“Exposure is my least favourite word”: We meet freelance creative Kayleigh De Sousa
For freelance creative Kayleigh De Sousa, trying to break into industry was a daunting prospect. “To me, the creative industry looked like an iron fortress with a metaphorical guard, deciding who gets to come in and out,” she recalls. Mentorship schemes, however, proved to be an invaluable part of her growth, and after leaving her pub job post-graduation, she found doors began to open. Inspired by her childhood, Kayleigh has gone from drawing every Neopet under the sun, to creating illustrations for the likes of Sick Love Zine. Most recently, she was picked by Somerset House to be one of their Future Producers to create work that exemplifies her hopes for tomorrow. Here, Kayleigh talks about the benefits of having a support system, learning to value your craft and why ‘exposure’ is her least favourite word.
Kayleigh De Sousa
Somerset House, LSE Cities, Sick Love Zine
Place of Study
BA Illustration and Graphics, Coventry University (2016-2019)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I would describe myself as a freelance creative, although my focal point tends to be illustrative content. Currently, I work as a Future Producer for Somerset House as well as being a freelance illustrator for LSE Cities and Sick Love Zine.
If you could sum up your job in an image, what would it be and why?
(Below) This rock formation feels as though it should fall apart but it doesn’t – and that’s how I feel about my creative practice! While my creative methods are all over the place – like the little rock in the centre of the formation – there are certain factors in place that make things easier for me.
This could be my support systems like family and friends, or just knowing that, in general, things will work out. Having the freedom to work for yourself can be chaotic but ultimately, it’s a beautiful feeling!
What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now?
My favourite thing isn’t directly on my desk but right next to it; on my wall I have a small space dedicated to my creative friends’ illustrations! Having close friends who are all amazing artists is a lovely feeling and feeds back into what I was saying about having support systems in place; it’s a very comforting feeling knowing I have people around me who are in the creative industry too.
“Having the freedom to work for yourself can be chaotic but ultimately, it’s a beautiful feeling!”
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I love this question because it took me a very long time to realise that my illustrations are a reflection of my intense Cartoon Network obsession as a child! I grew up watching all the classics like Samurai Jack, Dexters Laboratory, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Courage the Cowardly Dog, the list goes on!
Even looking back, I was really into Neopets and I remember they had a space where you could learn to draw each Neopet and the faeries; I remember I drew every single character and kept it in a folder alongside other drawings I had done of different cartoons – shout out to Dragoart!
I suppose as I got older, I completely forgot about that aspect of my childhood – but even now when you look at my drawings, they are still very cartoon-like with vivid colour palettes, reminiscent of the shows I watched.
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
My favourite project that I have worked on has definitely been my debut project as a Somerset House Future Producer, Decentralise. Decentralise was a combined collaborative effort between myself, my fellow Future Producer colleagues and Comuzi Labs, a Black-owned tech lab who are also residents at Somerset House.
Decentralise is an immersive website that allows users to interact with illustrated objects that celebrate Black British culture, past and present. Each object also feeds back into Somerset House as they are representative of exhibitions held by Black artists at the site. This was my first time working on a collaborative project and I am truly proud of the work everyone has done to create a legacy that celebrates who we are.
“I am truly proud of the work everyone has done to create a legacy that celebrates who we are.”
How I got here
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
As a creative, or more specifically an illustrator, I would say it’s important to practice your craft when possible. It can be daunting, but even just watching YouTube tutorials alongside practicing makes a difference.
I would also say it can be useful to gain some marketing or branding skills – again, that could be a case of watching videos to get a better understanding. I say this because as an illustrator, you are essentially a brand in yourself. It’s useful to know how to hone that skill so that you stand out in a space that is highly competitive.
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
To me, the creative industry looked like an iron fortress with a metaphorical guard, deciding who gets to come in and out. Again, illustration is very much freelance-based and I didn’t have the knowledge or resources to figure out how to find work. Alongside this, all the junior or entry-level roles somehow wanted years of experience, which I didn’t have!
As time went on, I ended up working in a pub for a good few months after graduating, while still sometimes illustrating for zines or myself when I had the time. Using some savings, I left and began to look at programmes that could help me gain access to the industry.
“To me, the creative industry looked like an iron fortress with a metaphorical guard, deciding who gets to come in and out.”
I finally found success and my first opportunity was as a Head Start participant at the H Club – a programme for underrepresented creatives who get the chance to up-skill through training and internships. Essentially, this was the genesis of how I got to where I am today, and if you are a creative that comes from an underrepresented background, I highly recommend these programmes – just make sure you research them first.
Without these initiatives, I don’t think I would have had the time or resources to try and figure out the industry on my own, so I am glad they exist!
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career so far, what would they be and why?
As a creative, there are three Instagram accounts whose content I really enjoy!
The first is Creative Champs by Kei Maye. I absolutely love Kei’s content and her work ethic is very inspiring to me. Her page is super-funny but also very informative for freelance visual creators so if you’re not following already, you should!
The second Instagram is F*** Being Humble, created by Stefanie Sword-Williams. As the name suggests, her content focuses on being more confident in your craft and knowing your worth as a creative. I think this is really important because as creatives, we are essentially monetising our skills which means we have to decide how much we charge clients. It can be a tricky process, so this Instagram page definitely reaffirms that we are worth every cent and if someone is not happy with that, then they aren’t our desired clientele anyway.
And last but not least, Intern, created by Alec Dudson. Similar to Creative Champs and F*** Being Humble, Intern provides really valuable resources for young creatives. I also like how Intern puts an unapologetic focus on making sure we set clear boundaries as creatives, including signing contracts before you start a project or the problem with speculative work. Intern essentially helped me realise that without clear communication and boundaries, you are much more susceptible to exploitation in this industry.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I can unapologetically say that while the creative industry is extremely important, we are very undervalued as a whole. There is a misconception that because we are in a world where the conventions of the 9-to-5 do not often apply, we must be all be chilling and having fun all the time. This is alongside the rampant exploitation of young creatives, often coming from unrepresented backgrounds, who are expected to work for long hours, for free, in order to gain experience or my least favourite word in the world, exposure.
It’s really important to note that as creatives we are literally taking our identity and translating that into visual language, so when you undervalue our craft, you are directly undervaluing our very being! I think this rhetoric feeds into why the industry is seen as less stable – you wouldn’t go to the dentist and try to pay for the service with exposure, so why is it seen as acceptable here?
Thankfully as time goes on, more and more creatives are highlighting this issue, so it’s up to companies to make sure they hold themselves accountable. London is too expensive to be living off of exposure!
“You wouldn’t go to the dentist and try to pay for the service with exposure, so why is it seen as acceptable here?”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I personally have a very strange relationship with social media. I don’t particularly like posting work often as its difficult to not get caught up in algorithms, likes and numbers. I do, however, appreciate the networking and job opportunities that present themselves on there. It’s a great place to connect with fellow creatives, and in a lot of ways, your page becomes a portfolio of your craft so you can see how your skills have evolved as you scroll up.
In terms of advice, if you are going to post on social media, try not to worry about followers or likes, post whenever you want and remember that it is your space to share a part of yourself artistically. Sometimes it’s easier to post and just get off the app back into the real world, which is what I sometimes do!
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
That no one knows what they are doing. It’s a strange statement but ultimately it normalises the creative industry and everyone in it!
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
As illustration is a heavily freelance-based role, it is crucial to stay connected. Networking is your best friend; reach out to creatives you like but also make sure you have good intentions.
The key is to always be honest and be yourself. Never ever try to change your art style or identity for the sake of trying to make it – it isn’t worth losing yourself for success or capitalistic goals. For me, I would say just draw whatever you like and if people like it then that’s cool, if they don’t that’s cool too! But as long as you keep pushing forward and being yourself, you’ll be absolutely fine!
Mention Kayleigh De Sousa
Written by Lyla Johnston