First Hand — Dublin-based illustrator Conor Nolan on finishing uni, finances and Facebook
Fresh out of uni, Dublin-based illustrator Conor Nolan didn't expect graduate life to be easy. But with a relentless work ethic there wasn't much that could discourage him. After graduating from the National College of Art & Design in 2016, Conor got to spend his first few months as a grad at Facebook, banging out prints in their residency space. Now part of illustration agency and collective, UsFolk in Belfast, he's continuing to build his portfolio of illustration, animation and print work. He tells us about the creative landscape in Dublin, and how he's remained both positive and proactive.
Looking back, it’s always easy to say you could have done more, but I’ve kept myself about as busy as I could have over the last year. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting, working on personal stuff, and have even managed to work on some really cool commercial projects.
Show people something unique
As an illustrator, you need to make yourself and your work stand out. I approached my grad show with the same outlook. Not only was the work going to be seen as a culmination of the past three years, but I also had to think about how to get peoples’ attention, since it was in such a big space alongside lots of other work.
Throwing everything at Facebook’s wall
On the back of my degree show I wound up teaching an illustration class at Facebook in Dublin, which snowballed into me doing a residency there. So I actually spent the first few months of the year in their office as part of their Artist-In-Residence Program. They have this amazing maker space with a bunch of resources including a risograph printer, so I was able to treat it as a studio and bang out prints. It was a period of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. I really pushed myself, and the way my work looks and feels now is largely informed by that experimentation. The residency has some great alumni too, including designers like Vanessa Power, Fuchsia Macaree, and the Project Twins.
Trying to stay positive and productive
After finishing up at Facebook, I took a bit of time to look at my portfolio. Wanting to inject more of a professional feel to it, I started getting involved with people making zines and gig posters – things that had elements of client projects while allowing me to be myself with the work. When I felt ready, I started sending prints and postcards to ad agencies and art directors around Dublin. I was surprised at how open art directors were to me coming in to show my portfolio. I see now that they constantly need new solutions to briefs, so they will have time for you if your illustration can help with that.
“I wish I’d put my work online earlier. Part of me expected it to just disappear into a hole and that no one would care about it.”
The first 12 months haven’t at all been what I expected. Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect. A lot of people told me that it can take years to get into freelance illustration, and that there’s a lot of rejection to deal with, but I’ve never let that discourage me. I expected to have a few doors slammed in my face, and there have been. I’ve just tried get up every day and welcome whatever the day brings.
The biggest challenge for me was trying to figure out what people expect of you and your work. I’ve had people say that you need a niche, something really specific stylistically or thematically; and I’ve had others say that they hate when illustrators work in one style. I think the best way to deal with that is to try to question these things before other people do. Take a look at your portfolio and try to assess what you could be doing better. Instagram is also great for throwing your work up and seeing what reaction it gets.
Before I finished college, I didn’t share a huge amount of work online, so there was no real scope for how people would react to what I was doing. There was a part of me that expected the work to just disappear into a hole and that no one would care about it. I wish I had started putting work online earlier. Showing your work to people is a great feeling and also helps to build confidence.
“Dublin has been good to me. There’s a fair share of commercial work if you look for it.”
Save up finances before going full-time freelance
Right now I’m still living with my parents and working from home, which isn’t too bad, but I’d like to get a studio soon. I’m managing to get enough paid work by now that I’m not as worried about my card being declined, which is nice. After I graduated, I had no sense of how to charge for work, which is an ongoing thing I’m getting better with. Thankfully though, in situations where I’ve undercharged, art directors have been cool enough not to take advantage of it. As well as illustration, I’ve found work screen printing for live events, risograph printing and I have a part-time cinema job. I’m saving up as much as I can before I go full-time as an illustrator, as I don’t want to make that jump and be stuck financially.
Dublin has been good to me
Based on what I’ve heard, there are more opportunities in London, as a bigger city with a larger design community. There are lots of people leaving Ireland right now, and sometimes it’s not hard to see why. I’d like to work abroad at some point, even for a year, but probably not until I’ve done everything I can here. However, Dublin has been good to me. There’s a fair share of commercial work if you look for it and a lot of cool people making great things.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
Do your best to make the work something you’re proud of and then show it to people. Also, this isn’t particularly profound, but one of my tutors in college once used the phrase “Furiously iterate” and that has really stuck with me. So draw every day. Get up and focus on the task at hand, and make the best work you can.
Follow Conor on Instagram.