We talk starting out, post-graduation life and heart-stopping emails with artist and illustrator Rose Blake
“When people ask me what I do, I never know what to say!” The art and illustration elements of Rose Blake's work are in continual dialogue. As well as maintaining her own artistic practice (she’s represented by the Rebecca Hossack gallery) her client work, too, increasingly draws on the art world and its idiosyncrasies. The two worlds most recently collided in her hugely successful children’s book about artist David Hockney, created with Tate Publishing – Rose’s dream project. She talks candidly to us about lessons learned and mistakes made – from signing away copyright to underpricing work.
Artist and Illustrator
MA Communication Art & Design, Royal College of Art (2009–2011)
BA Illustration Animation, Kingston University (2006–2009)
Tate, BBC, The Sunday Times, Disney, VW, Soho House, Thameslink, New York Times
Personal Social Media
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an artist and illustrator. I have two sides to my work: I work with the Rebecca Hossack gallery, who represent me and sell my self-initiated work. The other side is the work I do for regular illustration clients. That can be anything from book publishers to advertising and editorial work.
What does a typical working day look like?
Normally I get up at about 7am. A gentle half hour swim in the morning often helps me figure out what I need to do in the day (if I’m struggling with a project, it really opens my mind). I’m normally at work by about 9.30am. I share a studio in a railway arch in Haggerston with eight other people. We all met at Kingston University, and have been sharing a studio since we graduated. I get on with my work till about 7.30pm or, sometimes, till the job’s done.
I’ve always got a lot of different projects on the go. I used to go into work, do a couple of hours on one project, a couple of hours on another, but it just left me frazzled. Now, I’ll spend a day on one project (even if it’s quite small), so I can really get involved in it and forget everything else.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I have the odd meeting in person, but pretty much all of it takes place in the studio. A lot of my time is spent in front of a computer. When I’m doing illustration, there’s always a computer around, but if I’m working on stuff for the gallery I can spend a whole day away from it, which is really nice. The business side of this does take up a big chunk of time, but you just have to be on top of that as well.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I’ve got an agent in London, (CIA based in Kingsland Road) and another in America, (Bernstein and Andriulli) who get me about 15–20% of my work. The rest are repeat jobs, cold emails and a few pitches. Generally if a client is choosing between two or three illustrators and then contacts you, that normally means you’ve got the job.
Clients tend to come to me, which I’m quite thankful for. It means I can pick and choose what I do a lot more now. After I graduated, I literally said yes to everything because I needed the work. I went down a route of doing what I found to be really boring illustrations for business magazines that I didn’t care about. But even on those jobs, you should try to integrate an element of yourself into the work – that’s a good way to start. Focus on what you like and what you want to make work about. Now, I’m very much picked for what I do, which is really nice.
I always want to be learning with a job, so if I’m doing something that feels repetitive, I know I’ll be miserable and won’t put enough effort into it – and you can see that in the image. I want to always be doing work that is challenging or that takes me in a slightly different direction.
How collaborative is your work?
Not very, it can be quite solitary. Although I do work with an amazing printer and framer. Generally on a job, if I meet the client, it’ll be right at the beginning. After that point, it all gets sent through digitally. The layout is often nothing to do with me; I’ll just send the image and the art director or designer will take it from there. One of the difficult things you have to deal with in the industry is not always seeing the reward of a project. You’ll finish a project, send it off and that’s where your part in it stops.
I did a job recently where the graphic designer changed the background colour on the illustration. To me, that's an integral part of the image; it meant that all the colours in the foreground didn’t work. Stuff like that happens. Sometimes the work will get flipped, but it’s totally out of your control at that point.
Normally I’m very self-sufficient, but I think when I work more collaboratively, the work is better. I did a week’s work at Lithography Press just before Christmas with these two amazing printers, and we made something that I would never have been able to make own my own, and which looked totally different to what I normally produce. For the past five years my work has always been a digital or print image, but now I’m trying to experiment with different outcomes.
“It’s often really hard to see yourself as successful – even if you’re working all the time. I always want to be ahead of where I am.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable is solving the problem. When a brief comes in, at the beginning I always think, ‘I don’t know, I can’t do this.’ I always feel kind of scared at that point. But I love it when the idea happens – even if it’s self-initiated work. I like the making as well. It’s also really nice when you meet someone and a piece that you’ve done has meant something to them.
At the moment, my life is my work. My new year’s resolution was to take it easy because I was working myself into the ground. But when there’s a deadline, and you’re under stress, there’s no one else you can delegate the work to. I would say that my life-work balance is crap, but I’m working on making it better.
I always judge myself on the thing that I’m working on at that particular moment, so if a project that I’m working on is going badly, I think, ‘Oh my god, I’m so shit!’ It’s often really hard to see yourself as successful – even if you’re working all the time. I always want to be ahead of where I am.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I worked with Tate Publishing on an activity book called ‘Meet the Artist’ for David Hockney. There are so many things that start and then don’t finish, so I never get excited when an email for a job comes through. But when I got the email about Hockney, my heart just started going at a billion miles an hour. After he [Hockney] OK-ed our test spreads, we had about three weeks to work on the book. I had to sit down and read as much as I could about his work to get the feel of the book right.
A weird thing about this job is that when you’re the most busy, it looks like you’re the least busy. Timelines are quite staggered, so work that you’d done ages ago could all come out at the same time. I’ve finished two other kids’ books that haven’t come out yet.
I did another project for menswear company, Drake’s. It’s a really different kind of project where we designed six pocket squares, but that was the first time I really saw my work being used on a different media which was really exciting.
“A weird thing about this job is that when you’re the most busy, it looks like you’re the least busy.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to draw, solve problems and make something complicated accessible and simple. It’s incredibly important to have your eyes open all the time; look for quirks and interesting things. Take notes. My phone is full of things people have said or things I’ve seen. Be open to, and interested in the world.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
Yes. I am always working on a few. But I’ve got to the point where I don’t see the split between self-initiated and other work. I see it all as one thing that goes towards the same goal. I call myself an artist-illustrator because I sell my work with the gallery. It’s interesting because the gallery take my work to different fairs around the world where I’m not known as an illustrator. So the people that buy my work think I’m an artist, but equally, on the illustration side, people also wouldn’t necessarily know that I sell my work as art.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A paper diary to keep track of business stuff (If I lost that, I’d be totally devastated); my phone for taking down notes, ideas and things I’ve seen; an iMac; Cintiq tablet; Photoshop; pens and paints. When I’m hand-finishing prints I also use this amazing glossy, sign writer’s paint.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A waitress. Then an opera or classical singer. My parents are both artists so I very much rebelled against going into art. But Mr Mumby, my A-Level art teacher advised me to go to the Kingston Art Foundation course. The tutors there spotted that I liked telling stories, and suggested I do illustration. I was never very good at drawing as a kid or particularly arty, but when I speak to my mum and dad about it, they say they always knew that’s what I would end up doing, but I suppose they just let me get on with all the other stuff.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
My childhood was totally art-saturated. My dad is always working; whenever he’s sitting down, he’s doing some form of work – whether it’s cutting out stuff for a collage, or drawing. He’s just so obsessed with what he does. That sense of working hard was a big influence on me and that’s why I'm now quite focused on what I do.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
In terms of my degree, amazingly useful. At Kingston I learned that illustration is 80% your brain, and 20% your hand. I met so many amazing people through studying there; the tutors were brilliant, but my friends were amazing too, and I’m still sharing a studio with some of them. I’m still really close friends with loads of people from the RCA, but the visual communication course there wasn’t a very illustration-friendly course. It made me question whether I wanted to be an illustrator, so after I graduated I had a bit of an existential crisis!
I definitely couldn’t have done this without my degree. Studying art means you’re part of a community. At Kingston, everyone helps each other out. You’ve got alumni from all the different years that you can link with. If I’m ever looking for help that’s where I’ll look first. It’s a real unit and a support system.
“At Kingston I learned that illustration is 80% your brain, and 20% your hand.”
What were your first jobs?
After I graduated, I went straight into illustration. But my first jobs were all really horrendous. When you’re starting out, you don’t really have much to show, so you’re the last resort illustrator. I did a few years of work where an art director would contact me, already knowing what they wanted the illustration to look like. So essentially I was hired as their hand. Breaking out of that was hard.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
I’d been out of uni for a year or two and was hating the work I was doing. A friend of mine, Kaye Blegvad, had been living in New York and was working for the New York Times. She gave me the art director Matt Dorfman’s email address, so I emailed him. He replied that same day and asked me to do something for the Opinion page. Often with jobs like those you’ll get the brief at midday and have about five hours to have it signed off. Even though I had quite a small portfolio, he put so much trust in me. But fifteen minutes after I got the job, the article was pulled. I thought I’d lost my chance at getting a proper gig, but he emailed the next day with another one. That was probably my first proper illustration job. Having them in my client list also meant more work started coming in, because people knew I could handle a deadline.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I entered a self-initiated project about my walk to work for the AOI awards in 2014 just after I got my Cintiq. I turned down other work to focus solely on that for about three weeks. It was the first job I’d done where I felt really satisfied with the outcome. From then, I became more confident in doing self-initiated work. It was the start of what felt like moving from one kind of illustrator into another.
“Value your product. People can jump on you when they know that you’re a young graduate and don’t know how to price things.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Speed. When I was a student you’d get two weeks to work on a project, and you could focus on just getting one illustration finished. But a lot of my time is now spent working out schedules and making sure everything gets finished.
When it comes to finances, luckily I can now send things through to my agent. I think people can jump on you when they know that you’re a young graduate and don’t know how to price things. I’ve signed away copyrights to stuff, and did one job that I massively underpriced – and it’s still being used. So I've learned to value my product. People often have this view that because you’re an illustrator, your job is fun and so it’s not worth anything. They don’t realise that an image that looks like it didn’t take much time has a lot of time and research behind it.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Enjoying it. You forget that you’ve chosen to do this because it’s something that you enjoy, but you can really easily not enjoy it because of all the other pressures. This is an amazingly fun job to have, it’s easy to forget that. Enjoy the process of every day you’re in rather than the next day, month or even five years.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I think it’s better than I thought it would be at uni. I feel like I’m at a point now where I’m confident enough to contact someone and see if they’d be up for doing something together.
What would you like to do next?
Finish off what I’ve already got on! I’m working on another book for David Hockney at the moment with Thames & Hudson. They’re making a children’s version of ‘A History of Pictures’. I’d like to keep trying to make work that I’m interested in or that people enjoy, and keep at it.
Could you do this job forever?
Yeah, definitely. It’s something I know I’ll be doing as an old lady. I always think of the painter Rose Wylie. She’s in her 80s, amazing and my ultimate goal. She makes these incredible, beautiful paintings about the day-to-day. You can see in her work how much she loves doing it. That’s what I want to be.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
There isn’t one, really. It’s not like a job where you get promoted or become a senior illustrator. The progression comes through people listening to you a bit more. Now I don’t feel as scared to voice my opinion versus when I first graduated.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Be responsive to the world around you, constantly be looking at things and be interested. Stay open to things, but also be brave enough to say no.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Rose Blake
Mention David Hockney
Mention Tate Publishing
Mention Rebecca Hossack Gallery
Mention Central Illustration Agency
Mention Bernstein and Andriulli
Mention Matt Dorfman
Mention The New York Times
Mention Association of Illustrators
Mention Rose Wylie