Reading-based illustrator Daniel Lambert on designing characters for some of the world’s biggest brands
Most days, you’ll find Daniel Lambert working from a desk in his living room. Drawing daily is the norm for the Reading-based freelance illustrator, who has worked as a character designer for some of the world’s biggest brands including Coca-Cola, Nike and some particularly well-known meerkats. Surrounded by loose sheets of paper, ideas start with sketches and pencils, but are soon swapped for Photoshop and a tablet (his weapons of choice). The results are everything from superhero-clad meerkats to Olympians embarking on extraordinary commutes. It’s a process he’s honed over the years, and one that benefits working in the fast-paced world of advertising. We caught up with Daniel as he talks to us about learning to be more flexible, and less precious with ideas.
Freelance Senior Designer, Picasso Pictures (2011–2012)
The odd pizza restaurant, otherwise always an illustrator
BA Animation & Illustration, Bolton University (2007–2010)
Google, Nike, BBC, Coca-Cola, Sainsburys, Gorillaz, Lego, Comparethemarket.com, Barclays, TFL
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance illustrator working mostly in advertising, typically animated ads, but I end up doing a little bit of everything, so it’s difficult to pin down.
The work is pretty varied. If it’s a pitch, I’ll be doing a lot of character design, sometimes painting up style frames, costume designs, that sort of thing. If we’re in production on a project I could be doing matte paintings, more refined character development work like expression sheets, painting over 3D stills or photos of maquettes, or sometimes illustrations for print ads.
What does a typical working day look like?
I spend most of my day at a desk in my living room, either at the drawing board or at the computer. Between work there’ll be lots of emailing and phone calls with producers throughout the day. The actual working hours tend to vary depending on the project or location of the client but usually I’ll work pretty much all day and bounce between a couple of jobs, working on one, while waiting for feedback on another. Deadlines and the scope of projects can change quickly though so it’s not unusual to end up working into the night to keep up.
What do you like about working in the part of the UK you’re based in?
All my childhood friends and immediate family are here, which is nice, and it’s close enough to London to be convenient when I need to go into the city for meetings, without needing to sell a kidney for rent.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I get occasional work through my agent or directly through my website, but at this point it’s almost exclusively word of mouth, or from clients and producers I already have a relationship with. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people who often recommend me when they move onto new projects.
How collaborative is your work?
It’s entirely collaborative. At every stage you’re getting feedback from directors and producers, as well as agencies and the client themselves. There’s often other artists involved as well, and sometimes I'll be painting directly over someone else's design, so it’s a team effort from start to finish. At times that can be tricky as you get conflicting ideas, but more often than not you end up with the best version of the thing you’re working on.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The best parts are getting to draw everyday, making my own schedule, and getting to work on so many odd projects with some genuinely lovely people. The downsides are long hours, paperwork, and the uncertainty that comes with being a freelancer. It’s very easy to take on too much ‘just in case’, then find you have no time for anything but work, which isn’t particularly healthy…
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
My favourite was probably the recent BBC Christmas film "The Supporting Act’. Ben Lole (producer) and Elliot Dear (director) brought me in to refine the character designs and work up some poses and expressions to help during production. I’m a huge fan of stop-motion animation so it’s always cool getting to be involved in one – and I got to do a lot more drawing than normal, which was a lot of fun. (There’s a couple of other stand-outs but they’re still in production so I’m not allowed to talk about those just yet!)
What skills are essential to your job?
Speed is important, as well as good time management, but the biggest one is probably just being easy to work with.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Not currently. I’ve started several, but realistically I don’t have the time. Sometimes I’ll do individual paintings for self-promotion but that’s as far as things get. Most of my professional work is under NDA [non-disclosure agreement] so making sure I can update my website semi-regularly with personal work is important. I spend so much of my day drawing, that when I do have some time free I’d rather go outside and remind friends I’m still alive.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My weapons of choice are an old Wacom tablet, Photoshop, loose sheets of paper and a pencil. When I can, I try to do rough sketches and thumbnails on paper before moving things over to the computer. Everything eventually ends up in Photoshop, but sometimes figuring things out the old fashioned way first can speed things up. I tend to prefer loose sheets of paper to sketchbooks; there’s something more ‘final’ to a clean sketchbook page that can be a bit intimidating if you’re struggling with a design.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Pretty much always an ‘artist’, although I don’t think I really had any plans other than somehow getting paid to draw.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
There was the usual love of cartoons and the classic Disney films, so animation was a big part of growing up. My parents always encouraged my brother and I to draw (he now runs a tattoo studio) and we never had any challenges in wanting to pursue an artistic career, which I’m very grateful for. Otherwise, I don’t think there was anything in particular, probably better to ask my Mum.
“Sometimes you have to be honest and admit you can’t do everything. Producing sub-par work is a much quicker way to lose a client than by politely saying no.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied animation and illustration at university, so it’s fair to say it was pretty useful. I was lucky enough to have some great tutors who are real veterans at what they do, so I learned a lot and got honest insight into the field. I still have a list of notes from a ‘professional practice’ class that I look over every now and then to remind myself of a few things.
What were your first jobs?
My first paid job was drawing and painting the ‘Get Ahead of the Games’ posters for TFL when the Olympics were in London. I got dropped in at the deep end, really. I worked as part of a small team of artists along with the good people at Picasso Pictures, eventually working my way up to a ‘senior designer’ credit. It was a nine month job consisting of nearly 40 posters and was pretty much boot-camp as far as being a working professional goes.
Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Besides friends and family, I pretty much owe any career I have to Jane Bolton (then producer at Picasso Pictures, now co-founder and EP at Fat Lemon). She took a chance on me based on one image in my portfolio and gave me a shot at that TFL project. Everything since has stemmed from that one job and the connections made working with her and the other producers and directors on the project. Thanks Jane!
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Learning not to be precious about my work has been important; clients regularly change their minds in the middle of projects and there isn’t time to mourn that image you spent three days painting for them. You just have to move on and get on with it, which can be hard sometimes. Advertising moves at a pretty rapid pace so being efficient with workflow has been another important one.
“Advertising moves at a pretty rapid pace so being efficient with workflow is important.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge has been learning when to say no. I don’t like turning down jobs, but sometimes as fun as it seems or as big as the client is, you have to be honest and admit you can’t do everything. I’ve taken a couple of jobs in the past I shouldn’t have, and they didn’t turn out particularly well because I didn’t know what I was doing, but was too scared to turn them down in case the client didn’t come back. In reality turning in sub-par work is a much quicker way to lose a client than by politely saying no.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I didn’t really know what my job was until I started doing it, so I didn’t have many preconceptions. But it’s been pretty great so far, so no complaints here.
What would you like to do next?
The main goal is to work a bit less. I’m lucky enough to have constant work coming in so I’d like to make more time for non-work related things. Read more, travel more, all the usual clichés.
Could you do this job forever?
I’ll do it as long as I’m able to get away with it!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Moving into feature films seems like a logical step; it’s the same pipeline I work with now, just on a much larger scale. Working on a movie has been a career goal for a few years now! It’s all drawing and painting though, really, so as long as I’m still able to do that and pay my bills, I’m not hugely worried about where I end up.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Don’t undercharge, be nice, and don’t miss your deadlines. Realistically lots of people can probably do your job, so being easy to work with is hugely important. If you’re unreliable you won’t be anyone’s first choice. Also don’t forget to stretch!
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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