cartoonist Steve Nelson on how comedy helped him become an illustrator

Comic strip artist Steve Nelson, better known as Snelse, has brought delight to millions with his wonderfully witty cartoons. Here he reveals how his background in comedy kick-started his career as an illustrator.

If you read The Evening Standard or spend your free time scrolling through Instagram (who doesn't?), you've probably stumbled across the hilarious work of Brighton-based illustrator Steve Nelson. Instantly recognisable thanks to his use of bold colours and distinctive characters, Steve's cartoons bring smiles to faces by turning logic on its head and finding the funny in everyday situations.

Yet despite creating cartoons regularly for big clients like Confused, Steve is a relative newcomer to the illustration game. His first professional commission came in 2021, and since then, he's gone on to quickly amass a whopping great audience over on Instagram. Before then, he was a comedy writer with his own series to his name who drew in his spare time until some helpful encouragement from his wife guided him down the artistic road.

We caught up with Steve to learn more about his fascinating life so far, how following the "wrong" career path for ten years can eventually have a positive result, and how he turns the world around him into a source of humour.

You used to work in comedy. What made you want to shift to illustration?

Oh God, this could be a very long answer! Frustration, mostly. I spent about ten years writing comedy scripts with little to show. I had an agent, a few bits on TV and radio, a failed BBC Radio comedy pilot and finally got my own comedy series on Audible called The Temp. It's very joke-heavy, and we only had three months to write and record the entire show. Man, I almost had a breakdown writing that thing! Plus, I had to do it all around my full-time office job. Madness.

We got it done, and it came out great with good reviews on Audible, but that was it. The industry didn't really care – not a single meeting off the back of it. Also, the money wasn't great, so I had to keep my full-time job going. It felt like I worked so hard to get absolutely nowhere. That was kind of the nail in the coffin, really.

Anyway, I was already drawing a bit during all this, and my wife, Bernie, was always going on at me to focus on that instead of writing. I guess I finally took her advice! Less than two years later, I was doing it full-time.

What comedy writing did you used to do, and how has that skill carried over into your illustration?

Initially, I started as a stand-up comedian in my late teens and had an ongoing love/hate relationship with it. Loved writing jokes and getting laughs – didn't like all the travelling and panic attacks before going on stage! That's really why I switched to script writing. I continued writing jokes, nevertheless, but was trying to think up better ways to present them that wasn't just a tweet.

Only when I discovered illustration (I didn't know that was a thing until my mid-20s) and webcomics I realised this is the perfect way to present jokes. It allowed me to perform the jokes, in a sense, without doing stand-up. I could post a funny image and get instant feedback.

The one positive about going down the wrong career path is spending over ten years writing jokes. That thoroughly prepared me for working as a cartoonist and illustrator as I can quickly come up with lots of new ideas and have a large pile of material I can also turn to.

The hardest part was figuring out my style. I could draw, but I don't necessarily think that really matters. There are some fantastic artists who can barely draw, or at least it appears that way! You must set yourself apart stylistically from other illustrators and cartoonists, which can be tricky. I had to do a lot of drawing and refining to get there.

How did you get your first proper commission in 2021?

Sure, I'll brag. I bagged the only illustration job I ever applied for. What a legend! Next question, please.

Fine, I'll elaborate. So, I spent most of 2020 drawing and trying to develop my style. The pandemic really helped with that. I had it in my head that I wanted to get my style down before trying to become a professional illustrator. So, I kept putting off applying for things and emailing art directors – just a constant feeling I wasn't ready.

Anyway, the Warren Festival in Brighton run an annual call out to artists to submit a poster design for their festival. I finally plucked up the courage to give it a go for their 2021 call-out. They liked my design and gave me the job. It was so much fun!

Which other comic artists and illustrators influence your work?

So many! I came into it late without any formal training, so I learned everything from absorbing many different artists.

I always loved Peter McKee. Before I even started drawing properly, I was always jealous of how great he was and wished I could do what he did. I love his style and have several of his prints in my house and all his books! Same with Jean Jullien and David Shrigley – they're also at the top of my list. They both opened my eyes to how you can combine art/illustration and humour. Pieter de Poortere is an amazing cartoonist. He created the Dickie comics. I was blown away when I stumbled across his work at the Cartoon Museum in Brussels.

Others I love: Safely Endangered, Simpsons, Demetri Martin, Liana Finck, Joan Cornella, Seth Fleishman, Gemma Correll, Will McPhail, Alex Norris, Rubyetc, Miguel Bustos.

How did you get to work with

I don't know! I should probably ask. It was after my social media went a bit crazy, so I imagine that exposed me to the right people. I just got an email one day in March 2022 from a big ad agency asking if I'd like to do a weekly cartoon for on the front of a national newspaper. I could do anything, but it had to be around the concept of 'confusion'. I politely declined. No, obviously, I said yes!

It started on a month-by-month trial basis and performed really well, so it went on for the rest of the year. It's starting back up again in February so keep your eyes peeled.

Tell us more about what these weekly comics entail!

I essentially spend most of my days writing jokes and drawing, so when it comes to Confused, I go through all the stuff I've written recently or sketched and see if there's anything that is either confusion-based or something that could become confusion-based.

Sometimes I might not have enough bangers, or the client might want something related to the news or an upcoming event, so I'll sit around and actively think about new Confused ideas. For that, you have to put your naive goggles on and look at things through the eyes of a child. How might a child misunderstand a phrase, or how might they confuse two objects?

It affects my day-to-day life as well. One of the Confused comics that was used came from standing in duty-free with my wife, and I asked her, "How did they get all these liquids past security?"

You've built up quite the social media following! What's the secret to gaining an audience?

That's a tough one as I don't know how it happened! I was sharing my work relentlessly for two years before it kicked off randomly one day. My pyramid comic somehow ended up on Instagram's main explore page, and it just snowballed from there. So that was a bit of luck, but I guess people stuck around because they liked the other stuff I posted. I'm not very social media savvy, so not the best person to ask!

I will say I spent a long time being ignored and overlooked, so I know how that feels. But you must do what you enjoy and not focus too much on numbers because that's all out of your control.

At the end of the day, if nothing comes from it, at least you had fun. My wife manages an indie band (Nature TV – check them out, they're amazing, and I do all the artwork for their merch and posters). You can imagine how impossible it is to get exposure or money in the music industry these days, but they all just have a laugh making music and gigging.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

The Confused comics as a whole. I got to quit my job and draw cartoons for a living! It's crazy. My favourite one was the duck one. I was quite chuffed with myself when I came up with it. Plus, I love ducks and find them so funny for some reason, so I was glad to be able to do one for Confused. I remember sitting at my desk, drawing it and thinking: my life is so weird now.

What are you hoping to achieve in 2023?

There are two main things. I hope to make more stuff to put up on my shop. I love Shrigley's funny merch and want to do something in that vein. The other thing is to try and get my cartoons in the New Yorker. I've never tried submitting to it – I keep bottling it! I'm a big fan of the New Yorker cartoons, and it's a big ambition of mine to get one of my cartoons in there!


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