From apple picker to drawing for Apple: Illustrator Dan Woodger talks work-life balance, skills and style
“Do people not like my work anymore? Is that it? Am I done?” Dan Woodger’s self-confidence and work-life balance are still works in progress. “During the busy periods I cannot wait for time off, but when it calms down, the self-doubt slowly creeps in,” says the Kingston-based illustrator. Since graduating from Brighton University in 2011, Dan has worked tirelessly to hone a vibrant and versatile style, working on everything from stickers to murals. His efforts have since paid off, and today, clients like Apple, McDonald’s, Netflix, The New York Times and even yours truly (see Dan’s work for our newspaper here) have called on him to create colourful and character-based work. Freelance life, however, doesn’t come without its challenges. Here, Dan tells us more about the cyclical nature of freelancing, how new technology has shifted his skill set and why animating is the next step in his career.
Illustrator and Animator
Kingston Upon Thames, London
Paper boy, apple picker, Dominos delivery driver, Golf Pro shop assistant
BA Illustration, University of Brighton (2008–2011)
Apple, McDonald’s, Netflix, Samsung, New York Times, GQ
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance illustrator and animator. I create simple, colourful, character-based illustrations across a range of different platforms and mediums including editorial, digital, GIFs, emojis, advertising, stickers and murals.
What does a typical working day look like?
An awful lot of my day is spent at a desk in my studio in front of a computer, I can’t do my work without it. Mural jobs are the one type of commission that get me away from the desk, but unfortunately they’re quite rare. I’ll occasionally do the odd morning working from my laptop in a coffee shop, which can be a nice change of scenery.
“Freelancing can be very cyclical: there can be periods that are ridiculously busy and then periods that drop off for a bit.”
What do you like about working in Kingston?
It’s the perfect middle ground between being close enough the city (it’s a 20-minute train journey into Waterloo) whilst being within touching distance of the countryside. The creative scene in Kingston is limited, but it does have a fantastic illustration and animation course at Kingston University. The drawback is the affordability; house prices are kinda crazy so there’s a strong likelihood we’ll eventually have to leave in the future in order to find something a bit more affordable.
How does your project-based work usually come about?
Mostly through word of mouth or people having seen my work before. I’ve been pushing my set style for the last six years and have managed find a little niche for myself – somewhere between hand-drawn and digital vector-based work. I have a few strings to my bow: I can design single characters or create vast crowd scenes; I can design stickers or animate. I think that versatility makes me quite commissionable.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is the excitement of getting a new brief, and the possibilities of what that job is going to entail. It’s invigorating taking on a new project with interesting challenges. Any time I get to travel for work, see new places and meet new people, makes me feel like it’s all worth it. The thrill of seeing my work out in the world, and having people recognise it is always amazing. I’ve also really enjoyed doing more public speaking, and exchanging knowledge and experiences.
The bad parts would be the long hours and the uncertainty. Freelancing can be very cyclical, so there can be periods that are ridiculously busy and then periods that drop off for a bit. During the busy periods I cannot wait for time off, but when it eventually calms down the self doubt slowly creeps in: “Do people not like my work anymore? Is that it? Am I done?” This makes it very difficult to relax. Plus there’s always something else to be doing: social media, invoices, accounting. It’s a constant wrestling match to keep a good life-work balance. I frequently have to remind myself to take time off and that I’m allowed to chill out in the evenings and at weekends. It’s a work in progress!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I was the lead artist for Samsung Taiwan in a multi-level marketing campaign for the Galaxy Note 8. I flew to Taipei for three weeks during which I participated in a film crew documentary, press conferences, TV interviews and a fan Q and A at the Samsung flagship store. This was in the lead-up to the main event Nuit Blanch Taipei where a two-minute animation I wrote, directed and animated opened the festival.
The animation was projected onto the Taipei University library while the city orchestra gave a live performance to soundtrack my film in front of an audience of 10,000 people. Following this, I did a 15-minute live drawing session on stage with audience participation. I don’t think there is anything else that can top that over the last 12 months.
“The industry is so fast-paced that you need to be self-disciplined to keep on top of it, especially when managing multiple jobs.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Aside from idea generation and the ability to draw, the most essential skills are time management and organisation. The industry is so fast-paced that you need to be very self-disciplined to keep on top of it, especially when managing multiple jobs at once.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Up until a couple of months ago, it had been pencils and sheets of A3 paper. Then a scanner and Photoshop to rework drawings with a Wacom tablet and brush tool. However I recently got my hands on an iPad Pro and have started to do more of my sketching and line-working on that using the Procreate app.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A palaeontologist then a Golf Pro, then an illustrator.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I grew up in a tiny little town in Hampshire called Bordon. My parents were both very encouraging and allowed me the freedom to explore my interests. I was a creative kid, interested in music, drama and obsessed with dinosaurs. When I was a teenager I starting taking more interest in sport, particularly golf, which I took really seriously. But above all, the thing I was always best at and loved the most was drawing.
My dad would tell me that you might not be the best or most naturally talented at something, but if you enjoy it and give it everything, nobody could fault you for trying. So with this in mind, I decided to see how far drawing could take me.
What were your first jobs?
I pushed to go freelance as soon as I graduated. I had a weekend retail job for the first four or five months and moved back to my parents for a year. After trying find work for about three months, I managed to get an illustration internship at YCN which acted as the catalyst for my career. I got to see how illustrations were commissioned, how deadlines and briefs were set and spend two months in the company of creative professionals. I tried to learn as much as I could from them, whilst at the same time trying to show them what I could do. When my internship came to an end they offered to represent me and from that moment on, things kind of snowballed.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
The skill set definitely shifts in the industry. It’s important to accept the changes within technology and adapt your workflow. Working on an iPad with Procreate has blown everything I knew about working in Photoshop with a Wacom out of the water. It’s simplified my way of working and made it much quicker, which is crazy, as I’ve spent six years perfecting the techniques I’ve needed in Photoshop.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Learning how to manage time and getting the work-life balance right is a constant battle. Illustration is more than just my job – it’s my hobby and the thing I enjoy most. It’s difficult to find the line that separates work and personal life and knowing when it’s time to put the pen down.
I learnt a huge lesson about work-life balance during my 1000 emoji project for LINE. While the project was really successful, the way I approached it was all wrong. For ten weeks I worked seventeen hours a day, seven days a week in order to complete the project on schedule. That’s just madness. At the time it meant so much because it was my first big paying job. I’m not saying that money means everything, but it paid well enough to allow me to relax a little financially. For the first time since graduating, I didn’t have the constant worry about how I’d pay the rent each month. That’s hard not to get excited about.
“Whatever you like doing and whatever makes you tick, don't forget it. It’s what makes you who you are.”
In hindsight, I threw myself into the project way too hard and didn’t look after myself. The relationships around me suffered and I was really unhappy and constantly stressed. It made me realise how important it is to take time to recuperate and take care of yourself. In reality the 10-week deadline was probably just an ambitious goal set by the client and by no means binding. If I’d asked for more time I’m sure it would have been fine, but I was too proud and stubborn to ask.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes and no. It’s as exciting and fun as I thought it would be, and I’m still not bored of drawing, which is always a good sign. But there’s far more to learn about the business side of things than I ever imagined. Admin takes up far more of the day than I thought it would. But in the grand scheme of things, I get to draw pictures for a living which can’t be too bad!
What would you like to do next?
I’ve been developing my animation skills – that’s where I see my career leading. I feel like I’ve got a good eye for timing, pacing and sequential narrative so I’d like to continue to push that further.
I’ve been exploring the possibility of expanding my practice, and bringing in a small team to help me out. I’m excited by the idea of becoming a director, as I don’t have time to plan, draw, animate and produce everything on my own! If I can make that work then hopefully that can start to pave the way to something bigger, perhaps a future ‘Dan Woodger Studios’… But one step at a time!
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
It’s so important to ask yourself ‘why?’ Why are you making something? What do you like? Do you love symmetry? Do you want your work to evoke a reaction? Or make a political statement? Whatever you like doing and whatever makes you tick, don’t forget it. It’s what makes you who you are.
I love humour, so if I can amuse myself with my work then I’m achieving my goal. I work so insanely hard, if I’m not enjoying what I make, what’s the point? I understand this isn’t always easy – it’s a challenge as a freelancer to continue to make ends meet and pay the bills. So do what you need to do, but just remember that core principle of who you are and what you like.
Be prepared to work extremely hard. The industry is competitive and it’s difficult to stand out against other talented creatives at the beginning of your career. There’ll be plenty of ups and many, many downs but if you’re passionate about what you do there’s nothing more rewarding.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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