It’s a lovely thing when you hear the paths creatives have gone down when it comes to pursuing their careers. Some following traditional routes, others unconventional. For Ste Johnson, it’s the latter. His experience reaffirms the importance of pursuing something you believe in and fulfils you creatively… Although not to be mistaken, there’s a lot of work you have to do and failures you have to go through before you get to that point.
“My story is an ongoing one for sure, and unlike Babylon 5 it’s not been written in advance and since no one reading this will know what Babylon 5 is… I guess my story so far is realising that the original path that we are all supposed to follow is not for everyone and really not the “right” path at all. It’s just a path you can take,” reflects Ste.
“I’m learning to embrace who I am and what I am and also trying to figure out how I can enjoy my days best and make a difference to the people close to me, in whatever best way I can.” When describing what he does, “I witter, worry and fret, but when I’m not doing that I’m asleep,” he says jokingly. “I’m also an illustrator.”
As an illustrator, it’s important to Ste that there is flexibility and freshness in his work and for him not to work in just one firm area. “I jump from lifestyle to editorial to fashion to animation and it’s wonderful to do something that you feel you can do, that you have a skill in. It took me a while to get to this realisation but if you’re going to do something to make money for the rest of your life I figured that you may as well do something you’re going to enjoy most of the week, if not all.”
The leap to go freelance can often be a daunting one, nobody ever really knows when the time is right and for Ste, it was around four years ago when he decided to go out alone. “To be honest, I didn’t know I was ready. I just couldn’t go on working as a web designer – I hated it and I was also pretty rubbish at it. I’d started wanting to be a designer because I thought it’d make money and being an illustrator wouldn’t make anything and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. However, this just led to web design and eventually getting pushed to building websites as there was more work in it. I was seriously hating it and at the same time was doing the odd bit of freelance illustration so went ‘to hell with it, let’s go for it!’”
Although we often see that the choice to go freelance and to work for yourself will mean more freedom, it can sometimes feel like the opposite. There is a lot of work that goes into freelancing and the book stops with you when it comes to all areas of your business. When Ste isn’t working on projects, he’ll be spending his time researching and looking for potential new clients. “That’s the thing about freelance you’re every department; marketing, admin and production.”
“But, to clear my head and to give myself a break, I’ll make sure to get outside for a little bit each day – a walk is great. Sometimes you can do with a brief pause to give an illustration fresh eyes when you return to it.”
His work is versatile, elegant and vibrant and has an admirable portfolio particularly when you look at the brands he’s worked with or on behalf for including BBC, Umbro, Nationwide, Oxford University Press and Money Supermarket.
Although, when asked his favourite projects have been those that are fashion focused, “I worked with a tailors in London called Susannah Hall Tailors and really I owe her a big thanks as she commissioned me to do a few pieces, with each one being a level up for me in ability each time,” he discloses. “I also did some work for Charles Tyrwhitt which is similar type of stuff to the work I’ve done for Susannah and I really loved doing that. I do enjoy fashion and different styles especially suits, so these two were perfect.”
It has taken Ste four years to get where he is today as an illustrator which seems quite a short amount of time, but it seems his consistency in his attempts and curiosity in what’s possible has been what’s helped him in his creative endeavours. “I’ve failed and have gone down a lot of wrong paths. I’ve certainly taken the long way to get here but Edison’s famous quote is quite applicable in life… I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. I’ve also had a bit of help and support along the way, which is something you’ll always need too.”
Branding can sometimes be set to the side when you’re freelancing, but when Ste started illustrating as a business he wanted to build a brand that looked and felt professional and not hand drawn which seemed to be “a recurring motif in the illustration community, which is fine because it’s a good way to reflect what you do, however it just wasn’t me. The pencil idea in my logo I think has a bit of clever wit about it and I do like that. Plus, it’s a recognisable element that hopefully sticks in people’s minds.
The name Ste Illustrates is designed to focus on it being him and his business because that’s what he wanted to do. “When you’re developing your own brand you need to ask yourself questions before you start. Do you want that personalised element? If so the easiest and most common is your name followed by illustration.” Ste Illustrates is an adaption of that although he does like the idea of more ambiguous names or a name that has a meaning, which helps to make brands create a larger company size persona. “For me, I always fancied ‘1701 Illustration’, it sounded more like a studio name, the meaning behind is a bit more ambiguous so doesn’t instantly create a personalised feeling.”
For anybody looking to create their own brand but unsure on where to start, Ste suggests that you “choose the voice you want to use to communicate your business and make your brand a reflection of that. It goes way beyond a logo it’s the feeling that powers it.”
Then for the brand and business to evolve “you’ve got to be committed and work hard and put the hours in. Sitting at home waiting for the work won’t get you anything. Be business savvy,” explains Ste. “The stigma is illustrators sit at home colouring in but I think illustrators can also suffer from that thinking their business has less value than it actually has. A very nice illustrator friend, Lisa Maltby, said to me recently ‘it’s a talented skill that is worth a lot of time and money and must be valued accordingly, so respect that.’”
No matter where you are on your journey, his advice can be replicable for anyone pursuing a creative career. “Learn as much as you can, from wherever and whomever you can. You may be asked to draw things you’ve never heard of but remember that illustration can be applied anywhere, so try and find out where you’d like to apply yourself to and get in touch with people in those areas. And, be honest when you do.”
“I’ve found an honest open dialogue leads to more favourable replies instead of the more generic approaches. Though I know all too well the fear of doing that… that fear never goes away, it just gets easier to deal with. I’m still learning that every day.”
The most simple yet important piece of advice he shares is to “draw whenever you can because you can always get better and you always will.”