“Think like a business owner, not just a guy who draws”: Bristol-based illustrator Tommy Parker
As a kid, illustrator Tommy Parker’s weekends mainly consisted of staying inside and sketching superheroes. Today, things aren’t much different. Working from shared space Redbrick House, the Bristol-based illustrator even likens his relationship with his agent (Synergy Art) to that of Iron Man’s Tony Stark and his AI system, J.A.R.V.I.S. “I’m no role model though,” he admits, “I occasionally bugger it up.” Although relatively new to the freelance game (Tommy previously juggled part-time work with a full-time job), he has been able to master skills in both marketing and coding alongside working on cool, quick briefs for clients like Wired, GQ and the Financial Times. From knowing when to stick to your strengths to being able to manage yourself as a business, Tommy has already reaped a wealth of industry insight.
BA Illustration, Plymouth University (2011-2014)
Financial Times, GQ, Wired, The Times, Inc., Mr Porter, New Scientist, Variety, Runner’s World, easyJet, Monocle
How would you describe what you do?
As an illustrator, I would say my work is generally quite playful and very character-driven, often incorporating bold colours and some rough edges to add quirkiness to the final product. The majority of my clients are editorial, meaning I get to work on loads of cool, quick briefs whilst reading a variety of articles! Usually, they are after something on the light-hearted side of the spectrum, which is great – life’s too short to take too seriously.
What does a typical working day look like?
My day will often vary depending on how much work I have on. Generally, I’ll get to my desk around 9ish, have some breakfast and then get cracking. I’ll then usually start off with some admin tasks, such as emailing art directors and sorting out my schedule in Cushion. After that, I try and keep my days focused on a single project.
I find it tricky and unproductive to be working on more than one job at a time. If I have some roughs or writing to do, I try to get away from the desk and work somewhere else. Either upstairs in the social area of my building or in a cafe down the road, to keep things fresh and different. I have a tendency to get bored quite quickly and don’t like to stick around in the same spot for too long. I’ll then round off the day around five, making sure I haven’t missed any important emails and keeping tabs on what’s left to do. If it’s a busy week, I’ll wake up just before six, head to a cafe in town, and work on some bits before my co-working space opens.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I currently spend most of my work time at a co-working space called Redbrick House. Occasionally, I’ll work from home but I try to keep my work and home life separate as much as possible.
“There’s this unspoken rule that illustrators are, more often than not, needed to work overtime to get a job done.”
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Almost all my work comes through my representatives, Synergy, which is great because it takes a huge weight off my shoulders. They get me jobs I wouldn’t have dreamt of if, I was going solo. I occasionally get the odd job from an existing client (someone I worked with before via Synergy) but they aren’t very common and often need a lot more admin time.
How collaborative is your work?
Not as much as I’d like, sadly. At least on a face-to-face level. It’d be brilliant to have an art director or designer sit beside me to bounce ideas off but in the real world, it’s not like that. I’ll come up with a few ideas, email them over to the client, get some feedback and/or sign off, and then draw up a finalised illustration. It’s a simple process, and it works, so I can’t complain.
I also talk a lot with Luke, my agent from Synergy, which is fairly collaborative. We discuss current and potential projects, contracts and invoices, as well as good places to eat in Bristol. I swear we’re like Tony Stark and J.A.R.V.I.S. some days; we’re that in sync.
What are the least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Having to work weekends and evenings can be a bummer. There’s this unspoken rule that illustrators are, more often than not, needed to work overtime to get a job done. I’ve had more than my fair share of clients sending over a brief on Friday morning and needing a finished illustration by Monday. I’m pretty used to it and will take time off during the week if I need it, but it doesn’t play well with a social life.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
That’s a tough one. It’d have to be a job I’m probably not allowed to tell you about. All I can say is that it was working with an animator and an animation agency to produce some style frames for an advert pitch. I don’t think we got the job but it was such a nice change of pace compared to the usual magazine work. I also really enjoyed illustrating the yoga series for Mr Porter. It wasn’t anything ground-breaking but it was a lot of fun just drawing figures in odd poses. I’m a man of simple tastes.
What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to manage my time has been an important skill to have. I know it’s quite generic but if you can’t see when you’ll fit work in on a busy week then you’re going to struggle. I’m no role model though – I occasionally bugger it up. Additionally, learning to think logically as well as creatively is crucial. Illustration is my job, one that I manage on my own, so I think being able to think like a business owner and not just a guy who draws is important. Finding the balance is tough some days, especially when it comes to filing my tax return and all I want to do is draw some colourful characters.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Not yet. I have a list of projects and products I want to work on but finding the time is hard at the moment. Looping animations, infographic posters, and making some pins are all on the to-do list. I’m relatively new to the full-time freelance gig, having started doing it as my only job in July, so I feel pressured to make sure I have dollar coming in. Saying ‘no’ to client jobs (both existing and new) can be hard too – I just need to be more assertive and save some time for myself. I try and blog once a month, aiming my content at students and new creatives, in the hope that I can help in some way. I’m a terrible writer so everyone is learning!
“Finding the balance is tough some days, especially when it comes to filing my tax return and all I want to do is draw some colourful characters.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
I mostly use my iPad Pro and MacBook Pro for my illustration work. I’ll occasionally get to draw in a traditional medium, but all my client work is digital. This makes the process a lot easier when the inevitable amends come in. For sketching out ideas, I enjoy using a Moleskine sketchbook and a mix of pens and pencils. This just makes the conceptual stage less precious and more natural.
As for freelancing apps, my favourites have to be the following: Cushion – scheduling, invoicing, tracking time, budgets. It has everything I need, and does it well! Astropad – integral to my process, this app lets me plug my iPad into my MacBook and use it to draw into Photoshop. Kind of like a mirrored display. Fantastical – a nice calendar app. I use it to basically see what my life is doing and when. The default calendar apps are always a bit dull. Spark – a smart email app. Again, the default app for Mac is terrible, and the in-browser Gmail inbox isn’t enjoyable to use at all so I was overjoyed to find this well-designed piece of kit.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An animator! Watching great shows like Wallace and Gromit, Batman: The Animated Series and, very specifically, the behind-the-scenes of Ice Age had a big impact on what I wanted to do and make. The dream job would have been working at Aardman making models, but that never came to fruition after they declined my work experience request in Year 10…
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I’ve always had the urge to draw. When I was younger, instead of going out and playing football like most boys, I’d prefer staying inside sketching made up superheroes or creating my own Pokémon. I’d sometimes try and coax my brother into it but he never got the same thrill as me. It was a natural choice for me to stick to a creative career but also finding one that could pay the bills was important, so I landed upon illustration and went from there.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Luckily, my degree went to good use and helped me prepare for an illustration career. The professional practice module definitely helped the most, laying the groundwork for everything I do today. Emailing professionals, working on live briefs and getting to grips with the day-to-day admin.
What were your first jobs?
When I left university, I applied for a junior art direction role at a ‘customer engagement agency’ (these guys loved their buzzwords) with over a hundred employees. Went to an interview, showed them my stuff, didn’t get the job but somehow managed to get a junior designer role instead. It was ok. The people were lovely, I learned some cool design stuff but the work was a bit soul destroying.
After a year of working there, I moved on to work as a digital designer at Atomic Smash, this time as an employee of four people. Here, I really felt like part of a team, contributing meaningful suggestions and ideas to benefit the company. I was in this role for almost two years, gaining a much better understanding of how a business worked as a whole from sitting in kick-off meetings, creating wireframes, designing sites, and getting to know the clients and their needs. It was great and if my illustration career never kicked off, I would happily still be there.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
I owe a lot to Alan Smith, from WithPrint. Not only did he teach me a huge amount about printing and modern processes back at university, but he also later commissioned me to make a series of promotional posters that he sent out to a large selection of agencies. This was a big deal at the time as I’d never been exposed to so many creative businesses in one hit and it really helped break the ice with loads of them.
And, of course, I owe a lot to my tutor Ashley Potter. Not only did he teach me a lot about the industry but he also helped me land a couple jobs after leaving by putting my name forward to various clients. Through him, I worked with the National Marine Aquarium creating an illustrated map of their interior, and also drawing a three metre wide mural of Marie Curie at UTC Plymouth.
“It was a natural choice to stick to a creative career but also finding one that could pay the bills was important, so I landed upon illustration and went from there.”
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Back in March I did a cover job for Dossier, an in-flight magazine for United Airlines, which served as a nice reminder to stick to my strengths. They’d done a bunch of work with Bratislav Milenkovic (amazing illustrator by the way) and decided to try me out. After seeing all the brilliant work he’d done for them, I felt obliged to stick to his format and create something that mildly resembled previous covers. It came out ok and the client was happy with it but I felt like I’d done a pretty poor job in comparison to Milenkovic. Luckily, it wasn’t printed as the passenger beating incident was still a hot topic and I got another chance to do a cover with them in June. Learning from my previous mistakes, this second cover came out so much better and resulted in a stream of travel magazine work.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Marketing my work has been a tricky skill but I’m gradually getting the hang of it all. It’s a fairly competitive industry so staying active online is a pretty important aspect of the business. My Instagram account is probably my main output to keep others in the loop with my work whilst I use Twitter for mostly networking and chatting with other creatives. I think the days of taking a physical portfolio to the art director are coming to a close, as more commissioning professionals check social media to find their favourite illustrators. Luckily, the guys at Synergy also do a bunch of marketing for me, which I’m truly grateful for.
Coding was another skill I unintentionally picked up, which has helped greatly. Today, I find there are a lot of online portfolios that all look very similar, but obviously that’s because everyone is using a theme of some sort and illustrators don’t need to know how to develop. But since I’ve worked as a digital designer for the past few years at previous jobs, I can really personalise my site and stick out from the crowd (at least I think I can), creating a unique place to show my work. I’m obviously not the best designer or developer, but knowing the basics has really taken my ‘brand’ a step further.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
It has to be delivering over 200 characters for Modus. That cover nearly killed me but it was a very exciting challenge. I’d never done any more than 10 characters in a single illustration, let alone 200. I’d asked a few illustrators for advice on drawing that many people such as Josh Cochran and Hannah Warren. They were suggesting doing duplicates and changing the colours but I wanted to be a purist and do it the proper way (I was an idiot!). It was worth it though. There are a few copies in there but most of the characters are unique. Would I do it again? Probably not. The glorious thing about all these jobs is that you learn what you want and don’t want to draw in the future.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes and no. I still really enjoy it and love being my own boss – exactly how I thought it would be. But after doing it part-time for over two years whilst juggling a full-time job, I thought I’d have more free time but I swear I have even less!
What would you like to do next?
I’d love to move house and have my own studio space right now. A desk at a co-working space doesn’t quite cut it for me so that’s my current endeavour. I’m also keen to do more with my free time now that I only have the one job to worry about. I’ve spent far too many days in the past couple of years focusing solely on work and not giving myself enough room to pursue as many hobbies and side projects as I’d like.
Could you do this job forever?
That’s tough to say since I’ve only been doing it full-time for a few months now but probably not. I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with the quick turnaround times some of the commissions have. Can anyone keep this up forever?!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’m not quite sure. I think the natural route – at least commercially – is to go into an art direction route or form an agency. I do like the idea of commissioning illustration for a publication, and getting more hands-on with design, so maybe I’ll explore that in a bit more depth. Alternatively, I like the idea of doing more lecturing. I currently help out with the illustration course at Plymouth University, assisting in the professional practice module. As well as being a rewarding job, I get a real surge of energy seeing fresh-faced creatives getting pumped to make awesome work.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get to become an illustrator?
My biggest piece of advice would be to keep at it. The toughest part is persisting at a snail’s pace before it really gets going. I’ve spent many evenings trying to do some self-initiated projects in the hopes that it would lead to client work. I juggled full-time work with a butt-load of freelance jobs so I could grow my client base without losing out on regular income. It’s easy to throw in the towel but resist that urge, and eventually the work will come. Maybe I’ll try Aardman again. I’ve got some GCSEs this time…
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Tommy Parker