Valuing your craft and finding inspiration in dance: We meet illustrator Geraldine Sawyer
When it comes to making work, illustrator Geraldine Sawyer never underestimates the power of those closest to her. “Working with my friends is something I want to be able to make a full-time job,” she shares. Despite feeling the effects of being a Covid-19 grad, since leaving Edinburgh School of Art last year, Geraldine has designed the graphics for her friend and fellow grad, Beccy Nipps’ furnishings, and created backdrops and icons for another friend, Isabella Avery’s Plantry Food Blog. Having recently made the move to Manchester, here, Geraldine tells us about building relationships with local communities, the importance of practising your craft and why she’s inspired by watching people dance.
What I do
How would you describe your job?
I work with both large and small companies within the advertising and branding industry, creating visual imagery for a range of clients. My work is colourful, playful and often includes dancing figures across a range of vibrant compositions. I work with hand-drawn pencils and markers as well as digitally, and often use printing techniques to enhance my illustrations.
I want to build real relationships with a local community here in the UK and allow my illustrations to be the outcome. Some of my work includes collaborating with collectives, communities and events for music and dance. I am a social person and believe that being involved in the practical and social networking side to my brand is just as important as the illustration work; this often involves attending club events to observationally draw until the early hours of the morning. From this, I have met some of the clients I have worked with today.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I love seeing people in action, especially when they are dancing. You get to interact with people on nights out and see them at their most candid. It is a very vulnerable moment when someone is dancing in a club or on stage at a drag show – it inspires me to create something that will display that vulnerability to the public eye.
I also draw upon choreographers and dancers as a way of understanding my practice. Nicole Kirkland and Ysabelle Capitule are just some of the names that have inspired my dancing figures. In terms of illustrators, Eugenia Mello’s fast-paced movement and bouncy characters are also very inspirational to me.
“Working with my friends is something I want to be able to make a full-time job.”
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
Working with my closest friends has been an absolute pleasure this last year. Beccy Nipps creates soft sculpture cushions, and I had the pleasure of designing her logos, prints and cushion labels. Isabella Avery is the woman behind the Plantry Food Blog, an online blog dedicated to home-cooked recipes and experimental cuisine. I created backdrops and visual food icons for her website and Instagram. I met them both at Edinburgh University and we possess an ambitious and headstrong mentality to our careers.
Working with my friends is something I want to be able to make a full-time job. It is one of the reasons I moved to Manchester; to work alongside my mates and to progress within the creative industry.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Essentially, you can achieve anything if you work hard. I always say that anyone can draw. If you practise, you will improve. Your eye will become more aware of your surroundings and your drawing will becomes more compositional and free-flowing. However, there is a certain level of assertiveness you need to have if you want to make a career from it. You must believe in your craft; its importance and worth are key factors to charging for the right commission.
Never sell your art for free unless it’s for charity. Contracts and invoices are particularly important to working as a freelance illustrator and can prevent your client from copyright infringement in the future. It keeps you and your client safe when working together. It also allows you to show initiative when big companies approach you for a project. It’s a learning process and I believe everyone is capable of learning these things.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
My journey has been up and down, like most people during COVID-19. I didn’t get the graduation I’d hoped for and I had to travel from Scotland back home to Hertfordshire to live with my parents. I reached some exceptionally low points during 2020, but it has proven to be worth it in the end.
I am glad that companies like Heriot Hott Sauce have provided me with the motivation to create something worthwhile. Liam has been a constant friend and business partner, and we are both happy to see something we created come to life from some ideas over the phone during lockdown. We have now accumulated a total of five sauces and are planning to release a sixth limited edition sauce soon. Support from family and friends has been important to me. Feeling settled has been the hardest struggle, but the constant determination to see illustrative projects through has paid off in the long run.
“The constant determination to see illustrative projects through has paid off in the long run.”
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Szentek is a group that raises money for food banks in Scotland by organising music and dance events. Without them, my graduate work wouldn’t have been possible or as inspired by dance culture.
Living alongside my closest friends in Manchester has been a great joy and comfort to me. Being constantly around strong women who are also working towards their creative careers is inspiring. Plus, I am able to ask them constructive feedback on my work.
Champagne and Wax Crayons is an autobiographical book about Ben Tallon who shares a brutally honest documentation of navigating the art world. It was recommended to me by my ECA illustration tutor, Eilidh Muldoon, and has helped me enormously. It has stopped me from disregarding or undervaluing my work, and it’s also promising to read about someone who was in the same shoes as me and was able to succeed through hard work and perseverance.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge would have to be the financial side of freelance illustration. It is hard to find the income to keep you afloat, even when you believe your art is worth more in value. So it’s understandable to also seek employment elsewhere.
When you are starting out, you really begin to understand that visual content within the entertainment industry is not respected highly enough, especially when you don’t have enough exposure. Your art is supposed to speak for you, however as a society we are constantly exposed to branding, advertising and corporate propaganda on a daily basis. Due to this, it’s hard to receive the money you know your art deserves.
However, a lot of us do not draw to seek reward; it is something that we cannot help but do. Therefore, if I’m going to visually communicate what I see and feel, I’m hoping that, with hard work, it will pay off in the end and I will be able to make this a full-time job.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
A lot of my clients have come from Instagram, but I rely more on word of mouth. I think people trust I will get a project done once they get to know me, which also means they are more likely to offer more work. I really enjoy social networking because of this aspect; I love interacting with new people and talking to them about their personal backgrounds.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I was working in retail before the lockdown last year. A few weeks ago, I was working as a part-time teaching assistant in primary and secondary schools in and across Manchester. Now, I’m starting a new front of house job for a vegan pizzeria called Purezza, where I have the opportunity to create mural art for one of their staff rooms. I have been all over the place, but I’m the type of person that likes to keep myself busy and strive for new opportunities.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
“You are not better than anyone, but nobody is better than you.” Basically, always strive to be your best and try not to compare yourself, or compete for the approval of others. Believe in your work because it’s worthy.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Go to museums. Join collectives. DM random people about how much you love their work. Talk to people one-on-one. Challenge them to a dance battle. Immerse yourself in music and culture. It really is fabulous to meet new and interesting faces from all walks of life, and it’s even better when they appreciate the work you do. It all becomes rather meaningful and provides a purpose to life itself.
We have partnered with community-building platform SAD GRADS to highlight some of their talented network. Set up to support 2020 graduates across the UK, see more from SAD GRADS here.
Mention Geraldine Sawyer
Interview by Lyla Johnston