Illustrator Lizzy Stewart on freelancing, loving London and finding inspiration in the most unlikely places

Lizzy Stewart is an illustrator and artist based in London who has been freelancing ever since she graduated 10 years ago.

After picking up her degree in Illustration from the Edinburgh College of Art, Lizzy immediately started working for clients and has come to specialise in children's picture books. She has, in fact, written and illustrated two of her own books – Juniper Jupiter and There's a Tiger in the Garden – as well as countless comics and zines.

When she isn't working from her London studio, she teaches Illustration at Goldsmiths University and has taught courses at Tate and on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery. We spoke to Lizzy about freelancing, children's books and living in the capital.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an illustrator? What set you on your chosen career path?

I wanted to be a painter. I went to university to study Fine Art but something didn’t click. I was good at painting and I really enjoyed it but the course I was on didn’t work for me and it certainly didn’t make me happy.

What did make me happy, however, was doing drawings and comics based on books I’d read or songs I liked. The work I made when I wasn’t at university, the work I made for fun, was illustrative. So I switched to an illustration course and everything fell into place.

It makes perfect sense now, I’ve always written stories and enjoyed narrative in many forms so it's fitting that I ended up pursuing narrative picture-making. I wonder what would have happened if I had stuck with Fine Art though.

You work for yourself. How is that going?

Ha, that question could really provoke some serious self-analysis! I think, to all intents and purposes, it's going quite well. If I think about the fact that I’ve never had another job besides drawing and that I am able to make a living without too much worry (which wasn’t always the case, I can assure you) it seems pretty miraculous.

It's genuinely unexpected. But there are times when you feel mad or exhausted or as though maintaining every aspect of your business is too difficult and sometimes you wonder if it's a sensible way to live!

Have you always freelanced?

Yep. I’ve never been employed (beyond a couple of part-time things as a student). I have no useful skills; especially none you could monetise so it really was pretty important that I made this work!

It's been 10 years. What has surprised you about running a business? Good and bad?

It still surprises me that other businesses think that illustrators should work for free. I think, perhaps, there is an assumption that because of the "passion" you must feel for drawing, in order to make it your career, that you should just be grateful to be doing it. I get a lot of emails that amount to "we have no budget for this but we think it could be a brilliant project".

It makes me rage. Yes, I love my job, but I also love having a home and food and clothing. The person sending the email, I’m sure, wouldn’t deign to work for no wage. So why should we? It's insulting and patronising and it's exhausting that freelancers have to spend so long explaining that.

Similarly, it surprises me that clients are so bad at paying on time. I think it's a pitfall of the Internet that whole projects can happen without a client (or indeed the illustrator) having to acknowledge the humanity the person they’re working with.

Work just appears in your inbox. Like magic. But the illustrator is a human being and that human being needs to pay their rent on time in order to not be homeless. Lots of clients stall on payment for months. Money that you think you have coming takes an age to materialise and it can really have a detrimental effect on your health and sanity.

It's not all bad though! Honest. I am constantly surprised by the kindness of some of my clients. It's genuinely buoying and reassuring to get an email response from an editor who likes the work you’ve done.

I’m surprised by how well illustrators look after each other. Yes, we like to moan but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many professions where everyone is so willing to celebrate the work of their peers. There’s a surprising lack of ruthlessness or competition.

Any favourite projects you care to mention? Why do you love them?

I really enjoyed working on ‘Meet the artists: J.M.W Turner’ for Tate Publishing. It's a children’s activity book based on the work of Turner and it was such a completely different kind of challenge. Rather than illustrating a story, I had to think about creating space for children to work in.

It involved more design thinking than I’m used to and I really enjoyed that. The other two books in the series are by Rose Blake and Nick White, so I had complete and utter brilliance to live up to! No pressure!

Obviously, I love my first picture book, There’s a Tiger in the Garden, and I’ve been really overwhelmed by the response to that. The illustrations in that book are very personal and it's been so nice hearing from families who enjoy and, even, love them! That’s way more than I ever could have dreamed of with my first book.

Talk us through a typical process. Where do you get your inspiration?

Hmmm. OK so, truthfully, this is always my least favourite question. I think there’s this weird idea that inspiration exists, for creative people, in certain places or through the use of certain tactics.

When, really, for most of us it's just this terrible poltergeist that rattles around, sometimes visible and sometimes elusive. There are times when ideas appear everywhere and then whole months at a time where you feel like a creative wasteland and you wonder if you’ll ever do anything good ever again.

It's a nightmare! There are plenty of inspiring things that I like, you know, things that are creatively aspirational and enjoyable; Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, Carson Ellis, The Mountain Goats, Maurice Sendak, interesting buildings, BIG landscapes. It's all exciting and delicious but I’m just as likely to get an idea for my work listening to conversations in the swimming pool changing rooms or looking at adverts on the Tube.

I guess, providing I have an idea, I tend to crack on with it straight away. I draw in pencil and colour with watercolour. I edit in Photoshop. All the usual stuff. I’m not great with watercolour, I don’t use it properly but I do try! I like texture so I’ll often layer pencil over the top to make it a bit richer. I work fast and chaotically. I wish I could be orderly and patient but I get excited about ideas and I want to see them happen as fast as possible.

What has worked really well for you in getting your name out there?

Making a lot of work, I guess! I’ve never really done a lot to consciously to "get my name out there" beyond making work. I post work on Instagram usually, and Twitter sometimes, but I don’t do anything more considered than that.

My agent and publishers will definitely confirm that I am a complete nightmare when it comes to publicity and I’m only getting more stubborn and ridiculous! I really just want to make work and for that work to be good and I think that's the best promotion you can do for yourself.

Is there anything that's currently bugging you? How are you going to tackle it?

Well. Are you ready for some boring chat? Brace yourselves. I can’t sort my earphone/headphone situation out. It's driving me nuts. I have very small ears. Like weirdly small considering I’m 6ft tall. They’re like a toddler’s ears. Terrible.

Anyway, earphones/buds don’t really stay in my dumb ears and my big headphones really hurt my ears after a while because they press my glasses into my head. I’m not sure what the solution is beyond just subjecting my studio mates to my music choices and listening to podcasts at full volume on the Tube like a very middle-class public menace.

What does a dream day off look like to you?

I’m picked up at 8am and taken to an airport where I fly to Copenhagen to look at chairs and buildings whilst eating pastries all day long. Maybe an outdoor swim somewhere, too.

Alternatively, a walk with someone nice, coffee at St David in Forest Hill, London, reading a book on a train, a few hours in the pub in the evening with my friends. Something like that. I like days where I manage not to think about picture-making at all. It's a relief.

Would you say you're creatively satisfied?

Oh my gosh, no. Never. And I don't think I ever will be. I would find it suspicious if I was! I think the feeling that I haven't yet made the work I want to make or that there is still so much I want to try is what keeps me making things and thinking about making things.

I think people often construe that as me being hard on myself but I would say that it’s rare that you’d find a creative person who felt like they had all their bases covered creatively. There’s always something else to do.

You're based in London. Is it important to be there? What do you love about the city?

I love London and I am, mostly, happy living here. I wouldn’t say it's important to be here. It's important to be in a place where life is easiest for you. All my friends are here and I can, more or less, afford to live here. I wouldn’t have been able to live here after I graduated. It was too expensive.

You should live in the place you feel happiest because being self-employed is weird and unreliable and solitary. You’ll need to like your surroundings in order to be able to deal with that weirdness.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators out there?

Get a hobby! Once "drawing" is your job then it is no longer your hobby. Your relationship with it changes and you need to have some other way of relaxing.

Don’t have anything in your portfolio that you wouldn’t be happy to draw again because of clients commission based on what they see you’ve done already.

By the same token if there’s a job you want to be doing (book covers for example) make sure you have some samples of that kind of work on your website.

And finally! Draw the things that make your outlook unique. There are things that exist in the shared creative conscious, things that we all like drawing and that we all draw. These things become visual trends and you can’t escape them.

The things that will stand out are the images that could only have come from you and your experiences. If you love Ancient Greek history then draw something about that. If you grew up in a remote part of the world maybe draw that. Draw things you care about and that is when you will make the most exciting work.


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