Posted 06 June 2023
Mention Poppy Lam
Interview by Lyla Maeve

“Hard work will be recognised”: Illustrator Poppy Lam on balancing multiple jobs with her practice

As a recent illustration graduate, Poppy Lam may be somewhat new in the professional creative world – but her persistence from day one can’t be any clearer. With her final major uni project drawn from existing briefs by companies she wanted to work for, she now successfully counts the BBC and The Big Issue as regular clients. Having balanced multiple part-time jobs with freelancing, she also runs a lifestyle brand with her partner, graphic designer Reece Cornwall. Here, Poppy talks about managing her illustration practice around her roles, as well as why the Association of Illustrators (AOI) is the perfect resource for the business side of illustration.

Poppy Loren Lam

Poppy Loren Lam

Job Title

Freelance Illustrator



Selected Clients

BBC, The Big Issue, Flashback Records, Old Street Records

Place of Study

BA Illustration, Norwich University of the Arts (2019–2022)


Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do?
My work consists predominantly of 2D digital illustrations exploring lighting, atmosphere and details. I illustrate a lot for fun and have been lucky that this [hobby] has progressed into a source of income!

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Mostly things from my daily life. I take a lot of photos of things I like the look of and find pretty! These often inspire a starting part of an illustration. I usually have an idea of an object I want to draw or how I want a piece to look; I’d then develop a scene from that starting point. I have also done quite a lot of illustrations based around music – so I would say it is definitely a strong influence.

Commissioned work for The Big Issue
Commissioned work for The Big Issue

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I definitely don’t think you need any specific training to be an illustrator! I carried some drawing techniques and understanding of art theory over into my illustration practice from having studied fine art. However, I didn’t even really understand what illustration was before I started studying it. My degree was such a good way for me to learn about the industry, explore my illustration style, have set projects to complete and meet other creatives.

I, personally, found university the perfect introduction to the industry for me. However, illustration is very broad and there are many online resources, such as The AOI, to help with the admin side of things – so I definitely think you can be fully self-taught as an illustrator.

“There are many online resources, such as The AOI, to help with the admin side of things – so you can definitely be fully self-taught as an illustrator.”

Illustration for Poppy’s lifestyle brand Garden, with type by graphic designer Reece Cornwall
Illustration for Garden, set up with graphic designer Reece Cornwall

What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
I did a series of gig posters over the last year for the Flashback Records X Still Listening music events held at [pub and live music venue] The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch, London. I had a lot of creative freedom on the majority of them and it allowed me to explore some really fun ideas!

Also, early this year, my partner Reece Cornwall and I started a lifestyle brand called Garden (above). Reece is an amazing graphic designer, and it has been so fun to work collaboratively and see how our designs can translate into physical items.

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I feel like I’m still finding my feet!

I was really lucky that I had a constant flow of small commissions out of university. But I definitely feel the struggle of feeling like you have to be constantly active in creating and posting new work on socials, sending out emails and doing commissions to “keep up” as an illustrator – which is really hard to balance alongside other jobs and life!

I think you’ve just got to find a balance that feels right for you. I’m happy to sacrifice the odd social event to do some illustration work and meet deadlines.

Poppy Loren Lam illustrator creativelivesinprogress 08

Concept poster for Steve Lacy gig

Poppy Loren Lam illustrator creativelivesinprogress 09

Concept editorial illustration for Turnstile

How did you go about landing your first clients?
In my final university project, I did a series of concept illustrations (above), responding to existing briefs and articles for publications I wanted to be commissioned by. I then collated these illustrations into a portfolio and approached potential clients with it. I think that really helped show how my work could be used commercially.

It was a mix of reaching out to clients and them contacting me. I’ve found that when you’ve worked with a client once, they tend to be keen to commission you again. And when you’ve done a few commissions, other clients will want to work with you – it’s just about getting those first ones.

“When you’ve done a few commissions, other clients will want to work with you – it’s just about getting those first ones.”

Poppy’s personal work
Concept editorial illustration for Vice

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I feel like every creative gets this, but I do find myself doubting my work sometimes. If I haven’t made any new illustrations in a while, or haven’t been working on any commissions, I tend to feel less validated as an illustrator. That’s just the nature of the creative industry – you’re never going to have a constant flow of creativity and it’s normal not to have a steady flow of work all the time.

Another difficulty I encountered was the admin side of being an illustrator. I wish there was more emphasis on and teaching about the financial side of freelancing at university. Doing your first tax return, contracts and licensing [agreements] are so daunting and difficult to navigate! I found online resources, such as The AOI, super-useful for this.

“I found the admin side of being an illustrator a challenge. Doing your first tax return, contracts and licensing [agreements] are so daunting to navigate!”

Illustration for audiobook app, Audrey
Poppy’s personal work

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
1. Other creatives: I find so many creatives extremely inspiring; Alice Bloomfield, María Medem and Angela Kirkwood to name a few!

2. I also adore It’s Nice That; I’ve found so many artists whose work I love from that website.

3. Reminding myself that if I want something to happen within my practice, it’s not just going to fall into my lap; I have to put the work in in order to see the results. I believe that the energy you put into something is the energy you’ll receive. I like to hold myself accountable and set goals!

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I think social media and self-promotion are massively important! Although it can feel embarrassing putting your work out there repeatedly, it’s the only way your work will be seen. It’s so important to network with other creatives, too, whether in person or online. I’ve learnt so much from doing this and putting myself out there.

Concept editorial illustration for The Guardian
Concept editorial illustration for New Scientist

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
When I first moved to London, I had two part-time jobs; I worked at the Tate Modern and also as a creative assistant at the illustration agency, Everyone. Helen [Parker], the founder, is amazing and it was a great way for me to learn more about the creative industry from a different side and to be working closely with such a lovely team and roster of talented illustrators.

I’ve recently been working full-time at a creative agency. Since graduating, I do my freelance illustration in free time I have. I’ve found it so useful having my day jobs be in creative environments to keep up motivation for my illustration practice, but it can be hard to still have enough time for illustration.

There definitely shouldn’t be any shame around working other jobs alongside your practice. Especially with living in London, I like having the financial security from a contracted job that solely freelance illustrating wouldn’t give me currently.

However, I would love to work part-time and give more time to illustration in the future.

Poppy’s WFH workspace

Have there been any courses, programmes, initiatives or access schemes you have found helpful?
The AOI, Creative Lives in Progress, It’s Nice That and Elephant Magazine are stand out zines and sites that I have turned to a lot for advice and inspiration over the last few years!

Also, following and reaching out to more established illustrators has been so beneficial [to me]. Everyone I have reached out to has been so friendly, approachable and willing to give advice.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
“You’ve got to be confident in yourself and your work for other people to believe in it too.”

This mindset really helped me to feel more comfortable presenting my work and speaking with potential commissioners.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Just keep going. Hard work will be recognised at some point! If you’re having fun and consistently producing work you love, I can guarantee there will be people out there who appreciate it.

It took me a little while to start getting paid for my work, but when you do, it’s so rewarding – you get paid for doing what you love! So put the hours in, talk it into existence and make it happen!

Mention Poppy Lam
Interview by Lyla Maeve