Paul Thurlby on drawing for a living, big breaks and why you must follow your dreams

Photography by Valeriya Vygodnaya

Originally from Nottingham, Paul Thurlby is an award-winning illustrator now living in Brighton. He had his personal project, Alphabet, published as a children's book in 2011 – something that led to working with clients as big as John Lewis, The National Gallery and The New Yorker.

His distinctive style is graphic and colourful and he enjoys working in a wide variety of fields from children's books and editorial to advertising and design. With such an impressive career to date, we spoke to Paul about how he got started, the lessons he's learned along the way and what he's up to next.

Did you always love to draw?

I remember enjoying drawing as a child at junior school. The teachers would praise me for my drawing skills and that made me happy. When I was at home, I would draw football stadiums for imaginary teams on blank newsprint. I would measure out the pitch before working on the stands. Then, I would calculate the ground capacity. Then I would design the kits!

Whilst at secondary school, I lost that passion because there was little encouragement from the teachers. There was also no idea that you could go on to have a career in art and design.

Was there anyone or one thing that specifically inspired your career?

Jean Pikett, my boss when I worked for the council in Nottingham as an admin assistant. She noticed I drew a lot at work and suggested I go to art college. She’s supported me ever since. What is especially great is that she is always brutally honest. You need a friend like that who isn’t just going to say "that’s nice", even when it’s not.

That's brilliant. Some would say your big break came after the children's book, Alphabet. But you've been working successfully as an illustrator since 2006. Did that book make a difference?

Well, I was getting enough editorial commissions to just about pay my rent. But, I was getting into lots of debt and I needed to do something about that. It was really weighing heavy on my shoulders. So, the idea behind starting Alphabet was to come up with an amazing project that would really get me noticed and elevate me into a better position. No pressure!

The first good thing about it was that it gave me something to occupy my mind during a bleak time. I particularly enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the project. It was very challenging, and ultimately rewarding when that "eureka" moment happened.

I posted each letter online, as and when I completed them. A literary agent came across the illustrations on the Apartment Therapy blog. After signing with her, I quickly got a book deal with Templar. It helped pay off some of my debts. I always believed that illustration could get me out of that hole and am happy to say that I'm finally debt free!

Glad to hear it. So how did your unique style come about? What influences you?

My style has changed quite a lot since I left university. In fact, it's still evolving. I’m constantly searching for improvement. I admire mid-century design for its graphic simplicity.

Photography by Tom Robinson

Photography by Tom Robinson

Anyone's work you admire?

My main man is Bernard Villemot. He was a French poster artist from the last century, famous for his work for Orangina, Perrier and Bally. Abram Games is another favourite for his genius at problem-solving. I have a particular passion for original vintage posters. I just need a big house with high ceilings to fit them in!

What have you seen lately that's surprised or delighted you?

I visited the London Design Biennale at Somerset House. It was fascinating and stimulating both visually and mentally.

Is it possible to choose a favourite project?

It’s difficult to say. I really enjoyed working on Paris-themed prints for my first solo show in Paris at Sergeant Paper Art Store last autumn. That was a very rewarding experience. I’m very familiar with the city and have some good friends in Montmartre.

What's been the most challenging project to date? How did you overcome it?

That would definitely have to be the John Lewis campaign. When I got started on the project, there were only a few weeks before the deadline. I was tasking with creating six window designs and a pattern in that time. It was especially difficult because I was being fed new information throughout.

I hadn’t worked on window designs before, so I needed to think about how the layers would work in the windows. One of those designs needed to be completely re-thought in the last few days. That was very challenging indeed! I was at my desk from 8am until 12am most days, almost non-stop. It’s not recommended!

I do admire the team at John Lewis for their idea, not just to commission an illustrator to design their windows for the first time, but also to champion that illustrator. More commissions should be like that.

We're a magazine that supports those just starting out. What advice would you give to them?

Don’t listen to anyone who is negative about the prospects of a career in illustration. Be positive and work hard. Enjoy what you do and keep working on personal projects. That is very important as it’s where you get to communicate your own unfiltered vision.

Dreams are also important. Keep them with you and they will come true. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dreams are silly. That’s just the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head. Ultimately, keep making good work and good things will come your way.

Are there any words of wisdom that have stuck with you? Who said it, what did they say?

"It's got to be bold, Paul!" – Sarah Bailey, one of my tutors at art college.

Do you still get a buzz when you see your work somewhere?

The biggest buzz I got was seeing all my Alphabet prints hung up in the Tate Britain shop. Of course, now I am more used to seeing my work out and about. But, it’s always a nice feeling.

What are you currently working on? What's next for you?

I’m working on various commissions (that I can’t disclose) and also some new Paris-themed prints for the Sergeant Paper Art Store.