Interview with a professional illustrator

Jun 29, 2020

If you love drawing cartoons or creating caricatures, then you might like to hear what it’s like to be a professional illustrator. This artwork above was created by David Follett who is an illustrator, a cartoonist… His job is to draw! He is paid to follow his passion. Dave is also part of our extended family. I love being a part of an arty, creative family! When I was in secondary school I had to do Physics and Chemistry, because I could, even though my passion was to do Art. I felt I missed out. So I encouraged my daughters to follow their creative side at school and am so proud of what they are now able to produce! I prepared a similar blog for Artventure but thought Art Eye Deer enthusiasts may be interested too.

Dave is my cousin, but closer to Kirsty in age, and I thought I’d ask him about becoming a professional illustrator and some of the achievements/highlights of his career so far.

Drawing for a living

I became an illustrator probably more because of my lifelong attraction to comic strips and books and dynamic action-packed storytelling. I could tell that these ‘low brow’ interests of mine weren’t going to do me much good in the ‘fine art’ arena such as in an art gallery, so in late high school I searched for other options to use my drawing ambitions.

Doing an illustration degree at university helped me figure out that, yes, I could create art for money, by helping other people tell their stories. A pencil for hire, if you like.

Dave is a Senior Illustrator and Character Builder for Watermark Creative and is on Instagram @davefollettdraws.

The job

Illustration is a creative industry but, as such, you really still need to be on top of the business side of things – the ‘admin’. Get advice from an accountant early on about what you need to do to keep your affairs in order. A good accountant will be happy to help as it means they can teach you how to prep your ‘paperwork’ to make their job easier. It can be daunting (it was for me!) but the more you know and do, the easier it gets!

Also, in this day and age, figuring out the whole social media presence is important. Young people almost live and breathe the stuff but for me it’s been a slow adaption. I’m older than Google! There are plenty of platforms to help you do it, but I think it’s best to focus on a couple. Look to see what other people in the field you’re interested in are doing and imitate their practice.

Something to be aware of in the field of illustration is Copyright ©. If illustration is the career you’re keen to explore then please please please find out as much about copyright law in Australia that you can. The Copyright Agency is a terrific resource.

Knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to be an illustrator

* having a strong grasp of the message needed behind the art and what imagery you can use

* knowing the target audience

* understanding the best styles that enhance the message and how to make it resonate with people

In many ways illustrators are visual translators. Usually we have to adapt our styles to fit what the client is after, but sometimes if we already have strong styles, then clients come to us wanting to ‘wear’ our style for their project.

Working on your art skills

* learning the programs on your computer

* doing life drawing

* always improving technique

* practise, practise…

Illustration is all about visual communication, so having a strong grasp of visual metaphor and symbols is pretty important. And then there’s human anatomy, characters, expressions, even ‘camera angles’ for composition and layouts, depending on what the illustration is about and for.

Your attitude and approach can make a huge difference

* Be the person people want to work with again.

* Be friendly, easy to work with, help people solve their problems, make other people’s jobs easier because ultimately that’s what they come to you for.

* Deliver the artwork on time, or if you can’t then you need to manage the client’s expectations at every stage to keep them happy and ‘on board’.

* Be responsible: deliver the goods when you said you would, be friendly and professional and chances are you’ve got a client who will think of you first when they need another illustration.

Drawing for a client

For nearly all jobs, there’s the pencil sketch stage, which gets client feedback and direction, after which I do any amends or revisions. Then once the pencils are approved by the client I work on final art (all digital these days). There may be room for amends but hopefully all problems have been ironed out in the pencils stage so there shouldn’t be many.

Then delivery of final art to the client! If the client’s after a certain style, then I refer to whatever reference they supply me with. Often they come with a brief that has a lot for me to go from.

For some clients and certain jobs, it’s great to get in early and be a major contributor of ideas and a collaborator to the whole creation of the work, rather than a mere hand-for-hire.

Hardest challenges?

Learning how much my time and talent is worth for certain jobs. Thankfully there are published industry ’standards’ of rates of pay, but still, feeling worthy of charging certain amounts is a hurdle I had to overcome. That said, each job is different, so I have to tailor what I charge.

Best achievements?

Hard to say. There have been many along the way that meant a lot at the time. The first big one was winning a drawing competition in High School designing a Skin Cancer awareness poster. It got me a trip to Singapore, just for doing my homework!

Years later getting a Bill Mitchell award from the Australian Cartoonists Association was another achievement that my dad got to gloat about. Getting my first graphic novel published by Dark Horse Comics in the US was a huge achievement. And recently, storyboarding for kids cartoons, teaching storyboarding at CDW Studios, and this year storyboarding for a major motion picture!

I will be posting samples of my Uncle Silas comics on a Patreon Page for artists, if you’re interested in seeing more of my ongoing work.

These are ‘moments’ but looking back the best achievement of all is making a living and helping to support my family with my talent. Being able to pay bills, in other words!

So much to know!

The thing is, we’re all surrounded by so much visual stimuli these days that we almost subconsciously know all this stuff already, much like knowing how to speak your native tongue. But understanding the why, how, what etc of it all is the tricky part. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

Dave talked about different types of illustrations that their team may be asked to create. I’ve included some links below to show examples of what he is talking about: some by Dave, some by his colleagues.

Categories for illustration 

Advertising is to promote a commercial product or service.

– Illustrating a slogan ‘Don’t get fleeced

– Return of waffles 

Packaging is closely related to Advertising, and this often has some branding character that’s iconic to a product.

– Cadbury furry friends

– Peters ice-cream Snot and Guts

– Coles fruit lunch box characters

– Coles confectionery line

– Coles instore characters

Styles of illustration for these two can be heavily art directed to the smallest detail as the client can be quite aware of public perception and response. Illustrators have to be flexible for these jobs as they can be very demanding and have a really short turnover. The money is always better though.

Editorial is what you might see in magazines and serialised publications. The brief from the client is usually looser and the illustrator has greater control and input into the finished art.

Publishing is more book illustrations, like children’s books. This is the most romanticised outlet of illustration, but probably the worst paying funnily enough – unless you create a best seller and have a favourable contract.

Educational App – starts with an advertisement for a dog food company but was developed into an app that teaches children about dog safety.

If you’d like to see further examples of the sort of work illustrators do, this website shares portfolios: Illustrators Australia.

Thank you to Dave for sharing his experiences as a professional illustrator. Maybe his work will inspire others to follow a similar path. In this world dominated by visual communication, there are many opportunities for budding cartoonists!


Kirsty’s mum, and an educator in primary schools for over 40 years