“See your failures as learning curves” – Brighton-based artist and illustrator Stephanie Unger
While securing clients and learning the ropes of business have been major lessons for artist and illustrator Stephanie Unger, she says that her biggest learning curve has been to believe in herself more; “I felt like not getting a creative job straight after uni meant that I’d failed.” But fast-forward three years, through living with her parents and taking on side jobs, and Stephanie has found her freelancing feet, creating bright and characterful work for clients such as Lush, Refinery 29, JumpFromPaper and Deliveroo. From designing for fashion and music to mural painting, her job has already taken her places she never thought possible as an illustrator, and a recent move to Brighton has only opened more doors. She tells us why she chose to move away from London, what part Instagram has played in her development and why patience is so important when you’re just starting out.
Artist and Illustrator
Prop Maker for ‘Don't Hug Me I’m Scared’ (2014-2015)
Technician, Print Club London (2015–2016)
BA Illustration and Animation, Kingston University (2010–2014)
Lush, Giles Peterson WorldWide, Grindr, Refinery 29, JumpFromPaper, Deliveroo
How would you describe what you do?
I am a freelance artist and illustrator. My work has crossed over into different fields such as fashion, music, branding, advertising and editorial. Primarily I make work I am passionate about and hope people will like it, I think it's been working so far!
What does a typical working day look like?
I work from home, where I am lucky enough to have my own studio space now. For years I spent my time drawing on my bed or sofa at my parents house!
I normally wake up at around 7 or 8am and start off with a coffee. I've never been the best at strict routines. My working hours normally depend on how I feel that day. Sometimes I start work around 9am, but sometimes I just won't be in the mood to work that morning, so I'll start at midday and work into the evening. It just depends how I’m feeling.
I usually spend the first hour checking and replying to emails, and that’s often the only time I spend in front of a screen. Then I’ll draw for the rest of the day, unless I’m editing or finalising my illustrations, when I’ll be at the computer all day.
“I’ve lived in London my whole life... I realised I didn’t need to be there as a freelance illustrator.”
What do you like about working in the part of the UK you’re based in?
I only moved to Brighton this year, and it’s been fantastic. I’m from London and I’ve lived there my whole life. I spent a long time looking for a place to live, where I’d have enough space to do my work, but had no luck.
People say that Brighton is just as expensive as London – which is true to some degree – but you definitely get more for your money. I realised I didn’t need to be in London as a freelance illustrator, so it worked out perfectly, and it only takes an hour to get into London.
The creative scene here is great too. I recently had a table at Brighton Illustration Fair, and met loads of lovely local artists. David Shrigley recently made the move here, and there is talk of Leonardo Dicaprio moving here! Plus, everything is within walking distance, so no more getting the tube.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I believe most of my clients find my work through my Instagram and then contact me via email. Instagram has been a pivotal part of my career. It has opened my eyes to loads of amazing artists and allowed so many people to discover my work, which I’m very grateful for.
I used to send out loads of emails to various companies, trying to find work and very rarely got a reply. I’ve found the most effective way to get jobs has actually been to focus on my personal work and to just keep posting it on my social networks to keep people updated.
How collaborative is your work?
I love collaborating and I really want to do more of it! Collaboration has allowed me to see my work cross over into different creative fields, such as fashion and music. It allows me to push my work in ways that I wouldn’t be able to achieve on my own. I have yet to collaborate with an animator, but that is something I would love to do.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect of the job is the same as it’s always been since I was a kid; creating work and the feeling when you finish a piece of work you’re really happy with. The least enjoyable aspect is probably when I’m in between jobs; when no one has emailed me for work and I sit there, reflect and feel like a failure of an artist!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Collaborating with Jump From Paper [a Taipei-based fashion accessory brand]. I’ve always loved the idea of my work being involved in fashion and they sent me two blank versions of their bags to draw all over, and and I literally went mad with them; it was a very satisfying job. The project was for an all-female exhibition they have planned, which is definitely something we need more of.
“The most effective way to get jobs has been to focus on my personal work and keep posting it on my social networks.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Drawing, and using Photoshop for cleaning up and finalising work.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
My mind is always on what I want to next with my personal work. At the moment I’m obsessed with making my work into products. I want to make my sketchbook pages into a zine and I also want to create more T-shirts for my own shop. All the designs I’ve done in the past have been for other people, so I’d really like to get some made and sell them myself. Also, patches are always a good idea!
What tools do you use most for your work?
I love Posca Pens, literally they’re all I use. They’re a great way to quickly get down bold, block colours, with no need for a water pot or paint palette.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I've always loved drawing, but for a brief period, when I was 8, I wanted to be a vet… Then I returned to drawing.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I wouldn't be doing what I am doing today without my sister Catherine Unger. We helped motivate each other to keep drawing throughout childhood and our teens. We went through a massive stage of creating our own comics and showing each other. Sometimes they’d end up being an inch thick! Now we both have our own creative careers, but we still help each other out. It’s the best thing to have grown up so closely to someone who is into the same thing as you.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying illustration at university was great; it allowed me to meet amazing people with the same interests as me. It really took me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to different ways of approaching projects and situations. I wouldn’t have learnt these if I’d just gone straight into freelancing. For me personally, they were also some of my hardest years. I left pretty thick-skinned, which has helped me be more confident in the type of art I want to produce.
What were your first jobs?
One of my first creative jobs was prop-making for the web series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. This was a really fun experience. Becky and Joe, the directors of the series, were the loveliest people and it was amazing to see them turning their own vision into a reality. Seeing that drove me to push my own vision and make it into my career.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
My parents. They let me live in their house for ages while I had no money and was trying to establish myself. They don’t really get what I’m doing, but not once did they pressure me to get a job and move out. I’m really lucky to have them.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I think every time I do a different project I learn something new and grow as an artist. I do think having a good balance between personal and commercial projects has been really important. They both inform each other and help with the development of my work.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
The most important skill I have learnt is how to be my own business. I've never been part of an agency so I've had to deal with all areas of my job, whether it’s communicating with clients, setting up an online shop or keeping up my online presence. This is something you only really get better at through experience, and I still have a lot to learn.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been learning to believe in myself. There was a long period in my life where I felt absolutely awful about myself and my work. I almost accepted that I would never have a creative job because I simply wasn't good enough. I spent too much time caring about other people's tastes and opinions. Eventually I stopped creating work to make other people happy, and instead produced work for myself.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
It’s so much better! I used to think illustration was mainly editorial work, but I have realised the possibilities are endless. I had a fear of doing the same stuff over and over again, but every project I do is so different. One day I might be asked to design a magazine spread and the next I’ll be preparing a giant mural. I love it.
What would you like to do next?
There are actually too many things I’d love to do next! I really want to explore fashion a lot more and I'd love to have my work animated. At some point I’d like to publish my own book and have a solo exhibition yet, which I’d be incredibly excited about.
Could you do this job forever?
Definitely. I don’t know what I’d be doing otherwise! I want to keep pushing my work to the limits, and see where it takes me.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I think everyone just wants to get better at the work their producing. I’m most competitive with myself; I'm constantly striving to out do my previous work.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator and artist?
I am still learning, growing and making things up as I go, but this is the advice I’d give based on my own journey: Never give up! No matter how tough it gets, how many different side jobs you go through, or how many doors get slammed in your face.
See your failures as learning curves – they are there to help you get better and stronger. Try not to compare yourself to others and their successes too much. Everyone works at different paces, and it’s not a race. I used to be so embarrassed when I told people I was working at the pub, because everyone I knew was doing really amazing creative things. I felt like the fact that I didn’t get a creative job straight after uni meant that I’d failed. But be patient. Keep doing what you love and eventually opportunities will come your way.
Don’t think too much about the future and live your dream job now! It’s easy to make the mistake of always keeping your goals in the future and never getting around to pursuing them. You have everything you need to be the artist you want to be, you don’t need the validation of a client job.
Interview by Indi Davies
Mention Stephanie Unger
Mention Becky and Joe