Creative Lives — Illustrator Conner Perry: Don’t ever feel guilty for having to support yourself
A childhood spent playing video games and watching cartoons had a big impact on illustrator Conner Perry’s style. But when asked what first ignited his interest in drawing, he pinpoints a somewhat unexpected source: “The thing that got me drawing was a How to Draw Cartoons book my stepdad found in a landfill!” The book’s influence was clearly profound, as Conner went on to study illustration at Norwich University, graduating in 2015. Having recently left a part-time supermarket job, Conner is now working as a designer in the heart of Norwich while maintaining freelance illustration work on the side. Here, he discusses the challenges of transitioning from uni to the world of work; why understanding composition is key; and why you shouldn’t wait to be commissioned to create work you love.
Freelance Illustrator (part-time); Junior Graphic Designer (full-time)
BA Illustration, Norwich University Of The Arts (2012–15)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance illustrator, and up until very recently worked part-time in a supermarket. But I now have a full-time job as a graphic designer, and attempting to find time to freelance on the side. My illustrations are primarily digital, but I do love to produce work for print when I can. My work has a big emphasis on people and pop culture.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
It used to consist of 5am starts or late finishes when I worked in retail. But now I've just started on a cosy 9 to 5 which is giving me a lot more downtime, and means I'm not drawing at stupid hours at night. For my day job, I work from a studio in the city of Norwich. It's still early days so there's a lot of learning, but it’s great fun, and nice to work in a creative environment all day.
How collaborative is your role?
Illustration is as collaborative as you make it. It was a lot easier to collaborate when I was at university, but I like to keep in touch with other illustrators and often run my ideas by other creatives if I'm struggling with a decision, or just need a second opinion. Outside of more direct collaborations, I've produced work for a few group projects that will often have quite a few other illustrators involved.
“I realised that I don’t need to wait around for someone to hire me to make illustrations on a subject I like.”
An illustration inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I really enjoy my day job so far. It’s a very nice change of pace from the intensity of retail, not to mention they treat you a lot better. I enjoy the creative environment and I'm learning a lot of things. With illustration, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy drawing for work, the downside is you can get screwed over a lot, and people don’t quite understand the amount of work that goes into it. Working a full-time job and freelance can be pretty tiring, but I’m a very sociable person so I always make time for any social occasions (the pub).
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I haven’t received a single commission over the past year to be perfectly honest. Anything that did come in fell through, unfortunately. But I've been excited by a lot of my personal projects. I realised I don’t need to wait around for someone to hire me to make illustrations on a subject I like. I can just make the work myself and put it out there.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
I'd say the main focus of what I do in both lines of work is knowing what makes a good composition. Drawing skills are great, but understanding what makes an image work and how it sits on a page, print, T-Shirt, email, poster and so on is pretty key.
What do you like about working in Norwich?
Norwich is an amazing city. It’s very small, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in creativity. With the Arts University in the centre, it feels like a great creative hub. You're surrounded by the country and the coast, great food, great pubs and London’s a couple of hours away if you need it. It's nice to have a healthy balance of city and countryside and it’s important for your health to get outside when you can.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I’m a major ideas man, so I have a hundred possible projects scribbled on a sticky note in front of my desk at the moment – including more short, simple animations. I just need to find the time to learn a bit more about the software I need.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I’ve kind of abandoned any tangible mediums in favour of working digitally. Which wasn’t really intentional it just progressed that way after uni. I still cover sheets of A3 with scribbles but only for rough compositions.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I always actively pursued a creative career, focusing on art at school and college. But I always had this idea of a ‘cut-off’ time. I wanted to pursue it for a while before working towards another goal that I knew would make me happy – which would be social work of some sorts, or working with disadvantaged kids or even a tattooist. Or Tomb Raider; I used to really want to be a Tomb Raider.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My upbringing wasn’t the most conventional, but I was never dissuaded from a creative career. I was left to my own devices as a child, and loved to immerse myself in video games and toys. Games like Jet Set Radio, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro and Tomb Raider were everything to me; the way they paired great visuals with brilliant music and sounds to help realise a whole world. Shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Digimon and The Simpsons also played a role in my shaping my creative style. I’d say the thing that got me drawing most was a How to Draw Cartoons book my stepdad found in a landfill! It was a great starting point that taught me a lot about how to draw movement, perspective and emotion. I still have it, actually.
How useful have your studies been in your career?
I definitely learned a lot more about myself post-university. University was great for crafting a visual style and being amongst other creative people, but awful for preparing you for life afterwards, especially when it comes to illustration. I think there needs to be a major shake-up in arts education. It gets caught up in its own pretentiousness; immersing yourself in the culture is great, but it lacks a sort of realness and practicality. The tutors and lecturers aren’t honest enough about their work or what got them to the point they are at. Then, after three years you’re left with a bunch of kids back in their hometowns feeling misunderstood, very confused and totally unprepared to join the industry.
“It’s better to slowly burn your way into the industry than burst in and burn out quickly.”
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
After graduating, I went travelling around Europe to postpone proper adulthood for another month. I came back and failed to get into any creative jobs, so I got a part-time retail job, mainly so I could focus on freelance and building a solid portfolio but also because it was the only job that got back to me!
I only intended to work there for a year or so but ended up there for three, and after very few highs and many lows in freelance, I started searching for a full-time job in the creative industry again. After over a year and a half of consistent searching and many failed interviews, it finally paid off when I got offered a junior designer role a couple months ago.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Patience. I struggled a lot with feeling like I was being left behind; a lot of people I know in other careers were ‘further’ ahead in their life (which I now realise is a load of bollocks). But I had to remember that I'm pursuing something very particular and it takes time. It’s better to slowly burn your way into the industry than burst in and burn out quickly. The more practical challenges are probably teaching yourself skills and software. Plus, being self-motivated enough to learn at home.
What would you like to do next?
It’s hard to think about what's next when I feel like I haven’t really broken through yet. I’d just like to master my craft, work with some of my dream clients and eventually art direct.
Could you do this job forever?
I’m not sure. I’d definitely love to teach at some point, but could I work in the creative industry forever? Of course!
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
I don't feel like I can offer much advice as I haven’t had much experience. But what I will say is: You can preach about how things take time, and how you can work hard, but at the end of the day, some people are just very lucky, and some people just haven’t got it. Remember that privilege, location and who you know all play a role. So don’t ever feel guilty for having to do something else in order to support yourself. Not everyone can afford to move to London and work a shitty paid internship; you have to do what's right for your life at the time.