usually when I have external pressures or demands on what I am producing such as a commission or deadline. If I ever work this out will let you know but suppose you only ever get to the end by putting one foot in front of the other
Do you believe it's necessary to have a degree in art to succeed?
Well I don't have a degree in art but do have a degree so I would say "no" but caveat that there is a value in a degree that is not just down to the teaching and outcome (a nice piece of paper).
Learning "how to learn" outside of a school setting is undervalued as well as pursuing something alongside peers is something that will really help build resilience and friendships.
In my experience the best creativity comes from collaboration and bouncing off other people and what excites/interests them. A degree is the perfect environment to build those foundations, whatever the subject.
Can you share any memorable experiences or achievements in your artistic career that have had a significant impact on your journey?
Well a published book for my first "professional" work was probably a classic case of peaking too soon. However the best memories of that were the moments seeing children enjoy it. That makes it always worth while and reminds me once more not to sweat the small stuff.
Is there anything else you would like to share with young artists aspiring to pursue a creative career?
Play. Practice. People. Work on these three things and the rest will fall into place. Unless you're a psychopath. In which case perhaps consider a career in politics.