Against the typical grain of thinking.
For aspiring illustrators, getting ahead is hard work. Competition is steep and the appetite for stylised illustrative work can be sporadic. Establishing a unique brand that can appeal to a mass commercial market, whilst attracting the eyes of advertising agencies is not easy.
To help me in figuring my, “where to from here” plan, I sat down to ask established illustrator, Jeremy Ley, what his thoughts were on the whole matter…
How did you get into illustration?
I’ve been working for nine years now in illustration.
It was actually after university I learnt how to draw but before then I did life-drawing classes and just doodled in my sketchbook.
At university, I studied creative advertising and after that I ended up going into an advertising agency for about two months. I then realised that I didn’t want to do it.
I spent the next ten months at home, learning how to draw by myself. I think I’m like a lot of people that do illustration. To get to that next step, I needed those ten months at home training myself.
I also taught myself self-discipline because one thing that’s hard for people going into freelancing is self-discipline. It’s important to keep your head down rather than watch TV or go out into the park, or something like that.
Those ten months, I got myself to a stage where my drawings were just as good as the bottom guy who was getting work.
From there I started to hit up some of the people in the advertising agency that I knew to give me my first job as a freelance illustrator.
That’s how I got myself my first drawing job then after that the next two to three years I was still learning how to draw. I was doing some bad drawings but getting paid for it so that kind of put pressure on myself to learn how to draw properly.
After that, I got to the stage where I could still improve my drawing skills but otherwise was producing commercially acceptable work.
You said your first job, as an illustrator was a freelance gig. What was it, exactly?
My first job was with an advertising agency. I did some storyboards for an idea they had pitching for the Levi’s client. My work wasn’t very good.
People have this common idea that you’re good at drawing from the very beginning, like from when you are a kid and then you keep on being good but there’s a lot of practice involved.
You’d mentioned the need for self-discipline and practice as a freelance illustrator. What does your typical day look like? How much time is spent actually practicing your drawing skills or new techniques?
What I’m doing now is quite different from when I started. I haven’t sketched for quite a long time, which is a bit of a shame.
There was one stage I was really focussed on drawing, where I was sketching and sketching all the time. I also had this studio in the city where other people were doing the same sort of work and we would all just draw the whole time.
At the moment, I’m focussed on doing a film and so a lot of my notes are notes in story.
Film to illustration, that’s quite different. Why the change?
When it came to the crux of it – it wasn’t that I was sick of drawing – but that I was more interested in the story side of story boarding.
At the moment, the short film I’m working on is an animation. I have a film partner and we are also working on another film as well. I think a lot of my time is spent taking notes and discussing with other people that story.
Do you think this move from illustration to animation has been an organic process for you then?
About four or five years ago, I was calling out to different directors, as I was interested in getting work and improving my skills as a storyboard artist.
I pretty much approached all these different directors and worked on their short films for free or a couple of hundred dollars, which meant I got to meet a lot of these up-and-coming new guys.
Even though Australia doesn’t have a massive film industry there are still a lot of people doing film. I got a broad sense of how different people worked in the area and I got to really forge this relationship with this one guy. We talk every day now.
Just to take a step back a bit, does this mean you’ve been working as a freelance for last nine years straight?
Pretty much. I haven’t actually had a proper job at a place before, except for those two months at the agency. But that was for work experience. It’s just been freelance the whole time.
Recently I’ve started to do some design work as well, which is just because it’s more of a regular income to keep. I’m not really a trained designer but I think I’ve got a good eye for what’s good and what’s bad. That’s, I think, the most important thing. If you can’t tell if something is bad then it’s not very good!
Animation, illustration and now design. That’s a big scope. Is there any single piece of work, which you could say you’re most proud of?
Probably, what I’m doing right now. That’s the film stuff, which I’ve been keeping under wraps. I’ve been working on that for the last year or so. There’s thousands and thousands of drawings gone into this.
… I got sick of working on small projects all the time – that’s what illustration is, really.
I like the drawings but with illustration you get a client and they’ll ask you to do a drawing where there’ll be some sort of specification to it. You do the drawing the best you can, which is great, but then it only lasts a maximum for a couple of weeks or maybe months.
I wanted something a bit more in depth and that’s definitely what animation has been – really in depth and perhaps too in depth. It’s a lot of work.
Is there a methodology you adhere to when developing a concept? Any particular style or genre you draw your influences from?
I’m not really focussed on style but more on the content I’m drawing.
For example, you could have a really simple Japanese fan brush stroke picture, which is so elegant and it could say something and then you could also have an incredibly detailed Where’s Wally picture, and that style could also say something.
Content – that’s what I generally focus on when I ‘m doing a drawing.
In terms of style, I was influenced a lot by the Japanese anime guys, like the manga artists, and the American comics. Those are two different styles, which I’m influenced by.
I picked that up just from looking at how-to-draw books, like the Disney ones. There are these books called Drawn to Life [by Walt Stanchfield] that I’ve got on my desk. Out of all the hundreds of ‘how-to-draw’ books they’re probably the best ones.
Then there’s also anime… but not all the anime stuff. I don’t really like all the manga art that’s out there. There’s a company called Studio 4oC in Japan and they do more of the Akira style, which is a bit more realistic. Its’ got that realism but still cartoon feel to it.
Another one is Tin Tin. The characters are cartoony and iconic yet are sat on top of this realistic background.
I recently finished this book, which is great, called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. He gives his philosophy about comics in America, Japan and Europe, particularly the French/Belgium movement. It’s really good because it breaks down how the different styles developed and what’s appealing about each style.
When I read it, I definitely agreed with a lot of points he made. There are some points that I might have picked up myself from seeing so many images already but its good that someone has put it in a book and said, “this is what’s happening”.
Would you say, then, that this is your style – anime and comic art?
I look at the drawings that I did in the beginning and sure you could see that they’ve got a type of style but as soon as you say, “this is my style”, you’ve put a wall up.
For example, the stuff I’m doing for the animation is nothing I’ve done before. There’s a lot more detail and a lot more finished art.
I haven’t done any drawings like that but I wanted to push the drawing as much as I could. We’ll get other artists working on this and the other artists will bring on something that I might not necessarily have thought of. Then, together, we try to come up with a design that will combine certain elements.
I definitely believe in pushing your style as much as you can. You cannot get locked down.
Is that an opinion you share to recommend for to stay out of a certain comfort zone or to stay commercially relevant?
If you look at my agent’s work, The Jacky Winter Group, they’ve got hundreds of illustrators on their books.
They’re all really good but some are so stylised that they’re limited by the amount of work they can get. Not everyone wants a super stylised illustration; they want to see a broad range.
The more things you can do the more work you’ll be able to get.
It’s a lot of work. Do you have any time to still commit to design illustration or is this it for you?
It’s a lot of work. For me I’m still doing other illustration gigs and design work. They’re small projects that last for a day or two like storyboarding, which is what keeps me afloat.
I’ve also got a studio in the city. I’ve moved out of there but I’m still working there full-time. It’s called The Common Room. I’ve been developing a children’s app with a friend of mine. It’s called “My Friend, the Bear”, which is good but it’s a bit of an experiment putting things on the app store because sometimes they might be good and they might get the response but they don’t get the financial response because they might get lost in the massive sea of apps.
With all of this work, marketing is a big part of it and it’s hard. I guess, when you leave uni, you’ll want to get your work out there but then there’s this clash with you wanting to get your work out but then maintaining the enthusiasm to get your work out there. It can be hard sometimes.
I noticed on your blog that, in the past, you had done a couple of exhibitions. Have you had time to exhibit any new work recently?
An art exhibition takes a lot of work. I have a lot of friends who do art for a living. There’s a guy called Ghost Patrol, down in Melbourne here, and he just does drawings. Him and his partner, they just do art exhibitions and art.
Like a film, it takes a lot of time to do a show as well.
I have a friend who has been bugging me to put a show on but it’s a time thing and also a bit of self-doubt. I don’t really want to do drawings for drawings sake or paintings for paintings sake. I kind of want to say something with my work but that’s always a big risk.
To put an exhibition on, it is a massive risk because you’ve got six months or a year’s worth of work on display. It goes up and then, if it goes well you only make a couple of thousands dollars.
It certainly doesn’t justify all the effort. Financially it doesn’t really make sense.
I’m not saying exhibitions are a bad thing; they’re good but they have to mean a lot to the field that you’re working in.
So for me, right now, it’s a time thing. I’d love to put a show on but I just don’t have the time.