Never compromise on standards, says illustrator Dominic Kesterton
Living the freelance dream with absolutely no regrets, Dominic Kesterton will enter his studio at some point around midday. The illustrator tends to avoid structural routine and just “gets things done”, often in the form of client work for New York Times, Ladybeard and Double Dot, as well as brand work for various companies such as ASOS, Converse and Lazy Oaf. While Dominic’s crisp, block-coloured illustrative style has made him incredibly commissionable, it’s his personal work that he vouches for the most. So much so that while studying for his two-year-long MA, Dominic developed a “voluminous pool of drawings” that, in his words, was like “going to the drawing gym.” We caught up with the illustrator to find out more about his journey into freelancing, his experiences with burnout and why you should never take on a project just because it’s been offered to you.
The New York Times, The New Yorker, Nike, Aperol, Bloomberg, Converse, ASOS
Place of Study
MA Graphic Communication Design, Central Saint Martins (2006–2019)
BA Illustration, Edinburgh College of Art (2000–2013)
How would you describe what you do?
I draw pictures for various things. This generally involves emailing and then drawing, and then emailing the drawing. I work for all kinds of clients – small and big.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I like to chill out in the mornings and I try to get to my studio by around midday. I really enjoy a leisurely breakfast – I try to not feel bad about it as it’s a great perk to freelancing. I don’t follow a strict structure but I get stuff done.
“There’s something about finishing a drawing that feels so satisfying, I get a ping of joy.”
How collaborative is your role?
This really varies. Sometimes I work on jobs where the brief is to just do my thing, and at other times I’m iterating through ideas with an art director. I find it’s best to get a bit of both worlds, as each side boosts the other.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I really like getting to draw a lot. There’s something about finishing a drawing that feels so satisfying, I get a ping of joy. I think the aspect I enjoy the least is the business and admin side of things – I don’t think it’s something that I’m naturally passionate about. As for my work-life balance, it often comes smushed together which is sometimes fun and at other times draining.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I went to Italy for a week to paint a sofa for Aperol’s 100th birthday. We moved between Milan, Padova and Venice for various events. It’s great to work on something that shakes up your normal day-to-day because you return feeling invigorated. I would love to do more work that involves travelling.
I also recently worked with a charity called Artfelt to decorate an EOS scanner (a sort of low radiation X-Ray machine) in Sheffield Children’s Hospital. This was a great opportunity to work in a new context – I had to consider both the space and environment in a different way, working from a small image on paper. I think it’s a great initiative to get more artwork in hospitals, it can greatly affect the feeling of a room.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Drawing and punctuality.
What do you like about working in London?
I like being around more illustrators, animators and designers here. Between moving from Edinburgh to London, I lived in the countryside in North Yorkshire for one year. It was really quiet, cheap living and very pleasant, but I think maybe I had too much free time – it was very solitary as I was working from home. I wanted a change and to try London. I really like it here but I miss the cheaper rent I was paying up north.
Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
I just finished a two-year-long masters, which I did alongside maintaining my freelance work. Because of this, I feel like I’ve been intensely developing a body of personal work for quite a while now. During this time I worked on an expansive drawing process where I generated a few hundred drawings in a relatively short period of time – I’ve been calling it Froth. I wanted to create this voluminous pool of drawings where each new drawing would build on, warp, combine or squish previous drawings from the set. It was self-indulgent, in a good way; I wanted to feel really fertile and just generate lots. It was a bit like going to the drawing gym. I’m still processing what it’s all about but I know I like drawing in volume.
There were definitely times where I had intense commissions running and my MA work had to take a back seat – because, first and foremost, I needed to pay rent. There was a stretch where I worked on a few editorials a week for The New York Times during the USA mid-terms, and while I was trying to write my moody dissertation about regurgitative mass culture, I got quite burnt out. I think the nature of freelance work means there are really busy periods and really quiet periods, so you can generally integrate personal projects around the ebb and flow.
“I wanted to feel really fertile and just generate lots. It was a bit like going to the drawing gym.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
At the moment, I’m using Procreate with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for most things. This has really streamlined my work, because up until last summer I was drawing everything in this really controlled (and slow) way by hand, scanning it and colouring it on Photoshop. Now, doing roughs and amending things is much faster and easier. I keep a real sketchbook too – that is important to me.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you? And which you would recommend to someone else?
Asking other illustrators for advice has been essential throughout the years for me. It’s easy to contact people you think might be in the know, so just reach out to people with your questions.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to work at [British miniature wargaming manufacturing company] Games Workshop selling Warhammer, then I wanted to be a professional skateboarder and then a painter.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career
When I was little, I drew all the time – my parents encouraged it and made it feel valuable. My art teachers through school were also really positive. I don’t really feel like I made a conscious career choice, I just fell back on this thing that I’ve always done.
How useful have your studies been in your career? Were there any transferable learnings that you took with you?
My BA felt like a time to figure out a lot of basic and important stuff. At the time, I gave no thought to life beyond it, which was quite good because I produced really weird stuff in that bubble. If I had been considering the commercial viability of what I was making back then, I think things would be really different – I’m glad that I didn’t think much back then.
My MA was a different story. As I had been freelancing for four years, I was a little bit more aware of some of the values underpinning my work, as well as some of the areas I wasn’t feeling satisfied with. So it felt like I was driving that ship with some intention, and I was being more responsible – experiencing both eureka moments and frustrating blockages more intensively. Initially, I think my studies have mostly been about growing a nice garden of work for myself. That can have a knock-on effect career-wise, if people catch the scent of your flowers.
After graduating, what were your initial jobs and steps?
When I first graduated, I was quite driven to just keep developing my work and I moved home for six months. Then I got my first proper commission for Converse doing a couple of days live drawing in a shop, so I used that little bit of money to move back up to Edinburgh. I then started a Risograph printing business with a friend – we sold zines, prints and T-shirts. We had originally bought a Risograph together when we were studying, and figured it was worth a shot at making a business out of it as the process was getting really popular. So for the first couple of years, I relied on all these aspects patching together to make a living. It was important to be enterprising at that time.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I won a little graduate competition in 2013, and the prize was a budget of £1000 to go towards screen printed-shirts. I relied a lot on selling these t-shirts and prints as a source of income when I first started out. They were also a great way to promote my work and attract clients. Lots of stuff developed from the encouraging nudge that the competition gave me.
“I totally freaked out because I knew nothing about contracts, licensing or copyright.”
Sometimes I feel lucky to land some of the jobs that I do, as it feels like they can just plop into your lap. I think it’s important to remind yourself that, in fact, they don’t just come out of nowhere – there is generally a nice portion of your hard work in there. Images are distributed in such complex ways that you don’t always have a pinpointed sense of where or when a client has come across your work. Your work can just go off and spread itself in invisible ways until you get an email asking you to draw another picture.
How important would you say social media has been to establishing your career?
It’s been a really important element. I’ve always used it in a fairly straight-forward way, simply by posting my work. Clients often say they came across my work on Instagram. It’s not absolutely everything though; I’ve been going to fairs and events and forging IRL connections the whole time too. Although, social media does seem to be an underlying texture woven into most communication these days.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Around 2015 I was given my first opportunity to work on a big project for a massive brand. Up until then, I was making T-shirts for small companies and club posters. So I totally freaked out because I knew nothing about contracts, licensing or copyright. It was a part of the job that I had no experience in, and I think it made me panic and sort of recalibrate what it was going to take to be a working illustrator. It’s something you need a few goes at to get comfortable with.
I used to be a lot more tense and anxious about every opportunity that I got, because I desperately felt like each thing needed to happen in order for me to progress. You end up feeling resentful if you compromise your standards or integrity just to make something happen, which is something I learnt over time. This might seem obvious, but you don’t have to take something just because it’s been offered to you.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
With the Internet, it is easy to pick up on popular motifs and to populate your drawings with bricks, dogs or whatever. But I think it’s important to consider how you reach these conclusions. Don’t skip out the step of drawing something over and over again in order to figure out how you draw it, this is the best bit of the process and it will enrich your work.
Mention Dominic Kesterton
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos