It's the art of telling stories that drives Luke Brookes, an award-winning illustrator based in Staffordshire whose vivid, graphic brushstrokes bring atmosphere and energy to everything he creates.
Using dramatic lighting against a restricted colour palette, Luke's been grabbing the attention of many an international client since he went freelance in 2012. Today, his portfolio is brimming with impressive editorial illustrations, book covers and packaging for the likes of Playboy, BBC, Virgin, and The Telegraph.
"I like to think my work is firmly rooted in the narrative. I always want to tell stories with my images," Luke tells Creative Boom. "I think this has come from my love for graphic novels and comics, which influenced my work."
As Luke celebrates his 10th anniversary of going freelance this year, we thought it would be good to catch up with him and see how his illustration business is shaping up, particularly after two years of a global pandemic.
How has your practice developed since we last spoke? What's worked well for you?
My work is constantly evolving. I always look at my last piece, scrutinise what I think worked and didn't work, and try to improve on the following illustration. I can be hard on myself sometimes, but it makes the work stronger overall.
I've been focusing on lighting and how I can convey movement in my work, I want a sense of energy or drama, and I find that lighting and motion can emphasise that. I've also been looking at cleaning up my line work and making it a stronger feature in my work. I've gone through phases of using line work, then not using any, and now I've settled on making it one of the focal parts of my work. Even though I work digitally, I still use the same process as when I worked with actual ink and paint. Sketching, inking, then colouring, I'm enjoying going back to my original process, but with all the knowledge I've gathered over the years, I'm much happier with my work now than I have ever been!
Any big projects you want to talk us through? The brief, the challenge, the outcome?
A couple of projects have been exciting and have stood out since we last spoke. The first was for The British Army. I was asked to create some key style frames and concepts for an animated TV spot. The ad was about the building of the Nightingale Hospitals during Covid-19 and the support the Army gave the NHS. It was an honour to be involved with a project like that. I had never worked on an animation before, but it turned out to be a fun process! It's so great seeing your work transform from a static image into something that moves. The animation studio did an amazing job, and it was a proud moment to see it on the TV.
My first published children's picture book, Secrets and Spies, is another project that stands out. The book was all about the history of spies and espionage – a very cool subject and something that suited my style. It was quite a big project, 72 fully illustrated pages! Keeping the illustrations consistent over such a large body of work was quite challenging, but it was enjoyable, especially when seeing in Waterstones. It made it all real and was a very proud moment. All these projects wouldn't have been possible without my agents Making Pictures, so a massive shout out to them; they're fantastic!
How did the pandemic impact you, if at all, and how have you seen work change?
I think the pandemic hit everyone in totally different ways. I have two young kids, and my youngest had just turned one during lockdown. That was tricky, especially when I was swamped. He needed to be out experiencing the world, but he was shut up inside. I also noticed that at first, I was pretty busy with 'Covid' stories to illustrate, but I did see a dip in that as time went on, many clients didn't have much budget or were struggling to work from home themselves. It was tough all around, and I'm so glad we seem to be out of the worst of it.
What's working well in getting your name out there these days? Now Instagram seems to be dying a death?
In all honesty, my agents are outstanding. They value their artists and are great at promotion. But building up relationships over the years has also served me well. Producing consistent work at a high standard and on time is essential, too, and it's the best way to get repeat work. Also, art directors or designers move on to new careers and usually take you to the new places they go, so you get to work with new companies that way. I do miss Instagram – although there was a time when it was such an excellent tool for promotion, but those days are gone now. It's back to emailing and DMs.
Can you tell me more about your path to becoming an illustrator?
I finished university but realised I didn't like or resonate with any of the work in my portfolio. I needed to start again as the work I got wasn't what I wanted to put out into the world. So I took quite a while to discover a way of working that I felt comfortable with. I think a style is something that should hopefully develop naturally. It was finding a practical, creative way of working – then my style could be channelled through that.
Once I was happy, I got a website set up and did the usual cold emails, phone calls, studio visits – you name it, I was doing it looking for work. I started to get fantastic commissions, but I still wanted to evolve my work, so I constantly created new pieces, each time improving and changing my process and style.
Once I had some commissions under my belt, I started looking for representation, I signed up to a couple of agencies, but we never really gelled until I started speaking with Tim at Making Pictures. We worked together on a few commissions before I officially joined the roster. Since then it's been a whirlwind, creating lots of incredible work taking me to where I am today.
What advice would you give to others looking to get into the industry?
I can't stress enough how important it is to be constantly creating new work. Client work is, of course, vital. It pays the bills, gets you exposure and experience, and legitimises you as a credible artist. But you should create personal pieces, too. It helps pad out your portfolio, hopefully netting you new paid work, and it keeps you on your toes for when paid work does come in.
My main advice would be to find your voice, style, and way of working. Practice and hone that process, so when you do start getting paid work, you are ready. Whilst constantly perfecting your craft, try to represent a wide range of work in your portfolio. It is so important as every art director or producer is looking for something different every time, so showcasing that your style can be applied to many things can help you stand out from the vast sea of great artists.
If you're passionate about one area of illustration, showcase your work in that area as much as possible. For example, if you want to work in publishing, create some fake book covers, make a few pages for a picture book, and try and tailor your portfolio to be as robust as possible.
But most importantly, be passionate and love what you do. There will be tough times, trying times, but if you have a genuine love for your craft – that will see you through.