Creative Lives — Breaking out of the ‘art school frame of mind’ with Glasgow-based illustrator, Fran Caballero
Illustrator Fran Caballero graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 2014, but it’s clear that he’s still very much learning: “I’ve probably learnt more from messing things up at my desk than I did at art school,” he tells us. Whether it’s seeking validation from himself or from clients, he admits that the early phase of his career has been very much about building up his creative confidence: “I think a lot of developing has to be your own doing,” he affirms. Here, Fran talks finding his feet in the professional world, the “weight of creative expectation” that comes with living in Glasgow and explains why self-motivation is essential for emerging creatives.
Freelance Illustrator (2018–present)
It’s Nice That, The New York Times, Stack Magazines, Bloomberg Businessweek, Redchurch Brewery, Ladybeard Magazine, Slowdown Studio
BA Painting and Printmaking, Glasgow School of Art (2011–2014)
How would you describe your job?
In my head, this is split into two categories: on a personal level, I try to make work that resonates on some level through shoddy physicality or humour. When it comes to commissioned work, my thought process is to punctuate the material I’m given, or draw light to certain elements of it that interest me visually.
What does a typical working day look like?
My illustration working hours are relatively flexible because I work from home. I function at about half capacity in the morning, so I tend to organise everything outside of illustration in these hours and then get to work throughout the evening.
How collaborative is your role?
Incredibly. I try to place an emphasis on having solid communication between myself and a client. It helps to recognise their vision but also make sure mine isn’t lost in the process.
Some of Fran’s sketches
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The whole transformation from idea to sketch to final is always incredibly satisfying; a lot of the time, I’m motivated by seeing the fully realised design out in the wild. I also enjoy the portability of illustration – I’d say being able to work almost anywhere is one of the biggest perks. So far, one of the very few negative aspects surrounding the job can be the invoice process.
Do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by work, and if so, how do you manage stress?
I do find it quite easy to burnout on multiple projects, or overextend working hours. I’m still guilty of it now, but I manage my breaks a lot better. Sleeping on a difficult commission or stepping away from a design for a little while is normally the easiest solution for me.
“I enjoy the portability of illustration – being able to work almost anywhere is one of the biggest perks.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working alongside It’s Nice That on numerous projects is always super-humbling and enjoyable. [Art director] Jaspal Riyait at the New York Times has also been incredibly helpful; establishing a regular dialogue between an artist and art director feels like the best way to maximise the potential of work. I take positives from every project though, they all make me want to do more.
Do you have any advice on working with clients?
I think it’s important to be as vocal as necessary, ask questions and take advice. Don’t be disheartened by needing to change things.
Smoking Jacket, solo project, 2018
Cafe over Generations, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek
What skills are essential to your job?
It’s a pretty varied skillset and probably changes based on how an individual works, but I think self-motivation covers all the bases. It absolutely helps to be driven and organised, but also genuinely passionate about making things.
Have you had to take on any additional work to support your creative work? If so, how have you found this balance?
I’ve worked multiple jobs from the very start of my freelance work, and although the balance is manageable, it can be frustrating at times. I think this is one of the key areas of my work and life balance I’m looking to adjust in 2019.
“I’ve worked multiple jobs from the start of my freelance work; the balance is manageable, but it can be frustrating at times.”
How important is self-promotion to your job, and how much energy would you say you put into this?
To an extent, all the work I post online is self-promotion. It’s cyclical in the sense that it contributes to your portfolio, and gains you opportunities as a result.
At the moment I tend to post finished works, which makes for slightly slower content – I keep all of my drawings and notes, but I don’t blog them at the moment. Maybe I’ll find a suitable space for them at some point.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use an Atoma copy book, which I’d highly recommend for indecisive minds like mine. I use a Pentel P209 0.9 mm mechanical pencil for the majority of drawing, which I do mostly on paper or tracing paper. On the move, I use a Samsung Galaxy Note9 for rough idea sketching or note taking. Once I’ve reached the digital stage of my process, I use a Wacom Intuos4 tablet alongside Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.
Healthyish Food Plan, Bon Appetit, 2018
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A footballer, game designer, architect, painter, illustrator – roughly in that order. Drawing has always been the constant source of interest throughout the years, though.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My parents were incredibly supportive when I was growing up. I was always encouraged to draw and create. At secondary school and college, I had great art tutors and always felt most comfortable working creatively. I moved to Glasgow for art school, and I’ve lived here for about seven years. There’s definitely some kind of weight of creative expectation in the city, which I think rubs off on you.
“It’s always nice when clients show confidence in your work, but I think a lot of developing has to be your own doing.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied painting and printmaking, so more than anything my degree taught me a level of discipline in terms of preparing work and pacing. But the practical application of this when you move from painting to illustration isn’t hugely noticeable.
I’ve probably learnt more from messing things up at my desk than I did at art school. It’s always nice when clients show confidence in your work, but I think a lot of developing has to be your own doing.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Being content with making work I was interested in was something that took me a little while to learn. It boiled down to trying to avoid that art school frame of mind, where you could be rewarded for flavour of the month work.
Tote Design, Cavendish Music, 2018
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Roughly. I think the expectation was that it would be hugely competitive and require lots of effort, which is absolutely the case. I wouldn’t say I’m ahead of schedule, but I’m content not to rush things and take it one job at a time.
What would you say is your biggest ongoing challenge with your work and career?
The moments in between commissions are really impactful; staying the course and expanding on your voice at these points is something I look to get better at managing.
Flower Therapy, Bon Appetit, 2018
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Just make work you’re genuinely interested in and it’ll show.