Posted 11 July 2017
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

We talk concepts, characters and comedy with freelance illustrator and cartoonist Leon Edler

Bright concepts and colours are at the heart of Brighton-based Leon Edler’s work. The illustrator and cartoonist's confident style and hand-drawn humour have attracted clients such as Wired, Vanity Fair and Time Out New York. But whether he’s creating comic strips about James Bond or helping CNN to explain ‘econundrums,’ Leon maintains that a single-minded ambition and thick skin are vital to handling the instability of freelancing. Here, he fills us in on his day-to-day, and how to find your style – and your feet – as a freelancer.

Stamp GIF for Vanity Fair's letters page

Leon Edler

Job Title




Previous Employment

Prior to becoming a full-time illustrator, Leon worked as a barman, bingo caller, chugger, sales assistant, sandwich maker, English teacher, debt collector, purchase ledger administrator, editor, claims handler

Place of Study

BA Linguistics, King’s College London (2006–2009)


CNN, NSPCC, British Airways, The New York Times, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Time Out New York

Personal Website

Personal Social Media

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Leon Edler

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Leon's workspace

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Books in Leon's studio


How would you describe what you do?
I’m a conceptual illustrator and cartoonist. I work for advertising and branding, but most of my work is for papers and magazines. This generally involves getting an article and a brief, and then sketching five or six ideas for the art director to choose from, before I do the final version. Deadlines for this can vary anywhere from 2–3 hours, to a week. I also do gag cartoons, comic strips and am now dipping my toe into animation.

What does a typical working day look like?
I spend the mornings with my daughters. Then I’ll walk with my dog to the studio in town, so I start work between 11am and 12pm. I like to start by sketching and doodling if I have time. Then I’ll start sketching for jobs or carrying on with something I’ve already started. A lot of my day is spent on the computer, (I do most finals on a Cintiq) but I still do all my sketching with a pen and paper. It means I’m not tied to the computer and can work anywhere I fancy.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
In the studio, although I’ve recently realised that I prefer coming up with ideas away from the studio – in a café or a pub or the park.

How does your freelance work usually come about?
Initially I spent a lot of time building a client list that I would email, send postcards, posters and prints to. I also put my work on Instagram, Behance, Tumblr and so on. That’s how I got my first clients: The New York Times, Observer and Wall Street Journal. People start to see your work around. I also have two great agents – We Are Goodness in the UK and Tiphaine in France who promote me. But to start getting editorial work, you just need a strong, consistent portfolio, a list of email addresses and a thick skin.

How collaborative is your work?
Other than the input from the art director (which is great when they’re good and awful when they’re bad), it’s not collaborative at all.

‘Econundrum’ Animation for CNN made with Studio MM

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable has to be chasing invoices and filling out paperwork; thinking that every job is your last; thinking about alternative careers when you don’t have much work; producing work you’re not happy with and comparing yourself to the greats. But all of that depends on your levels of anxiety. Mine are middle-high.

Technically this job offers a good work-life balance because you choose when to work, but in reality you’re working for clients all over the world who work at different times. It’s also hard to turn work down, so you do end up working late, at weekends and on holiday. Last year was the first time I’ve ever felt able to really enjoy a holiday without working.

“Annual Leave,” one of Leon's monthly 007 strips for the Guardian Guide

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The cover I did for Time Out New York last summer was a good job. Tom Hislop is a great AD [art director] and really nice to work with. He gave me a really clear brief, some flexibility and then insightful feedback when I needed it – that is what you always want from an art director. He’d been let down at the last second by another illustrator, so I think I had to do everything (a cover and 5 or 6 illustrations inside) from sketches to finals in about three days. I did the sketches on the last day of my holiday and then went straight from the airport to the studio to do the finals. The topic (‘Does New York Make you an Asshole?’) meant that people have really engaged with it and its won a few awards this year, which is really cool. Tom really deserves to share those awards as his input was vital.

“Does New York Make You An Asshole?” Cover for Time Out New York

What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to draw in a style that people like and that clearly communicates messages in an interesting way. It’s unlikely that you are born with this, so you have to draw a lot to find it.

Having a single-minded ambition to do it. This means coping with all the rejection, doing all the boring promo and continuing to make the work and bang on doors when few or none are being opened. And coping with the instability of being a freelancer.

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Yeah, I usually have some stuff going on in the background.

What tools do you use most for your work?
Pencil, rubber, Rotring Tikky Graphic pen, notebook, phone (for music and reference), iMac, scanner, Wacom Cintiq, Clip Studio and Photoshop.

Illustrations for the Guardian's Budget 2017
Illustrations for the Guardian's Budget 2017
Illustrations for the Guardian's Budget 2017
Illustrations for the Guardian's Budget 2017

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A writer or producer of a TV comedy.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My love of comedy growing up led to me doing cartoons, which then led to me doing amusing conceptual illustration. I’m also not a team player, which makes me suitable for freelance work.

“Your style will need to be something that comes naturally to you, something that you can produce to a tight deadline.”

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I think it’s hard to say what has and hasn’t had an impact on your career, but I’m inclined to think that a degree in Linguistics has had almost no impact whatsoever.

What were your first jobs?
I’m not in favour of internships. They thwart social mobility by only offering the first rung of the ladder to those who can afford to work for nothing. I was never in that position and I’ve never done any related work. I have worked in shops, pubs, bingo halls, schools, delis and offices, and I worked on my illustration in my free time. I was an editor for a publisher for a year and went freelance doing that so that I could spend more time on my art. I was able to stop editing completely a couple of years ago.

Illustration for the Financial Times
One of Leon's weekly cartoons for the Guardian Guide
One of Leon's personal illustrations

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
My parents were always very encouraging and my (now) wife has supported me both morally and financially. She has always insisted that I do what I love, even when that has meant a sacrifice for her. Without her, I wouldn’t be doing this. Professionally, Matt Dorfman at the New York Times gave me my first job (which didn’t actually go very well) and now regularly commissions me for the Book Review. He’s such an insightful and inspiring AD and I’ve learnt a lot from him. Chris Clarke and other ADs Andrew Stocks and Sarah Habershon at the Guardian have always been really positive about my work and commissioned me a lot, which has helped my career immensely. They’re also just really, really nice guys.

Moving into a studio was a great step, too. I have learnt so much from the other illustrators here. In the early days, when I was still developing my style, I also got a lot of advice and criticism (not all of it positive!) from Nishant Choksi, who really helped me to identify my strengths and weaknesses, and that was invaluable.

“My biggest challenge is maintaining the belief that I could make a living from illustration. In the early days, and for a long time, I would get no responses to emails and mail outs.”

What skills have you learnt along the way?
How to draw better, how to animate (simple GIFs) and Photoshop skills (from YouTube).

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Maintaining the belief that I could make a living from illustration when there seemed to be so little evidence to support it. In the early days, and for a long time, I would get no responses to emails and mail outs. I didn’t even know if I was on anyone’s radar. I think if I had been prepared to do a normal job, I would have done it and saved myself a lot of anxiety, but I just couldn’t face it.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
Pretty much. It’s amazing. I used to sit in an office and think about people who were drawing pictures for a living all day, and the envy was soul-crushing. It’s human nature to take things for granted and get bogged down in the day-to-day stuff, but I do frequently consider how fortunate I am to do something that I love. It’s not all cream cheese, there are a lot of stresses, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

One of a range of overly honest card for Annexe Cards

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I have a lot of short ideas and strips that I’d love to collate and turn into a little book. I’d like to do something my girls would like, like a picture book. I’d also like to play more with animation. Also, if I’m honest, I’d like to do some massive advertising jobs for a lot of money.

Could you do this job forever?
I’d love to.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Either up or down. I’m hoping up.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Most importantly, draw. Look at a lot of other work, (both good and bad) and start to mimic styles that you like. If you can’t draw in a style that you like, don’t beat yourself up about it – it’s just part of narrowing down just what your style is. It will need to be something that comes naturally to you, and something that you can produce to a tight deadline. I tried to produce work similar to [Jean-Jacques] Sempé, but it looked awful. After trying to work in a million different ways, I found that the doodles in my sketchbook were much better, clearer and more consistent than any other styles I was trying to recreate. Alan Bennett said something like ‘your style is what’s left of all the things you can’t do’ (I can’t find the exact quote, but you get the idea). Once you’ve found your style, then you have to build up a strong folio of work. Produce the type of work you want to be commissioned for. If you don’t want to draw maps, don’t put one in your folio. Then just bang on doors. Send emails, send postcards, send posters. Draw on the envelopes or do nice typography. And be polite. Don’t give up and you will eventually start to get commissions.

Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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