“Why limit yourself to one thing?” Meet illustrator, designer and artist Marcus Walters
It’s fair to say that freelance illustrator and designer Marcus Walters thrives off a tight deadline; “There’s a certain energy that comes with urgency.” But as much as the Stroud-based creative is wedded to his work, it’s something he now gets to share with his wife, Hayley, as part of their print and pattern studio, In House homewares. Recently swapping sugar paper for sticky vinyl and coloured offcuts, abstract shapes and bold imagery are staples of Marcus’ work. Choosing to study design for the breadth and variety it offered, today things are no different, and Marcus has collaged, printed and designed work for everything from museums and smoothies to cars and books. But while creative commitment is one thing, for Marcus, it’s not something that can be forced. He tells us about using his sketchbook as a container for new ideas and why finding time to seek inspiration is just as important as making.
Freelance Illustrator and Designer (2005–present)
Creative Director, Able Studio (2016–present)
Co-Founder, In House Homewares (2015–present)
BA Graphic Design, Central St Martins (1994–1997)
Tate Galleries, V&A Museum, Innocent Smoothies, Honda, Fairtrade Foundation, Penguin, Amnesty International
How would you describe what you do?
I work as a designer, illustrator and artist. I usually employ the same approach to all of my commercial work: analyse the brief, solve the problem and communicate the outcome in whichever way is most applicable to the audience.
I see similar methods of construction and layout in my artwork, even if it’s subconscious . But generally, creating artwork is different; there are no parameters or constraints other than to feel satisfied with what you do.
What does a typical working day look like?
I am an early riser these days (I have two young children!) and try to get to the studio at 7am, giving me a few hours of quiet but intensive work time before clients start emailing. I might do the school run at 3pm (it’s good to take a break) and will sometimes end up working again from 8pm to 10pm, especially if there's a lot on. I try to split my time between work and family life. I’m lucky that I can dictate my working hours – although that often means working late to catch up.
I tend to work on a few different projects at any one time which can be difficult to manage, and time is always an issue. One advantage is that I can work on something while waiting for feedback from another job. My own artwork happens in the moments inbetween, and sometimes when I am supposed to be doing ‘paid’ work! I always keep my sketchbook handy in case something pops into my head.
“Being a designer or illustrator means running your own business which also means completing all of the non-creative tasks.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I have a lovely studio in an old textile mill which I share with my partner (screen printer Hayley Walters). There are two desks in my studio – one for artwork and one for computer work.
I admit to spending too much time in front of a screen – time I would rather be using for hands-on artwork which is why I always try to record ideas in my sketchbooks. It might be a drawing, a phrase for a T-shirt or a composition of offcuts. It’s a good reference or starting point for the times I can move away from the screen.
I never really switch off. Art and design are about thinking and doing, but the thinking part (looking at stuff, getting inspired and recording ideas) is just as much a part of working as sitting down and making.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Work comes in from lots of different sources. People I have worked with before, recommendations, some through Instagram and from my agents. I have two agents: Blink Art in the UK and Talkie Walkie in France, who promote my work. I also try to take a proactive approach to getting new work, and frequently get in touch with people I want to work with.
Cold calling sucks, but on the other hand, its good to get people’s attention. I always try to meet with clients face to face, especially when introducing my work as you get to explain the process, and in my case show how original artwork is constructed. This is not always possible of course but you tend to form more of a relationship through a meeting than sending a PDF.
How collaborative is your work?
Design can be collaborative, and I love to work with photographers, animators and artists, but illustration work can be pretty solitary. Recently I started an ongoing collaboration with my partner, Hayley. Despite sharing a studio for years we never worked together on the creative side until we found the right formula. We have gone on to start a print and pattern studio called In House where we produce original artwork, textiles and homewares. We use the screen printing process to combine our (sometimes disparate) elements, often overprinting different layers on top of each other. Hayley prints on massive sheets of paper which we often crop to find the right piece of artwork which can then be adjusted in terms of scale or colour. It’s a really exciting process which always feels fresh and unexpected. I liken it to a visual form of the ‘cut-up’ technique pioneered by William Burroughs.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Being a designer or illustrator means running your own business, which also means completing all of the non-creative tasks, from invoicing, chasing payments, VAT, take returns and keeping on top of emails. I dream of devoting all of my time to creative tasks while someone else takes care of selling and sourcing my work, answering emails, doing the finances. I need a non-creative business partner!
It can be difficult to get the balance right between work and life. I have probably missed the occasional birthday party (including my own) or event due to being stuck at work, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t love my job. I thrive off working to a tight deadline; there’s a certain energy that comes with urgency. Art is about doing, and having the confidence to put your work out there with no time to procrastinate or change your mind. That’s the only option when you are on deadline.
The flip side of that is knowing when not to try and squeeze creativity out of your brain when there is none! I have walked into the studio on non-busy days, stayed 10 minutes and walked out again, knowing I’d be better off doing something else or looking for inspiration elsewhere.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The visual identity for the Tate Kids website I worked on at the start of the year was a great project. I worked with Kathryn Box from the Tate’s digital team and with a great developer called Rebekah Ford. The parameters of the brief were so wide, and it took a lot of thought to work out how to create artwork with such a defined subject that also had mass appeal across a wide age range. I had to strip everything down and create a plethora of assets, which turned into backgrounds, colour palettes, GIFs and animations.
What skills are essential to your job?
The success of a project is often measured by its effectiveness and ability to connect with an audience. I think you also have to take into account the creative process and the final artwork. This comes through confidence in your ability and conviction in your ideas, so sometimes it’s good to stand your ground. Being personable always helps – no one wants to work with a prima donna!
Are you currently working on any side projects?
At the moment, most of my time is spent working on commissioned jobs, but I try to spend time on my own range of prints, posters and products, as well as developing our collaborative work on In House. I have a huge list of stuff that I could, should, and wish I could be working on. It’s difficult to be able to invest time when you just need to pay the bills.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I didn’t know it at the time but I was always looking for the perfect sketchbook. Around eight years ago, a friend bought me a Zap Book from France. I now have volumes of these filled with ideas and notes from past projects. It’s where I record all of my ideas. I use a few different types of pens: Muji Black 0.5 gel inks, Paper Mate fibre tips and brush pens and occasionally Posca markers. I used to use sugar paper for my collage work but I got sick of having sticky fingers, so now I use adhesive vinyl which I procured from a local sign writer. They gave me a box of vinyl offcuts ages ago and I have never run out! Computer-wise, I’ll use an iMac, Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign and After Effects. I also use my phone for taking photos of textures or scanning artwork of course.
“Art is about doing, and having the confidence to put your work out there with no time to procrastinate or change your mind.”
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Growing up, I was really into skateboarding and music – two very visual pastimes. But I always wanted to do something creative. Looking back at my childhood drawings, I’d focus on drawing the logos from cars, drum kits or skateboards.
My dad was quite creative and would often take us to galleries in London. He ended up running the family shoe business, (not very creative) and so encouraged me to pursue a design career.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I chose to study graphic design because it presented the widest reach with which to apply my creativity. From branding to magazine design, packaging or designing T-shirts, I always thought ‘Why limit yourself to one thing?’ It’s something I still believe today.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was as a junior designer on young women’s magazine, Company, published by Hearst. I had been offered a few weeks’ internship and eventually offered a job. Unlike my degree course, which was unstructured and about creative freedom, working on the magazine had structure, boundaries and a formula which you had to adhere to. I learned so much about layout, typography and illustration during the four years I worked there, and went on to win awards for my art direction. After I left, I continued to work on magazines as a freelance art director, often working on redesigns and special projects.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Leaving my job in magazines was a hard thing to do, but I just knew I wanted to do more. After freelancing for a bit I started my own design studio, New Future Graphic which my friend Gareth White. We rented a small office from some friends, pooled our freelance resources and went out with our folio looking for work. It was hard work but we had a lot of fun along the way, learning from each job. We eventually grew into a team of eight working on bigger accounts with clients such as Clarks shoes.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
While working in magazines I art directed a magazine called The Illustrated Ape. It was a glorified fanzine really, full of poetry, creative writing and nonsense but fully illustrated throughout. There was no budget and no direction from the editors. Their brief was simple: Make it look amazing. This was a gift on many levels. I had to balance the design with the writing and illustration, using all my skills to make it work as a complete package. It was the perfect marriage of clarity and chaos.
“I always thought ‘Why limit yourself to one thing?’ It’s something I still believe today.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I am old enough to have started collaging at a time when Macs were only just becoming more accessible (there were only 30 at Central St Martins when I studied there). I was born into an analogue age where I would use collage, stickers, photocopies and Letraset to replicate what I would have produced on the computer. I have carried this aesthetic through my career, sketching out every single idea to make collaged artwork. For me, although I spend far too much time on it, the computer is always just a tool.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Time seems to be my biggest challenge – or lack of it! I am pretty responsive when it comes to ideas and creating artwork and I love working gonna deadline, but everything takes a bit longer than I thinking I am often left with no time to capitalise on past projects. I try to keep my website up to date and send out newsletters and email clients which are all good for business, but it doesn’t happen often enough. I am still learning!
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Sort of…I never wanted to do just one thing so in that respect it is. When you work for yourself you are in charge of your own destiny; you make your own luck so in that sense I can make my job what I want it to be. The trick is being persistent and successful!
What would you like to do next?
I have an ongoing wish list and sporadically cross bits off. There are lots of areas I would love to apply my illustration and pattern work, especially to homewares and textiles (I dream of designing ranges for Ikea). The other thing I would like to do is travel more – even being on a train or bus inspires me. It’s a great time to observe and scribble ideas down. I would love to work in America or Japan.
Could you do this job forever?
Yes, I think… I love creating and making stuff so I think I will always be doing something creative.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Having a full-time job taught me a lot about how the creative industry works and gave me the opportunity to learn a wide range of skills and knowledge that I don’t think I could have learned at university. Personally, my creative progression came when I set up on my own and discovered the wider opportunities available by contacting fellow creatives and involving myself in projects.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Be clever and make your mark. Think about what it is you want to do and know where you sit in the creative world. Contact people you think would like your work and try to meet face-to-face. Sell yourself and shout about what you do, it’s the only way to cut through the visual noise that exists today!
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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