Creative Lives — “You are good enough”: Freelance illustrator Helena Covell on maintaining a sense of self-worth
Working from her home in Yorkshire, illustrator Helena Covell creates colourful, winsome scenes populated by a host of strange, otherworldly creatures: anthropomorphic eggs, animals wearing clothes, bubblegum-like characters with arms, legs and eyes. Last year, she published a children’s book with Flying Eye Books – Jumble Wood, which tells the story of Pod, a small, round, pink and blue creature, on a quest to discover what it is that makes her happy. Helena tells us that it hasn’t been an easy ride working freelance, but that the release of her book is opening up a lot of new opportunities. She chats to us about where she sources her inspiration and, crucially, how she maintains perspective on her work and faith in her abilities.
Freelance Illustrator (2017–present)
Huddersfield and Barnsley
BA Illustration, Edinburgh College of Art (2012–2015)
How would you describe your job?
I work for myself, illustrating freelance – I’m the whole operation! I deal with a range of clients. The unpredictable nature of the job means you could be working on a multitude of different things, in different industries, at any time – or working on nothing! The type of work coming in is often dependant on me; I wanted to work with more editorial, so I reached out to publications, and editorial jobs have been all I’ve worked on this month. You’ve got the reach out!
The main vein running through all of my work is a focus on characters and narrative, whether that is working on longer-term narratives (books and graphic novels) or finding ways of including characters in my commissioned work.
What does a typical working day look like?
At the moment I work from home, and my working hours on average are 10am-8pm, but they are so flexible. Getting commissions can be like waiting for buses, and at the moment I’m fortunate to have a few at once, all with short turn-arounds, so I prioritise by the deadline.
Illustration for AngelList
What do you like about working in Yorkshire?
It isn’t as isolated up North as it might once have been. One, because of email and social media, I can still keep up with clients down in London, and abroad. (I can live in a pit in the wilderness and still share my work – it’s, luckily, a remote job.) Two, there is a real sense of a creative community up here, especially in Leeds and Manchester. Maybe it’s because there are less of us in a smaller area, but creatives seem to not just be aware of, but know each other.
“It’s important, as a freelancer, to get to speak to other creatives. Just for a good chat and to get out of your bubble.”
I’m actually making a conscious effort at the moment to reach out to other local creatives, even just to meet up for coffee. I think it’s important, as a freelancer, to get to speak to other creatives. Just for a good chat and to get out of your bubble.
In terms of the ‘scene’, there are more and more creative events popping up, with companies trying to reach out to the North; for example, Camden Beer’s pop-up creative events that happened last year. There are also long-standing comic and art festivals, like Thought Bubble, Manchester Print Fair and The Hepworth Print Fair – and new ones emerging, like the Beeston Indie Comic Fest, coming in 2020. There are a lot of creative studios, clay workshops, print workshops and exhibition spaces, and it’s growing. I think it’s an exciting place to be as a creative.
Jumble Wood, Helena Covell
Jumble Wood, Helena Covell
Jumble Wood character cut-out for book launch (Pod and Worm), 2018, CNC cut by Three Create (Leeds)
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable aspect is working alone, and usually indoors! I would love to do more collaborative work and group shows with other creatives.
You are an entire team and the boss rolled up into one freelancer, which is equally the worst and best part. You have to juggle a multitude of jobs, but you’re answering only to yourself, doing something you enjoy, as well as something you’re good at. Nothing beats being paid for that.
Do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by work, and if so, how do you manage stress?
100%! It’s either a sense of overwhelming failure when you don’t have any work, or a mild panic when you suddenly have it (it’s always all or nothing). I manage by prioritising jobs by deadlines to get a schedule together, avoiding working into the night (it throws you right off), getting enough breaks, and, of course, a long bath here and there.
“You are an entire team and the boss rolled up into one freelancer, which is equally the worst and best part.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Despite, luckily, a lot of exciting projects, the most exciting was the arcade machine I painted for the Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition at The V&A; purely because it was so challenging, and utterly new to me (and an arcade machine I’ve painted is my 10 year old old dream). The machine was a huge five-player, custom created by We Throw Switches, and featured the game Breakup Squad by Catt Small.
What kinds of things tend to inspire your work?
Zines, comics, films, books. Also the king of all illustrator inspiration – Studio Ghibli. I lost my mind as a kid when I saw one of their films for the first time and all my mad ideas for characters and worlds seemed validated – they were doing it! Also the characters and worlds in the video games I played as a kid.
Painted arcade machine, Helena Covell
What skills are essential to your job?
It 100% helps if you can draw, but in my opinion it requires a hell of a lot more than that, like: being self-aware, as freelancing can take a toll on your mental health; creative thinking; self motivation – if you’re not getting commissions, go get them; organisation – you’re the whole team after all; communication and social skills!
Also, a lot of the time, you have to do things outside of creating work in your usual, comfortable, solitary way. You might be required to do talks, workshops, live art, interviews, school visits, collaborations, conventions and presentations. So it requires you to be flexible – and brave!
Do you run any self-initiated or side projects?
Zines! The latest was Now The World Moves With Me. I want to eventually create a collaborative one with other creatives.
Now the World Moves With Me
Now the World Moves With Me
Now the World Moves With Me
Now the World Moves With Me
Do you take on any additional work to support your creative work?
Up until last year, I’d worked in retail since the second year of university to support myself. There is nothing wrong with needing extra support. I’m temporarily living with my mum at the moment (and lucky enough to be able to), but if not I would 100% need a part time job to support my work. Your income as a freelancer can be very unpredictable, so seeking out something stable is wise.
To keep things balanced, I’d work out how much support you need from another job, and try to split the week as much in favour of your creative practice as possible. I found that a positive of taking a part-time job was having fewer days to work on my illustration, which meant when I did get a free day I would get work done, because I had to.
“Your income as a freelancer can be very unpredictable, so seeking out something stable is wise.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
iPad and iPencil, pens and pencils. I use my iPad more than my Wacom now, as the flexibility is great. I’m not tethered to a desk, and the final outcome is as professional. I try to include scanned in textures and line work as much as possible though, to keep the feeling and spontaneity of my sketches.
If you could recommend one resource to learn from, what would it be?
Every project I take on has its own resources, books and films etc. In terms of an all-in-one resource that I took a lot from, it was the Pictoplasma conference in Berlin. I went last year and I was so full of inspiration after going. It also gave me that friendly kick – or existential crisis – about my work that is always necessary to keep growing.
It was really good to meet peers and artists I’d been admiring and following online as well. All in all, an incredible place that will make you aware of whats happening in parallel fields and within and outside of your bubble. See you there in May?
Bad Egg, 2019, personal work
How I Got Here
Do you remember what you wanted to be growing up?
When I was five, I wanted to operate one of those street cleaners you get in town centres. But I went for artist, stupidly.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
No one in my family does what I do – they don’t understand how you can earn money at home and by ‘drawing’. I can’t ask them for advice, but I’m lucky that they have always encouraged me to pursue being creative (and they’re my biggest fans).
Growing up, my mum lived in Yorkshire and my dad lived in Lanzarote. My world was split into these two visually very interesting places, with these amazing landscapes, colour schemes and characters, that I’m sure have fed into my work now.
I also did a lot of gaming when I was younger, mainly GameCube and GameBoy. A big influence that sparked my interest in character design has largely been the worlds and characters in those video games (Zelda, Pikmin, Pokemon, Spyro, Star Fox and so on).
“It’s about recognising when you’re not doing great, and being proactive enough to take measures against it.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. I think it’s only useful if you meet it halfway, and a lot of the time I didn’t. I wasn’t in a good place at uni, so I didn’t fully engage with it. A lot of what I know about the industry, finances, self-marketing, I’ve learned on the job – but maybe that’s because I’m much more engaged with what I do now.
What were your first jobs?
All retail, working in shops, department stores and galleries. I saw them purely as a support for what I knew I wanted to do, which was illustration. I’ve never done internships, though looking back I wished I’d tried to get on those programmes for animations studios abroad that only take students.
More doors shut when you graduate, and even more when you’ve been a graduate for three years! But I’m looking into design internships and jobs now as a way of supporting myself and getting back into a studio environment that I miss from uni.
Tiny Snake Dreaming, Dream Safari exhibition in Brighton by Yuk Fun (2018)
Was there anything that particularly helped your development?
Despite a lot of great people – through college, uni and into the ‘real’ world – taking chances on me and giving me advice, the biggest help was from Nobrow taking a huge leap of faith and offering me (a fresh graduate) a contract for [my book] Jumble Wood. I learnt an incredible amount about publishing, writing, illustrating, realising ideas, and even my own practice while creating this first book. It’s led to many more things, and I’ll always be grateful for that break.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to publish their own book?
When you’ve got a strong idea, research a publisher that you think your idea (and eventual book) would fit with – that’s important! When you pitch, some good ideas would be to create a concise synopsis, with a worked up sample spread to give an example of how the final illustrations might look. You can even roughly storyboard the book to send. Submit to them as a PDF or hard copy (if you’ve made a zine or dummy beforehand).
In terms of financing while I made the book, I had my advance; but because it was my first book and I was a little inexperienced, it took me a lot longer to finish than the advance lasted. So I got a part time job in a shoe shop, and was lucky to be living at home at the time!
Mr Pearl, for children’s magazine, Revista Kiwi, 2019
What would you say is your biggest ongoing challenge with your work and career?
Keeping on top of my mental health. It can be incredibly difficult as a freelancer, due to the long hours, the solitary nature of the job, the tendency to overwork, to not sleep enough, to not move enough and that intrinsic link between failures in your work and you being a failure (because your practice is so personal). It’s about recognising when you’re not doing great, and being proactive enough to take measures against it. I try to get outside when I can, take breaks, take care of myself, meet other creatives for coffee, meet friends, and prioritise and keep organised so I don’t have to work into the night.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I don’t think I really considered all the various aspects involved and all the hats I’d have to wear. I didn’t account for the self-marketing, promotion and general responsibility of building yourself into brand. And the accounting. And website building. And the unpredictability. But it’s as creative and fulfilling as I thought it would be.
Year of The Dog exhibition piece, 2018, Colours May Vary
What advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?
It’s easy, as an artist, to unconsciously associate your work with your SELF. It’s easy to see it as: success in your work = you are successful; no one likes your work = you are not liked; no one responds to your work, or you’re facing rejections or not getting the response you wanted = you’re not good enough. It can be dangerous to associate your work so closely with your self-worth (although this comes as second nature to artists).
You can be facing disappointments in your work, or having a dry spell with commissions, or not receiving the praise you thought you’d receive in your field – but that doesn’t mean YOU are failing.
As little as a month ago I thought about packing in illustration altogether, and maybe going back to uni, studying something else and finding another path. I hadn’t had any freelance jobs in six months. I’d even started to turn down jobs, because I felt like an imposter. But then I spoke to a couple of good friends who reminded me that I was good at this and this was my dream, and to give it one last push. I started to reaffirm to myself I was good enough, and realised I had to do something.
“It can be dangerous to associate your work so closely with your self-worth.”
I made a portfolio; I researched what companies and magazines I’d love to work for; I found out art directors; I sent out emails with my portfolio attached (honest, not copied-and-pasted emails) asking for their time to look at it; I tried out new ways of making work; I emailed agents asking for their time to meet up to look over my portfolio, and arranged face to face meetings; I committed myself to work on projects I’d been pushing aside – and I’ve started to get jobs!
I was my own worst enemy. I was turning things down because I told myself I wasn’t good enough. I was ignoring commitments because I was depressed. I was waiting for opportunities to come to me, instead of going out and making it happen. I wasn’t making new work. I’d given up long before I realised.
Above anything else I can tell you, remember: you have to make it happen – and you are good enough.