Mention Denzel Kessie
Interview by Lyla Johnston

Illustrator Denzel “BLLACK LINE” Kessie talks music, money and why it’s better to network in person

After graduating with a graphics and illustration degree in 2018, Denzel Kessie spent much of his time reaching out to potential clients. “Unfortunately, I had zero luck at the start,” Denzel tells us, “and most of the jobs I did were free.” By the time the pandemic hit, however, so too did an avalanche of paid commissions, including work for the likes of Fila and Creative Nerds. Branding himself as “BLLACK LINE” due to his manga-inspired drawing style, here, Denzel discusses why music is the biggest influence on his creativity, and how networking in person creates genuine connections.

Denzel “BLLACK LINE” Kessie

Denzel “BLLACK LINE” Kessie


Job Title

Illustrator and Graphic Designer

Based

London

Selected Clients

Nike, Creative Nerds, Fila, NHS, Hype Collective

Place of Study

BA Graphics and Illustration, Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts (2015–2018)

Website

bllackline.co.uk

Social Media

Twitter
Instagram
TikTok

What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I am an illustrator and graphic designer. I create bespoke illustrations and designs which clients can use on anything from marketing and advertising, to social media content. I tend to work with clients in advertising, but am open to working with people from other fields. I often do all my work either at home or in coffee shops.

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Music, fashion and health, but music is the top one on the list. I spend the vast majority of my time listening to it. This is because I was surrounded by it from a very young age, due to my Dad being a huge music fan. As a result, I developed an immense love for hip-hop and R&B.

Album covers and tour posters always inspire my design work, and the majority of my illustrations tend to be of my favourite musicians.

“I spend the vast majority of my time listening to music. Album covers and tour posters inspire my design work.”

What’s the weirdest thing on your desk right now?
My odd-shaped speaker. The sound quality is fantastic, and it’s fascinating appearance-wise. I tend to work with music in the background as it helps me concentrate, so this speaker is a huge necessity whenever I work from home.

What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
Probably the projects I did with Creative Nerds. I created illustrations that revolved around themes such as loneliness, being active, controlling your emotions, combating anxiety and COVID-19. They give me a lot of creative freedom, so I had the opportunity to explore what I wanted to create visually.

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
As an illustrator, you need to train your eye to spot any detail when drawing from reference. Good observation skills are essential. If you prefer drawing from your imagination, that’s fine, but you will still need good observation skills because the things you see will heavily influence the drawings. Life drawing is the best place to train those skills.

I also suggest trying many different art styles to see what’s more comfortable for you. In terms of graphic design, learning Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign is a must. However, it would help if you also educated yourself on what makes good design because learning how to use suitable software will only get you so far. Knowing this can also help illustrators when it comes to making compositions.

If you could sum up your job in a meme, what would it be and why?
(Below) As a freelance creative, you have to create content, manage various social channels, network at different events, handle emails, invoice clients, chase payment for said invoices, constantly update your website and portfolio and so on.

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I graduated in 2018. I spent the majority of my time emailing potential clients and creating work that would get me commissions. Unfortunately, I had zero luck at the start, and most of the jobs I did were free, so my earnings by the end of 2019 didn’t even reach £1,000. This all changed in 2020. For some reason, many people in advertising needed illustration work, and I jumped at the chance. Now I freelance full-time.

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Three big inspirations for me are album covers, manga and cartoons.

Most of my composition ideas come from looking at album covers, and the way I draw is heavily inspired by manga. That’s why I always draw using black line work. It’s also why I add colour the way I do.

Traditional cartoons also play a significant role in how I draw. I spent most of my youth drawing cartoons, and most cartoons had styles that were hugely different from each other. This led to me unknowingly experimenting with different styles at a young age.

70 Days - The Sequel

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Getting the right people to see my work and trust that my skills would be helpful to them. That’s why I focus more on networking in person instead of emails. There are many disingenuous conversations online, and most of the time, they tend to be a waste of time.

Because of this, many people are unwilling to talk to you online without some form of familiarity. When you meet someone face-to-face, you get a better feel of that person. As a result, the interactions are more authentic and worthwhile.

“When you meet someone face-to-face, interactions are more authentic and worthwhile.”

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
It is essential when starting out. You can be the best at what you do, but no one will know if you don’t promote yourself. Social media is a great way to start because you have the opportunity to have your work seen by millions of people for free.

My advice regarding self-promotion is that when there’s a chance to promote your work, take it. Whether it’s a social media shout-out, a blog article, a publication feature – you should take it cause it’s a win-win.

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
You probably won’t make that much money in your first few years as a creative, so it’s best to have a part-time job in the meantime so you can support yourself and your creative endeavours financially.

Never take any non-paying job unless it benefits you in ways other than exposure, and never charge below £150 as a day rate – even if you’re just starting out. Also, consider your equipment cost and the amount of time needed to create when you decide your day rate.

How did you go about landing your first clients?
My first client was one of the executive producers at Nexus Studios. He came to my uni exhibition and later emailed me about working on a project after my tutor gave him my details. He said he liked how rough and unpolished my style of work was. I worked on the commission whilst on holiday, but it wasn't good to be honest. I landed the majority of my commissions after that through networking.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
I shouldn’t overwork myself in order to rush to success, because I’m still very much a baby in the industry. Most successful illustrators and graphic designers worked for years until they finally became successful in their field.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Make connections with as many fellow creatives as possible. Receiving the help of multiple creatives will help you way more than you think. Also, research any potential clients and insert yourself into the spaces they’ll be in.

Mention Denzel Kessie
Interview by Lyla Johnston