Growing up in Nottingham; where he found himself working as a chef for a short while before realising that it wasn’t the career path for him. Michael decided to go back to the classroom to study, and whisked himself over to London to pursue an Illustration course at Kingston University. Since graduating and finding his feet in the industry, he has now built quite the name for himself and has worked with a number of clients including Penguin, The Guardian, The Culture Trip, Deliveroo, and The Telegraph.
“I have always loved drawing, I really love drawing from my head and creating things out of nothing!” he tells me. It was when he was 15 when he realised a particular admiration towards illustration, “At the time MySpace was a thing, and I listened to a lot of angry bands that had some pretty interesting illustrated merchandise. That merchandise led me to learn about a t-shirt forum called Emptees (now called Mintees), I spent a lot of time on that website admiring illustrators like Keaton Henson, Luke Drozd, Drew Millward and Dan Mumford.”
As most of us do when we come out the years of adolescence, Michael fell out of love with ‘angry music’ but kept following the work of the illustrators which led him to take a step in leaving one career and pursue another. “I felt like I wanted to make the cool stuff that they made, so that led me on to quitting my job and taking my career in a new direction,” he explains. “My work admittedly is very different to the artists I leaned on for inspiration but I still hugely respect their craft… if it wasn’t for their work I don’t think I’d be doing this!”
“For me, the time I had at university was far more important than earning a degree itself.”
His first piece of commissioned work was for Left Lion Magazine; a local Magazine from Nottingham. It came during his second year, where he started to email a handful of small businesses to see if they’d let him work with them and it was Left Lion who took him up on the offer and commissioned him.
“I ended up doing a lot of work for them… there was never a budget but it was a very good opportunity to build a commercial portfolio whilst still studying. There was a ton of free reign and I’d have a good month or so to complete each image so there was never much pressure.”
On reflection, he admits he shouldn’t have worked for no money, but it seemed right at the time and opened up a lot of doors for him and his career, “I was very keen during my studies to use my degree as an opportunity to meet people, and take part in shows and zines. For me, the time I had at university was far more important than earning a degree itself.”
“Weekly are nice as they provide you with enough time to make something good as well as provide you with a steady income…”
Michael’s work is undoubtedly one of character; it’s bright, emotive and filled with personality. His work has always been idea-led, even when the idea isn’t what he would consider the best, whereas his style is constantly changing. “I’m always trying to push it in different directions, I’ve been working the way I work for a good four years or so now, and the change has been huge.”
Over those four years, Michael has worked with an impressive portfolio of clients, who anyone might look at with admiration. You’ll find his work predominantly on the front page of leading newspapers and blissfully peppered through magazines.
One of his favourite projects to date was his weekly slots with The Guardian, “It was for the Op-ed section, so people would write in and talk about their jobs and I’d have a week to turn around an image about that profession,” he reflects. “Weeklys are nice as they give you enough time to make something good as well as provide you with a steady income which is important for your sanity. It can be incredibly hard to make ends meet when you are starting out, especially in London.”
“… It all sort of fell apart it made me feel like I was an absolute failure and a fraud.”
Michael certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on the need for security of having steady work as a freelancer. The challenges that come with working for yourself are usually overlooked when you have a list of great clients and a portfolio of beautiful work, for Michael he admits his journey to being one that has been ‘bumpy as hell’.
“I recently took up a residency over in Mexico; I had so many expectations and excitement for the work I’d be doing whilst I was out there, but then the pressure got to me. The work I ended up making never got used, a lot of very big illustrators have gone out to Mexico and done the same residency, so when it all sort of fell apart it made me feel like I was an absolute failure and a fraud,” he declares. “From there, I spiralized into a bit of a pit. Freelance work dropped off and I found myself working in a supermarket.”
During his time in his new role at the supermarket, he would often see people who he knew through his freelancing work who he would hide from. “Other times, I’d not notice them creep up on me… most people were as confused as I was as to how I’d found myself back at a regular job. It was a pretty dark time,” he reflects.
A few months past, and as the universe does its work, things started shaping up for him again. When a friend came back from her travels around Indonesia, she began job searching and stumbled across a position being advertised for an in-house role as an Illustrator at Culture Trip, “She shared it with me and I went for it! I got the job and I’ve never really been happier since starting there.”
“I’ve found social media incredibly important… I’d urge anybody wanting to get out there to get on to it and start posting their work.”
Unsurprisingly, Michael has a large following on his social platforms and is looked up to by many when it comes to his illustrative work. I ask him about the role social media has played throughout his career and how it has contributed to building his brand, “I’ve found social media incredibly important,” he explains. “I’d urge anybody wanting to get out there to get on to it and start posting their work.”
“I speak to a lot at universities about social media and I often hear from students who get a bit tied up in it all. They usually ask me if the number of likes you get indicates how good a piece of work is which I find worrying. This mindset means that we have some creatives who are frequently chasing that feedback and making work based on it which isn’t ever going to scratch anything but the need for appreciation from others.”
While the benefits of such platforms can catapult a career more rapidly than we’ve ever been able to do before, Michael stresses the importance on not becoming overly attached to them and to simply get on with making work that you’re proud of.
“Explore and express yourself with no boundaries, because after all you never know where you will end up!”
On the topic of students and as somebody who finds himself often speaking in front of a room filled with aspiring illustrators, I wondered if there were any preconceptions that students tend to have of the industry that they’re about to go in to.
“A large proportion of students seem to think that the answer to their prayers once they have left university is getting an agent and that it is easy to do so,” he shares. “I’m not really sure where this comes or whether it’s overconfidence or just blind presumption, but to get representation straight out of university is pretty hard.”
He continues, “You have to really be churning out work and trying your hardest to build a portfolio that allows you to be represented. To be completely honest, not all agents are that good and I often suggest to students to enjoy the first year or so out of university and have fun. Explore and express yourself with no boundaries, because after all you never know where you will end up!”
“I have enough confidence and will power to build something that could be pretty successful.”
His journey to getting where he is today is clearly was one of learning, experimenting, and figuring things out along the way. As Michael continues to do more of the work he loves and has found himself in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose freelance projects that come in, he’s now tampering with the idea of a YouTube channel.
“It’s something that I desperately want to get back on with building; it helps me to document my creative process as well as give advice to aspiring illustrators,” he shares. “There seems to be a small gap in the market for stuff like this and I think I have enough confidence and will power to build something that could be pretty successful.”