Emmeline Pidgen on building a successful freelance business, making mistakes and being a part-time movie star

in Features / Interviews

Emmeline Pidgen is an award-winning illustrator, specialising in the creation of picture books, comics, advertising and editorial illustration from her studio in the North West of England.

Since graduating from University College Falmouth's BA (Hons) Illustration degree, Emmeline has worked with clients including Tesco, Egmont Publishing and Thought Bubble Comics Festival, alongside being featured in publications including The Guardian, Stylist Magazine and The Telegraph.

Last year, Emmeline won the 2016 IPSE Freelancer of the Year Award. Now in its ninth year, the event celebrates the best of independent enterprises, and if you're a small business owner there's still time to enter the 2017 awards here.

Aside from all this success, the artist also finds the time to undertake extras work on Hollywood films. With such a rich and intriguing career, we were keen to catch up with Emmeline over a brew. Here's what she had to say.

You were the winner of the 2016 IPSE Freelancer of the Year Award. What does it take to make it as a successful freelancer?

"I think (aside from a lot of hard work) the key is determination. Freelancing can so often feel like the industry of rejection, and you have to learn how to navigate those pit-falls and build from your experiences to get where you want to in your career. It takes a lot of bravery to break out on your own as a freelancer in the first place, but it’s that core determination and passion for making a living doing what you love that really pushes you forward."

What have you found most challenging about running your own business? How have you overcome this?

"I’ve written a lot about the loneliness side of freelancing, and I think that will always be one of the most challenging aspects of the job. Obviously, there’s that literal isolation of working by yourself, without colleagues to chat with; but what I often find the hardest is the fact that I’m solely responsible for every single role in my business; my earnings; the opportunities I create, find or miss…it can sometimes feel like there’s a lot of pressure to be completely 'on it' at all times, a fear of missing out on a dream opportunity, and it takes a conscious effort to be like 'okay, I’m allowed this time off'.

"Studio-wise, I like to curb feelings of loneliness by getting out and working in different locations: be it hot-desking in Manchester, or meetings in London – as well as mingling with other businesses and illustrators online and at meet-ups. I think it’s really important to spend time with other freelancers – it’s so useful to share experiences and tips with those in the same boat as you."

Any tools or resources you couldn't live without?

"Right now I’m using my Wacom Bamboo tablet with Adobe Photoshop for almost all of my work; but I’m also a huge fan of using Pentel ink brush pens for linework, as well as painting in watercolour when I want a bit of time off-screen. I realised a long time ago that I have a bit of an unstoppable urge to draw, so I’ll usually manage to find something I can sketch with."

If you could sit down with the Prime Minister, what would you ask to be improved for small businesses?

"Well, that would definitely be an interesting conversation...I’ve always been passionate about fighting for the rights of freelancers, and in particular creative freelancers, after seeing first-hand the murkier side of freelancing in the creative industries: from eye-roll-worthy stereotyping (honestly, I’ve had everything from ‘get a real job’ to ‘you just draw teddy-bears all day, right?’), to the more serious detrimental effects – things like late payments and free work requests, can have.

"There’s so much that could be done; I think that rather than just asking for it to suddenly change from the top down, we, as freelancers, need to be out there educating our peers that, y’know, maybe we shouldn’t be spending our time working for that big company for free, or maybe we shouldn’t enter that spec-work competition, but instead work on our own portfolios and let those companies know that those practices aren’t healthy for our industry, and we need to be treated fairly. I’ve seen a lot of great steps forward recently in terms of pushing for more support for freelancers with issues like late payments and parental leave, and that’s something I’m definitely going to continue to fight for."

The number of freelancers in London has increased by 59 per cent since 2008. Why do you think that is?

"I think a lot of it is down to the growth of the Internet and social media – everything’s so accessible now: our own marketing, audience building, resources, tutorials, portfolio sites, online shops, forums…there’s never been a time where we’ve had such opportunity to connect with and learn from so many people worldwide; so I think it’s natural that it would encourage and inspire so many people to take the leap into freelancing."

This week, we've celebrated International Women's Day. Are you the first woman in your family to become an entrepreneur? How do you compare to the women in your family?

"To be honest, I’d never thought of it before – but yes I am! I grew up in a really creative household, and I’ve always been supported in following my ambitions – my mum in particular is really talented in working with embroidery and textiles, but as more of a hobby than a career. I’ve been encouraging her to open an Etsy shop selling her gorgeous textiles and found-ceramic jewellery!"

What advice would you give to those thinking about becoming a freelancer?

"I think it’s important to consider each step in your career as a learning experience – no-one’s going to get everything perfect and be everything they want first time - there’s space to make mistakes, and a lot of support out there to back you up! As your career develops remember to take stock of how far you’ve come, and continue to grow from there."

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us

"Occasionally, when I have a bit of time between projects, I take on extras work for TV and film! The beauty of freelancing is a flexible schedule, so it’s been great for me to take the opportunity to jump into something unusual, shake-up my work day, and have a bit of fun. The biggest feature I’ve been in was ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’, which was an amazing experience, but unfortunately our whole scene was cut from the final film! I’ll be keeping an eye out in the extended edition, haha!"

What's bugging you at the moment?

"I mentioned this before, but I’ve seen so many competitions popping up from big brands asking for illustrators to submit bespoke work for the chance to win exposure and/or a pitiful cash prize. It’s disheartening to see literally hundreds of illustrators pouring their time into creating work for these entries, then the companies (who can almost always definitely afford to pay a fair wage) having their pick of a huge spread of spec-work for a single, minimal payment (if that). Sure, competitions create buzz, but it’s far healthier for the industry for clients to either straight up commission an illustrator they like, or to only request pre-existing portfolio work to judge on."

What has changed in your industry since you went solo? For better?

"I feel like recently, especially in advertising and publishing, there are a lot more companies willing to take creative risks with illustration, and to put out books or campaigns etc, which are a little unusual and don’t necessarily fit into a formulaic ‘this-will-sell’ niche. It’s great to see crowd-funding sites giving creators a platform to explore and embrace unusual projects as well; it’s an exciting time!"

And for worse?

"On the downside, there are just so many platforms and social media sites out there now that it can feel a little overwhelming to try to keep on top of them all. There’s such a sea of creative people, which of course is a brilliant thing, but so many creatives find it hard to feel they’re making a real impact."

What has been the most effective form of marketing for you? How do clients find you?

"Social media has been amazing for me – particularly Twitter. As illustration is so (obviously) visual, it lends itself really well to platforms where you can instantly share what you’re working on; and I’ve found there’s a great creative industries niche there too.

"I love supporting my social media posts with my blog to give a more in-depth look at my work (live drawing videos, process posts etc), as well as advice for up-and-coming freelancers and creatives. I’ve actually had a lot of my biggest commissions and opportunities come from clients finding my work on social media, or through my blog."

What projects are you currently working on? What can we expect next?

"I’m currently working on the storyboards for my first author-illustrated picture book! I’m incredibly excited about it, and it’s great to be working on something I’m so passionate about. I’ve also got two brand new comics in the works; so it’s a really exciting, creative time for me – I can’t wait to share them!"

Discover more of Emmeline's work at emmelineillustration.com / etsy.com, and follow her on Instagram @emmelinedraws.

Close