Illustrator and GIF maker Ellie Foster has carved out her own career path by carefully choosing clients, creating empowering work that makes a difference, and living life on her own terms. We caught up with her to hear how she achieved it.
To mangle a famous quote, the course of a creative's career never did run smooth. Each one moves at a different speed, with growth, achievements and moments of self-realisation occurring at their own pace. For Ellie Foster, the decision to follow a creative passion came after years of working as a flight attendant. It was an urge that paid off as now she's appearing in the pages of Stylist magazine and winning competitions like the Bedhead Be Bold campaign.
But perhaps one of the most impressive and admirable qualities of Ellie's career is that she's doing it on her own terms. By living on a houseboat that roams through London's canals, she can live life and work at a speed that suits her, as well as create illustrations in a sustainable, eco-friendly way. We chat with Ellie to learn more about her work, the benefits of aiming big, and how to go freelance like her if you're thinking of taking the leap.
Tell us about your background as an artist. Was it something you always wanted to do?
I've always drawn and felt it was where I was meant to be, but I didn't do it professionally for years after graduating in Animation Design. I didn't enjoy the course, so I left university feeling a little lost. I bagged a job as a long-haul flight attendant and just had a blast jetting around for a few years! Eventually, the pull to be in some way creative became too strong, and I left aviation to figure something out.
I tried my hand at a few things, I built wedding props and styled events with my partner for a year before wandering into freelance graphic design, which I didn't mind, but I didn't feel like I was exceptional at. A job came up at a media brand for an in-house Illustrator, and I went for it even though I had only illustrated for fun all these years. I got the job and finally felt like I was doing what I loved! Now I can't imagine ever doing anything but drawing all day.
Who are your biggest artistic inspirations, and why?
I've always loved how Rik Lee and Laura Callaghan capture so much personality and attitude in their characters. Rik's have such a beautiful vulnerability to me, and somehow Laura shows these ugly emotions in a way that looks so gorgeous! I'm also obsessed with how Shawna X portrays the power of motherhood so colourfully. Her work gives me a taste of the psychedelic trip I'm too afraid to actually make!
How would you describe your style?
A tricky one because I feel it's going through a transition right now! Not long ago, I would have said it was defined by clean lines, bright block colours and the use of typography to reinforce a message, but I've been using more natural feeling brushes and shading recently and working in super detail rather than using text, so the message is more open to interpretation; it's becoming a little softer. Either way, I'd say my work is feminine, bold and empowering.
You live in a houseboat, which sounds very fun! Do you work from there?
Yes, I live aboard with my husband, dog and toddler and work there too! It's hard to say whether I'd recommend it because it really depends on the person you're talking to; it's not for everyone for sure. It can be very physical, especially as we don't have a home mooring, so we live off-grid. In the winter especially, that can mean a lot of heavy lifting and operating locks and the boat itself in bad weather.
It's a different life altogether in the summer when of course, we all want to be outside anyway! Cruising around and being able to choose where we moor is so special through the sunny months. A highlight of working off-grid is knowing that most of the energy that powers my devices comes from the sun since, like most houseboats, we have solar panels fitted to the roof. I find it weirdly satisfying completing an illustration and knowing it was a solar-powered piece!
How do you choose which projects and work you want to get involved with?
It's important for me to be part of sharing meaningful stories or powerful messages, so I tend to gravitate towards projects that offer that. Illustrating for books and articles is almost always a yes for me. Novels bring so much joy, and I see their covers as a big part of their overall enjoyment, and articles feel important to me in keeping us talking about important issues and information, and it's amazing to be part of both of those things.
When it comes to commercial projects, I want to work with brands who are making every effort to minimise their impact on the environment, at the very least, even better if they are leaders in their field of sustainability. Authenticity is important to me, too. I can only get excited about a campaign that feels sincere, genuine inclusive and doesn't capitalise on anyone's insecurities.
You say you chose a slower pace of life by living on your canal boat. How has this affected your work?
I actually moved onto the canals before becoming a professional illustrator! Maybe the pace of life by water has always influenced my work. Being in London, a sensory overload in itself, as well as using social media daily, can all feel very loud and encourage creatives to add to that noise as quickly as possible. I feel like even in one of the busiest cities on earth, the canals are a little world of their own. You can step off the street to still water, animal habitats and an off-grid village that shuffles every few days.
Boaters tend to be happy to lend a hand, often cooking or doing odd jobs for one another, and the off-grid element means more manual work that makes you appreciate what you have. Being close to nature in a big city is a unique way to observe the bustle in a slightly detached way, and I think that encourages me not to rush when I illustrate or feel too much urgency to come up with ideas too.
Tell us some more about the competition you won with Bedhead x Stylist Magazine
Targeted ads really did their job by showing me a competition calling all creatives to make a piece inspired by one of their products. It doesn't always happen this way for me, but as soon as I read 'Curls Rock', the idea came to mind of a rock club bathroom, with the coolest women I could imagine doing their hair and hyping each other up. The concept had lots of room for subtle product placement, and details that linked with the brief, like band posters and merch tees, which I'm sure worked in my favour.
Winning the competition meant the piece was projected on iconic buildings around London for a night, and I was featured in Stylist Magazine, as well as a cash prize that funded an equipment upgrade. Maybe even more powerful than the prize itself was the change in mindset I took from it. I learned that if you have an idea you feel good about, no matter how big the brand you're approaching or how slim your odds are, it's always worth a shot! If it doesn't work out, you have a live brief for your portfolio, and that's a win in itself.
I want to work with brands who are making every effort to minimise their impact on the environment, at the very least, even better if they are leaders in their field of sustainability. Authenticity is important to me, too.
You've gone from in-house to working freelance. What made you take the leap?
I had already started feeling a little stuck in the in-house style and formats. I'm sure that's often the case for many creatives working in one way for too long. We created data-driven content, which is, of course, very effective for improving engagement but can feel stifling for the creators themselves over time.
When I stepped back to have a baby, my priorities shifted and what I found interesting and inspiring evolved. I was in awe of what our bodies are capable of. I felt forever changed by birth and wanted to explore what that meant creatively. I dipped my toe into freelancing while on maternity leave and was encouraged enough by those first few projects to jump in!
What advice would you give to other artists looking to go freelance?
Something that seems obvious to me now but surprised me at first is how necessary self-promotion is. It can take up a lot of your time. As someone who loves how solitary and introspective illustrating is, I wasn't prepared for how much you have to talk about yourself and what you do! I had guessed that my work would speak for itself and attract the projects I wanted if I kept creating and putting it out there, but I soon realised clients had no idea who I was or that my Instagram and website even existed, so how would they ever see that work? Nobody was out there broadcasting what I'd done for me to the relevant art directors and agencies. I'd have to do it myself.
Also, consider the kind of projects you'd like to work on and try to target those when creating personal work. Resist the urge to create randomly if time is limited, and try to think ahead about how an idea works as part of the portfolio you'll share with potential clients. You don't need to show them a huge body of work. It just needs to feel fairly consistent visually and give an idea of who you are. Carve out time for 'bigger picture' stuff like this when easing into freelancing. For me, that's a day each week of updating my website, looking into brands I want to work with, places I'd like to be featured (oh, hi, Creative Boom!), and just considering new ways to put myself out there in general. This time is important and just as valuable as billed work, so try not to accept projects that don't pay well enough that you can afford them. If we're constantly busy with client work, we never get to think about what we really want and could lose direction.
Finally, I challenge myself to do something that makes me almost cringe at myself on each of those 'bigger picture' days because, for every bunch of 'who do I think I am approaching these people!?' moments, one of them could pay off, you could get hired for your dream gig!
You say your work is like an illustrated hug for new mothers. What are you providing through your illustrations which you wish you had when you were a new mother?
Birth and new motherhood were so far from what I expected, and I'm sure giving birth in lockdown is a big part of that. I went from recovering alone in hospital to not being able to have guests or share our new baby with loved ones. In some ways, it was a very lonely time, but in others, I felt it allowed me to find my feet as a mother without different people's advice influencing all my decisions. Her dad and I fully leaned into our baby's need to be held and breastfed around the clock, and I learned to enjoy not feeling any social pressure to go to all the groups and sessions I thought I would; it felt very primal.
As time has passed and the world has become busy again, I've seen my friends who had their first babies after me under pressure to separate before they are ready: returning to the office, weekends away, family members asking to have the baby stay. There seems to be less time available to appreciate the magic our bodies have worked to grow, birth and feed a new life, and heal and nurture.
The work I do around motherhood is me trying to depict the power of our bodies and to send solidarity to new mothers who may be in the thick of the explosive nappies and leaky boobs of the first weeks. Who may be dealing with conflict between their instincts to give their new babies endless love and comfort and society's message to detach and encourage independence. I want to tell them through art that it's ok, that their instincts matter, and that I think they are pure magic.
What exciting projects are you working on at the minute?
I'm just wrapping up illustrating a fiction book cover right now. It's something I've always wanted to do, and it was a really enjoyable project. It's a series of love stories for young adults, so the subject was really sweet to draw. I'll definitely be looking out for more fiction covers!