Creative Lives — Birmingham-based artist, Doaly talks breaking into industry as a self-taught illustrator
Based in Birmingham, designer and illustrator Doaly spends his days designing movie posters for Hollywood blockbusters. With a lengthy client list including the likes of Sony Pictures, BBC, Warner Bros and Disney, however, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when he was struggling to land his first commercial job. Having initially studied graphic communications at the University of Wolverhampton, it was only after graduation that Doaly decided to try and make a name for himself in the illustration world – which meant pouring his time into blogs, tutorials and self-learning through “reverse-engineering” artwork. Here, Doaly tells us how social media allowed him to launch his “second career” and why it’s important to focus on how you tell a story, rather than the medium you tell it in.
Freelance Designer and Illustrator
BA Graphic Communication, University of Wolverhampton (1997–2000)
UI/UX Designer (2000)
BBC, Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Lucas Film, Warner Bros, 20th Century Studios, Sony Pictures, Sony Playstation, Penguin Books
How would you describe what you do?
I mainly design movie posters for indie films and Hollywood blockbusters, as well as designing book covers for publishing houses and advertising campaigns. I also exhibit at art galleries when I can.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I usually sit down at my desk at 9am, have lunch at 1pm and then work until 6pm. My day starts by replying to emails and any outstanding admin tasks I have on. Once I’ve cleared those tasks, I can concentrate on creating. I always leave myself a Post-It note from the day before so I know exactly where to pick up from. This is especially handy when I’m working on multiple projects at once. While I work, I’m usually listening to a podcast as I can’t work in silence, and podcasts give the effect of working in a communal environment. I also prioritise getting up and going on walks in-between tasks, as well as getting some stretching in. It’s so important to get your body moving and the blood pumping.
Doaly’s home studio
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
Generally speaking, I’m doing fine. I have the benefit of having a home studio so there’s not been any change that relocating would have brought. I have, however, been faced with projects being paused or cancelled over the last few weeks. Of course this is a bummer financially – but this has also given me a chance to work on my long list of personal projects, so there is a silver lining.
The industry is bouncing back, so I don’t see the lull of work being anything to worry about too much, but I am making the most of the time I’ve been given. I’ve started practicing new techniques and learning new softwares, to expand my skill set.
Amazing Spiderman comic cover, Marvel Comics
Brightburn poster, Sony Pictures
Ant-man and the Wasp, personal work
“It’s not the way we would have wanted it to be, but we’ve been given the time we always wanted to breath a little.”
Is there anything that is particularly inspiring you at this time?
There are those who are fine with working alone, and some who struggle with it, so it’s been great to see the community come together. People have begun using social media in a beneficial way, which is always welcomed.
Batman, personal work (left); Batman vs Superman, personal work (right)
How collaborative is your role?
It ranges from working on a solo project, to working on commercial projects that involve agencies and larger teams. They both have their pros and cons. When working solo, I usually have a large design and illustrator community to bounce my ideas off and get honest feedback from.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The fact I get to wake up each morning and know that I can create something new is amazing. I’m fortunate enough to call this my job. I guess the least enjoyable part of the job can be when a project isn’t working out, and you have to make the hard decision to either persevere or call it a day. It’s never great to leave a project half-finished, but sometimes, for your own sanity it’s the best thing to do.
Enter the Dragon, Electric Cinema, Birmingham
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The last year has been the busiest time to date. It’s hard to pick a project, but a standout one for me would be designing the official racing kit for Canyon-SRAM with Rapha. It’s the first time I’ve created something that people would wear, and it’s been a daily reward when I get to see my designs in action. I’m very proud to have worked on the collection.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
There are two ways to look at this – one is the practical side of things; like having the dexterity and finesse to craft the final artwork. The other is an ability to look at the world differently, and how you to tell stories using visuals.
Canyon-SRAM with Rapha, photograph by Thomas Maheux
Canyon-SRAM with Rapha, photograph by Thomas Maheux
What tools do you use most for your work?
The majority of my work can be split between my notepad, which I use for client notes and quick concept sketches, and my iMac and Wacom Cintiq. I spend a lot of my time on Photoshop, sketching and working on final artwork. I also use 3D programs such as Blender and Daz 3D. I use these for creating scenes and references for the art I’m working on. It’s not always possible to pose, or to get someone to pose for you, particularly in our current situation – but 3D allows you to experiment with angles you normally wouldn’t be able to achieve.
How important do you think it is to land on a particular style as a creative?
I don’t think I’ve landed on one specific style that I’d like to make my wheelhouse. I enjoy tackling new styles and techniques. From a designer’s point of view, a client doesn’t want their project to look similar to something you’ve done for another client. With this in mind, I try to tailor my style to the subject matter I’m working on. Saying that, I do believe style is born out of necessity. It will become your shorthand, and the way you visualise your ideas, so it should be what you find most natural. I would say my style is to do with what I draw, rather than how I draw. It’s how I choose to tell a story and not the medium I tell it in.
“I would say my style is to do with what I draw, rather than how I draw. It’s how I choose to tell a story and not the medium I tell it in.”
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
I would say outside of traditional education, digest as much information as possible through design and creative blogs. I’m a self-taught illustrator, so I started by experimenting and recreating artwork. It’s a great way to learn as you’re essentially reverse-engineering a piece of work, and finding out how it was put together. I would also recommend online communities; the life of a freelancer can be isolating, but there’s an online community for most interests out there. Try to connect with, and learn from your peers – it’s a great way to get honest feedback, and learn at a faster pace.
How I Got Here
Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied graphic communications at university and majored in digital design. I look back fondly at my time at university, but I don’t believe it’s the only route to become a designer. University taught me about the fundamentals of design, and how to tackle projects differently, But, with so many online courses and literature out there now, I think if you have a passion and interest in the field, then you can still achieve success without a formal education. I guess you need to be a little more proactive in gaining the knowledge, and honing your skills, but generally, your portfolio is what people go by.
After graduating what were your initial jobs?
Breaking into the industry was the hardest part of my career. Landing that first full-time job straight out of university was no easy feat. I was working on freelance gigs while attending job interviews. I couldn’t rely purely on my uni portfolio, as I needed commercial work too. When I landed that first job as a junior web designer, I made sure I learnt everything I could about the industry. Once you have your first commercial job, it’s a lot easier to find the next.
Munich, Amblin anniversary art show
Mad Men concept idea, personal work
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I wouldn’t say a lucky break, per se, but what helped me develop in my early years was the design managers I got to work under. I still look back at those lessons I learned from these individuals. A good manager will see the potential in you and bring it to the forefront.
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
Knowing your worth is the biggest thing to get your head around. For the most part, you’re providing a service, and when you enjoy your job it can be hard to charge a fair rate for your time. It’s as simple as working out what your day rate is, and sticking to that, even when people offer exposure in lieu of payment.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Social media and promoting my illustration work online was the turning point for my second career as an illustrator.
I worked closely with marketing teams in my previous in-house positions, so I found it quite natural to market my work online, and understand the analytics that go into making the most of a campaign. Social media and self marketing is a necessary evil when freelancing, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make it fun.
Wonder Woman, Bottleneck Gallery, NY
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Create whenever you can! If you put your all into it, you’ll be amazed at how much progress you can make in a short period of time. Also, if there’s a sector you want to work in, then start creating work and filling your portfolio with it. Do the work you want to be paid to do, and always gravitate towards your strengths.