Birds, hidden oddities and art fairs: How illustrator George Manson launched his career
George Manson has been illustrating and creating his own version of comics for over a decade now – with no plans to stop anytime soon. Having studied Fine Art at Kingston University, he has since found himself taking on residencies and collaborating with some of his favourite artists. George himself works the odd job in a nearby cafe, and emphasises the importance of having something social to do alongside sitting at a desk. We discuss the power of art fairs, shoving imposter syndrome to the side and successfully documenting “rituals and quirks”.
Artist and Illustrator
I tend to work independently or in collaboration with other artists, but do the odd bit of client work here and there
Alongside my art work I co-direct an artist-run gallery and project space and work in a cafe
BA Fine Art, Kingston University (2009-2012)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I tend to refer to myself as an artist and illustrator. I’ve been making my version of comics and illustrated books for the last decade or so, which is what I enjoy doing the most.
If you could sum up your job in an emoji what would it be and why?
I always like discovering little hidden oddities, such as the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Unicode. I like waterfowl [a type of bird], so I draw them.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now?
I’m at my dinky home-studio desk at the moment due to lockdown. My favourite thing on it is a small, very flat plastic car from a cheap Christmas cracker. It’s absolute tat, yet I keep moving house with it.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Aside from other people’s comics, paintings and animations, I find myself influenced by what’s around me; and how we navigate through life with our rituals and quirks. I often find myself seeing humour in the everyday, and I think that plays into my work a lot. A friend once described my work in a much more eloquent way than this – I wish I’d written it down.
My graduate work was thematically similar to my current work, but it looked very different. I was already into making books but they weren’t all drawing-focussed.
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
This year I’ve been working towards a book of illustrated poetry written by Luke Humphries. I’ve been illustrating his stories for the last couple of years, which we’ve published together as short run publications. This one’s got a significant amount of drawings in it but I’m slowly getting there, and I’m excited about how it’s looking so far.
How I got here
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Art school gave me the opportunity to make work and experiment in a shared studio for three years, which was invaluable. That said, it obviously doesn’t suit everybody and it absolutely isn’t necessary, especially considering the cost of tuition fees today. I would recommend undertaking a foundation course, though! Mine introduced me to so many ways of creating that I hadn’t tried before or considered.
I absolutely thrive when I’m making work alongside others and have found taking residencies (whether funded by an organisation or not) as a good way to make work. Molly Fairhurst, Ollie Silvester, Santiago Taberna and myself stayed in a cottage in North Wales for a week in 2019 for an informal residency, and the experience was brilliant. We made so much work. I think if you are able to organise dedicated time to make work with no or very little expectation, it can naturally lead to something interesting and engaging.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Imposter syndrome! But back in 2018 I made a few risograph prints, bags, pins and stickers for my (sort of) first art fair, and I was shocked at how many people were interested in my work. In retrospect, I probably should have done it earlier!
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
It’s hard to describe the absolute misery that comes from making art all day to suddenly having to put a lot of your time into paying rent. I think it took me until about 2017 to take on art as a career; and I think it’s really important for people to know that it’s okay to have other work in other fields.
Alongside my own art, I co-direct an artist-run gallery and project space, and I also work a shift or two a week in a cafe. I enjoy having a more social job. It’s good to see people and not sit at a desk all day, every day.
“I think it’s important for people to know that it’s okay to have other work in other fields.”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I’ve found social media, specifically Instagram to be immensely useful. Despite having its problems, it gives people the platform to show and share work in a way that wasn’t possible even a few years ago. It’s introduced me to so many artists, as well as fairs and shops. As a result of sharing my work on there I’ve been offered opportunities and paid work.
Try not to get too tied up in how well received your posts are. When I started using Instagram to share work I studied the analytics and timed my posts for maximum visibility. Obviously it’s great when something is well-received, but no one really knows how the algorithm works, so who cares? I prefer posting when I feel like it.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
I love Lynda Barry’s approach to drawing and teaching. She has two books, Syllabus and Making Comics which both contain so much information, exercises and references to comic and graphic novels. She also posts her work from her classes.
I always enjoy art fairs and tend to sell most of my work that way. I did have some exciting ones lined up for this year, which were understandably all cancelled. I enjoy all of them but special mentions go to Shake Bristol, and Brighton Illustration Fair. The internet is great but I do love meeting people and discovering new work at fairs.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
I’m not sure I can think of advice as such, but I’m grateful to anyone who encouraged me to get a few prints made. Sometimes I need a bit of gentle persuasion and it feels like a bit of a gamble paying a chunk of money towards something that may or may not sell. I’ve found it usually pays off. I still make stupid mistakes regularly (this week I had 100 misprinted books sent to me, only to spot a glaring mistake as soon as I looked through a copy).
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Try it. You can make a zine from a single sheet of paper. There’s often a cheap or free photocopier somewhere. Try not to dwell on work you don’t like and keep moving forward.
For my kind of work I’d usually say apply to art fairs, but for the time being I think it’s a case of sharing online. I took part in Shake Bristol’s Shaketober in 2018, doing a drawing a day. Taking part in something similar is likely to improve your drawing as well as introduce your work to a new audience.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Siham Ali
Mention George Manson