Creative Lives — “Getting paid to paint – that’s the dream, right?” We meet illustrator Alice Tye

Posted 14 August 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

On any given day, Alice Tye’s routine will likely include oil paints, some exercise and background TV. Working from studio in her flat, the London-based illustrator paints beautifully atmospheric and realistic images as part of her own practice, and for clients like The Guardian and LVMH. Now six years into her career, however, Alice admits that she’s still learning to navigate through the erratic nature of freelance life – continuing to work a part-time job and filling gaps between commercial commissions with personal projects. Here, she retraces her initial steps while starting out, tells us about her new film-themed project and why travel continues to inspire her.

Alice Tye

Job Title

Freelance Artist and Painter

Based

London

Selected Clients

LVMH, The Guardian, Printed Pages, The Gourmand

Place of Study

BA Illustration, Camberwell College of Art (2011–2013)

Website
Social Media

Alice in Japan

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I create realistic illustrations using oil paints for a variety of clients and jobs. My commissioned work includes editorial illustration, and portraits as well as images for internal publications. Alongside the commercial illustration work I also have a self-directed painting practice which is heavily influenced by my travels and tends to lean more towards landscapes and architecture.

What does a typical working day look like, and where does it happen?
I really like routine so my working day generally consists of: waking up around 8am, exercising, making a great breakfast and taking care of life admin things. Then at about 12pm I start work in the studio (which is a room in my flat so there’s no commute) and will work until around 7 or 8pm with a break for lunch.

My time in the studio is either spent on my laptop doing image research and digitally collaging roughs for clients or painting from those collages. Though if I have a tight deadline, I’ll start painting much earlier in the morning or work until I go to bed, but thankfully that doesn’t happen too frequently.

Since graduating in 2013 I’ve found that daily exercise is essential for me both mentally and physically; to balance out the stress and anxiety of freelancing, as well as the seven or eight hours I spend sitting at a desk in the afternoons. I find that I also need some sort of background noise on whilst I’m painting. This mostly consists of TV shows I’ve seen a thousand times – rubbish enough that they don’t need require my focus, but compelling enough that I can sit still and work for hours at a time.

Alice with some of her work

Alice’s studio

Alice’s studio

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How collaborative is your role?
Not very. I’m more of a solo creative, though there is always the collaborative aspect of working with the art director or designer who is commissioning the illustration.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The best part is getting paid to paint! Thats the dream right? And also being able to work from my studio at home: no commuter trains, no office politics, just working to my own schedule. However the least enjoyable aspect of my job is definitely how unpredictable it is. It can be incredibly anxiety-inducing not knowing when the next commission will come in and having to motivate yourself in these gaps, as well as budget for this. Even six years in I’m still learning how to navigate this.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I have recently finished a self-initiated series of paintings based on iconic films and television shows. I set myself the project to develop some new skills since I didn’t have much experience in creating scenes to paint from scratch.

“It can be incredibly anxiety-inducing not knowing when the next commission will come in.”

Each painting is a still life that captures the feeling of a particular film or television show. I thought about what objects and colours would be suited to the mood and setting of each film. For example, with Call Me By Your Name, I wanted the fabrics to have an 80s feel to them, and of course it was essential to have peaches for props. And for Edward Scissorhands I wanted it to feel kitschy and retro, so I spent a week making lots of jellies and blancmanges from 1960s recipes for Jell-O.

The series was more abstract than my previous projects but I approached it from an illustration perspective, finding a visual solution for a problem and pragmatically sourcing or making each element of the composition.

Alice’s personal project, based on Call Me By Your Name

Alice’s personal project, based on Edward Scissorhands

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Time management and patience are essential for all of the image research I do when creating a composition for a client. There is a lot of scrolling through free image libraries and my own collection of photographs which can be quite frustrating at times.

Of course painting is essential as I make all my work with oil paints. Although I was never actually taught to use oils during school or university, so it’s possible I’m not using them in the traditional way.

What do you like about working in London?
Being close to friends who also do creative jobs. It helps to compare notes and discuss ideas, and living so close to people doing similar things makes that possible. There is also a wealth of exhibitions on so there is no shortage of inspiration.

“In my eyes, an artist’s style is just like their handwriting, it’s the unconscious way that you paint or draw or design.”

What tools do you use most for your work?
I’m not brand loyal to certain oil paints, I just buy whatever I have access to. But Liquin (an oil painting medium) is really essential to my work as it speeds up drying time. It means I can meet quick deadlines despite working in oils. I also use Adobe Photoshop to create the initial compositions and later to clean up scans of finished paintings.

What inspires your work?
My personal work is inspired by the places I travel to. I’ve created numerous series based on my trips to the US and Japan, and am hoping to visit either Mexico or the southern US states next. Cinema is also a huge influence on my work: the lighting, the widescreen format and the idea of conveying a narrative through a still – as if the painting was just a frozen image of a film scene.

How important do you think it is to land on a particular style as a creative?
Art school made me nervous of the word ‘style’. I’ve always found that if I try to consciously work in a certain way, the work suffers and looks forced. So in my eyes an artist’s style is just like their handwriting – it’s the unconscious way that you paint or draw or design. Rather than worrying about finding a particular style or worrying that all of your work looks different, if you step back you’ll see that there’s a certain signature look that you’ve unintentionally included in everything you create.

Alice’s personal project, USA IRL

Alice’s personal project, Mono No Aware inspired by her travels to Japan

Alice’s personal project, USA IRL

Alice’s personal project, Mono No Aware inspired by her travels to Japan

Alice’s personal project, USA IRL

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How I Got Here

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
Almost my entire family is creative so I’m sure that influenced me a lot growing up! My older sister started her own dance company straight of university, and my mum retrained as a graphic designer and photographer while I was in 6th form. My older brother is also successful freelance photographer, which helped me see that a creative career was possible. I’ve never questioned whether I could make a living as an illustrator, it’s the only job I want to do, so it was the only option I gave myself. There’s no plan B.

Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I don’t think a degree is essential for everyone, and I’m very aware that it is now incredibly expensive for anyone thinking of attending university or art school. However I am grateful that I had the opportunity to study at degree level, as I think it opened up my eyes to what illustration could be, or be applied to.

The course at Camberwell College of Art was very experimental and I think a lot of the projects we worked on ultimately informed the way I work now. Learning how to manage your time and juggle projects was also a really important skill I gained from studying illustration.

“I’ve never questioned whether I could make a living as an illustrator. It’s the only job I want to do, so it was the only option I gave myself. There’s no plan B.”

After graduating, what were your initial steps?
When I was first starting out, I put together a list of every publication, art director or company I wanted to work with and either sent a postcard or emailed all of them. By the end of the first year I’d contacted over 200 people and had responses from a handful. One of the people that replied was David Lane of The Gourmand, who commissioned me to paint a series of portraits to accompany an article on the Lost Shops of Soho. The series was then featured on It’s Nice That and I gained a few more commissions from it.

Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I’ve had a few brilliant opportunities. Firstly I was one of It’s Nice That’s Graduates in 2013 which got me more exposure than I would’ve had otherwise as a new graduate, and definitely led to a few contacts and commissions. The second lucky break I had was being chosen as one of Pick Me Up’s Selects in 2014, which gave me a platform for my work and again helped me get work in front of an audience I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
A mistake I made not long after graduating was signing on with the first agent that showed interest in my work. In hindsight I should’ve researched other agencies before signing a contract; they just weren’t the right fit for my work but I was contractually obliged to stay with them for three years. I have since left that agency and am now represented by Jelly London who are a much better fit for me and who have brought me some great jobs.

Alice’s work for The Gourmand to accompany an article on the Lost Shops of Soho (2014)

What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance, and how do you deal with these?
My biggest challenge with being freelance is how erratic jobs can be. One month you might have no commissions at all, and the next you might get three that are due on the same day!

It can be difficult financially and mentally to cope with these gaps between jobs, but I’ve found that running a personal project alongside commercial work is the best way to stay sane and motivated during those interludes. It also helps to push your work forward so that you are always learning and expanding your portfolio.

My current personal project is based on J. G. Ballard’s book Hello America. The book focuses on the dystopian landscape of an America that has been transformed by climate change: New York is a desert with rolling sand dunes and Las Vegas is a humid jungle which glows pink from all the neon lights.

“There’s nothing wrong with working alongside freelancing even if it’s not in the industry you want to be in.”

Do you have other jobs alongside your creative work?
Since graduating, I have had a part-time job alongside freelancing. At this stage in my career, it gives me peace of mind to know my rent is covered even if a client is late on paying, or I’m in between commissions. There’s nothing wrong with working alongside freelancing even if it’s not in the industry you want to be in, and most of the creatives I know are in the same boat. I did briefly go fully freelance but quickly realised that I needed the security of having some consistent income since living in London is not cheap.

How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Instagram is a great tool for promoting work; would estimate that I get more enquiries from instagram than I do from my website. I think it’s the way the internet is going that Instagram is often the first place people look when they want to get an idea of what you do.

I’ve been trying to be more consistent with posting this year, and have found the Latergram app really helpful, where you can queue up a month’s worth of posts in an hour or so.

Alice’s personal project based on J. G. Ballard’s book, Hello America

Alice’s personal project based on J. G. Ballard’s book, Hello America

Alice’s personal project based on J. G. Ballard’s book, Hello America

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Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Say yes to all the great (and non-exploitative) opportunities you are presented with; and competitions are a great way of getting your work out there, especially when starting out. Personally, I’d recommend entering your work to as many as you can, it often takes less than ten minutes to enter and could help kickstart your career.

Make the work you’re excited to make; people will be excited about it because you are. Making work just for Instagram is going to date quickly and you won’t enjoy it as much as you’ll will by working on projects you’re passionate about.

Posted 14 August 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration
Mentions: Alice Tye

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