Ben The Illustrator on Finding What You Love
In 1999, Ben was in his final year of college studying animation and it was there when he began promoting himself to independent record labels; sending out showreels and looking for music video projects. This was in the early days of the internet, so he found himself often having to knock on doors and get on the phone to find his contacts. After graduating, he was asked to work on a low-budget music video for a dance music label (Skint Records, located in Brighton) which then led to working on music video projects for Channel 4 and Sony PlayStation.
By 2002, he was at a point where he needed a team around him, which led him on to form a small animation and design team in London. Over the next few years, his team worked on anything and everything including web animations, t-shirt designs and a TV series for CBeebies. “I enjoyed being part of a studio but I found that my time was being taken up more with management and production duties than anything creative, so we decided to call it a day in 2005”, he tells us. From this Ben then went on to start focusing solely on his illustration work, calling himself ‘Ben the Illustrator’ for “its simplicity and to make a statement about my new-found focus” he explains. Since then, he has worked for international clients including Codemasters, The Guardian, The New York Times and the BBC.
As an illustrator, Ben spends his time predominately working on beautiful commercial artwork including advertising and editorial for clients such as NYC Department of Transport, The Guardian, Pets At Home, Sunday Times Travel, Innocent, GQ Magazine, and United Airlines. He also produces his own prints and products for self-initiated projects. His artwork presents a level of playfulness through his use of vibrant colours, and it’s this that makes his work all the lovelier. “I love what I do, I love to draw and create colourful vector artworks. I work in Adobe Illustrator and have always found the vector process to be incredibly therapeutic! Every day I enjoy finishing work knowing that I have made something that didn’t exist that morning. I also enjoy the client process, taking a brief and finding a simple yet visually exciting answer”.
The world of freelancing can often be filled with misconceptions, but people tend to work in different ways and what might be suitable for one might not work for others. How does his day-to-day look like; where he works from and how he slits up his day, we ask? “It can really vary, I’ve never been a fan of the standard nine to five, so some days I will start very early, be at my desk by 5am, this way I can work for 2-3 hours without any interruption, no-one will call me, social media is very quiet”. In that period, he can achieve as much illustrating as he might do in an entire day, by being purely focused. “On these days, I will then go for a long walk with my dog, have a restful morning away from work, maybe go out for coffee, then return to my desk around lunchtime to tackle admin work like emailing, updating portfolios or brainstorming (client or personal projects)”, he explains.
“When I don’t do the early start, I will be at my desk for 9am, always go through emails first (music on at all times in the studio!) and then move on with illustration work. That would normally take me up until lunchtime. Then, in the afternoon, I will sometimes jump between admin, client illustration or personal projects”. Usually having to pick his son up from school, he’ll then head back home to get another couple of hours work afterwards if required. “I work from my home studio (the attic of our house) and I feel lucky to be able to mix work and home life. My son is 8 so he doesn’t need to be watched at all times, but he’ll quite often join me in the studio and set himself up with some writing, drawing or reading. My work can really vary, so no day is ever really the same as any other, some projects are in and out in a day, some projects are full-time for weeks. I like it like this, to have this flexibility and know that every day can be different and creative and fun”.
The lessons you learn about yourself when you go freelance are wide and varied, and for Ben, he learnt that the trait of stubbornness was wedded in him… and for all the right reasons. “I am so stubborn! I am independently stubborn, and often stubbornly independent, if I want to do something I will go ahead and find a way to do it. I enjoy the self-promotion, being in charge of my own path”. In the early 2000s, when I was working in animation, I had the chance to show my portfolio at Airside (now defunct but an incredibly inspiring design, illustration and animation studio). While I was there Fred Deakin told me to ‘really stick my head in a computer, really see what’s possible’, and I have held this with me ever since, always trying to push digital tools and my own imagination.
Interestingly, some of his memorable projects have seemed to come out of nowhere; they’re not necessarily with his ‘dream clients’ nor are they clients he has had to seek out and approach, however, they have all carried one similarity, and that being the client giving him an element of creative freedom. “There’ll always be a brief, and illustration should always serve some kind of function, whether it’s to educate or simply to advertise a product, but the client has approached me to do what I do, not to copy someone else, or take a well-trodden (boring, predictable) path”, he tells us.
An example of that was when he worked with Smart Cars in 2005, where they were looking for an illustrator to work on an ‘alternative’ ad campaign, promoting their cars to an audience outside of car sales and mainstream TV. “We worked together on a series of illustrated scenes, with the car taking adventures, but I was allowed to play as much as I wanted with it, I could throw in rainbows and explosions of colour, I could be as dynamic as I wanted”. When complete, the ads ran for a couple of years and were used in Vice Magazine worldwide and at lifestyle events across Europe and the US. “They even had me involved in designing the artwork that was wrapped around a new car for their American launch!”
Fast forward 5 years to 2010, another memorable moment for was when he worked on an ad campaign for Berri Fruit Juice in Australia, who was launching a new range of blended juices. “They commissioned me to create 20 pieces of artwork, the only restriction I had was that they had to be ‘refreshing’, but beyond that, it was my call as to what that looked like! The timeline was also in my favour (which is rare!) and I had a good amount of time to create the series of illustrations, which ended up mostly being big colourful landscapes with animals, fruit and colours playing within them”. Soon after, the campaign was launched throughout train stations in Australia, taking up every piece of available media space… every billboard, digital screen, floor and poster had his artwork and patterns on it in stations across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
So how might someone get to where he is today? Particularly in the packed world of illustration. “I always knew I wanted a creative job from a young age, but it did take time to discover that illustration was the right profession for me”, he reflects. “I got here by remaining focused on what I want and never failing to be excited by creativity – which might come from others as much as myself. I seek out new music, fashion, photography and animation, all of which inspires me and keeps me driving on to evolve and make new creative things. I have had some ups, but I have also had some huge downs, but I have always tried to stay positive, excited and most importantly, happy”.
Slightly controversially, Ben doesn’t believe in creative blocks. “If you feel like you don’t have an idea then that’s fine, it just hasn’t hit you yet, although, it will come. I try and fill my life with creativity old and new, whether it’s from music, sport, nature or the arts. I feel that these little memories and experiences make life richer, they fill your brain with good things so that when you then need an idea, it will piece something together from all the snippets of things you’ve seen, heard or felt”. In fact, he recently worked with Mapology Guides to create an illustrated guide to having ideas, “we consider life to be full of ingredients which, when given a brief or a need for an idea, could come together in a million combinations to give you all the ideas you need”, he reflects.
Mastering a skill comes with time and showing commitment towards pursuing it, it is no different in illustration. “I encourage people to never stop drawing – observational drawing is priceless, that doesn’t mean you have to draw things exactly as they are… realistically, when I sketch, I use a ruler and circle templates, because that’s how I like to see things”.
Ben ends on the reflection of what advice he would leave for aspiring illustrators, but it’s advice that can be shaped to fit anybody who is looking to pursue a career in the creative industry. “Never stop making things, always experiment and always try and create in a way that feels good, even if it’s hard work or requires some working at”.
“If it feels good to you, then it’s more likely that you’re on the right path for a long-term career in illustration. Don’t look too much at other illustrators, especially current successful illustrators. Try every technique, and disregard anything you hate doing, then blend together the things you love to make something new,” he emphasises.