Ben Giles’ journey from tree surgeon to freelance collage artist
Around 9am you can find Ben Giles with a glaze over his eyes, fuelled by several coffees, cutting and sticking at his desk. Teeming with rich textures and colour palettes filled with nostalgia, his collage artistry knows no bounds, having reached the pages of The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Explaining that he finds it “hard to lay in”, Ben goes on to divulge that he hates the idea of wasting time. From the highs of family congratulating him on his Google Doodle to the lows of not being able to look at an orange again after a particularly challenging commission, Ben still finds time to enjoy “the often absurdity of creating art for a living”.
Google, Apple, The New York Times Magazine, Hoegaarden, Vice, Rubicon, The Wall Street Journal
Place of Study
BA Fine Art, Kingston University (2012–2015)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m currently a freelance artist. The work is typically collage at the moment, but I foray into sculpture, drawing and painting on occasion. I usually work for magazines, publications or large companies to illustrate editorial stories or work with advertising campaigns.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I work from my flat, which is also my studio. Typically I’m up and about by nine with several coffees on the go and a glaze over my eyes. I find it hard to lay in. I’m generally somewhat impatient and hate the idea of wasting time – I guess that’s motivation, but I’m restless unless being productive.
With specific projects I’m working on, I tend to just work on them until that day’s work is complete, however late it runs. Prioritising by deadline is usual as they’re often insanely tight. So I may be working 9am until 11pm for a few days in a row. There’s normally several projects at once and then nothing for a week or two. I kind of set everything aside socially and blitz through it. During the less busy weeks I’ll update websites, lord over the emails, and go on a submission offensive and send out as many emails as I can until my fingers bleed.
How collaborative is your role?
It depends on the publications, the specificity of the commission and how the art director or client I’m in contact with might be. Sometimes I just make something and they love it and it’s done, other times it can go back and forth for weeks, with edits being sent over every half an hour.
Hoegaarden was a massive amount of work, the guys I worked with were lovely and patient and helpful every step of the way. I made about 150–200 variations to figure out about six final pieces. It had to go through them and then the client and then back to me many times. There are always moments of humour – when it gets a bit delirious, I’d occasionally throw in a joke artwork mixed with the rest to make us all laugh. I must have printed off about 500 oranges. I can’t look at an orange the same ever again.
“I made about 150–200 variations to figure out about six final pieces.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Not having to work retail anymore. Working with large clients is always exciting – you get a little rush. Seeing things like the Google Doodle I made go live and getting messages from family who stumbled upon it. Getting free stuff from clients and going for meetings with potential clients. I’m much more confident in myself now and the idea of me being freelance. But there were times early on when absolutely everything was held together by string, and everything was last minute and cobbled together.
I love making the most of my time in between projects, by volunteering and experiencing new things and travelling a bit. I have a fairly addictive personality, and become quite monomaniacal about a new interest for a period of time. I’m quite okay with taking another retail job temporarily to pay the bills if it comes to it. I kind of just take it all as it goes and enjoy the often absurdity of creating art for a living. So having a bit more free time here and there is great.
Doing your own taxes and then fucking them up, lack of job security, waiting to get paid, clients who know what they want at the same time as having no idea what they want. Those are the least enjoyable bits.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Rubicon and Marie Claire animated some of my collages into little videos which was really nice to see. Hoegaarden was the largest project I’ve worked on so far, so that was a meaty challenge. I’m excited to see the outcome when it’s released to the world. Will hopefully be blown up on some giant billboards.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Cutting things out neatly, compromise, hoarding and patience.
What do you like about working in Norwich?
Norwich has a great atmosphere of having the essentials and being a little DIY and scruffy. It is rammed with charity shops and places to find cheap materials, so I never run out of resources. Norwich has plenty of beer, music, parks and natural surroundings. It is also fairly cheap to live compared to a lot of other southern cities. It’s two hours from London on the train. A lot of old friends have found their way here recently, so it feels more and more like home each year. Although wherever I am, I dream of escaping to mountains.
“I’m happy having this fun job where I get to create things and occasionally make things in between just for me.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
Fiskars scissors, my Epsom GT 20000 A3 scanner and sticky fixers. I haven’t touched glue since the discovery of the sticky fixer about nine years ago. If Sellotape are reading this, then please endorse me and this message, thank you.
What inspires your work?
Nature, surrealism, exploration, darkness, joy, metamorphosis, empathy. I like a juxtaposition of joy and positivity and humour combined with quite weird and fucked up things. I like weird things that make me laugh, silly characters, things being a bit nonsensical and irreverent. Creating characters or scenes that are a bit off, alien, or transcendental to the people involved.
And how important do you think it is to land on a particular style as an illustrator?
I think it’s important to experiment and try new things, I say this as someone who has belly flopped into one extremely specific thing. Having a distinct voice can be important in claiming your space in an oversaturated market. Just keep your options open and adapt and evolve where you can.
How I Got Here
After graduating from Fine Art at Kingston, what were your initial steps?
I moved back home because London was too expensive. I took a few commissions here and there when they were offered. I worked a couple of jobs like retail and tree surgery. Coasted for a while before moving to Norwich with my then partner. Then I kind of kicked back into art mode after a year off. I don’t think there should be pressure to suddenly find a job or career in any field after university. You just spent three to five years breathing whatever it was you were doing. Escaping or travelling or getting free meals from your mum for a bit is totally usual and understandable.
Has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
Getting on The New York Times Magazine’s radar opened up some doors and got myself out there a lot more with American audiences and publications. I’m lucky that NYT, The Wall Street Journal and Vice are regular clients of mine. But I worked my way to where I am, I did a lot of magazine and commission work for free, classic exposure stuff. I spammed social media and sent out emails. It gradually built and built rather than a eureka moment. Balancing retail and art was exhausting – I spent all my days off and evenings working for clients and the rest of the time selling DVDs and CDs to some absolute characters. When someone affectionately called Dirty Christmas by the staff asks you if you sell Gary Glitter CDs there’s nowhere else you would rather be than working on a commission at home.
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
Before becoming an individual business with taxes, chat with an accountant.
Also if someone doesn’t pay you, harass the shit out of them because they owe you and you deserve to get paid for what you’ve done. It’s been about 10 months before I got paid from somewhere once. Another time, someone simply forgot to forward an email with my invoice on, after around the tenth email I sent, they checked and figured it out. Sometimes it’s just an honest mistake and sometimes people are bastards.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Specifically target magazines or companies you genuinely believe your work would fit with nicely, and personalise the email. People know when something has been copy and pasted into oblivion.
And in the wise, motivating words of S Club 7...
“Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high, and reach the top, let the world see what you have got.”
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Anoushka Khandwala