“I still can’t believe I get to do this for a living!” Meet Belfast-based illustrator and animator, Priya Mistry
After spending four and a half years in London, Priya Mistry decided to make the move to Belfast. Able to switch seamlessly between editorial and television work to online and virtual reality platforms for clients like WIRED and The Guardian, Priya complements her commercial work with a healthy dose of personal projects. Explaining how freelancing leaves her open to a ‘feast and famine’ lifestyle, Priya still enjoys the freedom it offers her to to travel. “I love exploring different cultures – it’s my main source of inspiration for self-initiated projects,” she tells us. Despite spending three years studying animation at the University of Wales, looking back, Priya advises emerging creatives to focus on building a professional portfolio: “In this industry your portfolio gets you hired – let it do the talking.” Here, she talks starting out, battling self-doubt and sharpening her skill-set.
Illustrator and Animator
BA Animation, University of Wales, Newport, (2005–2008)
Google, BBC, The Guardian, WIRED, Bauer Media, Yahoo
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance illustrator, animator and occasional art director. I’ve worked on editorial illustrations, character designs, animated TV episodes, channel idents, explainer videos for online content and illustrations for games and virtual reality platforms. My clients vary from creative studios and agencies to directly with magazines and tech companies.
I also work on – and really enjoy – self-initiated projects and have dedicated a lot of time over the last three years to focus on and develop my illustration work.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I have a studio at home in Belfast with a desktop setup and usually spend a considerable amount of time in front of a computer screen for client work. I’ll start at 10am and usually try to clock off at 6:30pm, but that unfortunately often goes out the window during busy periods.
I’ll try and break away from the desk when I can; during planning or sketching phases of a project for example. The iPad Pro has been a game changer in this front. My illustration work with Posca markers also allows me to work away from the computer.
How collaborative is your role?
This usually varies per project. The most collaborative occasions occur during the initial stages where ideas, art direction, sketches and storyboards will be thrown back and forth with a client or studio. Once that’s set, I’ll usually be left alone to produce the work. Other projects will have the initial groundwork already in place and you’re simply hired to carry the work out on your own.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I LOVE the initial creative stages of a project; generating ideas, visualising style frames, illustrating and designing characters. I still can’t believe I get to do this for a living!
Being freelance has given me the time and opportunity to travel to places near and far over the last few years; I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to do so. I love exploring different cultures, foods and environments – it’s very much my main source of inspiration for self-initiated projects.
However, the feast and famine aspect of freelancing isn’t fun at all. Being overworked can be incredibly draining, but for me the ‘famine’ aspect is by far the worst. Self-doubt and negative thoughts are so quick to surface during extended periods of not working. And it really affects my mental health – I’ll often slump into awful periods of depression, anxiety and stress.
“The feast and famine aspect of freelancing isn’t fun at all. Self-doubt is so quick to surface during extended periods of not working.”
But I’m learning – albeit slowly – to work on a better work-life balance. I’ve started swimming regularly, spending more time on personal projects during quiet periods and turning down work during the extremely busy ones.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I really enjoyed working on an illustrated series that celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights, for Google Play. The client was very open to ideas and I had a lot of creative freedom. The project came directly off the back of a personal illustration series that I had worked on, that were inspired by my travels in India.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Time management and discipline is key and I’m still working on these! Being open to constructive feedback, perseverance and sharpening your creative and technical skillset.
What do you like about working in the area of the UK you’re based in?
Belfast has the most down-to-earth, welcoming and friendliest of humans I am lucky to call my friends. I relocated after four and half years of living and working in London and gladly welcomed the change of pace and affordable living costs. I still work with my London clients and it’s great that I’m only an hour away by plane.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Yes. I’ve just started a new illustration series inspired by a trip to New York earlier this year.
What tools do you use most for your work?
iPad Procreate App for sketching and some illustration work; iMac, Wacom tablet with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects for all animation and digital illustration work; and Posca markers and A4 cartridge paper for non-digital illustration work.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A pilot, a basketball player or something in the creative field. You needed to excel at maths, physics and engineering to become a pilot. I had maths covered but zero interest in the other two subjects. Basketball was, and still is, my favourite sport, but I had to accept my whopping 5ft height wouldn’t get me far. So that left me to pursue ‘something in the creative field’.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I know its a clichéd answer, but I drew constantly as a child. My parents knew from early on that I’d end up choosing a career in the arts and chose to support me, which I’ll forever be grateful for. Being of Indian descent, it’s unfortunately pretty common for creative careers to be discouraged and I certainly heard the warnings from naysayers of my extended family. When I’d made the decision to go for it, there was definitely a lot of pressure to prove myself and make it work.
“Once you’ve landed a project, your personality and professionalism will have clients calling you back for repeat work.”
How useful have your studies been in your career?
My course was useful only in teaching me to be self-sufficient. With the exception of life drawing courses, we were pretty much left alone to complete projects. I learnt a lot of animation fundamentals from books and my software skills online. As a result, I personally feel you do not need to go to uni to become an artist.
To get started, arm yourself with a good reading list and a wealth of online resources. There are plenty of good short online courses out there, run by leading industry artists that set projects and give invaluable one-on-one feedback at a fraction of the cost of uni. Patreon, Skillshare and Learn Squared are all great examples.
Instead of spending three to four years at uni, I’d say to use the time to focus on building a solid portfolio and skillset that allows you to work as a professional in the field. I’ve never been asked whether I went to uni, let alone what grade I received. In this industry your portfolio gets you hired – let it do the talking. Once you’ve landed a project, your personality and professionalism will have clients calling you back for repeat work.
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
The 2008 recession was in full swing when I graduated. I had moved back in with my folks and contacted so many studios asking for a work placement or an internship. The replies either said ‘no thanks’ or explained that market was so quiet that work wasn’t really coming in.
I motivated myself to use the downtime to work on my portfolio. About a year later, after a few more rounds of emails, I received a reply from a small games studio. They liked my portfolio but could only offer work on a freelance basis; a couple of small motion-graphics and design projects to start with. I’d never even considered going freelance before this, but jumped at the opportunity.
Shortly after, I received a reply from a small animation studio in Northern Ireland. They had a six week freelance gig to work in-house on a couple of short-form children’s TV episodes for BBC One NI. I’ve been freelancing ever since!
“The 2008 recession was in full swing when I graduated. I motivated myself to use the downtime to work on my portfolio.”
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Yes! I made a jump and moved to London in August 2012 having only one freelance gig lined up – about a month of work. As soon as that finished, I had a call from Steve Spicer (now a very good friend of mine) who had found me on Twitter. Steve worked for design studio, Turquoise Branding, at the time and they needed an illustrator and animator for a project starting immediately. That project lead to many others with the studio and helped me gain some stability during my first couple of years in London.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I think I’m currently going through my most challenging time. The last few months have been unusually quiet for me – probably the longest I’ve had without work. So I’m battling the recurring thoughts of doubts, self-worth and worries but trying to stay proactive and hopeful that things will turn around soon.
What would you like to do next?
In the short term, I’d like to continue to build on the illustration side of things, set up an online shop to sell prints and be more active in getting more commissioned illustration work. For the longer term, I’d like to work on bigger self-initiated projects like children’s books and a short animated film. I would also love to collaborate on a couple of illustrated virtual or augmented reality story experiences with concept and 3D artist, Gerard Dunleavy, who also happens to be my partner.
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so. I’ll keep going as long as I enjoy it and can make a living from it.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Dedicate time to personal projects that focus on things you enjoy. Client projects are usually very fast-paced and come with so many restrictions and strings attached that can at times leave you frustrated and creatively unfulfilled. Spending a little bit of time each week on that story, short film, illustration series or indie game can be so creatively rewarding. These projects will develop your style and skills, might make it into your portfolio and probably lead to paid work that’s more in line with your interests and style
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Priya Mistry