Thomas White on creative balance
When we talk about creativity we don’t tend to talk about what tendencies come with being somebody who lives, works and plays creatively. When you have the ability to do one thing incredibly well, you’ll most likely be able to use those skills and imagination to do plenty of other things just as good. Thomas’s story is a fine example of that, he’s somebody who has discovered his love for expression whether that’s by putting pencil to paper or creating a sought for dining experience.
Thomas was born in Liverpool but grew up in Brighton, and he went on to study Illustration at Kingston University in London. Then, after he travelled back to stay up North for some time, he had moved back down South where he was working as a freelance illustrator and, at the time, was working in bars where he eventually found himself managing the cocktail bar of a restaurant on Hackney Road.
Not long after he gravitated back over to his homeland in Liverpool, where Thomas and his now business partners Dom and James started hatching up some plans to open a venue up in the city. Six months after, the three of them had found a site for the venue that would become the home of Maray, which went on to open its door in June 2014.
Fast forward four years and today Thomas is a freelance illustrator who specialises predominately in editorial and publishing and is also the co-founder and Brand Director of one of Liverpool’s most beloved independent restaurant.
With Maray being his nine to five, it offers him creative variety with no two days ever being the same; when he’s not doing various elements of business development work, you’ll most likely find him shooting the photographic content for his restaurants or writing press releases, designing new menus, creating illustrations for the drinks list, team training etc.
His evenings are set aside for him to further develop his skills within illustration, and when he’s not working on editorial pieces, he’s off creating charming reportage work or enjoying life classes, “it’s important for me to keep observational drawing a regular occurrence,” he explains.
We can’t help but wonder whether Thomas has more hours in the day than the rest of us or whether he’s found himself a hack in balancing the demands of owning a restaurant that has a big team behind it with being an Illustrator. “The two inform each other really well… both are about problem-solving. Running a restaurant is demanding and at times very high-pressure, this brings with it highs and lows and it’s healthy for me to be able to switch off for a few hours at a time and immerse myself in creating images. Likewise, if I’m obsessing about a piece of creative work it’s good to be able to come into the restaurant environment and forget about it, that way more often than not a solution will just come to me later on,” he says. “I also have to use my evenings and weekends wisely!”
During the early years of starting up the restaurant, he found himself taking a break from his creative work to focus fully on making Maray the success that it is today. “I think it’s healthy to take a break from creative work sometimes when you come back to it you’re reminded why you enjoy it. The restaurant happened at a good time because at the end of my degree I don’t believe I was completely ready to be an illustrator, my work hadn’t really developed enough and I was still extremely preoccupied with how things looked rather than the idea underpinning it,” he reflects.
At the time, he found himself constantly comparing his work to his peers and others in the industry rather than enjoying the process and he would find himself obsessing over the ‘style’ or finish of a final image before he had even given himself a chance to have fun.
“Being able to take a few years out meant that when I began making work again it was like I had a clean slate, and the absence of pressure meant that I could simply enjoy creating images for myself, it was completely liberating actually. No one makes work in a vacuum so, to a degree, you will always be influenced by others, but it’s vitally important to recognise that what you do is unique and you should always endeavour to explore your own visual language.” After returning to illustration in this way, this experience alone had enabled him to explore, experiment and build a cracking portfolio because of it.
About 18 months ago, before he started taking live briefs from clients, he set himself a series of mini-projects to jump-start a new body of work for his portfolio. “I began by taking articles from the Guardian Cook supplement, they were generally quite light-hearted opinion pieces centered around food in some way and provided some good imagery to play with. These came out every Saturday so to begin with I was just doing one a week for fun and then after a little while I realised that without thinking too much about it I’d already begun to build up a collection of images that I considered both conceptually sound and also quite visually accomplished, so I just kept going and began using other publications as stimulus,” he explains. With his freelance work now taking off, he has also bagged a couple of projects that will help to diversify his portfolio even further and explore his work in a different, exciting context.
While his advice to future illustrators may not be coming from Thomas directly, its advice he has held on to over the years and it came from his tutor during his first year in university when he was stressed out by a particular project that he was working on. “It was something along the lines of ‘this is not a stressful thing to be doing, it’s enjoyable – all you’re doing is thinking about the world and responding to it in a visual way’. It might sound a little glib and corny but for whatever reason, it has stuck with me…”
“It’s always helpful to remind myself that creative work should be a pleasurable experience. The reason most people make stuff is because it provides a very unique and raw feeling of satisfaction. It’s important to remember to enjoy that.”